I've been on the road for most of February and only this morning heard about the Buster Keaton Blogathon ongoing at Silent-ology. I cobbled together this contribution from some previous posts.
"classical continuity editing," Mary Pickford's emergence as the most powerful woman in Hollywood history, Charlie Chaplin's maturation as an artist—perhaps the happiest for movie fans today was the big screen debut of the greatest film comedian of all time, Buster Keaton.
Which is not to say Keaton was an amateur when he joined Roscoe Arbuckle during the filming of The Butcher Boy in early 1917. He had been performing on the vaudeville stage with his parents from the age of four as part of a rough and tumble "knockabout" comedy act.
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 routines 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."
In early 1917, Keaton was booked into New York's Winter Garden for a series of shows when he bumped into Roscoe Arbuckle while strolling down Broadway.
Arbuckle—"Fatty" to his fans, "Roscoe" to his friends—through the tabloid scandal and subsequent trial that (despite his acquittal) ended his career, you're missing out on one of the greatest comedic actor-directors of the silent era. Although I wouldn't put him in the same league as "the three geniuses"—Chaplin, Keaton and Harold Lloyd—Arbuckle was, in terms of his popularity and impact, the best of the rest, the very top of the second tier of comedians that included Mabel Normand, Charley Chase, Harry Langdon, Ford Sterling and Max Linder.
Mark Bourne in his review of the Arbuckle/Keaton collection for The DVD Journal suggested that Arbuckle was to his biggest commercial rival, Charlie Chaplin, what Adam Sandler is these days to Woody Allen, "less artistic and sophisticated by miles, but nonetheless obviously skilled and unquestionably popular with his own characteristic wacky and raucous manner."
The collaboration between Keaton and Arbuckle was to prove pivotal for Buster.
"Arbuckle asked me if I'd ever been in a motion picture," Keaton told Kevin Brownlow in 1964. "I said I hadn't even been in a studio. He said, 'Come on down to the Norma Talmadge Studio on Forty-eighth Street on Monday. Get there early and do a scene with me and see how you like it.' Well, rehearsals [at the Winter Garden] hadn't started yet, so I said, 'all right.' I went down and we did it."
"The first time I ever walked in front of a motion picture camera," he said, "that scene is in the finished motion picture and instead of doing just a bit [Arbuckle] carried me all the way through it."
It's a terrific sequence, but it's as notable for what isn't in it as what is—Keaton does not wear an outrageous costume or wild facial hair, nor does he indulge in the over-the-top reactions and shameless mugging common to the era. He's just a thoroughly average American—albeit, one who can take a swipe at Al St. John, do a 360º spin in mid-air and wind up flat on his back—who has somehow wandered in off the street and found himself thrust into the insanity of a two-reel silent comedy.
Keaton's understatement was the antithesis of the Mack Sennett approach, and was so wholly original, it constituted something of a revolution. Audiences and critics alike instantly took note, if not always approvingly.
"The deadpan was a natural," Keaton said. "As I grew up on the stage, experience taught me that I was the type of comedian that if I laughed at what I did, the audience didn't. Well, by the time I went into pictures when I was twenty-one, working with a straight face, a sober face, was mechanical with me.
"I got the reputation immediately [of being] called 'frozen face,' 'blank pan' and things like that. We went into the projection room and ran our first two pictures to see if I'd smiled. I hadn't paid any attention to it. We found out I hadn't. It was just a natural way of acting."
Keaton's next film with Arbuckle, The Rough House, is one of their best. Not only does it feature some of the best gags of Arbuckle's career—the dancing dinner rolls, trying to douse a raging fire with a teacup, squeezing out a bowl of soup with a sponge—but many film historians also now list Keaton as its uncredited co-director.
Keaton and Arbuckle made three more comedies in 1917, His Wedding Night, Oh Doctor! and Coney Island. Each features an aspect of Keaton rarely seen after.
In the first, Keaton plays a milliner's delivery boy and winds up in drag as he models a wedding dress. Mistaking him for the bride, Al St. John kidnaps Keaton and hauls him off to the preacher at gunpoint.
In Oh, Doctor!, he plays Arbuckle's little boy, a reprise of the sort of comedy Keaton and his father Joe had done for years on stage, and pulls off a stunt you have to see to believe—Arbuckle smacks him, Keaton tumbles backwards over a table, picks up a book as he falls, and lands upright in a chair, with the book on his lap as if he's been there all along, reading comfortably.
And while Coney Island is mostly an excuse to watch Arbuckle caper around Luna Park—its plot of men wooing women on park benches is a throwback to the Keystone comedies—the film is worth seeking out for two reasons: one, for its documentary footage of Coney Island nearly one hundred years ago, and two, a rare chance to see Buster Keaton smile!
The smile notwithstanding, in terms of his look, his acting style, his fearless physical stunts and his fascination with technology, the basic Keaton was already on full display in these early two-reel comedies. He had only to add the context—that of a rational man enmeshed in the machinery of a universe that exists only to achieve absurd ends—for his unique brand of humor to reach its full flower.
In 1918, Keaton made five more two-reel comedies with Arbuckle before shipping off to France to serve in the army during World War I. Although not credited as such, by this time Keaton was working as the assistant director when Arbuckle, the credited director, was in front of the camera.
"You fell into those jobs," Keaton said later. "He never referred to me as the assistant director, but I was the guy who sat alongside of the camera and watched scenes that he was in. I ended up just practically co-directing with him."
The film that followed, Moonshine, is the most Keatonesque of all his collaborations with Arbuckle. Ostensibly the story of a pair of inept revenuers (Keaton and Arbuckle) hot on the trail of West Virginia bootleggers, this is really a movie about movies, with the title cards constantly breaking the fourth wall to explain the filming process. "Look, this is only a two-reeler," one says, "We don't have time to build up to love scenes." Opening up the mechanics of movie making for laughs was a Keaton trick he would revisit time and again, culminating with Sherlock Jr. in 1924 when a projectionist gets sucked into the film itself.
The next two shorts, Good Night, Nurse and The Cook, both came out after Keaton had shipped out for the European war and his contributions look hasty, as if he filmed a couple of scenes for both, leaving the main plot for Arbuckle to flesh out later. Still, they're both worth a look, particularly The Cook which was thought to be lost for decades until rediscovered in Norway in 1999.
After a year in the Army left Keaton deaf in one ear, he went right back to making short films with Arbuckle. The first of them, Back Stage, is a traditional "hey kids, lets put on a play" story with one extraordinary scene—anticipating Keaton's most famous stunt in 1928's Steamboat Bill Jr., a house falls on Arbuckle only to miss him thanks to an open second floor window. Here, the house is only a cardboard stage prop and, unlike that latter example which might have killed Keaton, nobody is in danger, but seeing this early attempt at a famous gag is a bit like finding a preliminary sketch of Picasso's Guernica on the back of a cocktail napkin.
There were two more shorts, The Hayseed in 1919 and The Garage in 1920, after which Arbuckle left to make full-length feature films, but not before leaving the keys to the studio to Keaton. With Arbuckle's public blessing, Keaton began to direct films of his own.
And the rest, as they say, is history.