I’m a long-time fan of Buster Keaton—the “great stone face” of the silent movie era, who churned out classic after classic film throughout the 1920s. Because of his multifaceted brilliance as a screenwriter, director, actor, comedian, engineer, and even acrobat, I consider him to be not only the greatest talent of his time (yes, even exceeding Charlie Chaplain) but the greatest overall talent in film history. Think that’s an overstatement? Check out some of his films, and I expect you’ll become a fan and, if you see enough of them, perhaps even agree with my assessment.
As I have been building my personal collection of Keaton films, I’ve become increasingly interested in Keaton the man. So this summer I read a Keaton biography: Keaton (Macmillan, 1966) by Rudi Blesh. This was the first Keaton bio, written by a man who knew Keaton personally and closely consulted him while writing the book. Unlike most celebrity bios of our time, which tend to be gossipy and voyeuristic, Blesh’s account focuses on Keaton as an artist. Another refreshing contrast is Blesh’s prose, full of human insight and sometimes deliciously poetic. Here’s a representative excerpt describing Keaton’s unique moment in Hollywood history:
“It was a time of unabashed hero (and heroine) worship. Babe Ruth, in fact—and even Lindbergh—got only the edges of it. The full treatment went to the movies and to movie stars, the actors and—most particularly—the actresses. Not merely distance but silence compounded by magic. Hollywood was Valhalla or an Olympus, a silver-screen abode with goddesses living apart behind a wall of silence. Their beautiful bodies were ethereal yet real, their lips framed soundless words on a wavelength we could not hear, their gestures stirred a different air, their noble remoteness called us to worship” (p. 104).
The irony is that Keaton had no interest in worship, nor even celebrity and its trappings. In the end, he was interested in just one thing: his art. And his output demonstrates this. Keaton’s film work included 34 shorts from 1917 to 1923 and 15 full-length features from 1923 to 1929. This was the golden age of Keaton, during which he produced such classics as Our Hospitality (1923), Sherlock Jr. (1924), The Navigator (1924), and The General (1927), the latter commonly regarded as one of the finest films ever made. Keaton rightly became an international phenomenon, and he was destined to be a lasting influence in film history, on comedic stars from Jerry Lewis to Jim Carrey.
Blesh puts it as follows: “His technical and artistic innovations have enriched the cinema. His native genius for physical action no one else, not even Fairbanks, has ever approached. His pantomime places him with Chaplin alone. The depth, irony, and mordant vision of his comedy are all but unique. It bids fair to be timeless. Even Chaplin had a dozen imitators, but Keaton’s characterization was so wholly his own that no one ever tried to copy it. His was the only unsmiling mask. The term ‘genius’ fits Buster Keaton as it fits Charles Chaplin, with no seams to take in” (p. 363).
To see a Keaton film is to immediately understand why the man had no imitators. In short, it was too dangerous to imitate him. Keaton routinely took physical risks in his films, even endangering his life on a few occasions, such as in the famous scene in Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928) in which the two-ton façade of a building falls upon him, or rather around him, as Keaton is narrowly missed, thanks to the second story window through which he emerges in the rubble, amazingly unscathed. Like so many scenes in Keaton films, it is breathtaking. And, as I like to remind my kids—and now they remind me—it was all done without CGI, using only the most rudimentary special effects.
Even if you are not a film buff, you owe it to yourself to check out Keaton’s movies. If you are a film buff and take a serious interest in film history, well, then its mandatory. Be warned. Keaton films are addictive, and you might find yourself, as I have, sparing no expense to build your collection (and I am not one to purchase DVDs). But be assured—great viewing pleasure awaits you, and your thoughts about the art of film and its history will be permanently changed.