Screen Gems Chas­ing Buster Keaton

SHER­LOCK, JR. (1924); THE GOAT (1921); SEVEN CHANCES (1925); COPS (1922); THE GEN­ERAL (1927); come­dies; The Screen

Pasatiempo - - PASATIEMPO - — Robert Nott

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 ccas­ for de­tails.


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

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