Buster Keaton was born 118 years ago today. Earlier this year, the Siren was asked by The Baffler to write about the 14-disc Kino Blu-Ray set of Keaton's films. The Baffler is an excellent magazine of arts and criticism, published three times a year out of Cambridge, Mass., and the Siren is proud to be appearing in its pages. You can subscribe here. As of today, Keaton's birthday, the Siren's complete essay is online and can be read at The Baffler's website. What follows is an excerpt.
Spending so much time with Buster, getting reacquainted with his genius and spirit, has been an extraordinary thing. The Siren admits now that when she says she loves Buster Keaton, she doesn't really mean it metaphorically.
The most iconic Keaton stance, according to Walter Kerr in The Silent Clowns, shows Buster in thought: body tilted straight forward about forty-five degrees, one hand acting as a visor while he scopes out what’s ahead. True indeed, but there’s another essential posture, the head-scratch, also deployed when data must be assessed and decisions made.
That gesture reaches apotheosis in Seven Chances (1925), which has Buster as a financial hotshot whose firm’s in hot water. He discovers that if he marries by 7 p.m. that very day, he’ll inherit $7 million that will keep him out of prison. (Wall Street denizens who fear prison also appear in The Saphead. This plot point has dated more than anything else in the set.) Buster’s overhelpful friend has put an ad in the paper, resulting in hundreds of women in improvised veils showing up at the chapel. When Buster leaves in a panic, they gallop after him, their flying veils making them look uncannily like extras from DeMille’s silent version of The Ten Commandments. This vengeful Biblical horde chases Buster down a hill, where he dislodges some rocks, and then some more.
And so, faced with an army of would-be brides charging at him from one direction and a quarry’s worth of giant rocks rolling downhill from another, Buster stops for a moment, and his hand starts scratching his scalp. This sort of lady-or-the-boulder choice cannot be made on the fly.
Story I read was that the "Seven Chances" avalanche was not planned. In the beginning, Buster saw a few rocks dislodged and then planned the whole sequence which may have required reshoots.
Buster was great until the end, including "The Railrodder," a promotional short he did for the Canadian Railroad where he travels across the continent on a one person rail maintenance vehicle. He did his own stunts on that one too.
When asked what he would have been if he hadn't been an actor, Buster would say "An engineer" and you can see that mechanically practical mind at work in the kitchen scene in "The Navigator" or "The Electric House" (which I believe might have been based on Edison's and Ford's plans for autonomous homes powered by backyard windmills and basement cogenerators).
And, Gawd, he was a beautiful man.
Part of my cinema education was seeing virtually everything at a Keaton retrospective at the Elgin Theater.
Of course not as good as the original, but Tsui Hark did a cute role reversal inspired by Seven Chances with the bride pursued by prospective grooms in All about Women.
Peter, that makes me think about what makes some borrowings seem presumptuous, while others are like "FABULOUS! YOU LOVED THAT TOO!"
I think it's "Project A" where Jackie Chan recreates the house collapse gag in "Steamboat Bill Jr."
I don't have a clear memory of seeing a Buster Keaton film from his heyday, but I've seen him as one of the sad 'Waxworks' in Sunset Boulevard (the movie) and on What's My Line, from the 1950's. (That show is like going back in a time capsule!) His wife, Natalie Talmadge (I think) dumped him when his career went into eclipse, and his already horrendous drinking escalated. I've read the description, "slowly and painfully crushed by Hollywood." There were some nasty studio politics at work, taking away his creative control about the time the movies began talking. Wasn't Joseph Schenk, Norma Talmadge's husband, his brother-in-law and also one of the most powerful men in The Industry? Or did Keaton have an enemy there? It has taken so long for his artistry to be appreciated. I want to see some of his early work. I wonder if he was the main inspiration for the main character in "The Artist?"
The myth of the unsmiling Keaton is apparently just that -- a myth. I don't recall where I've read that the Great Frozen Face breaks into a smile in Fatty Arbuckle's 'Coney Island,' which I've never seen. Apparently Buster remained stoic in all of his films for a good, comedic reason. Here's a quote from his autobiography, 'My Wonderful World of Slapstick,' written with Charles Samuels: "Before I was much bigger than a gumdrop I was being featured in our (the Keaton family) act, The Three Keatons, as "The Human Mop." One of the first things I noticed was that whenever I smiled or let the audience suspect how much I was enjoying myself they didn't seem to laugh as much as usual.
I guess people just never do expect a human mop, dishrag, beanbag, or football to be pleased by what is being done to him. At any rate it was on purpose that I started looking miserable, humiliated, hounded, and haunted, bedeviled, bewildered, and at my wit's end. Some other comedians can get away with laughing at their own gags. Not me. The public just will not stand for it. And that is all right with me. All of my life I have been happiest when the folks watching me said to each other, Look at the poor dope, wilya?"
Thus the famous deadpan.
MAS, that's right, he smiles in Coney Island and several other Arbuckle shorts; in fact, he bursts into a belly-laugh in CI. But he doesn't smile in these Kino films! Which doesn't mean you don't see joy in that face, all the same.
I just watched Cops again, and it's totally brilliant. I have to say I prefer the shorts to the features, but Sherlock, Jr. is amazing.
A few years ago I was at a Keaton tribute, and one of his friends talked about the Great Stone Face. He said that when he and Keaton were hanging out with friends, Keaton laughed as much as anybody else. But if someone appeared with a camera, Keaton stopped laughing immediately. Apparently he was so conscious of his image that he didn't want any photos out there that would contradict his screen persona.
Arbuckle and Keaton really enjoyed each other. Keaton, if I recall correctly, was at the ill-fated party in SF that started all the troubles for Arbuckle, a brilliant comedian in his own right.
Both of them were incredibly graceful and athletic.
I believe Buster was invited to rhe party, but he decided not to attend.
Anyway, nice to see Buster getting the love he deserves!
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