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Buster Keaton: Defying Gravity
I’m nuts about Buster Keaton. I like Charlie Chaplin, but I’m nuts about Keaton. Classic movie buffs tend to like one better than the other, but I'm sure there’s room for both.
In the 1970s, Public Broadcasting aired a series of silent movies. I was in high school at the time. We had three channels to choose from, a CBS affiliate, an NBC affiliate, and WNMU, Northern Michigan University’s Public Broadcasting station.
Around the Christmas holidays, on a cold, snowy afternoon and full of turkey sandwiches, my brother, Steve and I sat down in front of the TV and watched Buster Keaton in College . The picture was grainy and it had an annoyingly generic organ music soundtrack, but Buster himself, through the fuzz, was a discovery worthy of Columbus. I’m not sure I’ve ever laughed as much with my brother. By the time Buster attempted the hammer throw, I was actually in pain.
College (1927) is a movie about a high school brainiac named Ronald who wins the allegiance of every teacher and the odium of every athlete he knows, by giving a high school valedictory speech about the merits of scholastics and the evils of athletics. Even his girlfriend, Mary deserts him because of it. So he sets out to win her back by enrolling in the same college that she and all those really pissed off jocks are attending. Scholastic achievement is not his aim this time. He is going to earn her respect by excelling at sports. That is the entire premise of the movie.
The first part of the movie shows him failing hilariously at everything he tries. When he attempts to play baseball, he can only get to first base by catching a fastball in the butt. Trying to jump hurdles, he manages to knock every one of them over except the last. He has to take such a long running start for the high jump that he’s just a speck at the center of the picture and by the time he’s close enough to jump, the high bar has fallen off the posts and the whole arduous process has to begin again. The pole vault looks promising until he actually vaults. After the pole is staked into the ground, he realizes he‘s holding it in the middle and frantically attempts to climb up to the end of it. The other jocks are enjoying this spectacle until the aforementioned hammer throw. He hoists up the heavy metal ball attached to a chain, considers his options, and starts hurling the thing around him in circles. Of course, he’s not much heavier than the hammer ball itself and physics takes its inevitable (and side-splittingly funny) course. The centrifugal forces and momentum hurl his wiry little body around the track field, disbursing his jeering audience like turkeys at a turkey shoot. Eventually the hammer throws him and he goes on to the next sport.
In the second half of the film, Mary is being held against her will by an evil athlete with the implication of a “fate worse than death” hanging in the balance. When Ronald finds out that she is in danger, he dashes off to save her. In the process of rescuing her, he successfully utilizes a version of every sport and sporting implement he had so miserably failed with in the first half of the movie. He excels at every single event as he heroically rescues the love of his life.
He is redeemed in the eyes of his love as well as in the eyes of the athletes . . . a happy ending. Organ music swells, camera iris shrinks around the happy couple, fade to black . . .
In 1926, Buster had been given carte blanche by his producer (and brother-in-law) Joe Schenk to make The General. The General is generally considered to be Buster’s masterpiece, but it was terribly expensive to make and it failed to produce the box office returns that its cost required. Schenk insisted that his next film be less expensive and more formulaic, hence College. It is not a great movie. But that didn’t show in Buster’s performance. His athleticism in this movie is so controlled and specific that he is as much a wonder in it when he is a dreadful athlete in the beginning as when he hits his stride as a splendid athlete in the end. And even if the plot is derivative, i.e. boy has girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl, there is no other actor in Hollywood even now, who could make this movie without computer animation or stunt doubles. And then it would lack the spirit that always comes with a Buster Keaton film: love. He loved what he did, and it reads.
Chaplin’s films were always entertaining and his exquisite physicality was always there, but he also leaned on his audiences. He demanded sympathy rather than commanded it. And in his talkies, he was downright didactic. Chaplin’s ego, albeit an earned ego, is always haunting his films.
Technically, Buster has him beat as well. Chaplin didn’t exploit the medium visually at anywhere near the level that Buster did. Buster's 1921 short film, The Playhouse is technically breathtaking. Utilizing a commonly used split-screen technology of that time, he stretched it to its limits by splitting the screen nine times. He played every role in the film: the vaudeville troupe, the orchestra, even the audience.
In Sherlock Jr. from 1924, Buster plays a movie projectionist who wants to be a private detective. Bored with running the same movie over and over, he falls asleep and dreams that he is in the movie he’s showing. Buster remains in the shot as the scenes of the movie change. When the scene changes from the front door of a home to a busy street, Buster is dropped into traffic. From the street scene he is suddenly dropped onto a rock in the ocean waves. Buster achieved the trick by photographing a proscenium stage dressed to look like a movie screen for some scenes and using actual footage for others.
Buster trusted his art and let his silent films speak. He may have been The Great Stoneface, but he communicated as much emotion with a crooked eyebrow as Chaplin did with extreme close-ups of his lugubrious eyes.I feel nothing but sympathy for Buster's characters. Chaplin at his best is Chaplin unaware of himself. But that doesn’t happen terribly often in his movies.
Buster was only an auteur in the Silent Era. He was given complete control of his pictures, but when that didn’t pay off in ticket sales, that control was taken away. And Buster – as is true of Chaplin -- was such a singular entertainer that no one else could do justice to his talent. The movies he made after signing with MGM at the dawn of talking pictures are pedestrian-to-awful, especially when you compare them to the body of silent work that he produced. He eventually ended up as a straight man to Jimmy Durante . . . what a waste of talent! And it probably was a catalyst for his excessive drinking to escalate to full-blown alcoholism. One day, hung over and extremely unhappy with the material he was given to play, Buster walked away from the set after one take. He never came back! Consequently, he lost his MGM contract.
In 1952, Chaplin produced, directed and starred in Limelight. He hired Buster to do a scene with him in the movie. They were both music hall stars doing a routine with Buster as a fusty and affected concert pianist and Charlie as a fusty and affected violinist. (It takes a very long time to tune their instruments.) Buster placed his music on the stand, played one chord and a waterfall of sheet music poured into his lap. It is a charming set piece and the one and only chance to see the two silent screen geniuses together. They complement each other rather nicely.
It was inevitable that his work would eventually be rediscovered and it’s a comfort to know that he was still around when a European Keaton renaissance kicked in in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He swallowed his fear of crowds and appeared at several of the film festivals that celebrated his work. By that time he was married for a third, final and by all accounts, happy time. He had remarried after his divorce from Natalie Talmadge in which he'd lost the parental rights to his two sons. (Natalie even had their last name legally changed to Talmadge!) Buster claimed to not even remember marrying his second wife, Mae Scriven and the union was doomed to end quickly. (It did). At a very low ebb, Buster met a dancer named Eleanor Norris. Both fell deeply in love despite a twenty-year age difference. This happy coupling inspired Buster to quit drinking. They stayed together until his death in 1965.
Belatedly, Hollywood finally showed interest in Buster as well as in his body of work and he was hired to play some small rolls in bad movies like Beach Blanket Bingo and Pajama Party. Though his career withered and died, Buster showed no signs of bitterness.
However, I feel a little bitter.
We can only imagine what he might have accomplished with the right support from the studios. But long live silent films! In silent films Buster is in a class by himself.
Who do you like better in silent films, Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton?
A Buster Keaton Gallery: