Looking at Buster Keaton: The Marvel of Early Cinema

This may be an easy question, but what do Tom Cruise, Jackie Chan and Buster Keaton all have in common? They are of course famous for doing their own stunts, but also they have each broken ankles whilst creating such stunts. The Cruise-meister recently broke his ankle on the set of Mission Impossible – Fallout after jumping from one building to another and awkwardly crashing his foot into the wall (the footage was often shown publicly before the film was released, in effect promoting it). Jackie Chan painfully landed on and twisted his foot after jumping from a great height during a scene for the frenetic martial arts hit Rumble in the Bronx (1995). Long before both of these, the insurmountable Buster Keaton suffered a serious heel break after falling from an improvised, mechanical moving stairs (I believe they are called escalators these days) while filming The Electric House, a short film from back in 1922.

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Chan has cited a direct influence of Keaton for his work, while Cruise’s performances as Ethan Hunt in the Mission Impossible franchise provides an obvious homage to the marvel of early cinema. Indeed, Keaton’s influence is scattered everywhere in film. Mel Brooks incorporated some of Keaton’s gags for his comedies, George Lucas recreated stunts from Keaton’s work in the earlier Star Wars films, and even the slapstick you see in Looney Tunes, some Disney movies or even in Japan’s Studio Ghibli, indicates that the spirit of Keaton is very much alive. Here I briefly discuss the life and times of the ‘Great Stone Face’ interspersed with references to my favourite sequences from his films (video links embedded in the titles).

The Cook (1918)

This extraordinary slice of surreal early comedy pitches a young, fresh-faced Keaton in the role of a fluid-moving waiter working under the prompts of a rambunctious cook played by Fatty Arbuckle at a seemingly well-to-do restaurant. The slapstick begins as we witness the astounding antics of Arbuckle serving up some food in the kitchen, and from there the wildness never lets up! We watch as Arbuckle bounces eggs like golf balls and plays football with some bread dough. All the while, Keaton wanders in and out of the kitchen catching whatever food Arbuckle chucks at him and serving it in the dining hall. After a while, Keaton picks up a ‘dance infection’ from a performing belly dancer, and this is passed on to Arbuckle, who proceeds to dress up in pots, pans and colanders as some sort of Egyptian pharaoh in a moment where the film completely alleviates itself of all normalcy. The choreography between Keaton, Arbuckle and others is quite unbelievable but it is extremely joyous to watch, particularly in the first 10 minutes or so. It is a work of sheer madness, played out with an impressive fervour by the burgeoning Keaton.

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Joseph Frank Keaton was born into a 19th century showbiz family in Kansas, and he travelled around America with his parents as a vaudeville troupe in a ‘medicine show’. The legend goes that a young Keaton received his common moniker from the infamous escape artist Harry Houdini, who was working in the same circles as the Keatons at the time. One day he spotted Keaton taking a tumble down some stairs prompting him to quip: ‘that was a real buster!’(a ‘buster’ refers to a fall resulting in an injury). Many of the staged comic sketches that the young Keaton took part in were physical routines where he would be knocked around a lot. But apparently he enjoyed the rough-and-tumble, and he had insisted that all his stunts done as a child were measured with the utmost precision by his parents so that he wouldn’t hurt himself. This form of performance was ultimately to be his true calling in life, and eventually led to a successful career in moving pictures.

Although he arrived on the scene in 1917 shortly after Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd were beginning to make their mark, Keaton was seen as the first to take on-screen physical acting in new, exciting directions. It is important to remember that he worked in a time when special effects were non-existent, when the use of machinery as props was extremely dangerous, and when health and safety protocols were considered a silly concept. He essentially, and constantly, put his life and limb on the line to make a scene more exhilarating and more entertaining for the viewer.

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Keaton in a publicity shot for Sherlock Jr. (1924)

Sherlock Jr. (1924)

In the dream sequence from this, one of Keaton’s first feature-length films, you get to witness the ingenious ideas that enabled him to stand out as a cinematic experimenter, in addition to being a brilliant slapstick comedian. In this early sequence in the film, we find Keaton playing a bored movie theatre projectionist, who falls asleep during a film about a robbery. He imagines himself entering into the movie screen from the floor of the theatre and becoming a part of the film. However, his timeline is progressed in real time while the film just moves from one scene to another: from a street to a cliff edge to a lion’s den and so on. It is a remarkable feat of playful inventiveness and intricate editing. At once, the film screen is a physical stage that Keaton can be thrown off, and in a split second it is an actual filming depicting these very places mentioned.

It was the famous star of short comedies from the time, Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle, who gave Keaton a lift in the business. After meeting him by chance in New York in 1917, Keaton was invited to play a small role in a short called The Butcher Boy. He immediately showcased his talent by improvising with a bucketful of brooms and getting stuck in a sea of molasses in his very first scene. Arbuckle, the main star and lead protagonist in these early movies, quickly afforded Keaton with more screen time and eventually granted him assistant director status. The brilliant slapstick double-act between Arbuckle and Keaton was sometimes glorious in those early features (check out Coney Island, Out West and The Bell Boy).

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Keaton, Arbuckle and Al St. John in 1917

Arbuckle’s robust frame and boyish looks were a perfect foil for Keaton’s slender, weak-looking demeanour. The difference in their routines than say Laurel and Hardy (that whole fat and thin thing) was that they would often work in separate strands of the story, e.g. Keaton would be chased by a dog, while Arbuckle would be putting out a fire somewhere. They both inhabited two very different comic styles, and sometimes the gags did not always work in tandem. Whereas Arbuckle liked to make faces at the camera, Keaton remained in his own head space (incidentally, contrary to the expressionless trademark that he latterly became famous for, Keaton did laugh, smile and cry in many of these earlier shorts). Sometimes Keaton was marginalised in Arbuckle’s films too. Another regular (and nephew of Arbuckle), Al St. John, would often play alongside Keaton, and have bigger roles, which was usually the villain. He seemed to be competing with Keaton for attention on the screen, but unfortunately for him, his propensity for injuries on-set meant that he was eventually sidelined by Arbuckle in favour of Keaton for the more serious stunts .

Seven Chances (1925)

The so-called ‘Bridal Run’ in Seven Chances is a sequence that has often been repeated – Chris O’Donnell and Renée Zellweger starred in a needless remake called The Bachelor in 1999, and I am pretty sure that the Lynx ad with all those bikini-clad women running towards some douche-bag spraying deodorant on himself was a plagiarism of Keaton’s idea. Whether you agree with the premise (Keaton being chased by hundreds and hundreds of women who want to confront him about a $7 million inheritance), it is hard not to be impressed by this epic sequence. The chaos begins when Keaton wanders down a street and slowly realises a steady crowd of women are building up behind him. His response is to run at speed away from them. In typical ‘Keaton Kanon’ fashion, the sequence involves him catching a lift on a passing motor car, joining a band of marching policemen, and being catapulted away by a moving crane. The more surreal elements involve the women crashing into an apiary and, my favourite part, Keaton heading cross-country and being forced to evade an avalanche of boulders as he scampers down a hill after making an incredible triple-tumble off an escarpment! One wonders if Spielberg was paying homage to this in the ‘rolling boulder’ bit from Raiders of the Lost Ark. The ‘Bridal Run’ in its 10 minute entirety is breath-taking and fantastic, and probably the most elaborate comedy sequence of any film from that era.

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Alice Mann, Arbuckle and Keaton in Coney Island (1917)

Arbuckle and Keaton may well have ended up like Laurel and Hardy. But Keaton sought out more creative independence behind the camera. Indeed, the awful death of aspiring actress Virginia Rappe in 1921, which Arbuckle was implicated in during three much-publicised trials, was also a major factor in the lack of subsequent works between the two. Despite being acquitted, the suspicions over Arbuckle’s role in Rappe’s death marred the rest of his life and destroyed his reputation. Keaton on the other hand embarked on his own fruitful direction throughout the 1920s. He collaborated with the influential producer Joe Schenck, who granted him his own production unit, which later became known as Buster Keaton Productions and this is where he made his most memorable feature films: Our Hospitality (1923), Sherlock Jr. (1924), The Navigator (1924), Seven Chances (1925), The Cameraman (1928), The General (1926) and Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928).

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Keaton on the locomotive ‘cow-catcher’ in The General (1927)

The General (1927)

In one of the most memorable sequences in his film-making career, Keaton plays a humble Civil War-era train engineer who gives chase on a steam locomotive to some Union soldiers who have inadvertently kidnapped his fiancée. His un-masterly pursuit is constantly thwarted by the soldiers who throw all manner of obstacles in his way. The most amazing scene comes when he has to deal with a series of loose railway sleepers: Keaton descends from his locomotive and runs ahead of it, lifting the heavy sleeper off the tracks but then gets caught on the front of the moving train. As he attempts to balance himself, another loose sleeper is seen ahead, so he carefully uses the sleeper in his arms to bounce the other one up and off the tracks. The scene is not cut and may have taken several takes to get right. Indeed the sleepers may well have been feather-weight props but still, it is the timing of Keaton’s actions as well as the potential for disaster that grips and amazes the viewer. No effects, just pure, raw and perfectly-timed acting. Keaton’s propensity for a cheetah-like stamina to run on and off a moving train and maintain its course despite all manners of whimsical barriers, is truly breath-taking, hilarious and provocative in equal measure.

Keaton became an established force in 1920s Hollywood, the so-called Golden Age of silent cinema, and he was the principal challenger to Charlie Chaplin’s then popularity. The ‘Great Stone Face’ character became an icon in the same way as Chaplin’s tramp. Whereas Chaplin embodied a quirky, thoughtful and sometimes sad persona, Keaton remained unsentimental, cynical and with a flair for the bizarre and surreal. Don’t get me wrong, I think Chaplin’s work is fantastic and just as rib-tickling hilarious as Keaton’s, but there is something so brilliantly understated in Keaton’s work and somehow you felt that he was working harder for it. Indeed, it is of no surprise to find that he always thought in terms of the camera’s viewpoint. The first thing he done when he got a camera in his possession was to take it apart and reassemble it. He always had an engineering mindset, and he once stated that he would have been an engineer if the acting thing did not stick. His focus in his stunt-work in particular was based on careful choreography and mathematical certainty. As the critic David Thomson pointed out: ‘Buster plainly is a man inclined towards a belief in nothing but mathematics and absurdity.’

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Steamboat Bill Jr (1928)

A special mention must be made of that infamous moment in Steamboat Bill Jr when the house gable falls on Keaton. You know the one! Keaton plays a ship captain who, after a series of unfortunate events, is hit on the head and confined to a hospital bed when a cyclone suddenly hits and blows the entire roof off the building. Unsure where he is or what he should be doing, he hides under the bed, now blown out into the middle of a street, and when the cyclone blows the bed away as well, he gets to his feet and an adjacent gable gives way and falls in his direction. Luckily, the top floor window is open and lands right where Keaton is standing, thus avoiding a crushing. His reaction is Keaton gold: unsure and dumb-founded for a split second and then takes off in a hurry. How about the timing and positioning of this? Just incredible. If he was to be out by a few inches, he would have got a nasty injury surely!

Keaton was born into life as a clown. A clown for people’s entertainment. And instead of resenting this, he flourished. He utilised all of his considerable intellect to take the concept of ‘clowning around’ to a higher art form. That stoicism that painted his face in films should not mislead you. He knew exactly what he was doing and he knew exactly where he wanted to go in the movie business. After honing his traits on the live show circuit, he maintained a deliberate and focused path to the top. He delighted audiences and he always respected their potential intellect. His material never pandered and was never political. It was at times unconstrained mayhem and at others, completely absurd, but it was always organic. As Keaton later said: ‘We didn’t stick to any format. We would just get an idea, and once you started on the idea it would lend itself to gags and natural trouble of any kind. There was no format.’

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H. B. Warner and Keaton in Sunset Boulevard (1950)

The reason why Keaton’s popularity died off by the time the talkies took over in 1929 was not just because his types of films were non-conducive to dialogue, but because the Hollywood studios had become more prescriptive with the Hays Code and the watering down of challenging or risqué material. Not that Keaton’s work was risqué in an amoral sense, but it certainly meant that his work would be under more scrutiny, and obviously Keaton didn’t want that. As he said of his move to MGM in 1928, it was the worst decision of his life. Of course he did not stop making films, but his performances never reached the same heights as they did in his heyday. Like many other fading stars of the silent era, alcohol became his friend. His wonderful cameo in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard in 1950 sums it all up really – he plays himself, a washed-up friend of a long forgotten silent film star (played by Gloria Swanson) who forlornly plays bridge at her crumbling mansion alongside other has-beens (including Hedda Hopper and H. B. Warner ).

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Keaton in his famous ‘pork-pie’ hat in the 1960s

Thankfully, Keaton is still remembered fondly for his pioneering work in cinema, not only as a screen presence but as a visionary director of on-screen action. His fading legacy was re-evaluated in the 1950s, when several reels of his earlier shorts, thought lost, were unearthed by James Mason who had just purchased Keaton’s old mansion. The reels were restored over time and made available to the public. They are a treasure and even to this day, can still manage to delight and amuse audiences around the world, where a common language of physical comedy is all that matters.

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