9. The Navigator (1924)
Buster plays upper class twit Rollo Treadway who has lead of life of luxury in which everything he desires is given to him on a silver platter .. literally. So of course when he falls in love with the “girl next door” Betsy O’Brien, he has his chauffeur drive him across the street to her house and expects Betsy to just fall into his arms (hey, what girl can resist being ordered up like a ham sandwich?). Befuddled and bruised, Rollo decides to mend his broken heart by taking his honeymoon cruise to Hawaii .. alone. Through a series of misadventures, Rollo and Betsy find themselves adrift on the ship “The Navigator” and for the first times in their lives, they have to do everything, even life’s most simple tasks, for themselves.
First, they have to realize they are not on the ship alone and then have to learn to at least co-exist if they’re ever going to survive. All of this is fodder for Buster for gags both large such as Rollo and Betsy discovering that each of them are on board, that takes the bedroom farce bit of a chase via opening and closing doors to something much more artistic and organic in nature, to something as simple as trying to shuffle a deck of cards … a wet deck of cards. This plot of rich-person-learning-to-live-in-the-real-world has been used many times before and after, but no one could bring out all the rich (no pun intended) possibilities as Buster. The Navigator would be Buster most profitable film and announced to the world that he was a director on the level of Chaplin and Lloyd.
10. Seven Chances (1925)
1920’s yuppie Jimmie Shannon is in a bind; his company needs to come up with cash .. a lot of it, or it’s jail. Fortunately, he is due to inherit seven million dollars ( a nice piece of change even today, but an astronomical amount in 1925) as long as he is married by seven o’clock on his 27th birthday … and guess what today is? You guessed it, Jimmie’s 27th birthday, but alas, he is not married! If this plot sounds rather un-Keaton like, it is, his brother-in-law Joseph Schenck purchased the play (which had a successful run on Broadway) for Keaton for $25,000 and left it to him to do something with it, which Buster does quite handily. The rest of the story revolves around Jimmie Shannon, young, handsome, gainfully employed, (after striking out by way of his clunky proposal to his one love, Mary) trying to get a girl, in a world that seems to be populated by only by liberated flappers – among others, to agree to marry him.
When a newspaper item lets it be known that he will inherit a huge amount of money if he marries, the women come out in droves. The ongoing chase of Jimmie, “The Running of the Brides” ( what one critic called “fifteen of the most athletic in film”) culminates with the hysterically thrilling avalanche scene where Jimmie must choose being crushed by rocks, or a mob of money-crazed women. If this plot sounds familiar, it was remade in 1999 with Chris O’Donnell to negative reviews and lukewarm public reception. If all you know is the 1999 version, do yourself a favor and see how a “Running of the Brides” should really be done!
11. The General (1926)
Okay, did you really think we wouldn’t mention this one! For those who have not seen it and only know it by reputation, definitely see it .. especially the new 4K scan version that is being released. The plot is about Johnnie Gray .. engineer on the Western & Atlantic Railroad. The Civil War breaks out and in a short time he is bereft of his two loves, his girl Annabelle Lee (played by Marion Mack) and his train, The General. The rest of the film deals with Johnnie efforts to get both of them back. In between is some of Buster’s best and most nuanced physical humor, the most famous is Buster sitting on the crossbar of the train as it pulls away ( which, like a lot of what he did in this film, was incredibly dangerous) and cinematic technique. Each shot has been compared to a Matthew Brady photograph; Keaton wanted realism “so much that it hurts”.
The shot the film is most famous for is the actual, not faked, actual crash of the locomotive The Texas across a burning bridge. It is a stunning shot, however, it’s known equally for it’s technical merit as much for it’s cost, $42,000 in 1926 money, making it the most expensive shot in a Silent Film. That shot, along with other mishaps, such as a forest fire created by the coals of The General skyrocketed the film’s budget. The General, has long been considered a flop at the time of it’s release. While not a runaway hit, it did fairly well, but distribution problems limiting the amount of theaters in which it could be shown and the high cost to make the film, made it more a financial flop than a popular one. Today, it is hailed as a masterpiece and it on every list as one of, if the, greatest films ever made.
12. Steamboat Bill Jr (1928)
The third in Buster’s “Southern Trilogy” and the last film Buster would make as an Independent Director before his disastrous move to MGM (more on that later), Steamboat Bill once again uses the “fish out of water” plot of William Canfield Jr raised by his mother in Boston and now, after graduating, (what we surmise to be college … or grad school) goes to River Junction, somewhere along the Mississippi River finally to meet his father. William Canfield Sr runs a paddleboat “The Stonewall Jackson” that, from all appearances, is not going to get any Yelp raves. Canfield Sr thinks that his son will be a strapping young man, whose brawn.. and brains can help turn his business around. Instead, Canfield Jr is an effete, urbane man with a beret and a ukulele (which was much hipper a thing in 1928) and is immediately dismissed as a useless “sissy”.
The rest of the film concerns itself with William Canfield Jr …aka Steamboat Bill Jr .. trying to prove to his father that there’s more to him that met the eye and he can save his business .. in his own way. Among the many great gags and stunts in this film is the famous Hurricane scene where Willie is caught outside and can’t seek shelter leading up to one of the most iconic and famous stunts in all film: the falling of a whole house facade,that saves Willie by the smallest of windows (Buster had only 3 inch clearance around him, most of his crew literally could not watch it being filmed.) which he passes through. While most still consider “The General” Buster’s masterpiece, “Steamboat Bill Jr” is gaining to at least a tie with that title.
13. The Cameraman (1928)
This was Buster’s first film after he decided to sign on to MGM; a decision that was pretty much forced upon him. His brother-in-law, Joseph Schenck, had financed all his films and had, more or less, left Buster to make his films his own way. Now, Schenck was divorcing Norma Taldmadge, sister of Buster’s wife, Natalie and I guess to make a clean break of it all, was not going to back Buster’s film. He was not going to leave Buster in the lurch and Schenck brokered what he felt to be a great deal: go to MGM.
On paper, it did look good, Buster would have a weekly salary of $3000, which he needed desperately, and all the tiresome details that goes with being your own boss would be handled by the studio. The only thing Buster wouldn’t have is control and input over his movies, and for this reason, the choice Buster made proved to be disastrous (later, he would admit it was the worse decision of his life). All this, however, was not immediately apparent.
During the making of The Cameraman, director Eddie Sedgwick allowed Buster to give input and make edits in the script. The result is a film that is still very much a “Keaton” film. The story, which would become the template for all Romantic Comedies to come, is of Buster, a sidewalk photographer who falls in love with Sally Richards who works a News Bureau (moving cameramen would go to newsworthy events and the film would be sold for the Newsreel that always went before the main movie). The rest deals with Buster trying to make good both in work and romance.
The plot zooms along, thanks to Buster’s editing of ridiculous side plots to it’s obligatory happy ending. Along the way are some great moments of improvisation by Buster. One is a solo baseball game at Yankee Stadium, the other is the hilarious and completely improvised Dressing Room Scene. Buster and burly Ed Brophy, neither wishing to give up a swimming pool changing room that they feel is theirs, try to get changed in what amounts to a telephone booth. The result can be summarized to “ten pounds of baloney in a five pound bag”.
14. Doughboys (1930)
In the two short years from The Cameraman to Doughboys, things had changed drastically with Buster and MGM. The “Era of Good Feeling” that had prevailed during the making of The Cameraman faded fast. In the wake, MGM had tried to tighten their control over Buster who struggled just as fiercely against it. In short, Louis Mayer saw Buster as just an actor and should not worry about scripts, casting and the plot. Just show up and do your lines, and in Buster’s case – pratfalls. This left Buster bored and immensely frustrated, both which would build up to the point that he began to drink heavily just to deal with it all.
Yet, at this point, with Eddie Sedgwick as the Director, there is still a lot of “Buster” in this film, often it is considered as “the last real Buster film”. Buster plays Elmer who through some misunderstandings, finds himself enlisted in the army ( a situation that Buster must have felt mirrored his experience at MGM). The rest of the story, derived from Buster’s real experiences in World War I, shows Buster at his best. This was aided by Sedgwick who was smart enough to know when working with Buster Keaton, all you have to do is plant the camera and wait for the magic and by Buster’s editing of the script from forced puns and wisecracks to a more natural flow of dialogue. The highlight of the film is Buster dancing in drag to a French Apache Dance.
15. Le Roi de Champs-Elysee (1934)
1933 had been a horrible year for Buster. His chronic drinking had developed into full blown alcoholism which played a part in his dismissal from MGM. In June, his dear friend Roscoe Arbuckle died, just when it looked like he was to make a comeback, and his marriage to Natalie Talmadge ended. By 1934, Buster looked to get back on track. He moved to Educational Films and his first short The Gold Ghost showed promise. Now, a chance to do a film, a good film, where he was allowed input and control. A film that would, to be blunt, allow him make a comeback. So, off to Paris traveled Buster and his new wife/ex nurse Mae Scrivens to get his career back on track. His efforts, would bring missed results.
The plot, which was hackneyed even by 1934, is of Buster Garnier ( played by Buster) a likable, working class, guy who is the exact double of local tough guy “Scarface Jim”. Of course, Buster ends up at the gangster lair when he is mistaken as “Scarface” … but forget the plot, it is Keaton that is memorable. Even though he was, as one online reviewer noted, “hobbled by alcoholism and depression”, Keaton still puts in a solid, entertaining, performance with some of his cleverest gags. The film, however, is far from perfect, the first is that for some unknown reason, they dubbed Buster’s voice! It’s not as if he was unable to learn the script phonetically, he had done that at MGM for all their seemingly unending foreign versions of his films ( a common procedure during the early days of sound), and thus could have done it quite nicely. Instead, his voice is dubbed by this strange, somewhat strangled tenor voice that is no way similar to his light baritone growl.
Buster does get two words in: one time he says “ouvrez le port” in his own Kansas twang and in another scene, he asks, in English “Get me a drink”. Despite Keaton’s hopes for this film to bolster his career, it was never released in the United States, and critics and fans alike argue if ultimately it would have helped or hurt him even more. If you want to see this film, one warning, any version available is in French .. with no subtitles, but that really isn’t a problem. The play, here, is not the thing .. it’s Buster, and the strength of his acting and pantomime skills move the story along nicely, even if you’re not sure what’s being said. A final note of interest: one of the Producers of this film was Robert Siodmak, who would go on to direct gothic thrillers and film noirs such as The Spiral Staircase and The Killers.
After reading this list, it maybe easy to assume, what many have: that after his days of film ended, Buster, now sober and married to the love of his life, Eleanor Norris, spent the rest of his days puttering around his Woodland Hills home, thinking wistfully of the “good old days”.
Nothing can be further from the truth. Buster from his childhood days in Vaudeville, until the end of his life worked. In the last 20 or so years of Buster’s life, until his death in 1966, Buster was everywhere. He did TV – dramas, comedy and commercials, Broadway, The Cirque Medrano in Paris, print ads, and films.
The films of his later life run the gamut from the “Beach Blanket” series, to the 1965 avant-garde Film by Samuel Beckett, his small, but memorable part as Erronious in Richard Lester’s 1966 film version of Sondheim’s A Funny Thing Happened to Me on the Way to the Forum, cameos in Around the World in Eighty Days (1956) and It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) to finally, his best work on film in his later years, Gerald Potterton’s Canadian Film Short, The Railrodder (1965) which should be followed up by the documentary of the film’s creation, Buster Rides Again, noted for containing what many think is the only footage showing Buster Keaton working as a Director.
Buster Keaton died February 1, 1966. Although many of his films from the Silent Era would be discovered and shown to a new generation of fans, he did not go completely unrecognized in his own time. In 1960, he received a Special Oscar “for his unique talents which bought immortal comedies to the screen”, the same year he got two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, one for film, one for Television.
The most telling of how much the world loved Buster Keaton was in 1965 at the Venice Film Festival. At Buster’s appearance, the audience gave him a standing ovation, that went on from anywhere from 5 to 10 minutes, accompanied by shouts of “Caro Buster.” Ever modest, the teary eye Buster’s response was “This is the first film festival I’ve been invited to; but I hope it won’t be the last.” It wasn’t, today Buster is just, if not more popular than ever. Revivals of his films are met with packed houses who still find his films, funny, thrilling and just downright entertaining.
Author Bio: Georgette is a College Professor,Lecturer, Author and All-Around Cinema-Nut. Her love of Buster Keaton started at age 11 when she saw The General on Public TV. is a proud “Damfino” .. a member of the International Buster Keaton Society and helps to spread the appreciation of not just Buster, but all silent films as the curator of a Silent Film Series at The Rosendale Theatre Collective in Ulster County, NY.