Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Buster Keaton-My favorite comedian

"What a creative genius — what an inventor... A guy like that, you just sit back and say, okay, I'll never get there!"-Jim Carrey

"A comedian does funny things. A good comedian does things funny."-Buster Keaton

Lately I've been revisiting some of my favorite films from Buster Keaton, as well as seeking out some of his lesser known features and short films. Keaton was one of the "Big 3" of silent comedian/directors, alongside Harold Lloyd and Charlie Chaplin. Although I still need to see more from the other two, I'm confident in saying that Keaton is my favorite. He was a master at visually telling his story, rarely using the title cards that were necessary during the days of silent films. He once remarked "Charlie Chaplin and I would have a friendly contest: Who could do the feature film with the least subtitles?".

Although he's known as "The Great Stone Face", his face was actually incredibly expressive, and that's what helped him tell his stories so well. He was known by that name because of the determined demeanor that he always had no matter what a movie threw at his character. I think this was an asset, because as Roger Ebert has noted "It's said that Chaplin wanted you to like him, but Keaton didn't care. I think he cared, but was too proud to ask." That neediness has always kept me at a distance from much of Chaplin's work, but the "being too proud to ask" quality of Keaton's characters is something that I connect with on a very deep level.

Of course, if character moments aren't your thing, there's always the stunts. Keaton was the greatest stuntman in the history of the movies. He was his own stuntman, and also would occasionally be the stuntman for some of his other actors if they could not perform. The most famous stunt in Keaton's catalog is the one in his classic Steamboat Bill, Jr. where during a hurricane, an entire wall of a two-story house falls on him, only being saved because one of the windows happens to be open. (you can see it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zsyRhRR5Iu4) Being his own director (though he often shared credit), and working independent of a studio, Keaton was in charge on set and did his own stunt set-ups. The gag with the wall was not rehearsed, because the fall would destroy the wall, and Keaton trusted his set-up, so why waste money on an extra wall?

Keaton learned how to take a fall while working in his parents' vaudeville act as a child, later saying that taking a perfect fall (without getting hurt) was second nature to him since he'd been doing it his whole life. That's not to say that he never got hurt. While filming Our Hospitality, during a scene where he's suspended from a tree over a waterfall, one of his suspension wires snapped and sent him hurtling towards the very real waterfall. He decided to film the sequence in a safer studio lot, although his version of safe still included a 25 foot tall waterfall (quite a spill if he falls). Also, while filming Sherlock, Jr. he fractured his neck doing one of the stunts and only many years later did a doctor find the healed bone during a routine check-up (Keaton remarked that he did remember having headaches for a few days after the injury).

When "talkies" made their way into the world, Keaton signed a deal with MGM ("the biggest mistake of my life") to be one of their stars. Although many of his movies were hits, he was creatively stifled at MGM. He quickly had his directing privledges revoked, didn't have much in the way of script input, and MGM wouldn't let him do any stunts, much less all of them. Sadly, he decended for many years into alcohol. When assessing Keaton's movies, most people (including me) disregard nearly all of the MGM work other than his great movie The Cameraman (his first for MGM), and instead focus on the work that he made as an independant artist.

I've studied Keaton's work for many years now, and my love continues to grow deeper. Recently, when the AFI did a revisit of their Top 100 American movies ever made, Keaton's widely acknowledged tour-de-force The General made the biggest leap on the list, going from not on it at all 10 years ago, to being named the 18th greatest movie ever made. I think something like this can be attributed to the proliferation of DVD in the last decade. For many years, people (including Keaton) thought that the majority of his work was lost. Only when there was a French retrospective of his movies in 1962 did his popularity begin to rise. Within the last 10 years, most of his work has found its way to DVD and has been discovered by many people who react to it much like I do.

To perhaps back up my claims of Keaton's greatness, here are links to the three parts of his great short film The Goat, essentially about Keaton on the run from the cops due to a simple case of mistaken identity, which involves some of his best physical comedy, and one where he gets to show off his tremendous athleticism. I think it's a nice brief (about 20 minutes) encapsulation of much of Keaton's approach, and why I love him so much.





steven 559 said...

Not only a brilliant comedian, but also a masterful director...unlike Chaplin, Keaton wasn't afraid to really use the camera...

Kyle said...

Glad you're a Keaton fan Steven, I didn't know that. I was gonna get into my thoughts about his directing ability (Sherlock, Jr. alone shows how much more ambitious he was than Chaplin), but I felt like I'd already written so much and didn't want to just keep going. I figured I'd probably talk about it more someday.

Anonymous said...

Despite talkies being part of the "fall" of Keaton's career, I think his voice is an important part of his comedic persona. It's great. In fact, one of my favorite performances of his (of the few I've seen) is his cameo in Sunset Blvd. where he sheepishly says "pass," in that great voice. Chaplin and Lloyd also had great comedic voices--Chaplin's being that sing-songy refined voice, Lloyd's sounding like Piglet from Winnie the Pooh.

Nice post!

ps. But don't knock Chaplin! He made a silent film in 1931 when no one wanted to see silent films. THAT is ambitious! ;)

Kyle said...

Oh, you're absolutely right about their voices. What baffles me is that really only Chaplin seemed to survive talkies with the kind of success he'd previously had. So many stars of silent films couldn't make the transition because they had thick accents and things like that, but not so with the Big 3.

But really, was making City Lights in '31 ambitious, or just being reluctant to change? =)

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