Saturday, August 25, 2007

Buster Keaton

To me the greatest of the early silent film comedians is Buster Keaton. Yes, Chaplin is brilliant and Lloyd is terrific, but Keaton gets to me in a way the others don't. One reason for this, I think, is his on screen persona. His character was always caught up in the events around him with absolutely no control. The train leaves without him, his mother-in-law moves in to his house, he single handedly has to save the Union in the Civil War. He rarely gets the girl. The Simpsons writers knew what they were doing when they replaced Keaton's star on The Hollywood walk of Fame with Troy McClure's. It is a classic Keaton move.

Another reason I appreciate Keaton so much is how he understood the medium of film perhaps better than others. The is a story, true or not I do not know, that when he first met Fatty Arbuckle he asked to take a camera home. Keaton took the camera to his hotel dismantled it reassembled it. The next day he came to Arbuckle's set and asked for work as a cameraman as was hired. This tells me Keaton really wanted to understand the tools he had to work with and how to use them to his comedic advantage.

Many of my favorite Keaton moments involve filmmaking. In The Cameraman Keaton plays a news reel cameraman down on his luck- chasing fire trucks on their way BACK to the station and the like. In Sherlock Jr. he is a projectionist who dreams about being in films. His dream life is better than his real life.

Like most geniuses Keaton was a risk taker. He put himself in harms way by doing his own stunts. He cracked his skull once falling from a water tower onto a railroad track (it makes the cut if the film). He could have been killed by the house blowing over scene where the open window falls around him, but he did these gags because he knew the audience would identify with his character.

My favorite Keaton gag is from My Wife's Relations. He is given a portable house to build by his in-laws. And, much like me, he cannot hammer two boards together. The resulting house is a mess of bizarre angles. When it comes time to move the house, the car towing the house gets stopped as the house is on the train tracks. A train approaches, Keaton gets out and pushes with all his might and gets the house across the tracks just as the train passes. Whew! Beat, Beat. A train from the other direction comes and destroys the house. It's great bit of visual comedy done no justice here.



Anonymous said...

Ah, Buster Keaton. You're preachin' to the choir here, Peter. I saw The General in History of Cinema, and I ran into Buster's arms. Charlie who?

Plus, I like a guy who'll choke a girl when she needs it.


Anonymous said...

Actually, Buster and his bride build their pre-fab house in Keaton's first (1920) 2-reeler, "One Week," and it is a wedding gift from his Uncle Mike, not his in-laws. "His Wife's Relations" was about an accidental marriage (an Irish woman takes Buster before a Polish judge for breaking a window, and the judge, who speaks no English, thinks that they are there for a wedding). She then takes him home to her father and four brothers.

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