Buster Keaton

Buster Keaton lived for the gag. His films brim with some of the most outrageous and inventive ideas ever put on film, all planned and performed by Keaton himself with the painstaking exactness of a mechanical engineer. When the facade of a house falls on the oblivious comic in STEAMBOAT BILL, JR., a fortuitous window slips neatly over him. He had mere inches of clearance on each side of the opening; one step out of place and the stunt would have killed him. His career is full of such dangerous stunts and hair-raising tales that, to the end of his days, he regaled interviewers with such stories. It was all he wanted to discuss and he reminisced with a pride undiminished by the years. To hear him talk, you’d think he was merely a gifted gagman. His films tell another story.

Keaton, like Chaplin before him, came from vaudeville and brought to the screen an audience-tested sense of comic timing, years of well-honed slapstick stunts and a contortionist’s agility. That was his stock in trade when he went to work in short comedies with Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle but, by the time he went solo in 1920, the movies had given the Great Stone Face a whole new way of looking at comedy. The former stage comic warped gags until they left the plane of reality in such shorts as THE PLAYHOUSE (1921) and THE FROZEN NORTH (1922) and toyed with the very nature of cinema in his hilarious SHERLOCK JR. (1924), where his meek projectionist hero takes a logic-defying leap into the silver screen. In many ways, Keaton was the cinema’s first modernist, an old fashioned romantic with a 20th century mind behind the deadpan visage.

Chaplin railed against technology. Keaton took to it like a kid to Tinkertoys. From his third solo short THE SCARECROW (1920), where a one room bachelor pad is transformed into an automatic house via a Rube Goldberg tangle of ropes, pulleys, toy trains and trap doors (the gag was reworked and polished for THE NAVIGATOR), through his masterpieces THE GENERAL (1926) and STEAMBOAT BILL, JR. (1928), Keaton displayed a knack of becoming one with mechanical world. Sometimes it was a nemesis, sometime an ally, but it consistently proved an unfailing straight man.

Keaton may have revered the gag but he always wove them into the fabric his stories. In SEVEN CHANCE (1925), when groom-to-be Buster awakens in a church of hungry brides, all intent on marrying the potential millionaire, the ensuing chase (a mad image of a flood of white-clad women storming down city streets like a conquering army) sets in motion a chain of increasingly inspired comic set pieces. By the climax, even nature joins the chase; it’s just Buster against the world. Call it pluck. Call it tenacity. In the face of adversity, the Great Stone Face rises to the occasion and gets his girl with perseverance, ingenuity and unflagging determination, like a pratfalling Horatio Alger with death-defying stunts and a deadpan double take.
– Sean Axmaker


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