Screen Gems Chasing Buster Keaton
SHERLOCK, JR. (1924); THE GOAT (1921); SEVEN CHANCES (1925); COPS (1922); THE GENERAL (1927); comedies; The Screen
THE GREAT BUSTER: A CELEBRATION, documentary, not rated, The Screen, 3 chiles His face may have been made of stone, as they liked to say, but his body never stopped to rest. He was always sprinting through life, either chasing something — a girl kidnapped by rapscallions, a missing locomotive, an elusive dream, perhaps — or being chased. Police officers in particular seemed to take after him in droves, though audiences couldn’t imagine him ever willingly breaking a law. He ran and ran and ran through the silent-film era, and then, when sound came in and silence was no longer golden, he stopped running. Then the laughter stopped.
His name was Buster Keaton, and for most of the 1920s he was, if not the King of Silent Comedy, the Grand Duke, creating a string of classic comedies in which he performed physical stunts that the best CGI couldn’t re-create today. The Center for Contemporary Arts Cinematheque honors Keaton with screenings of several of his features and shorts in conjunction with a new documentary, The Great Buster: A Celebration, by filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich. The weekend series begins with Keaton’s 1924 featurette ( just 45 minutes)
Sherlock, Jr., at 7 p.m. Friday, Nov. 30, and wraps with a restored version of his 1927 classic, The General ,at 1 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 2.
Bogdanovich’s documentary, which plays out as an homage to Keaton’s films rather than a personal history, still lays out the basics of the actor’s life. He was born to a pair of vaudevillians, Joe and Myra Keaton, in a boarding house in Kansas in 1895. By the age of three, he was performing with them, displaying an organic penchant for taking physically punishing falls without getting hurt (or so it seemed) — hence the nickname “Buster.”
While preparing for a theater show in New York in 1917, an old friend who was working on a Manhattanbased comedy film invited Buster to come watch a day of shooting. The star of the comedy was Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, then a major screen comic and the man who drew Keaton into movie work. Keaton first popped up in a 1917 Arbuckle short, The Butcher
Boy (in those days, the title told you everything you needed to know about the movie), and eventually the two men made 15 short films together. The Arbuckle films became an invaluable training ground for Keaton, who became fascinated with the way the camera worked, what it saw, and what it could say to the people sitting out there in audience land.
By 1920, Arbuckle went off to make feature films, leaving Keaton in charge of his own studio, a situation that gave the burgeoning filmmaker full creative control — something few other actors of the time enjoyed. He developed his screen persona during these years with such short films as The Goat (1921) and Cops (1922), both of which find our hero running from, well, cops. In the first, he’s mistaken for a violent public enemy and goes on the lam. In the second, he inadvertently creates mayhem at a policeman’s parade and again goes on the lam. These shorts, as well as the others Keaton made around this time, cemented his screen persona as a man who didn’t so much set out to make a mess but rather stepped into one of someone else’s making, which invariably led to his need to improvise to get out of it. That “let’s make it up as we go along” approach generally led to some clever gags (when an anarchist’s bomb lands in Keaton’s lap in
Cops, he first uses it to light his cigarette before getting rid of it), and lots of chases. Through all the chaos, his face remained that of an inscrutable Egyptian sphinx, with a pair of eyes that suggested he expected to find trouble just around the corner.
But boy, did that body move. He ran on foot — as in The Goat and Cops — and moved like lightning on a driverless motorcycle in Sherlock, Jr., slipped and stumbled and tumbled down mountainsides filled with huge boulders created just to run him over in
Seven Chances, and raced down railroad tracks in search of his choo-choo train in The General. The
latter film, set in the early days of the Civil War and featuring Keaton as a civilian engineer (on the Confederate side) who pursues his stolen locomotive into enemy lines, was released to so-so box office receipts and equally indifferent critical reviews. As such, it was a surprise and a rare failure for Keaton. In retrospect, one could argue that The General played its hand a little too seriously, with Keaton emphasizing the action scenes (including an amazing, shot-in-realtime destruction of a train and the bridge holding up the train) and downplaying the gags, good though they are. It’s a motion picture that is constantly in motion, and perhaps audiences were left breathless by its fast pace, given its short running time of fewer than 80 minutes. Today, it’s seen as near perfect, with Keaton betting that audiences would stick with his lengthy, dual-chase setup: First he follows his train behind Union lines, laying out a series of action bits and gags along the way, and then he recaptures the train and heads back south, revealing an entirely new line of jokes and action sequences.
Sherlock, Jr. was much easier to digest at the time, mixing as it did Keaton’s love of seeing and making movies. He plays a small-town film projectionist smitten with the idea of becoming a private detective. While sleeping, he dreams himself into the film he’s projected on the screen of his movie house, and in the ensuing drama, he becomes that movie’s worldrenowned hero, Sherlock, Jr., the greatest private eye in the world. Quite naturally, a chase ensues.
Keaton didn’t always hit pay dirt. Seven Chances (1925) has its admirers, with Bogdanovich among them, but the first half, while at times amusing, lacks Keaton’s individual touch and personality; it could have been played by any silent film comic of the period. The plot has the financially challenged Keaton offered a surprising, deadline-driven salvation. A relative who just died has left him oodles of money, provided Keaton is wed by 7 p.m. that day. Thanks to his pals’ schemes, Keaton’s picture is posted in the daily paper with a plea for a woman — any woman — to marry him and nab the dough. Hundreds of potential brides show up, and it’s a kindness to say that the vast majority resemble female Neanderthals. They want their man and his money, and so they give chase, leading to one of the most memorable action sequences of Keaton’s career, as those aforementioned boulders on the mountain break loose to pursue him as well.
In most of his films, Keaton came out the victor. The 1920s belonged to him. Unfortunately, as in many of his films, a series of unforeseen events coalesced to destroy him. The sound era rendered his often immobile silence impotent. He unfortunately signed with MGM, where he would cede artistic control and become just another comic player. He ended a failed, frustrating marriage to actress Natalie Talmadge, began drinking, and MGM fired him for that drinking. By the mid-’30s, he was acting in cheap two-reel comedies, few of which spotlighted his comic genius. He would, over time, overcome these obstacles and reinvent himself as a gag man, character actor, and — thanks to film retrospectives, devoted fans, and young advocates who championed his work — a film icon. Mostly he just wanted to work, and he did, right up to his death in early 1966, appearing in beach party movies, Candid Camera shows, and television commercials. Thankfully, the CCA series does not touch upon those lesser works, though Bogdanovich covers this period of Keaton’s career in his documentary.
With this CCA series, we can watch Keaton at his best — running, always running, to or from something or someone without quite understanding why he’s moving so fast — like so many of us today, which is only one reason his work remains so timely.
The Center for Contemporary Arts Cinematheque presents a weekend of Buster Keaton films, including the documentary, The Great Buster: A Celebration, from Friday, Nov. 30, through Sunday, Dec. 2, at The Screen, 1600 St. Michael’s Drive. Visit ccasantafe.org for details.
IN MOST OF HIS FILMS, KEATON CAME OUT THE VICTOR. THE 1920S BELONGED TO HIM.
Opposite page, Keaton on the run in Cops; clockwise from top left, as a would-be detective in Sherlock, Jr.; lovestruck in Sherlock, Jr.; aboard his runaway train in The General; and marking time in Seven Chances