Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The Films of Buster Keaton: An Introduction

Two years ago, I put together what my own Sight & Sound Ballot would look like had I been given a chance to vote for my 10 favorite films of all time. One of those films was Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. from 1924 – one of the greatest screen comedies in history, from perhaps cinema’s best director/actor in history (really other than Keaton rival/friend Charlie Chaplin and Woody Allen, it’s not even close). According to IMDB, Buster Keaton had 147 acting credits in his career, and 46 directing credits – those numbers sound large (because they are), but they are inflated somewhat by the fact that many of the credits are shorts from the 1910s and 1920s.

I have always been a fan of Keaton’s – and gradually, he even took over from Chaplin as my favorite of the Silent Clowns. I still love Chaplin mind you (I may do a similar series on him at some point) – but in the film buff world you can either be a Keaton person or a Chaplin person – NO ONE like both equally. I’m a Keaton person. I don’t mind the sentimentality of Chaplin’s movies – he was one of those directors like Steven Spielberg who can make sentimentality work. Yet, I like Keaton’s slightly melancholy tone more. He was the “Great Stone Face” – his expression rarely betraying any emotion, no matter what situation he found himself in. And he found himself in every insane situation imaginable.

His films are not heavy on plot – they are, and Keaton admitted this – built around his visual gags and stunts, and then a plot was added around them. In The Dissolve’s discussion of Sherlock Jr., it was suggested there are two ways to watch a Keaton movie – the first being to sit there and wonder how the hell he pull off the stunts he did with no special effects except his own body, and a willingness to abuse it, and the second being to just sit back and laugh, because his films are hilarious.

Although I’ve seen most of his features, and many of his shorts, the one thing I have never done is go through them methodically – one film at a time. So I decided to do that. I decided to stick with the films he directed on (uncredited or not) – and rely on the IMDB to tell me which ones those were. As mentioned above, that means 46 credits. I am going to skip 4 of those – Hollywood Cavalcade (1939), Easy to Wed (1946), In the Good Old Summertime (1949) and Excuse My Dust (1951). These are features, where he didn’t receive any credit and are usually omitted from the Keaton canon anyway, so I’ll follow suit. I will add one short he didn’t get directing credit for – Film from 1966, his collaboration with Samuel Becket, because if nothing else it deserves to be seen, considered and talked about.

There will be six basic sections – the first being just one short – The Rough House from 1917 – Keaton’s second acting effort, and the only film he made with Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle that he had a directing credit on (according to IMDB), the second being his 19 shorts he directed between 1920 and 1923, the third being his 12 features directed between 1923 and 1929 (starting with Three Ages and ending with Spite Marriage), the fourth being his work for Educational Pictures in the 1930s, where he made 16 shorts, and received directing credit on 6 of those (I’ll review the 6), the fifth three shorts he directed he the late 1930s – all about 10 minutes each and the sixth and final, two odds from the 1960s – The Railrodder (1965) made for the National Film Board of Canada (which IMDB lists him as an uncredited co-director) and the aforementioned Film (1966).

One of the greatest tragedies in cinema history is that Keaton decided to sign with MGM in 1928 – a decision even he would call the worst decision of his life. They let him direct only one film the way he wanted – The Cameraman (his last masterpiece) – although he also directed at least parts of Spite Marriage (an underrated gem to me). After that, he barely directed again – and never with the same freedom he had in the 1920s. Who knows what Keaton could have done in the sound era had he been allowed to let his genius run free. Were we deprived of a few sound masterpieces – like Chaplin made in The Great Dictator, Monsieur Verdoux or Limelight (which Keaton, in a supporting role, nearly steals from Chaplin)? We’ll never know.

But enough of the depressing stuff – let’s start looking back at the films of Buster Keaton.

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