K is for Keaton
That game, ridiculous little figure in its flat hat, stumping about on stiff short legs, with arms that are inclined to start into sudden motion like a windmill and, at the centre of all the activity, a still face of absurd solemnity and astounding beauty, cannot die. Undefeated, he continues to match his ingenious little devices against the Goliaths; and passes into the universal folk heritage as the supreme clown-poet.
David Robinson, Hollywood in the Twenties
The enduring reputation of the great triumvirate of Silent Movie comedians – Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton – is due in much part to later generations discovering their work and reviving them. They might have been forgotten otherwise: with the arrival of sound, there was a sudden disinterest in Vaudeville-style slapstick heroics, custard pie fights, and death-defying car chases. Chaplin was eventually hounded out of Hollywood and the United States. Lloyd talking was never as well -received as Lloyd silently hanging off a building.
As for Keaton (arguably the greatest of them all), after reaching stupendous heights in the 1920s, his career was marked by a downward spiral into alcoholism and poverty, with occasional roles that showed flashes of his genius. By 1950 he was just another face from the past, quietly and morosely playing cards in Gloria Swanson’s house in Sunset Boulevard.
Thankfully, in 1954 several of his early two-reelers were saved when cans of decomposing film were discovered in James Mason’s house (it had once been Keaton’s). Film societies began showing his work; there were revivals and awards.
His 1927 masterpiece The General was screened at the 1965 Venice Film Festival, with Keaton in attendance (he received a twenty-minute standing ovation that reduced him to tears.)
Like many of his generation, Keaton came to movies by way of Vaudeville. He had been performing with his parents since he was three, and was already a star by the time he was a teenager, famous for his acrobatics and pratfalls.
While in New York in 1917, he was invited to watch the making of a Fatty Arbuckle comedy, and was asked if he wanted to take part.
Keaton immediately fell in love with the movies. He left the stage and became a film comedian (initially for far less money). He was paired with Arbuckle – probably because of their physical difference – and the two made 14 shorts together.
Unlike Chaplin (who mugged for sympathy), and Lloyd (who did daring stunts to win the audience’s laughter), Keaton never seemed in need of anyone’s approval. Wearing a dour expression – not necessarily sad, but assuredly not happy – the Great Stone Face was a deadpan clown – there is only one recorded instance of him laughing on camera.
A slight blink meant bewilderment, a slight frown meant determination, as he struggled against the perversities of his opponents. A long gaze meant ardour, passion for his heroine – usually more of a handicap than a help – but his aloofness was really shyness imposed on a sense of his own inadequacies. He needed to have patience and infinite resource, as well, of course, as his body: he was incredibly lithe and strong.
David Shipman, ‘The Great Movie Stars’
Keaton often wrote and directed his films, and quickly developed the Keaton persona: slightly weary, often at odds with the modern world and its machinery, which he would either master (The Navigator, The General) or flee from and escape into fantasy.
In Sherlock Junior, he literally steps into a movie screen (something that Woody Allen surely had on his mind when he wrote The Purple Rose of Cairo).
Chaplin was probably the most famous star in the world, but several critics noted that Keaton was a better comic, and its arguable that there is more genius in a Keaton picture.
But as has often been pointed out, unlike Chaplin and Lloyd, Keaton was not a businessman; he made several poor decisions which cost him dearly. He and Chaplin made one film together – Limelight – but Chaplin cut his role down because he feared that Keaton would get all the laughs.
Chaplin’s Little Tramp may have been symbolic of a certain mistrust of authority, but Keaton seemed to have tapped in to a certain existential malaise that his contemporaries couldn’t.
Along with the great Jacques Tati, he recognised a certain futility to modern life: it’s not for nothing that Samuel Beckett, the twentieth century’s greatest chronicler of humanity’s absurdity, chose Keaton as the protagonist of Film.