Buster Keaton was a master of the streamlined gag. He once said ‘A good comedy story can be written on a penny postcard.’ To him his films were nothing more than postcards: the disposable shorthand of someone on vacation.
He was a prodigious acrobat and brilliant writer, gagman, director, and editor – a 5ft 6in auteur masquerading as a clown. Keaton was a man who prized subtlety and understood the meaning in the flick of an eye, a momentary hesitation, a shift in weight, a motion half begun.
Keaton’s films were always compared to Chaplin’s, but the two birds are of decidedly different feather. Keaton’s films were touching but not in the determinedly sentimental mode of Chaplin. He eschewed weepy close ups, and his stories often don’t end happily but instead with a final nod to bitterness, dejection or death – an unexpected final twist. Keaton’s little fellow had a habit of keeping his chin up, despite the fact that it seemed to attract punch after underserved punch. His blank affect has led many critics to fixate on his stoicism, to make him over as a sort of existential hero, or weep for him a as a bruised and battered soul.
Below are some pointers on what made Buster such a heroic fool on his journey to become a star of classic Hollywood cinema.
Death defying beginnings
Buster is known for his heroic antics in his films. Performing daring feats and stunts which put the audience in tatters. It wasn’t until he was eighteen months old the he took his first pratfall, an ill fated tumble down a full flight of stairs in a theatrical boarding house from which he emerged unscathed. The act was witnessed by another guest, who picked up the infant and proclaimed something along the lines of, ‘My what a buster!’ The name stuck.
Buster at a young age would experience several calamities including losing his right index finger through an old fashioned clothes wringer. Getting a brick land squarely on his head and being picked up by a raging twister which carried him for about a block before a local man could catch the flying youngster and deposit him in a storm cellar. The boy was indestructible.
Growing up to a mum and dad who were in the business of showmanship, performing night after night on Vaudeville stages, Buster was soon set up to join his fathers antics on stage were his father would toss his five year old son around on stage using him for various means such as a human mop to wipe the floor with and thrown into the orchestra pit and off the stage. Audiences squirmed, then laughed to see the impish boy reappear unharmed. He was the Little Boy Who Couldn’t Be Damaged.
Buster was a natural acrobat who grew up surrounded by professionals. His innate talent, his svelt, durable young bones, and the boldness of being under four feet tall made him an early, quick study of the comedy pratfalls. Buster and his father got the biggest laughs when the boy didn’t react to his success or failure. Realising there is nothing funny about a comedian who laughs at his own jokes, his father instilled in him a deadpan expression, hissing ‘Face! Face! Under his breath if – amidst the hilarity – Buster began to crack a smile. Thus was born the impassive stone face, a Buster Keaton trademark that he would put on to comedic effect for the rest of his life.
Fatty Arbuckle was a popular comedian at the time who made slapstick comedy. He knew Buster from seeing his family threesome performing on Vaudeville shows and was a big fan, to the extent that he’d sometimes borrow a few of their gags and put them into his own short films. Buster once showed up on set and Arbuckle invited the young comedian to join in the scene they were shooting. Amazingly, Buster nailed his debut in one take. It seemed that his Vaudeville talents made him a movie natural which is something Arbuckle recognised on the spot. From then on Buster decided that movies and not theatre was for him.
Three’s a crowd
Buster, Arbuckle and Al St. John were the comedy trio who worked together on numerous shorts and were to a certain extent inseparable. While being funny on camera they each had their own style and persona in front of the camera and they each had their share of laughs and accidents.
The boys were inseparable clown princes of Hollywood, good time guys gone manic with creativity. They could do what they wanted; they were part of a movement, a comic vanguard unwavering in its dedication to the pursuit of the Laugh, fuelled by a twenty four hour, all consuming intimacy with the Joke.
They often found time to continue their practice of Jokes to what Buster called a misunderstood ‘earthy art’ – that of the practical joke. They were dedicated pranksters; they burned with jokes, gags and setups – comedy was something hardwired in them. And so their friends, neighbours, and acquaintances suffered a devilish range of mischief.
Once Buster was asked by a friend what was the greatest pleasure he got from spending his whole life as an actor. He thoughts about it at length and then answered ‘Like everyone else, I like to be with a happy crowd.’
They found that comedy was best left to its own mysterious ways. If Arbuckle felt the gags weren’t popping, he and Buster might hop on a ferry to San Francisco and disappear for a few days. The crew would wait for their return but the company would know they would eventually get the job done in the end.
Change is necessary
The guys were very much in sync sharing a comic vision but with one notable exception. Arbuckle for the most part pitched his comedy to the lowest common denominator. While he was an innovator of certain comedy in his own right, Arbuckle never lost his taste for the pie throwing, all bumbling slapstick style. He told Buster that the most important thing to keep in mind was that their audience had the mindset of a twelve year old. But Buster disagreed, advising Arbuckle that one who held such beliefs was not long for the business. Moviegoers were as clever as you and I – to treat them as anything less would be an insult – and even a simple comedy could tell an honest story.
Eventually both Arbuckle and Buster were heading in different directions – stylistically. Their difference of opinion pitted Buster’s understated, wry, often mechanical sense of humour against Arbuckle’s broader slapstick.
Through the years of making films Buster would refine his onscreen persona one of those being the flat hat which remained the signature of his own. At the time, screen comedians wore derbies. Buster’s choice – usually gray with a dark ribbon – separated him from the crowd. He often had to replace his hats due to having a tendency to fly off during filming, so he decided to manufacture the unique hats himself. The flat hat was an outward manifestation of Keaton’s interior cool, a measure of poise ever maintained in an off kilter runaway world.
Stretch & Learn
Buster always made sure to learn as much as he could not just about his performance and acting but also the mechanics of the machinery that puts the vision on the screen. He completed a crash course in film education roughly six months after dissecting his first Bell & Howell camera which eventually led him to start directing scenes in Arbuckle’s films.
It took less than three years for Buster to go from a cinematic nobody to head of his own film shop like a kind of breathless narrative that drives the Hollywood imagination. Eventually he went off to start doing his on type of comedies throwing himself into his work without reservation; two hours after completing a breathtaking fall – a flip out of a second floor door into a sod covered pile of straw – Buster noticed his elbow was twice its norma size, with the rest of his upper body quickly growing to match. To remedy the swelling: fifteen minutes in a scalding hot shower, fifteen minutes in an icy shower, an olive oil rub down, followed by the application of horse liniment. A night’s rest and Buster was back in business.
Every morning Buster woke at six and drove to his studio, arriving well before the daily story conference which was attended not just by the co director but also a clutch of other gagmen, eager to hammer out the latest
caper. Also in the room might be the prop man, the unit manager, an electrician, and a pair of cameramen. Everyone talked – the relentless comic improve was open to all – and
everyone kept on the same page. Everyone was privy to the needs of each other and knew each other’s business and were all tied to the one big thing: the picture.
Nothing from the meeting was ever set on paper – no scripts, no outlines, no inserts, no rewrites. The funny business was approached warily, as the fluid, madcap, untamed thing that it is.
Cross pollination was the rule. Responsibilities even crossed the boundary of the lens; the co director might leave his chair to take a quick turn at acting and makin a bit of an appearance. The casting was pragmatic, never vain – a body was needed and who else was around to do it?
From a handful of wry, dedicated craftsman Buster formed a cohesive, efficient family unit which he owed his success to a number of happy factors, one of which was having talented, like minded collaborators.
Life on set
Buster rehearsed his scenes only lightly, if at all, he simply discussed the relevant action with the cameraman and the other actors, then rolled film. If a sequence was difficult enough to warrant multiple rehearsals, he would look for a way to somehow unrehearse it. Unlike many of his contemporaries (Chaplin), Buster would shoot only a handful of takes, and in the editing room, he usually went with the first, essentially spontaneous performance. Accidents, bloopers, and gaffes all might make their way into a finished print. The cameramen – two of them side by side – had their standing orders: no matter what, keep filming.
Buster always trusted his crew for feedback and to gauge his performance. When the call ‘Cut!’ came, anyone from the co director to the prop man might chime in if he thought the scene lacked punch. And if the gags continued to fizzle, with no laughs on the horizon, the unit would simply drop everything in favour of baseball. Bats, balls and bases would be set up by Buster’s sister and in keeping with the comic spirit the production would cease for as long as it took for inspiration to strike.
The show must go on
But hard luck would sometimes befall Buster. Once, on a set of the electric house, the entire mansion was mechanised when suddenly the contraption went haywire and the escalator caught Buster’s right shoe in its jaw cracking his ankle. Buster dropped ten feet to the floor and rolled once and passed out. He was two months in a cast.
Once on a daring rooftop to rooftop leap, Buster misjudged the jump springing from a plank he had laid over the edge and meaning to land on the other side of the building. Instead, he fell short, his fingers barley grasping the cornice of the building as his body slapped the wall of brick and he dropped thirty five feet into a net. He was in bed for three days. Yet, the camera didn’t shy away from the accident and the resultant footage was good that they used it in the movie.
On another occasion during filming Buster was running along the top of a moving train; as he comes to the last car, he grasps a rope hanging from a nearby water tower, which lowers the spout. A torrent of water slaps Buster to the ground. When the deluge subsides, he stands and scampers off. In real life, as Buster hits the railroad tracks, his neck cracked across one of the metal rails. He finished the take, but had a headache whiskey couldn’t cure. Years later, Buster’s doctor asked him when he had broken his neck. Buster said he hadn’t. Back then, it all seemed like part of a day’s work.
Action & performance
Busters take on his films is anything but sober. Parachuting from cliffs, flopping down gravel inclines, jumping from roof tops, dropping onto tree tops. His climactic stunts almost in every film involves some form of a fall from an impossibly high altitude. Yet he always managed to brave the elements and do his own stunts by his own admission.
His stories seemed to riff on tragedy but he would throw in a bomb to his comedy in order to make it funny. Laughter for him was the stubborn reward of grim times.
Furthermore, Buster’s storylines had remained faithful at heart to Victorian melodrama, that longtime staple of Vaudeville, relying on the basic triangle of determined young man, sweet young girl, and dastardly villain – Buster then goes looking for love in the machine age.
His style of performance is like visual ballet whereby sometimes he manages to exact nerve racking turns while weaving and bobbing among a crowd of people, normally trying to get him. Running to the camera, and away from the camera and darting into frame from a variety of offscreen angles. He walks, he runs, he stops, he hides often he is the calm in the storm. The chase sequences are always brilliantly syncopated and mostly framed in geometrical compositions that often themselves serve as punchlines. Buster enjoyed the use of deep space, riding the comic potential of an overlooked background. The long shot – fast becoming one of Buster’s favourite vantage points – also adds to the fun. A lot of his gags are about human movement in the flat world – moving right, left, up, down, away from the lens or towards it. Very similar to how Wes Anderson, nowadays, directs his films.
Buster was taking what he knew – the ingenuity, athleticism, and wit of Vaudeville – and applying it to the burgeoning medium, and people loved it. Hid films straddled the divide between the remnants of America’s Victorian age (the prim ladies and chaste kisses) and a new mechanised age (when locomotives started to show up) and he mined that gap with a fervour of a boy prankster on fire. His films mostly portrayed the art of escape. Every single fall was an opportunity for creativity. Every gesture he did was meant to be unique and he would never do it twice.
When he gradually moved to doing longer films, from two reels which last more than 20min to six reels which lasted longer than an hour, Buster wanted to create a kind of comic escalation, in which small gags would build to larger catastrophes and larger laughs. Therefore pacing was important. If he hit the audience too hard too early, where could he go from there?
For visual comedy he always had to keep himself open to improvisation – 50% is what he had in his mind before he started the picture and the rest he developed as he was making it. He knew that jokes were best caught unawares, where you least expected it. Buster kept all the funny business in his head; he never wrote any of it down – when needed, he’d just sit on the floor and give the sequence a good mental chew.
His most famous rule – never fake a gag – he always had to actually do it, without cutting the shot.
He eschewed title cards by focusing on gesture and pantomime and he was always strict for keeping his stunts in one shot or else he’d throw it away.
Non stop Buster
Buster must have felt like a chronic time traveler. He was a journeyman performer whose visionary career ran the course of popular American entertainment; he had gone from the Vaudeville house to the silent screen to the talking picture, and finally, to television. Even later on in his life to him work was work, be it Beckett or beach blankets and he had a high time making B movies. Part of his drive was a simple love of performing. Since those childhood days of Vaudeville trunks and off stage pranks, no one ever had been able to keep him from an audience.
At his greatest, Buster created a silent poetry of camera and limb, reminding us how misfits find love, swells make good, civilians win wars, and would be big business men sometimes die trying – and that the only sane course is to laugh at it all. For a good decade the country was transfixed by the high wire antics of a matchless little clown – equal parts auteur, innovator, prankster and daredevil – whose quest for redemption was at once savvy and innocent.
But as time went by his brash, baffling films would be gone before he knew it. Acrobatic comedy was giving way to screwball comedy, with its madcap scenarios and bantered innuendo. The new comedians battled, bragged, and won the girl with their mouths, not their feet, the sparks coming less from bold stunts than snappy repartee cracking with slang (Marx Brothers comes to mind).
Considered to be the greatest of all the clowns in history and through the years his films inspired – and continues to inspire – a brilliant host of cinematic riffs including the framing of his films taken on by Wes Anderson; his acrobatics and stunts in Jackie Chan and his dead pan pose in Billy Murray.
Many of Keaton’s films from the 1920s remain highly regarded with The General widely viewed as his masterpiece. Among its strongest admirers was Orson Welles who stated that The General was cinema’s highest achievement in comedy, and perhaps the greatest film ever made.
Watch it and decide for yourself…