“Who is your favorite?” That was one of the most frequently asked questions that came out of Legends of Laughter. Though my response was always a bit vague, it’s a question that does have an answer. Perhaps this entry is it. As to who was the absolute “greatest,” though, that’s something I can’t answer because how can anyone compare three distinct styles and say one is superior? Those who are quick to call Chaplin or Keaton the greatest often have not even seen the films of Harold Lloyd! Why must one comic be the “greatest” at all? Must everything have a label? Chaplin will always be the most recognizable and the most gifted of the world’s mimes. Keaton will always be more inventive with the most cinematic of props, and Lloyd has yet to disappoint an audience anywhere with his well-polished comedy of embarrassment. More people have come up to me after the show to express how surprised they were by Harold Lloyd! So I can’t put one over the other. What I can do, however, is say a few words about the one who has been with me the longest.
He made no claims to be an artist– nor did he try to “say something” in his films. But the profundity was always there in the themes of Buster Keaton. He could show the futility of love without sentiment and present us with man’s fate in an unbalanced, mechanical universe. Buster’s strange, comic vision was uniquely his own. At his peak, Keaton was one of the most innovative of all filmmakers. I first started appreciating his technical skill when I watched Sherlock, Jr. in a History of Cinema class at Columbia College, taught by Scott Marks. I could relate to a character who disappeared into the movies, and I in turn disappeared into the movies of Buster Keaton. I learned that anything by him was preferable to just about everything else. You can’t go wrong with his stuff. He had such screen presence that even in the junk that came later there was always something to be appreciated.
That’s one difference between Keaton and the others whom I’ve profiled. Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd never had to appear in sub-standard films because they produced their own and they controlled their own destinies. Buster Keaton, by contrast, was everywhere, literally all over the map. He made a film in France called Le Roi des Champs-Elysees; he appeared in a Mexican film called El Moderno Barba Azul. In his later years, he had cameos in silly 1960s beach films before finally making one last return to silent film form in the Keatonesque The Railrodder in 1965. But even in work critically dismissed or buried by time, I’ve found gold, and I’ve shared these nuggets with my library audience.
His Educational Pictures sound shorts were, at the time of release, written off as “cheaters” by Buster himself– cheap two-reelers he made for a low-budget studio. And yet, one of the best of these, Grand Slam Opera, I played during my series. The audience reaction was terrific. In it, Keaton played his small-town Elmer character who travels to the big city to perform a juggling act on a radio show contest. A highlight of the short is Keaton trying to dance in his room like Fred Astaire and soft-tap a girl to sleep.
After Educational, Buster made sound shorts for Columbia Pictures. Pest From the West (1939) is one of my favorites…
One of the appealing qualities that Buster maintained in his onscreen relationships was a believable awe of women. He was genuinely captivated by them. He never had the quick pick-up line. The best he could get out was, “How ’bout a little dinner and a show?” Getting to first base did not come easy. The most modest response from a girl could send him into rapture. He could be quite gallant with women, but it was a gallantry that seemed to backfire or go unnoticed. One of my favorite moments in his 1923 silent short The Balloonatic is when he takes off his coat for a lady so that she can cross a puddle of water. All of a sudden her male companion drives up over the coat and the girl gets in the car, leaving Buster with a wet and muddy coat. It’s both funny and sad. Chaplin could explore love in a more profound way, but Keaton’s statement was funnier.
Keaton was the most silent of the clowns. His character actually seems to prefer the silence of the ghost town at the outset of Educational’s “The Gold Ghost,” and perhaps this is the elusive quality that draws me to Buster Keaton the performer. It’s nothing that makes him better than the other comics, only something that connects to the viewer on a personal level, something that relates to me. Sometimes I feel as though I would prefer to live in a silent world where all the inconsequential banter is eliminated and only your actions carry you through the day. Only the lack of sound technology in the 1920s kept Harold Lloyd from speaking like everyone else, and once Chaplin was heard in 1940, he couldn’t stop talking– either as a narrator or as the conscience of the world. But with Keaton, even in his sound films there was something intrinsically silent about him.
I love the opening of One Run Elmer— yet another Educational film I first discovered on video many years ago. The short opens with Buster operating a gas station in the middle of the desert, and yet somehow, he manages to give directions to a driver without saying a word. It is silent action, done in pantomime. Had he been given the opportunity, Buster Keaton would have used sound in a way no other comic ever had.
One of the great tragedies in the history of movies is what happened to him at MGM when he became part of the studio system. He was the one swallowed up by the cogs of the machine, not Chaplin’s factory worker. It was a system that stripped Buster of most of his creativity. In place of the old proven method that relied on improvisation, the genius studio bosses threw him into bedroom farce and then paired him up with the overbearing Jimmy Durante in three films that passed for comedy in the 1930s. Keaton had interesting ideas for his own projects. He proposed a Western costarring Marie Dressler (shortly before she became a huge name at MGM); he wanted to do a spoof of Grand Hotel with Laurel and Hardy (but MGM was incapable of laughing at itself), and he wanted to do a World War II sequel to his best sound film, Doughboys, which had been set during the First World War. All these ideas were shot down or dismissed with the casual “We’ll get back to you on that.” The epic failure of MGM was in its refusal to give Buster his own production unit. But this wasn’t the era of creative thinking. It was a time of assembly-line product– of proven formulas. The sound era was new territory, and so the studio wanted to stick with material that was safe. For Buster, the studio system was an environment where two dozen monkeys in a barrel thought they knew comedy better than the guy hired to be funny– the one who had been funny since childhood on the vaudeville stage.
Buster Keaton in The Scarecrow
Buster could’ve done anything asked of him at MGM, and he could’ve been a great character actor in their later films. I like to think that if The Wizard of Oz hadn’t already been cast with the perfect ensemble, Buster could’ve played the Scarecrow. He wasn’t a song and dance man, but in films like Free and Easy, he did sing. He could’ve branched out in sound, but he was given material that was not even close to the real Buster; there was no real inspiration in it. Static talkies filled with puns and dull chatter were the norm, and this was removed from the physical comedy that had made him so famous. He went from a great silent comedian to just another comic on the lot, and the roles he played could’ve been performed by just about any other in the studio stable. Despite this, there were moments where Buster made something his own and where the old brilliance shined through.
I sometimes think that those individuals who have lived life to the fullest, those who have made an impact in this world, those who have created and inspired on a worldwide level, are more keenly felt in death, as though their presence is still with us. Not even death can snuff out the positive energy they had brought to the world. It just keeps going. I’m sure some film fans who have made the pilgrimmage to tour locations like Cottage Grove, Oregon, (where The General had been filmed in 1926), felt Buster’s presence along the river banks where he had filmed the most expensive scene in silent cinema all those years ago. It’s not just his shadows on a theatre screen that are immortal, but an immaterial presence that can still inspire.
In a science fiction writing class I had at Columbia, I wrote a short story inspired by a dream. I had a sense of character and place, but the material’s greatest failing was that it wasn’t actually science fiction. It was more a fantasy in which a boy must make his way to a world of tomorrow designed all in art deco. The man to take him there is a rather sad-looking airmail pilot by the name of Elmer. The stone-faced pilot, in his military costume, lived out in the wasteland far away from the futuristic city, and he traveled in his dilapidated biplane with his bags of mail to be delivered. Puppet strings controlled the direction of the plane, and they stretched up into infinity… I had no strong sense of story direction in those days, but I had a sense of character, and I knew that the pilot was Buster Keaton, and that it was based on the sad clown he had played at the end of Free and Easy. I had everything down, even the Midwestern drawl and hesitation in Buster’s voice. And this Elmer of my story, helping the boy find the city, took me back to the Wizard of Oz.
Free and Easy was material beneath Buster– one of his least effective sound films– because it was a characterization disconnected from the silent days. He had gone from comic hero to comic victim. The controlled energy that had propelled him in the 1920s was contained and sealed. And yet, there was still something there in that movie that made me feel for him. It was the heartbreak and sadness he projected in that role in those last moments onscreen.
MGM’s sad clown becomes tragic in Free and Easy (1930).
I have said before that Buster was a legend because he was a larger than life figure whose life story had been written in the stars like a great American tall tale. Of course, none of this had been captured in the bio-film that had been made of him called The Buster Keaton Story. Featuring Donald O’Connor in a porkpie, the movie turned Buster’s life into a lame, 1950s melodrama– on a par with James Cagney’s Man of a Thousand Faces (a film purportedly about the great Lon Chaney, Sr.). But those who know the real Buster Keaton story know the great potential in telling it again to a new audience. Having read Rudi Blesh’s definitive biography on Buster Keaton recently, I recall the image of Buster in the sanitarium; he drank himself into a breakdown…. Bound by a straitjacket, a figure from Buster’s past comes to him. Perhaps what he sees is something only from a fevered imagination (which would be more cinematic than merely a memory), but there next to him is Harry Houdini, the great escape artist and family friend who had passed away years before. In his hour of need and desperation, Buster remembers the escape trick Harry had taught him in his youth… Scenes like this play out when I imagine the hope and tragedy, the rise and fall and rise again of the real Buster Keaton story.
I’ve said more than a few words here about the lesser Keaton efforts because I’ve already chronicled his best films in this blog. But I hope I’ve captured some of the essence of Buster in my reflection of how he has affected me. I wish Legends of Laughter could keep on going so we could play films like Our Hospitality and Go West and College. These are the films he should always be remembered for. In a day and age when audiences are jaded by CGI effects, here we have authenticity and imagination and pure wonder on the screen. No trickery in his stunts. No cheating in their design. Keaton respected the intelligence of his audience in a way most mainstream filmmakers today do not. These are the comedies kids should be exposed to. The same way “old” books find their way into classrooms, these films should find their way into your homes. The films of Buster Keaton’s have more to say to us than whatever animated feature your kid is watching right now. Though lacking sound, these films have a far greater voice by what they tell us about our place in the world. Buster was the saddest-looking of all the great clowns, but his silent reactions to an unstable world created some of the biggest laughs. The only real sadness here is the knowledge that there will never be another Buster Keaton film.
The last true Buster Keaton film…
This blog will go dormant soon, but I will still update old entries should there be new information. Also, if Legends of Laughter appears at other libraries, I will resume blogging.
When Buster Keaton was on the MGM lot he had a famous “land yacht” he tooled around Hollywood in. With a land yacht I could take my comedy crusade on the road (minus the Nelson-at-Trafalgar-type hat)!