From The Archive
Farran Nehme
No. 23  August 2013

Smile, Buster!

  

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The Ultimate Buster Keaton Collection Kino, Blu-ray box set, fourteen discs, $299.95

Early in 1917 Buster Keaton left the vaudeville act he’d been performing with his parents since he was a toddler. Joseph Keaton would toss his acrobatic young son over furniture, into backdrops, and on at least one memorable occasion, right into a group of hecklers. Buster had enjoyed himself for years, but his father’s drinking steadily worsened; keeping a straight face while being thrown around by an unpredictable alcoholic was no way to earn a living.

Keaton was twenty-one and a star on the circuit, but canny enough to see his future in the flickers. Already in 1917, motion pictures were an industry, with studios like Paramount and Fox up and running; already great artists were at work in the United States, including D. W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille. So when he was asked years later about this momentous decision, Keaton never touted his own foresight or described the movies as a chance for vaster stardom. He maintained that the possibilities of film itself had been inducement enough. “The making of a motion picture started to fascinate me immediately,” he told film historian Kevin Brownlow, “so I stuck with them.” Keaton often said one of his first acts was to take a camera apart.

With Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Keaton made two-reel comedies, taking steadily more responsibility until World War I intervened. After army service in France that was mostly behind the lines, and probably not as dangerous as his vaudeville act, he returned to work with Arbuckle. The apprenticeship lasted less than three years—all the prep Keaton needed to grow into one of the most dazzling comic filmmakers of all time. In 1919, producing mogul Joe Schenck (who later became Keaton’s brother-in-law) gave the comic his own studio.

The nineteen shorts and eight features that Keaton wrote, directed, and starred in from 1920 to 1928 are included in Kino Lorber’s new fourteen-disc Blu-ray set, The Ultimate Buster Keaton Collection. Also included are The Saphead (1920), Keaton’s first lead in a feature, and Lost Keaton, sixteen talkie shorts that Buster made at the cut-rate Educational Pictures in the mid-1930s. In addition to the lustrous detail of Blu-ray transfers, there’s a feast of extras: audio commentaries; still galleries and location tours; part of Man’s Genesis, a D. W. Griffith misfire sent up by Keaton’s Three Ages (1923); a shot-by-shot deconstruction of the waterfall finale in Our Hospitality (1923) that nearly drowned Keaton; so-called enhanced digital versions; and on and on.

But look, it only seems overwhelming. I can happily report that with early rising and a family willing to order takeout, the whole thing can be devoured in a matter of days.

Admittedly, watching the movies in big indulgent sessions is exactly what one Keaton expert advised against back in 1995, when Kino put out the shorts and features on VHS. David Shepard, who supervised that set, told viewers to take their time: “If you see three in a row, the third seems ho-hum, even though it may be the best of the bunch.”

I kept waiting for a movie to seem ho-hum, but no such moment occurred. Somewhere in the middle of the two-reel shorts that make up the first three discs—perhaps between Buster in The Paleface (1922), being burned at the stake and mournfully puffing at the fire as you would a match, and Buster running from all the uniforms and nightsticks in the world in Cops (1922)—I knew I was going to ignore Shepard’s advice. I suppose I lack self-discipline.

What makes Keaton so absorbing to watch after all these years? For starters, he may well have been the most athletic comic of all time. He did his own stunts; he even did other actors’ stunts. Only action stars such as Douglas Fairbanks Sr. (or, in our own day, Tom Cruise dangling off the Burj Khalifa) come to mind as daredevil peers. Keaton’s pratfalls are spectacular—spins, somersaults, dives that would look painful going into a swimming pool, never mind solid ground.

In a film era heavily dependent on eyes, Buster had the best: dark, wide-spaced, heavy-lidded.

But it was the face that enraptured me. Keaton was “one of the most beautiful people that was ever photographed,” says Orson Welles in a PBS intro to The General that’s also included as an extra. In a film era heavily dependent on eyes, Buster had the best: dark, wide-spaced, heavy-lidded. And no, he doesn’t smile, a fact that by 1925 becomes the best gag in Go West, when a menacing cowboy snarls out (via intertitle), “Smile when you say that.” Buster gives the command a couple of seconds of mildly panicked consideration, and then responds by pushing two fingers on the corners of his mouth. Neither romance nor worldly triumph brings a smile, and no amount of disaster causes a frown.

Yet it’s soon apparent that the Great Stone Face isn’t nearly as immobile as alleged. That flat hat stays smushed on his head as often as perpetual calamity will permit, but under it is a kaleidoscope of expressions, executed in tiny shifts. The whole head moves when he’s trying to explain a predicament to an indifferent world, as in the 1921 short The Goat. The eyes glide left and right when he’s noticing or elaborately Not Noticing a pretty girl, or at any time subterfuge is needed. In Sherlock Jr. (1924), he presents Kathryn McGuire with a box of candy on which, with two pencil strokes, he’s marked up the price to $4 instead of $1. As he sits on the sofa with her, that superb side-eye gets a big workout until, still facing forward, he reaches one arm to flip the box so the price shows.

The eyes widen and the bottom jaw moves slightly lower when, in Battling Butler (1926), Buster’s pampered rich kid realizes the country gal he adores thinks he’s a fearsome prizefighter. The eyelids descend and the cheeks suck in a mere fraction with Buster’s quickened breath when, in the 1921 short The Haunted House, a lovely young woman leans in to ask a favor. In 1928’s Steamboat Bill Jr. the face gets even softer and dreamier as he takes a big whiff of his dream girl’s hair. No “doughnut hole” (a rough translation of his French nickname) ever held such romance.

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.

Buster would rather pause and take a beat to make a decision, but life seldom permits that because Buster is always on the run: from Neighbors (1920), from The Haunted House, from a girl’s father in The Scarecrow (1920), from Cops, from a girl’s father who’s a cop in The Goat. At least in Seven Chances the humans chasing him have an authentic personal grievance. How much more often is Buster being chased due to a misunderstanding—merciless authority answering “Why me?” with “Why not?”

In Cops, Buster’s attempts to coax the horse pulling his overloaded wagon land him in the middle of a policemen’s parade, where he’s mistaken for a bomb-tossing anarchist. By the hundreds, they chase Buster. (“Get some cops to protect our policemen,” reads the intertitle—that one hasn’t dated at all.) When he clambers up a ladder to get over a fence, the ladder tilts off the ground and is caught by one set of pursuing cops. Before he can make it off the ladder, the opposite end is also grasped by cops, and as the ladder see-saws back and forth, for a moment Buster rests in the middle, perfectly balanced between two equally lousy alternatives.

No wonder Buster had to think so hard; events besieging him were so often out of his sight, and remained there. The Navigator (1924) finds Buster as an heir trapped on an empty ocean liner with Kathryn McGuire, the girl who just rejected him. One sequence, almost as exquisite as The General, has the couple fumbling around the ship in the dead of night, like children playing in a deserted house. They survive for weeks and eventually run aground off a cannibal island—but they never discover that the ship had been abandoned and set adrift by a foreign government’s spooks, to gain an advantage in a Great Game that’s never shown.

Even objects conspired against Keaton; an escalator becomes a slide, a car disintegrates when it hits a ditch. In The General (1926), at last he gets some mechanical cooperation, as his racing legs are largely replaced by the trains. Here the dispassionate force assailing Buster becomes much larger: war. The General is regarded as his masterpiece not because it’s Keaton’s funniest film—it isn’t—but because of the supremely gorgeous Civil War visuals, “within hailing distance of Mathew Brady,” wrote James Agee, and sometimes a good deal closer than that. Buster’s Confederate engineer engages in a protracted race with the Union men who have stolen his engine and want to torch supply lines. As he gives chase, he chops wood to feed the engine with such fierce attention that first one army and then the other passes behind him unobserved. It’s a moment that combines wit, pictorial magnificence, and melancholy—the essence of what made later viewers embrace The General though its own era did not.

As the ladder see-saws back and forth, for a moment Buster rests in the middle, perfectly balanced between two equally lousy alternatives.

Steamboat Bill Jr., the final feature in the set, sets Buster against the most implacable force of all, nature, with an enormous windstorm as its finale. It is this film that has the most famous and perilous shot in all of Keaton, where the front of a house falls and fails to crush him only because he’s standing in the hole made by one tiny window. When the wall drops, he is, of course, standing there scratching his head.

So what does Buster do upon finding himself surrounded by a housefront where no housefront should be? He very sensibly runs like hell. Moments before, confined to a hospital bed for various reasons of plot, he’d reacted with equal good judgment to the wind pulling the hospital off its foundations. Buster springs up, perceives that somehow the entire building has taken a powder, jumps back into bed, and pulls the covers over his head. It’s a reaction entrancing in the purity of its logic, the sense beyond common sense that underpins Buster World.

Like The General, Steamboat Bill Jr. failed to turn a profit. In 1928 Joe Schenck persuaded Keaton to accept the sale of his contract to MGM. A less propitious match could hardly be imagined, unless it was Keaton’s marriage to Natalie Talmadge, which was already disintegrating with spectacular acrimony. At MGM he made two more silents, not part of the Kino set. One, The Cameraman (1928), is his last masterpiece; the other, Spite Marriage (1929), is good. But as far as MGM was concerned, they’d bought themselves another comic, not a filmmaker. And now that talkies were here, comics had better adapt to the yappy house style, but quick.

He adapted to MGM and divorce by drinking, often to the point of blackout. Keaton drifted downward—through a handful of films with Jimmy Durante that are not to be viewed without a shudder, to two films in Europe, and then to fast-and-cheap Educational Pictures, where he made his own films for almost the last time.

The Educational shorts, collected by Kino as Lost Keaton, have charms; most are funny, and Keaton’s twangy Midwestern baritone suited him, at least once he was past forty. Something like Grand Slam Opera from 1936 (with One Run Elmer, reportedly almost the only Educational short that Keaton had a good word for) still shows genius. Lodged in a rooming house while he attempts to win a talent contest, Keaton tries out steps in imitation of “Fred Alstare.” The room is so tiny that he must do this on the desk and the mantel, in a routine that foreshadows Astaire dancing on the ceiling in Royal Wedding by fifteen years.

Still, it hurts to see Keaton, who scant years before had a vast oceangoing boat to roam over, railroads to run, and buildings to blow down, with such skimpy resources. The three-walled sets are as flimsy as flats from a high school musical, and Buster now destroys props that seem made of plywood and moustache wax. Even his name—“Elmer,” a bright idea from MGM that unfortunately stuck—diminishes him. He was almost always namelessly understood to be “Buster,” with a handful of glorious exceptions like “Johnnie Gray” in The General.

Keaton dried out after 1935 and married Eleanor Norris in 1940. If moving to MGM was, as he often remarked, the worst decision he ever made, his union with the former MGM dancer was the best. MGM seemed to haunt him; eventually Keaton wound up back there as a $100-a-week gag man. By 1950 he was landing occasional roles and not doing too badly. Still, Gloria Swanson claimed that Keaton came on set for Sunset Boulevard, looked at fellow silent veterans assembled for the ghoulish bridge scene, and cracked, “Waxworks is right.” Like many fallen stars, he internalized Hollywood’s injustice.

But revival was stirring as early as 1949, when James Agee published “Comedy’s Greatest Era” in Life magazine and included eight of the best paragraphs ever written on Keaton. He did television work, sometimes echoing old routines and sometimes launching new ones. The 1957 film The Buster Keaton Story with Donald O’Connor was nothing of the sort, but it did give Keaton the means to buy a house. A 1962 retrospective played to packed houses in Paris, and afterward Keaton toured through West Germany with The General.

At the Venice Film Festival, five months before his death in 1966, Keaton attended a tribute. The acquisitive, litigious film collector Raymond Rohauer had earned his idol’s friendship and everyone else’s eternal gratitude by preserving every scrap of Keaton film he could find. Rohauer persuaded the diffident Buster to attend by telling him they had a routine meeting. When the doors swung open, hundreds stood and cheered, the longest ovation in the festival’s history. Keaton the director would have hooted down the scene as sappy; the Great Stone Face would have scratched his head. Keaton the man stood with tears in his eyes, “the only time,” said Rohauer, “I ever saw his emotion.”

“At least he died in a blaze of glory,” wrote Kevin Brownlow, the film historian. The life’s bittersweet arc feels familiar. Keaton told Brownlow that his films required a good start, but “we never paid any attention to the middle. We immediately went to the finish. . . . For some reason, the middle always took care of itself.”

Farran Nehme writes about classic Hollywood film at her blog, Self-Styled Siren.

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