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Buster Keaton: 50 Years After Death, A Legacy Immortal

Think slow, act fast.

Keaton
Have you seen a Buster Keaton film? Yes? Cool, welcome. No? Not even a little bit? Are you sure? You probably have, even if you don’t know it. That’s what happened with me, you see. That famous image of a man standing next to a house as a whole side of it falls over him, his body unscathed as he had been standing in the spot where an open window fell around him. It was done for real, with a real house, and the crew even walked off the set, as if he had been just a few inches off his mark, it would’ve been disastrous. It’s a classic moment in the history of films, and it sums up everything about Buster Keaton that has still managed to live on well beyond the mere boundaries of mortality.

If Joseph Frank “Buster” Keaton were alive today, he would 120 years old. It sounds like the man is ancient, and indeed, as we live now in the 21st century, Buster was born in the 19th century, on the 4th of October, 1895. This isn’t a biography however, I’m not here to cover Keaton’s entire career, or even his life, which seems like too big of a task, even if I were to write an entire book about him.

Today is the 1st of February 2016, and it marks 50 years, half a century, since the Great Stoneface passed away at the age of 70, in 1966. Now he suddenly feels like he was more of a part of recent history, right? We all know someone who has been around since at least the sixties, and in fact my dad was born a mere couple of weeks after Keaton died after a very short (and seemingly oblivious) battle with lung cancer. Yeah, cancer. That piece of shit. Moving swiftly on, let’s look back on Buster Keaton’s golden period of work, arguably one of the greatest run of films by an actor/director of all time.

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Again though, I’m not here to give you a run down of everything. I’m not exactly a newbie to Buster Keaton, but I’m no expert either, so this is my personal story of connecting with his work, and what I would recommend to anyone who has yet to discover it.

To briefly summarise my eureka moment with silent films, I sat down to watch Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) in early 2014, one of the towering pillars of cinema that amazed the world in 1927, and there I was, 88 years on, amazed myself. To be blown away by a film so old, a film so seemingly antiquated, is sadly an idea that many casual movie watchers would not be able to understand. It’s not in colour? There’s no speaking? How can you watch that? Sounds boring.

Even as someone who was getting into older films, getting into foreign films, as someone who considered himself a huge fan of movies, including their relatively short history, I too, was skeptical about whether or not a silent film could hold my attention. Especially for two and half hours. Well, Fritz Lang blew my mind with a moving, operatic masterpiece that still strikes a universal chord, and will likely, thanks to the incredible restoration efforts, go on to keep affecting film aficianados forever.

So the door to silent cinema was kicked open with authority that day, but for some reason, I didn’t walk through it, I just let the knowledge that it was open simmer in my brain for a few months, knowing that I would eventually get around to crossing the threshold, never to return. Some part of me still thought that perhaps Metropolis was a one off, a diamond in the rough, the proverbial needle in the haystack, and that if I ventured further into the annals of silent film history, all I’d find were boring, slow movies.

And so it was almost as if Buster Keaton, in stone faced exasperation, pulled me by the ear through the door, and shut it behind me permanently, before leaping through a hole in the wall, leaving me to figure out the rest for myself. I’ve now seen exactly 85 silent films, and I’d realistically wager that at least 80% of them, have been incredible. Though they’re not films that you can just sit down and watch any day of the week, at the drop of a hat, regardless of your mood. I find it comes in spurts, but when I get into the silent film groove, it’s quite unlike anything else.

Though there is an exception to that rule, and it applies with my fiancee, Connie. She can watch a silent film, sure, but she needs to be in the right frame of mind. But if it’s a Buster Keaton film? “Sure, put it on.” It’s especially telling, because Keaton’s films seem to have a universal appeal. Though I’ve yet to test the theory, I am sure children could watch and enjoy his movies, and likely have done for longer than I’ve been alive.

By their very nature, silent films needed to be simplistic, and explain their stories using the body language and movement of the actors on screen, along with the way the director lays everything out. I’ve seen some that are very heavy in expositional dialogue in the form of intertitles on screen, and sometimes they work, but the best are really the ones that rely more on the visuals to propel the story along.

It’s said that Buster Keaton and the other legendary silent clown Charlie Chaplin (arguably the most famous and celebrated of all the slapstick icons) had an ongoing friendly contest to see who could make the film with the least amount of title cards, with Chaplin ultimately beating Keaton by a couple of intertitles. I could easily imagine plenty of Buster’s films with no intertitles at all, and I’m sure they’d still work.

The first, formative experience I had with a Keaton film, was Sherlock, Jr. (1924), which I watched during my third annual 24 Hour Movie Marathon “vlogumentary” on YouTube. I’d heard a few things about it here and there, mainly about the famous scene in which Buster walks into a movie screen, in a bizarre yet wonderful film within a film dream sequence. After I finished watching it, I remember feeling like a whole new world had opened up. It was an incredible film; funny, inventive, exciting and unendingly impressive.

The sequence in question sees Buster (who plays a hapless projectionist in the film) fall asleep in the projection booth, when a ghost like double of himself emerges from his body, walks out of the booth and steps up into the film on the big screen. Now inside the movie itself, his surrounding begin to change instantly. As he begins to sit down on a bench in a garden at night, the scene cuts to a busy city road in the daytime, and he falls over in surprise, all the while his body following the exact same movement as the previous shot.

The precision it must have taken to match cut those scenes together so flawlessly, is mind boggling to me, the best example of which being a moment when he tries to dive into water, and ends up landing head first in snow. To merely cite this scene as why Sherlock Jr. is a great film though, would be selling it short, and indeed the same can be said for the rest of his filmography throughout the 1920s. As great as some of his gags and inventive direction can be, his movies are full of rich moments of unadulterated delight.

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From Sherlock, Jr. I moved on to most of his other feature length films from the 20s, then picked up the excellent Kino Blu-ray set of his short films from 1920 to 1923. His most prolific period of filmmaking occured between 1920 and 1928, as shortly after this unbelievable run he signed a contract with MGM Studios, who more or less robbed him of his creative freedom, which sadly, effectively, crushed his genius in one swift blow.

1924: American comedian Buster Keaton (1895-1966) sitting in the funnel of a ship in a scene from the film 'The Navigator'.

What struck me about his films when I started to dive into them head first, was just how plain funny they are. Man. He can really make me laugh, and sometimes it’s head shakingly simple. At other times it can be more complicated but he seemed to have a knack for creating and executing visual humour in such an effective, and maybe more importantly than that, efficient way, with true innovation. There’s rarely dead air or wasted time in his movies, which for the most part, he directed himself.

Most of his silent films are credited to other directors, and while that was sometimes the case, he was often co-credited, or is said to have basically directed the film himself. He knew what to do, how to do it, and where to put the camera. (He famously took his first camera when he moved to New York in 1917, and took it apart to see how it worked, before putting it back together again and bragging about it the next day.) He also knew that in order to really achieve the wonder of the audience, he needed to perform the death defying stunts that would go on to colour his entire filmography, himself.

In Sherlock, Jr. for example, in a scene where he hangs off the spout of water tower, which opens and sprays him to a railroad track below, he fractured his neck. In another film he tried jumping across two buildings, and missed. As he spent the next few days in hospital he devised another gag that would continue the outtake, using his failed attempt as a way to expand the sequence, and that fall is included in the final film.

His direction is just spectacular, from the staging to the cutting, and his intricately crafted sequences that always keep you guessing as to what is going to happen next. Is he going to jump out of that window? Fall off that cliff? After a few films you realise that in a Keaton picture, anything is possible, and no outlandish stunt is likely to be too dangerous for him to have tried. Usually you’ll be half right, and it’ll end up going in a completely different direction. “I always want the audience to out-guess me, and then I double-cross them.” He once said, and as for an explanation as to why he insisted on always doing his own stunts, he simply replied: “Stuntmen don’t get laughs.

His jaw dropping stunts are still not quite the very essence of what makes his work special though, in my opinion. The key usually lies in his actual performance, which isn’t typically very varied. Like most comedians, he has a schtick, and he stuck to that, to great success, for a very long time. His specialty is what gave him the nickname “the Great Stoneface”, as you will never see Buster Keaton smile in a film. His deadpan expression is forever etched into the visual history of cinema, no matter how big the catastrophe or how shocking a disaster unfolds right in front of him, his demeanour remains stoic.

He learnt as a child growing up in a family of vaudeville entertainers, that when his father Joe Keaton would kick him across the stage, the audience laughed more if he didn’t smile afterwards. It was the catalyst for his style that would make him stand out starkly from the likes of the beaming Harold Lloyd, the mawkish Charlie Chaplin or the animated duo of Laurel and Hardy. It plays quite keenly into my own preferences when it comes to comedy, as sardonic, straight faced humour always hits my funny bone the hardest, and perhaps Buster Keaton was the forefather of that comedic style. (Though I’ve learnt very quickly in delving into the archives of film history that you should never really claim anything or anyone as being the “first” example of anything, there’s invariably someone else that’s done it before them.)

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Now I greatly enjoy the works of Chaplin, and Harold Lloyd, but particularly in the case of the lovable Tramp himself, I find the sickly sweet nature of Chaplin’s films to be both endearingly special, and at the same time a tiny bit overbearing. Keaton never reaches the emotional depths that Chaplin did, and once the advent of sound films came about, Chaplin continued to soar as an actor, whereas Keaton floundered. Yet I find myself drawn to Keaton’s work and character so much more, as it feels like a much more relatable person on screen when compared to Chaplin’s persona.

Of course, yes, I had to bring up the age old Chaplin Vs. Keaton debate, and while I will always prefer Keaton, they were both fantastic performers and directors, and we’re all incredibly lucky to still be able to discover and appreciate their work, long after they’ve both left this world. (Keaton’s own words on the differences between the two, which sums it up much better than I ever could: “Charlie’s tramp was a bum with a bum’s philosophy. Lovable as he was, he would steal if he got the chance. My little fellow was a working man and honest.“)

Not long after my Buster Keaton awakening, I watched his two best films (in my opinion), one after the other. The General (1926) and Our Hospitality (1923). Orson Welles called The General “the greatest comedy ever made, the greatest Civil War film ever made, and perhaps the greatest film ever made.” I don’t know if I have many arguments to make against that, as The General to me is absolutely one of the greatest films I have ever seen. It is a pure spectacle, but with an earnest, beating heart that will keep on pounding and circulating the blood of Keaton’s mastery through the veins of cinema forever.

general

That’s the exciting element for me. I was 26 years old when I started watching his films, which were older than all of my grandparents, and I was captivated by them, astounded by them, and inspired by them. Jackie Chan is a performer who was greatly influenced by Keaton’s work, and it shows. He too is a masterful creator of fluid and yet highly dangerous set pieces that work hand in hand with his comedic character. He said “I just want that one day, when I retire, that people will still remember me like they remember Buster.” I think that’s really the highest privelege that can ever be bestowed upon an artist, that immortality that art occasionally allows.

A favourite quote of mine springs to mind when I think about how cool that idea is, of your art reaching far beyond your physical life, and impacting people for generations and generations to come.

Every man’s heart one day beats its final beat, his lungs breathe their final breath. And if what that man did in his life makes the blood pulse through the body of others, and makes them bleed deeper, than something larger than life, then his essence, his spirit, will be immortalized by the storytellers, by the loyalty, by the memory of those who honor him and make the running the man did live forever.

It’s a pretty nice quote, right? It think so, anyway. Which great poet came up with it? Well… his name was Ultimate Warrior (seriously, he changed his name to that legally) and while he was talking more about his own character as a professional wrestler, I think it applies greatly to the everlasting appeal of any performance art, which is what acting and directing is really all about. Buster Keaton has made my blood pulse through my body, leaving me positively bursting with creative ideas and urges. And I am one of those storytellers, who for better or worse will continue to tell people for the rest of my life about his films, and that will make the running that he did, live forever. (Again, Warrior was alluding to his energetic ring entrance where he ran to the ring every night, but damn it, Keaton did a lot of running in his films too, so I’m counting it. You can always compare the “running” with Keaton’s powerhouse physical performances and stunts also.)

Talking about silent films seems to be an act reserved to scholars and serious enthusiasts in cinema, and that’s fine, but I’m not that person. I’m not particularly well read or knowledgable in film or literature in any impressive kind of way. I also like who I am and what I love, so I have no problem in using a quote from a wrestler, to express my feelings on the power of Buster Keaton’s lasting impression on the film world. Though I will also say that that quote could apply to many other filmmakers and performers over the course of cinema history, too. Hell, all artists who make a real impression on people… but I feel like Keaton’s work can be put on the TV at any time and be enjoyed by anyone.

Since the age of eleven, I have wanted to make movies, and I suspect, if I’m lucky enough to at least be aware of my dying days (the thought of facing death without warning may frighten me more than anything), I’ll probably be wanting to hang on just a little bit longer, to make more movies. Buster Keaton didn’t start that desire within me, but he is absolutely one of the key people who have strengthened and bolstered that desire, to where it is now impenetrable.

I already long for the days of not even two years ago, where I was grinning from ear to ear at his effortless execution of double take inducing set pieces, but I’m sure the joy in revisiting them again and again, will only get sweeter as the years roll by. I was lucky enough last September to be able to see a theatrical screening of his short film The Playhouse (1921) and one of his most famous features, Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928) in a glorious 2K remaster.

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That’s another key element that enables people like me to find and fall in love with the movies that people like Keaton made: the restorers. The film lovers who have the means to push for, fight for, fund and promote these restorations, that bring such classics back to their former glory with absolute triumph. While most silent films are now lost, and a few of Keaton’s excellent run of 1920s shorts are incomplete, we are all very fortunate that the main bulk of his best work is now readily available in high definition.

As I sat in that room of maybe only 20-30 people at the most, I marvelled at how everyone was laughing, and enjoying themselves. An older woman quipped after the short had finished, “they don’t make them like they used to!” Which sounds like something straight out of a movie or a TV show. I beamed, and when the film was finished, and I made my way out of the room, a young woman in her late 20s/early 30s turned to her friend as they were standing up and said, in sincere, hushed surprise “that was great.”

Buster Keaton in The General

And there you have it. 120 years after his birth, 50 years after his death, the numbers are irrelevant, what is really special, is how Buster Keaton truly immortalised himself. There’s no repeating a performer, a director, like Buster Keaton. There just is that one of a kind person, who usually burns brightly and fastly, then leaves behind an enduring legacy that can never be touched. It’s just a shame that after that initial decade of peerless filmmaking, he never returned to those same heights, but there are still faint glimmers of his unimitable flair in later works such as The Railrodder (1965), Limelight (1952), and the making of documentary on The Railrodder, entitled Buster Keaton Rides Again (1965).

It is said that in 1934 he was briefly placed in an asylum, in an attempt to curb his alcholism, which had stemmed from the loss of his independence as a filmmaker after joining MGM. However, having learned from Houdini himself (who incidentally gave Joseph the nickname “Buster”), he escaped from a straightjacket and walked out of the front door, intent on beating his addiction on his own. He’s had a fascinating, if somewhat sad life, but by all acounts he was ever the optimist.

I was not brought up thinking life would be easy. I always expected to work hard for my money and to get nothing I did not earn. And the bad years, it seems to me, were so few that only a dyed-in-the-wool grouch who enjoys feeling sorry for himself would complain.” He said in his later years. It’s a nice feeling to know that his sad faced but hopeful character that he played for so many years, was somewhat a reflection of his own dogged perseverance.

If you have not yet delved into the world of Buster Keaton, I have found and selected five films that you can watch, right now, for free, on YouTube. So no excuses! (I’ve also found the best quality versions I could find, and some have Spanish subtitles that are easily switched off through the Closed Captions settings.) While I will always want to watch his films in the best possible quality, sometimes you need a free incentive to start you off. After all, I watched most of his films the first time around through Netflix!

There’s one of his best shorts, One Week (1920), where he stars alongside the wonderful Sybil Seely as a couple who have just been married and decide to spend a week building their own house, it’s a delight from start to finish.

Then we have Sherlock, Jr. (1924) which is classic Keaton and a fantatsic entry point into his work, only clocking in at around three quarters of an hour, but never feeling it. This features some of his best cinematic moments by far.

Flashing forward we have The Railrodder (1965) which is actually mainly a promotional film from the Film Board of Canada, but with a throwback twist to Buster’s earlier years that sees him silently travel across Canada on a railway speeder, proving that even in his late 60s, in the twilight of his life and career, he still had “it.”

Accompanying that short film, is the hour long making of documentary about it, the aforementioned Buster Keaton Rides Again (1965). It’s even better than the film it covers, offering a nice summary of his earlier years but showing a lot of behind the scenes looks at how he worked, albeit as an older man. You really get a sense of how special he was in this film, I cannot recommend it enough.

Here is, in my opinion, his best film, from top to bottom, Our Hospitality (1923). It has the best story, some great stunts, and a touching conclusion that ties it all together more poignantly than any of his other films (except for maybe The Cameraman). It’s also very funny. Just watch it, it’s a blast.

And finally, my favourite of his films, the one Orson Welles praised so highly, The General (1926). Another thing I love about Keaton’s films is his ongoing love affair with locomotives. Growing up I was obsessed with trains, especially steam engines, and so was the man himself, who features them in almost all of his films in some way. The General was his love letter to locomotives, and the film itself is one big, grandiose chase sequence with trains, culminating in the most expensive stunt in silent film history, but more than that, one of the most awe inspiring scenes I have ever seen on screen.

I hope, if you have somehow both read all of this and haven’t seen his films, that you do give them a try. Hey, it might not be for you, but I’d be very surprised if you didn’t find even the smallest appeal in there somewhere. The idea that I can lend just a tiny hand in continuing to get his filmography and work out there to new eyes is almost exciting enough to elicit a shockwave of goosebumps across my body.

Film is the great escape, the portal into another world. Some movies make us laugh, some make us cry, some make us angry, or disappointed, but to smile and laugh, to truly laugh, is what life is all about. The ups and downs, the back and forths, they make us appreciate the moments where we can simply feel entertained and happy. Buster Keaton’s films make me happy, and I wrote this paragraph before discovering this wonderful quote from the man himself: “Not long ago, a friend asked me what was the greatest pleasure I got from spending my whole life as an actor. There have been so many that I had to think about that for a moment. Then I said, “Like everyone else, I like to be with a happy crowd.”

That speaks volumes. His work produces a simple pleasure. Happiness. The same happiness I felt as I walked out of the Steamboat Bill, Jr. screening. Yet the innovation, the heartfelt performances and the balls-of-steel courage that he displayed on the screen were surely anything but simple? He said this about the process of actually making his films:

The first thing I did in the studio was to want to tear that camera to pieces. I had to know how that film got into the cutting room, what you did to it in there, how you projected it, how you finally got the picture together, how you made things match. The technical part of pictures is what interested me. Material was the last thing in the world I thought about. You only had to turn me loose on the set and I’d have material in two minutes, because I’d been doing it all my life.” Perhaps it was that simple?

The greatest of all artists do tend to just have that knack, that innate ability to excel at what they loved doing, as if born as a vessel, to live and breath it. In my eyes he was absolutely a genius, but of course, the man himself would scoff at such praise: “No man can be a genius in slapshoes and a flat hat.

There have been a multitude of performers over the years who have cemented themselves in the minds of the lovers of their craft as everlasting. Buster isn’t the only one, but I’d like to think that when all the dust is settled, as they always say, he will still be there, still surviving, steadfastly, like his own perpetual down-on-his-luck character, stone faced as ever, merely holding on to a very simple hope: “I have been happiest when the folks watching me said to each other, “Look at the poor dope, will ya?“”

20th October 1930: American silent screen comedian and actor Buster Keaton (1895-1966) is overcome with exhaustion on the side of a convertible motor.

Luke Ryan, 1st February 2016

In the coming days this week I will be posting links to videos I have made about Buster, as well as a plethora of written reviews I have put together on his films in recent years.

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