If I found the choice between Lillian Gish and Maria Falconetti for the best actress of 1928-29 nearly impossible to make, the choice for best actor is a no-brainer: Buster Keaton may well have been the best actor of the Silent Era and Steamboat Bill. Jr. rivals The General as the best movie of his career. I had this pick ready to go months ago when I started this blog and watching Keaton's movies again has only deepened my regard for this wonderful talent.
Born Joseph Frank Keaton VI into a family of traveling vaudeville performers, legend has it he was dubbed "Buster" when escape artist Harry Houdini saw the infant Keaton take a fall down a flight of stairs and bounce up unharmed. Whether he was born with it, or developed it doing "knockabout" routines on stage with his father, if Keaton wasn't the most talented pratfall artist in movie history, I'd like to see the guy who survived long enough to be a better one. He did stunts that rivaled those of Douglas Fairbanks, and when he was done, he doubled for his co-stars and did their stunts, too.
"The secret," he once said, "is in landing limp and breaking the fall with a foot or a hand. It's a knack. I started so young that landing right is second nature with me. Several times I'd have been killed if I hadn't been able to land like a cat."
Keaton made the leap from stage to screen in 1917 after meeting Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle who invited Keaton to shoot a scene with him in an upcoming short, The Butcher Boy. The rotund, expressive Arbuckle and the slender, deadpan Keaton proved to be a highly-successful team, making more than a dozen films together before Keaton struck out on his own, directing himself in the classic short One Week, which was just last year included in the National Film Registry.
Soon after, Keaton formed his own production company, and in 1923 made his first feature-length film, Three Ages, beginning a run of classic comedies that included Our Hospitality, Sherlock Jr., The Navigator, The General, Steamboat Bill, Jr. and The Cameraman, a body of work that for pure laughs—no song, no dance, no sentimentality—surpasses even Charles Chaplin, the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges. Which is saying something considering the number of Katie Awards I see in the future for each of those acts.
Like Chaplin, Keaton in the Silent Era was virtually a one-man act, writing, producing, directing, editing and starring in all his movies. One difference between Keaton and Chaplin, however, was Keaton's very un-modern reluctance to take credit where credit was due, often as with Steamboat Bill, Jr., slapping names like Carl Harbaugh on movies that he had, in fact, written and directed himself. (Of Harbaugh, Keaton later said, "He didn't write nothing. He was one of the most useless men I ever had on the scenario department." When asked why Harbaugh then received sole credit for writing Steamboat Bill, Jr., Keaton said, "Well, we had to put somebody's name up that wrote 'em ...")
I'm afraid this reticence cost Keaton Katie nominations for writing and directing this year. Somehow, though, I suspect his reputation will survive.
Steamboat Bill, Jr. is a classic fish-out-of-water story, the reunion of a ukelele-playing, college-educated fop (Keaton) with his strapping, working class father (Katie winner Ernest Torrence). The son soon becomes a pawn in his father's battle with the town banker for control of the local riverboat trade. In the course of the seventy-minute story, Keaton contends with shipwrecks, hurricanes and an unreasoning prejudice against French berets to win over his father and get the girl.
Keaton conjures up an endlessly inventive series of gags—involving hats, collisions, chewing tobacco, a baby stroller, a jailbreak, an umbrella on a windy day, and many more—mostly turning on his misfit persona, his odd-couple relationship with his dad and his cheerful determination to succeed despite a preternatural inability to understand what it takes to do so.
One of my favorite early bits centers on the father's effort to give his son a makeover. After two deft flicks of a barber's razor remove Keaton's pencil-thin moustache, the father marches his son into a hatters to replace Keaton's beret with something he deems more suitable for a steamboat captain's son. Keaton tries on a number of hats, including his own trademark pork pie (which he immediately rejects) before settling on an overly-large Panama. He and his father step into the street, a gust of wind blows the new hat into the river, and when his father turns around, Keaton is again wearing that same silly beret. (The Three Stooges later recycled the scene to great effect for their 1936 short, 3 Dumb Clucks, with Curly Howard and a touring cap substituting for Keaton and the beret.)
Keaton delivers all of these comic moments with the understated deadpan style that made him famous and earned him the nickname "The Great Stone Face."
"I developed the 'Stone Face' thing quite naturally," Keaton said later. "[E]ven as a small kid, I happened to be the type of comic that couldn't laugh at his own material. I soon learned at an awful early age that when I laughed the audience didn't. So, by the time I got into pictures, that was a natural way of working."
It's this understated approach to comedy coupled with an utter lack of sentimentality that makes Keaton seem so modern.
The most unfor- gettable sequence of Steam- boat Bill, Jr., maybe the most famous single sequence of Keaton's career, is the one where a cyclone blows a house over onto Keaton, who only misses being killed because he miraculously happens to be standing right where an open attic window allows him to pass right through.
"First I had them build the frame- work of this building and make sure that the hinges were all firm and solid," Keaton explained. "Then you lay this framework down on the ground, and build the window around me. We built the window so that I had a clearance of two inches on each shoulder, and the top missed my head by two inches and the bottom my heels by two inches. We mark the ground out and drive big nails where my two heels are going to be. Then you put that house back up in position while they finish building it."
It was actually a gag he'd first used in the short One Week but in this case, not only were they dropping a finished wall (rather than an open frame) on top of him, they were doing it during a simulated cyclone using six wind machines that proved powerful enough to accidentally blow a truck into the Sacramento River.
Most of the crew walked off in the set in protest, certain the stunt would kill him. Keaton himself declined to practice the stunt first, saying he knew it would work. "You don't do those things twice."
This attitude was in keeping with Keaton's standing order to his cinema- tographer to keep the camera rolling until he said cut or was killed. But it also gave his stunts a realism that puts your heart in your throat even as you're laughing at the gags.
Keaton always dismissed talk of his greatness—"How can you be a genius in slapshoes?"—but there's no doubt in my mind, or anyone else's these days, that a genius is exactly what he was. Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert calls him simply "the greatest actor-director in the history of the movies."
Despite his legendary prowess as a stuntman, Keaton landed wrong when after the release of Steamboat Bill, Jr. he jumped from producing his own films to signing on as a contract player at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. It was a move that pretty much wrecked his career.
"[T]hey were picking stories and material without consulting me," he said, "and I couldn't argue them out of it. They'd say, 'This is funny,' and I'd say, 'I don't think so.' They'd say, 'This'll be good.' I'd say, 'It stinks.' It didn't make any difference; we did it anyhow. I'd only argue about so far, and then let it go."
After a promising start at MGM with The Cameraman, which I have nominated for best picture, the studio forced Keaton into a series of second-rate productions. Always the perfectionist, Keaton drowned his frustrations in alcohol, a habit which soon became a problem in and of itself. Always an acquired taste, what little popularity Keaton had soon faded and MGM released him from his contract in 1934.
The same story, incidentally, played out for any number of directors and actors at more studios than just MGM. The money men who ran the studios didn't seem to grasp that sound movies were something other than just silent movies with a song and a little talking thrown in. Care was needed to create a new medium—talking pictures—that was the equal to what directors such as Keaton, Chaplin, F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang had created during the Silent Era. Care was something few producers were willing to invest.
Keaton continued to work after leaving MGM, most memorably in Chaplin's 1952 comedy Limelight, but he never again reached the heights he'd attained during the Silent Era. He did live long enough to see a revival of interest in his career and was directly involved in the restoration and re-release of his silent comedies. He was awarded an honorary Oscar in 1960 in recognition of "his unique talents which brought immortal comedies to the screen." His last movie appearance, a supporting role in A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, was released eight months after his death in 1966.
A Personal Note: Many years ago, when video tape was expensive and DVDs were non-existent, Katie-Bar-The-Door bought me a box set of Buster Keaton movies for $75. That was back when we could still afford both Christmas presents and the mortgage. Adjusted for inflation, those $75 would now buy you all of General Motors with enough left over to pick up your neighbor's house at foreclosure.
"Did you ever watch those Buster Keaton movies?" she once asked me.
Yes. Yes, I did. But I can see on the horizon hundreds of movies I haven't. What have I been doing with my time?
By the way, if you're wondering where the quotes for this essay came from, many of them came from a book I ran across while I was on the road this last weekend, Buster Keaton Interviews, edited by Kevin M. Sweeney. I highly recommend it if you're at all interested in Keaton.