I think that
Buster Keaton is the greatest filmmaker who ever lived. I hope this appreciation
will give you some idea of why I feel that way...
If you're unfamiliar with Keaton, it doesn't much matter where you
start. Most of his silent movies are masterpieces, and even the lesser ones (Battling
Butler, College, Spite Marriage) are inspired, and far more
spellbinding and entertaining than anything you're likely to find playing at your local
"In a way his pictures
are like a transcendent juggling act in which it seems that the whole universe is in
exquisite flying motion and the one point of repose is the juggler's effortless,
-- James Agee,
"Comedy's Greatest Era"
By Jim Emerson
When movie critic
and screenwriter James Agee (Night of the Hunter) wrote that sentence about
Buster Keaton in a 1949 Life magazine essay, "The Great Stone Face" had
faded into obscurity, his career eclipsed by those of Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd.
When Keaton died, on January 30, 1966, the world was just beginning to recognize that, as
Walter Kerr has written, "He was the most silent, as well as the most cinematic, of
silent screen comedians."
I might argue with Agee's use of the word "uninterested" up there -- Keaton
is always keenly aware of, and resourceful in adapting to, that universe swirling around
him. But I think I what Agee is referring to is Keaton's almost (but not quite)
expressionless face -- an implacable visage that is nevertheless capable of expressing all
the joy and wonder and delight and frustration and despair of... well, of being alive in
this whirlwind of a universe.
Keaton's comedy is
ideally suited to the aesthetics and technology of the movies. It's a medium brought to
life by sprockets and shutters, lamps and lenses, and to Keaton the world itself is one
huge, whirring, implacable machine.
But if Buster is
forever at the mercy of the inexorable, indifferent forces around him, it's his
impassivity and adaptability to those forces that allow him to survive, and triumph, over
adversity. Keaton can always roll with whatever punches the universe can throw at him.
Unlike Chaplin's "Little Tramp," Keaton never cries out for sympathy. The
audience doesn't need to be coaxed into identifying with him; the serene blankness of his
face is like an empty screen onto which viewers can project their own hopes and fears.
Like the audience, Keaton himself is an observer. He doesn't rush blindly into action; he
waits, watches, considers, taking in everything around him. And that's his secret.
Life, Keaton demonstrates, is just a matter of timing. Even when surrounded by chaos (a hurricane in Steamboat
Bill, Jr.; an avalanche in Seven Chances; a raging river in Our
Hospitality; a Civil War battle in The General), Keaton understands that if
you know where to look, and when to leap, you can hurl yourself right into the eye of the
storm and pass through, safely, to come out on the other side.
Keaton makes that leap of faith again and again in his films. He trusts the universe,
no matter how many reasons it gives him not to. It may be an unfathomable and inhospitable
place (no wonder Keaton was a favorite of the existentialists), but Buster intuitively
grasps the underlying logic beneath all the confusion. Keaton's comedy is founded firmly
on the principles of Newtonian physics, the invisible substructure that alone keeps the
universe from simply flying apart in all directions.
Keaton lives (and
repeatedly almost dies) by the Law of Gravity in a perilous world rife with holes. His own
center of gravity, the weight that keeps him from from flying off and disappearing into
the raging powers that are forever circling around him, is his grave, immobile face.
From the raw material around him, Buster spontaneously creates simple makeshift
contraptions that harness elemental principles of physics to keep him moving along through
the maelstrom of modern life: a wheel, a lever, a crank, a ladder, a bucket, a siphon, a
see-saw, a bridge, a boat, a balloon...
In the famous early short, "One Week," Buster needs to climb up to the roof of his house.
He detaches the porch railing, turns it sideways and -- voila! -- it's a ladder. Keaton
sees through ordinary objects and appreciates them for their essential properties, and
their protean possibilities. To him, all objects (alive or inanimate) assume identities
that are merely temporary; everything is always in flux. A car becomes a sailboat (Sherlock
Jr.), a horse's behind becomes a Southern Belle (Our Hospitality) -- and, on
a more abstract or metaphorical level, brides-to-be become boulders, and vice-versa (Seven
If, when riding on a train (in Our Hospitality), Keaton finds himself in a
coal car that has just fallen into a river, he grasps the situation at once. Hitting the
water, the coal car floats; to Buster, it suggests a canoe. So, he picks up the shovel,
which in the blink of an eye becomes an oar. Unperturbed, Buster paddles calmly to shore
as if he'd planned to fall off that train all along.
In a Buster Keaton movie, you're
always aware that at any moment a tear could suddenly and inexplicably occur in the fabric
of the universe and a body could just fall through it and disappear -- like the abyss in
the middle of the river (sometimes referred to as a waterfall) in Our Hospitality
or the hole at the end of the train (a hole created when Buster, running along the top of
the cars, runs out of train) in Sherlock Jr.
Other holes have to be
punched, such as the one in Sherlock Jr. that enables our young cat-napping
projectionist to dream his way into the world of the silver screen. It takes a couple of
running starts, but Buster breaks through that barrier between fantasy and reality. (Woody
Allen used a variation on this idea as the premise for The Purple Rose of Cairo.)
Some holes occur
propitiously, like a certain window in a certain housefront in a justly famous and
breathtaking moment in Steamboat Bill Jr.: When the wall breaks away from the
structure and comes crashing down around Buster, the window frame clears his head and
shoulders by a couple of inches and he's left standing, slightly puzzled but unscathed.
(Keaton insisted that this shot could not be faked; he wanted his audience to trust him,
too, so he preferred to present his miracles in clear, unbroken takes whenever possible.
He may see the world as whirling and chaotic, but as a filmmaker he views it with
Other holes are plugged up propitiously: As Keaton rides on the handlebars of a runaway
motorcycle in Sherlock Jr., he starts across a causeway which not only ends in
mid-air, but has a middle section missing as well. As Buster is about to plummet through
the chasm in the middle, two trucks pass through the gap and their tops fill up the hole
just long enough for him to cross it. Then, as he nears the precipitous end of the
causeway, the entire structure slowly collapses, easing him down and depositing him back
on the road, still in motion. Within the space of a few seconds, two bridges have
momentarily come into existence where there was none before -- and, what's more, they have
appeared only for the instant they were needed. What a marvelous universe.
Keaton also knows
that, once you open up a hole in the cosmos, stuff is just as likely to come out of it as
it is to go into it. You could accidentally open up a Pandora's Hole. In his great
one-reeler, "The Boat," Buster's vessel springs a leak. The water is spewing in
from a spot on the hull, forming a nice arc on its way to the floor. Like the average
person, Keaton's first impulse is to plug the hole where the water is coming in; he
attempts the repair job with one of his wife's inedible pancakes. But when that doesn't
work, he gets an even more inspired idea: He drills another hole at the other end of the
arc so that the water can go out. Unfortunately in this instance, Buster ends up
on the wrong side of the law of physics for a change, but you've got to admit that his
logic is visionary, even if it isn't correct.
At times like this, Keaton's understanding of the way the world works is even more
brilliant than Newton's. It just doesn't quite apply to the world we live in. In The
Navigator, Buster tries to drill a hole in the top of a can of evaporated milk, but
the drill goes all the way through the bottom of the can. When he discovers this, he
instinctively cups his hand below the leak, while holding the can in his other hand, and
then tries to pour the milk back in the top -- juggling with liquid, as if he could
somehow suspend the milk in mid-air and keep it running in a circle until he's ready to
pour it into another receptacle.
There's a purity and a lucidity to Keaton's directorial vision that's so beautiful and enthralling
there are times you almost forget to laugh. The most violent forces (like the
above-mentioned storms, rivers, avalanches, wars) are shaped by Keaton's enchanted eye
into curves, arcs and circles that, in the abstract, look like graceful apparitions, even
when they're threatening to pulverize Buster into meatloaf.
All the objects in Keaton's silent universe are constantly on the move, following their
own trajectories through space. Part of his fascination with trains undoubtedly has to do
with the fact that the vectors along with they travel (the tracks, that is) are visible.
All these hurtling objects, Keaton included, are forever colliding with one another, their
paths intersecting, or narrowly avoiding intersecting, at comically opportune or
tragicomically inopportune moments.
But Keaton seems
incapable of just going through the motions for the sake of going through the motions; his
eyes are always fixed on some goal, some glorious spot on the horizon, which usually
assumes the form of a seemingly unattainable love object of whom he must prove himself
worthy. Buster is the underdog whose own dogged ingenuity carries him through to triumph.
He may be a lousy seaman in Steamboat Bill Jr. or an inept athlete in College,
but when the situation demands it (i.e., when he must perform some feat for a purpose,
such as rescuing his girlfriend or his father) he invariably discovers a way to rise to
A Keaton Gallery
"I have called Keaton
the most silent of silent film comedians without quite explaining why. The silence
was related to another deeply rooted quality -- that immobility, that sense of alert
repose, we have so often seen in him. Keaton could run like a jackrabbit and, in
almost every feature film, he did. He could stunt like Lloyd, as honestly and even
more dangerously. His pictures are motion pictures. Yet, though there is a
hurricane eternally raging around him, and though he is often caught up in it, Keaton's
constant drift is toward the quiet at the hurricane's eye."
-- Walter Kerr,
The Silent Clowns
Best Buster books:
Just click to by 'em...
Kerr offers the most detailed look at what sets Keaton's comedy
apart (philosophically and cinematically) from other silent clowns, and does so with great
love and insight -- and lots of frame enlargements to illustrate his points.
Tom Dardis' Keaton: The Man Who Wouldn't Lie Down is my
favorite Keaton biography, along with Rudi Blesh's classic Keaton, which is no
longer in print.