Of Silent Films’ “Big Three” ( Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd) Buster Keaton is more famous and critically acclaimed today, than he was in the 1920’s (the guy is Box Office Gold, believe me, I’ve seen it!) and the reason is simple: his films still seem awfully relevant and modern, maybe even more so than when they were first shown. Unlike most of his contemporaries, Keaton strips his films down to the bare minimum, no unnecessary subplots, his films zoom along in a way that today’s audiences appreciate. His character is very Modern: quiet, steadfast,full of self deprecating humor.
While Lloyd exuded confidence and Chaplin sentiment, Keaton has neither. Instead he plays the smartest guy in the room,which he doesn’t flaunt and which no one seems to realize … and Keaton often uses that to his advantage. His gags have an elegant, organic logical quality that are coupled with Keaton’s amazing athleticism. Most of all, Keaton loved film and all it’s possibilities and he loved to play and experiment with what it could do. So, grab a few of Buster’s films, sit back and enjoy one of Cinema’s greatest, and influential Directors .. you’ll be hooked.
1. The Butcher Boy (1917)
On a blustery day in March 1917, Buster Keaton was introduced to Rosoce “Fatty” Arbuckle, at that time only second to Chaplin in his popularity. Almost immediately, he was making films with Arbuckle and began not only a professional partnership, but a lasting friendship. In The Butcher Boy, we see Buster, 21 years old and straight out of Vaudeville, where he had spent almost his entire life, using the skills and gags he used with the act he had with his father Joe Keaton. The movie is an Arbuckle one, through and through and Buster is just one of the supporting players. Still, it is Buster’s film debut and it’s always interesting to see how someone who would be so famous started. As Arbuckle’s recognition and trust of talents grow, his roles will increase exponentially.
2. Backstage (1919)
Almost immediately, we can see the shift in Buster’s on screen relationship with Arbuckle; they are now a team. The story, like many a silent film short, is almost non-existent and really not that important. Buster and Arbuckle play two stagehands in a theater that is racked with labor troubles, touchy divas, and otherwise eccentric fellows. When practically the whole show walks out, Buster, Arbuckle and a few allies put on the show and this plot point thus allows Buster to showcase his amazing mimicry and athleticism.
This was made just after Buster had returned from duty in World War I (where he suffered permanent hearing loss in one ear and being in the very epicenter of the worst Influenza epidemic ever) and was one of the last Keaton and Arbuckle would do. In 1920, Buster would inherit Arbuckle’s controlling interest in his company Comique, while Arbuckle left to do full-length features at Paramount.
3. One Week (1920)
Generally considered Buster’s first solo film short, and in a way, yes, it was the first one to be released. He had, however, made The High Sign a few months before, but deemed it not strong enough for his solo debut. Buster was right, One Week was one heck of a film to use a debut. It is so solid in every way from plot, to gags, to Buster’s on screen persona; with nary a “rookie mistake.” During his partnership with Arbuckle, Buster (as he would later say) learned everything he knew about films from Arbuckle, and was obviously an apt pupil.
The plot flows effortlessly from a young married couples’ joyous march out of the church, the receipt of a (seemingly) wonderful gift of a brand new house to the disappointing reality that they (well, Buster really) have to actually build it. The rest of the film is Buster trying to get the darned thing built, decide some troubles, sabotage and the house itself, seemingly possessed and ultimately turns on them both … literally. Two high points: the falling-wall-only-to-be-saved-by-a-window gag that Buster will take to it’s heart stopping point in a later film and his balletic grace as he stumbles through the windswept house.
4. The Goat (1921)
This delightful, often overlooked short of Keaton’s, sums up his “Early Period” where his films follow the plot of conflict and chase that ends happily. Keaton plays the nameless main character down on his luck and through a series of Keaton-esque plot twists, ends up being wrongly considered the murderer “Dead Shot Dan”. Keaton (aka “The Goat” .. short for scapegoat) navigates his way through a maze of mistaken identity, cops in pursuit and of course, love. The famous shot of his entrance to the film’s second part on a train’s cowcatcher is both imaginative and surreal. Fans of Get Smart should recognize in the elevator chase scene a familiar gag from the ending credits.
5. The Playhouse (1921)
Universally considered to be the one of the most innovative of film shorts due to the first six minutes. All the actors: man, woman and child are played by Buster himself and all interact with each other. Then, Buster does a dance duet …with himself. Then, nine Busters appear as the troupe of a Minstrel Show (this type of entertainment maybe shocking to us, but Minstrel Shows were still around as recent as 1919).
This amazing achievement was due to a technical innovation of Keaton’s own creation:nine exactingly-machined strips of metal which could be moved up and down independently of each other so the cameraman could shoot with one shutter up and the others down. The rest of the film shows the ups and downs of Keaton, Playhouse Manager, who must deal with a myriad of problems;putting out fires both metaphorical and literal. Written just 18 months after he became the head of his own studio and right after his marriage to Natalie Talmadge, “The Playhouse” reflects Keaton’s realization that “uneasy the head that wears the crown” and if you’re going to marry someone, be sure you’ve picked the right one.
6. Cops (1922)
Often called Keaton’s “Dark Masterpiece” represents the tone of his later works which were influenced by his unhappy marriage and the trials of his close friend, Roscoe Arbuckle. Keaton’s youthful ideals were given quite a punch and Cops shows him reeling. Dark, cynical and even Kafka-esque in tone, the central plot’s idea is that any honest person cannot get ahead in a world where everyone “has an angle”. When it was released in 1922, it was considered besides The Wasteland and Ulysses as one of the three most important works of that year.
7. Our Hospitality (1923)
After dipping his toe into the waters of full-length films with The Three Ages, Keaton creates his first, fully realized full-length film with Our Hospitality. The plot, (a popular one with Keaton) is “fish out of water” New Yorker Willie McKay, who receives a letter that he must travel South to claim his father’s estate. His elation is quickly diffused by his Aunt ( with whom Willie has lived with since a baby) who tells him of family’s dark history and why he ended up with her in New York. All of this has been explained to the audience in the film’s wonderfully dark and dramatic opening where Keaton plays homage to his idol, DW Griffith and leaves the audience thinking “this is a comedy?”
In short, Willie is the last of the McKays who have been feuding with the Canfields (if this sounds suspiciously like the McCoys & Hatfields, it should, Keaton changed the names for some very sound reasons) and upon his return to his hometown, he would be prey to the Canfield’s vow of revenge. Willie, brushes off his aunt’s warnings and heads South. On the train, the girl next to him is no other than Virginia Canfield (played by Buster’s real wife Natalie Talmadge) of the Canfields. Of course, neither of them know this and during the long, tedious trip they fall in love. Virginia innocently invites Willie to dinner where he is exposed as their mortal enemy. Her brothers and father would love to kill Willie, but alas, they can’t.
According to the rules of Southern Hospitality, killing your guest, is well, just not polite. The rest of the film entails the Canfields trying to get Willie out of the house and Willie (who’s no fool) trying to stay. Our Hospitality has some of Buster’s best gags and stunts (one which literally almost killed him) culminating with a daring save of Virginia from a waterfall.
8. Sherlock Jr (1923)
Although the film barely last 45 minutes, no other film is so full of what made Buster great than Sherlock Jr. Buster plays a projectionist at a local movie house and (like many of his characters) just can’t catch a break. When he is falsely accused of stealing a watch that belongs to his girlfriend’s father, he is banished from her house and he slinks back to the movie theater and dreams why life can’t be like the movies. At this point is the famous Projectionist Booth Scene which film critic David Kalat calls “not only the most celebrated moment in the film, but the most spectacular sequences in all silent cinema.”
At it’s release, Sherlock Jr received lukewarm reviews, but, in time, it has been hailed as a masterpiece and it’s influence has been seen in films such as “The Projectionist and The Purple Rose of Cairo. Pauline Kael has hailed it as “A piece of native American Surrealism.” This film made me fall in love with Buster Keaton all over again and, in my opinion, if you can only watch one Buster film .. watch this one. It has made audiences gasp and I dare you not to also.