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Classic Keaton, Classic Comedy

100 years on, the MFA gives a silent-screen genius his due

The oeuvre of silent-film comedian Buster Keaton, a body of work being celebrated this month at the Museum of Fine Arts, has snob appeal in spades -- Samuel Beckett frequently cited Keaton as a prime influence, Federico Garcia Lorca wrote a short farce script (long-unpublished and never produced) for his American hero and James Agee and other lofty critics have long harped on Keaton's genius. That's all well and good, but in the final analysis what's most important about Keaton is his broad and unflagging comedic appeal. Long after his silent-screen stardom was over, when the exquisite features of his great stone face were puffy and slack from age and alcohol abuse, Keaton visited Genoa, Italy. As he strolled through the city, ditch-diggers, street sweepers and dock workers recognized their Buster at once. These critics paid homage in the best way possible -- by laughing and cheering and mimicking scenes from Keaton's movies.

Recalling those scenes was undoubtedly easy for the Italian fans; one of the marks of true film geniuses is the ability to create indelible memories of themselves on-screen, to form images that linger in the mind until death. And the images that Keaton crafted are among the most durable in movie history. The most familiar may be from Steamboat Bill, Jr. In this scene, Keaton is a solemn figure standing before a house. A raging storm is blowing leaves and debris furiously, and the curtains in the windows of the house are whipped by the gale. Keaton, dazed, doesn't look at the house behind him, doesn't see that the front wall has ripped away and is about to fall and crush him. As the wall comes crashing down, Keaton is framed by a small window and left unhurt. Like Harold Lloyd clinging to the building-clock face or Charlie Chaplin twitching his mustache, this picture of Keaton standing while the massive wall falls around him is a classic moment of silent-era comedy.

For too long, though, thanks to a mid-century drought when Keaton's movies were rarely seen and difficult to obtain, Keaton has been little known beyond that single snippet of a single film, even though it's neither his finest moment nor the one that best defines his approach to comedy. That scene is just one of hundreds of moments produced between 1920 and 1928. As an independent director during this period, Keaton produced and starred in 30 films. These works, especially the features, have maintained their wit and charm and wary pathos through several generations of taste. Now that we're in the midst of a Keaton revival, the broader movie-going audience has a chance to discover just that. The MFA series, Buster's Birthday: A Keaton Centennial Celebration (and never mind that Buster's 100th birthday would be in October), presents a dozen movies. And for the faithful, or those converted by the MFA series, Kino Video has recently released 11 Keaton features and 19 of his shorts, all of them painstakingly restored to very nearly original quality, on video and laserdisc. (The Playhouse, never previously available and the first example of nine-shot multiple exposure, is among the films included.)

Keaton's film comedy, much of it using devices and conventions Keaton learned as a low comedian on the vaudeville stage, employed conventional period story lines and surrounding characters. Within this traditional framework, Keaton presented unmatchable physical comedy and a unique (and now seemingly modern) world-view. As an actor, Keaton's catlike caution and feline grace have no competition. No one has ever come close to matching Keaton's physical comedy. And yet his pratfalls and stunts served as more than dazzling feats. And Keaton's stories, especially in his features, have a gravity and passion still rarely seen in comedy. Keaton's comedy is not frothy; it doesn't skim along the surface. Keaton's comedy is moved by ceaseless and powerful undercurrents. Amazingly, Keaton's on-screen fellow is most tragic when he's in motion. Keaton in motion, in flight, is arrestingly beautiful. Keaton did say that he only smiled on-screen once -- to prove the point that the audience wouldn't like it -- but the unassuming filmmaker would never admit that his running man, his furious, futile speed, was an eloquent comment on modern angst and the terror of the machine age. He did, however, take pains to achieve exactly the effect seen on-screen.

Keaton's contributions to film were the product of a lifetime of training and a deliberate career choice. He was a stage star from the age of four, yet after an afternoon watching Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle make a movie, Keaton fell in love with the possibilities of moviemaking. In 1917, a time when the Hollywood product was considered a vulgar novelty, Keaton left a $250-a-week job on Broadway to make shorts with Arbuckle, for $40 a week. (Though he was never destitute, Keaton's genius did not extend to business and financial matters. He also made the serious mistake of marrying and then being divorced by a woman with powerful relatives in the film industry.)

Keaton was a quick study. Although he took time out to serve in the Army, by 1920 he had a film completely his own ready for release. Called One Week, it's the story of a groom who attempts to put together a prefab house (in seven days, hence the title). This mild domestic comedy shows that Keaton had already developed a sure sense of pacing, his canny eye for framing scenes and his unwavering commitment to getting the details right. (His Civil War chase film, The General, is widely considered the most accurate period piece American cinema has produced.) One Week also shows that Keaton had already developed the main thing that matters -- the Keaton screen character. The resolute soul in the porkpie hat is something of a cipher. In America, he was the Great Stone Face. In Spanish, Keaton was Pamplinas, a little bit of nothing. And to the French he was Malec -- the hole in a donut, the thing you name that is not there.

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