Classic Keaton, Classic Comedy

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-- Samuel Beckett frequently cited Keaton as a prime influence, Federico Garcia Lorca wrote a short farce script (long-unpublished and never produced) for his American hero and James Agee and other lofty critics have long harped on Keaton's genius.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.

Keaton's screen hero, with his wide eyes and their endless gaze, is a polite and respectful creature who keeps a careful distance from others. The character is always lithe and artful, and so able to evade or escape the immediate obstacles in his path, but he finds peace and success to be ultimately elusive. Sometimes Keaton's character is wealthy (The Navigator), sometimes he's standing in bread lines (The Goat), but he's always unable to elude doom. (In the Keaton universe, there is no God and we are all doomed. The endings of Keaton's films are frequently broad jokes about death. In one, thoughts of impending nuptials lead to thoughts of happy old age together lead to thoughts of side-by-side tombstones. In another, spurned by the girl he loves, Keaton throws himself to his tormentors and certain death.)

Keaton's intrepid character is at the same time a resourceful manipulator of the objects around him and completely at the mercy of the people around him. He's likewise at the mercy of fate. Sherlock, Jr. -- one of the MFA offerings -- is a tidy example of Keaton 101: it has his typical protagonist (nice guy amidst squabbling 1920s people); standard themes (romance and sleuthing with a dash of Horatio Alger); and evidence of Keaton's rare gifts as an actor and his complex notions of film.

In Sherlock, Jr. the protagonist, simply credited as "the boy," is framed. "The girl" thinks he's stolen her father's watch. The boy follows the Keaton rule: "think slow and act fast." His thinking slow is a fantasy sequence exploring the nature of dreams and of movies, and the acting fast is a chase with motorcycles, cars pitched into lakes, speeding locomotives and, the crucial element in a Keaton chase, Keaton himself acting fast.

Disheartened by the accusation of theft, the boy shuffles off to his job as a projectionist. He dutifully starts a film, (Hearts and Pearls or The Lounge Lizard's Lost Lover), slouches sadly on his stool, sleeps, dreams and then the dreaming self (an almost transparent double-exposure Keaton) emerges. This specter tries to wake his sleeping body, fails and then walks down the aisle of the cinema. From there, he leaps into the movie. This was all taking place in 1924, and the idea of making a movie about live action characters falling into the world of film, not to mention the camera tricks necessary to make the story work, were astounding innovations. Even today, 71 years later, the dreaming boy's adventures as a great detective are all glorious and funny. In his dream of sleuthing in a top hat and tails, the boy solves the mystery of the stolen watch. However, in a final twist, when all is forgiven and the girl is ready to be taken in his arms, the boy peeks out of the projection booth, checks out the action on the movie screen, and takes his cues from the romantic scene playing there. This unique and touching wrestling with the value of illusion speaks volumes. It says, for one thing, that Keaton thought his audience was bright -- a refreshing notion for a filmmaker of any era. It also says that Keaton was thoroughly enchanted with the nature of movies. As further evidence, nearly half of his movies play with the fact of movies.

Many Keaton films are early satires of genre -- Go West, for instance, lampoons Westerns and love stories. His boxing movie, Battling Butler trades on the '20s rage for fight movies just as College muses on the new ideal of student life. But none of these movies depends upon stereotype. The intense figure in slapshoes and his gaze, not what befalls him, are at the heart of Keaton's comedy.

The official "best" Keaton features -- The General, The Navigator, Sherlock, Jr. and Steamboat Bill, Jr. -- are all part of Buster's Birthday: A Keaton Centennial Celebration. The series offers a total of seven features, most shown on double bills with shorts. (On the series' second Sunday there's also a genuine double feature: Our Hospitality with Sherlock, Jr..) Keaton's features and shorts are a rich and varied collection because of Keaton's inventive handling of details -- his quirky asides and inspired pratfalls -- and because the contrast between his accomplished comedy style and dark subtext creates a wealth of surprising effects.

Not that Keaton was always successful; one of the shorts to be shown, 1921's The High Sign, is weak and, in contrast, serves to highlight the finer qualities of Keaton's quixotic screen character and his astonishing ability to present slapstick extremes as natural, reasonable story elements. The High Sign has the only incident of the Keaton character being dishonorable (he steals a banana and a newspaper) and the finale is a chase through a trick house -- the house's false walls and trap doors allowing Keaton to display fabulous acrobatics, but as set pieces seeming irksomely contrived and unbelievable. Convict 13 is another short that must be singled out, though for a different reason. Because complete prints were not available, the restored version of the short is in bad shape, even though the washed-out, scratchy print still clearly shows Keaton's wonderfully expressive eyes and his sweet flirtation with doom.

Its rarity makes Convict 13 a treat. But it's sad that the MFA series doesn't include Keaton's early shorts with Fatty Arbuckle, sprightly and irreverent formative works such as Coney Island and Backstage. These loosely plotted, gag-heavy films show Keaton having a fine time exploring the new art form, and finding his balance in film. Expect the Arbuckle shorts from Kino in '96 or '97.

Meanwhile, the MFA series provides enough examples to show Keaton was a complete master of his chosen medium. Those uncertain about the value of Keaton's official "best" features should note the influence of some of Keaton's other comedy. During his down time (roughly 1930 until his death in 1966), he was busy, albeit underpaid. Marx Brothers movies, Red Skelton movies and I Love Lucy all employed Keaton as a gagman. He made a decent, if not glamorous, living working out bits of business for screen comedies and, according to Lucille Ball, all the physical comedy on her TV show.

You could go to the MFA series, buy a film pass and see every single movie, to be in the vanguard, to know what's what in cinema comedy. Or you could go because Keaton made magnificent movies. Keaton doesn't push buttons -- he's never mawkish or obvious. He discreetly presents a solemn man in astonishing situations, creating films that make you laugh until your ribs hurt, and leave you with a tender ache of melancholy.

Buster's Birthday: A Keaton Centennial Celebration plays Fridays and Sundays through June 25 at the Museum of Fine Arts, 1001 Bissonnet. 639-7515.

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