I’m a huge Buster Keaton fan. He’s one of the three “B” cultural loves of my life, the others being baseball and the Beatles. I consider Keaton to be the greatest talent in film history (since he was a superb director, producer, cinematographer, screenwriter, actor, set engineer, and stuntman—no other Hollywood auteurs were great in so many critical categories). Keaton makes you laugh and makes you think. Without the benefit of special effects, he will make you scratch your head in wonder, perhaps even saying out loud, “Wow, how did he do that?” But his films can be poignant as well. Keaton’s 1926 masterpiece The General—widely considered one of the greatest films of all time—does all of these things. Somehow it manages to be an engaging narrative, rollicking adventure, hysterical comedy, and emotionally compelling.
Keaton’s deep influence on entertainers from Lucille Ball, Dick Van Dyke, Jerry Lewis, and Red Skelton to Richard Lewis and Jackie Chan is a testament to the power of his art. Actor Jim Carrey, also a huge fan, has said about Keaton, “What a creative genius—what an inventor… A guy like that, you just sit back and say, okay, I’ll never get there.” So if you’re into film history at all, that should be motivation enough to look into his work. And if you’re not into film history but just like to be entertained, then Keaton’s comic ingenuity will more than do the trick.
I recommend starting with a few early Keaton shorts:
- Neighbors — That’s Keaton’s real dad playing his father. Keaton’s parents were Vaudevillians, and they got him into the act at age three. When Keaton turned to film in his 20s, his dad was skeptical. But as the film industry took off, he was persuaded.
- Cops — An early Keaton classic depicting how small turns of events can mount into cataclysmic disasters.
- The Boat — The boat in the film is named “Damfino,” which is where the International Buster Keaton Society gets its name.
- Electric House — Even a century later this little film remains a powerful commentary on modern technology.
And here are some features:
- Our Hospitality — Check out the famous waterfall scene at the end—you’ll replay this several times, I’m sure.
- Sherlock Junior — The “special effects” in this one were revolutionary.
- The General — Here is the AFI’s top 100 films list with The General listed at #18.
- Steamboat Bill Jr. — Note the famous, life-risking falling façade scene at the 59.00 minute mark. How many Hollywood stars literally risk their lives for the sake of their art these days? Not that I’m recommending this, of course.
The shorts are only 10-20 minutes each, which is not a serious time commitment. And the features are, by today’s standards, also pretty short—usually 60-70 minutes. So it’s not too time-consuming to dig deeply into the Keaton catalogue. I should add that all my kids love Keaton films. So that’s something to keep in mind as well—it makes for good family entertainment and a great way to build your kids’ understanding of film and its history.
- For a short biographical piece on Keaton, check out Chris Wood’s The Lyric Poet of the Silent Screen.
- Check out this post on the Keaton vs Chaplin debate. Like me, the author prefers Keaton.
- Also, some of the Wikiquotes on Keaton are interesting.