The Legacy of Buster Keaton

The silent era of motion pictures in America produced three bona fide legends: Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton. As was often the case with the earliest movie stars, all three each carved a niche for themselves based on certain character stereotypes. For Charlie Chaplin it was the poor but lovable (in theory) outsider, while Harold Lloyd is the energetic and eager go-getter. Buster Keaton represents a gray area situated somewhere between the two; Buster Keaton’s comedy is based on his being the American everyman who longs not for greatness or to belong, but rather to simply be allowed to pursue his own version of happiness.

Joseph Keaton was born in 1895 and legend has it that he received his famous nickname from an equally famous icon of American entertainment, Harry Houdini. Perhaps it was a case of destiny that Houdini named the child Buster after watching him tumble down a flight stairs only to emerge unscathed; emerging unscathed (at least in theory) after a harrowing physical pratfall would become one of Buster Keaton’s trademarks as a movie star. Keaton followed his parents into the vaudeville circuit where he basically spent almost two decades on the receiving end of truly dangerous physical comedy acts, Keaton was clearly capable of performing the kind of outrageous stunts that marked early silent film comedy. Buster Keaton received his mentoring from the already famous-soon to be infamous-Fatty Arbuckle; learning not just how to perform on camera, but how to direct behind it.

Buster Keaton’s early self-directed films are for the most part pedestrian, reflecting both his stage in the learning process and the millgrinding process of earliest filmmaking; there was little need for experimentation in a medium that still survived mainly on account of its novelty. Keaton became a standout director, however, in part because he refused to simply give in to the novelty, and became one of the first Hollywood directors to experiment with the actual medium. Although it may seem odd, Keaton’s legacy in cinema may have much more to do with big budget special effects movies than with comedy, although the argument should certainly be made that he has had a lasting impression upon both.

As an icon of early film comedy, Keaton shares more with Harold Lloyd than Charlie Chaplin. Both Keaton and Lloyd featured feats of physical fitness and outrageous sight gags involving their athleticism more so than Chaplin. The primary difference between the two, however, is Harold Lloyd always shows great emotion in his films; he uses his boyish face to indicate his eagerness to fulfill his dream. On the other hand, Keaton is known as the Great Stone Face due to his deadpan reaction regardless of what is happening. While Charlie Chaplin mugs before the camera to draw the sympathy of viewers toward his perpetual outsider status, when something awful happens to Keaton’s character-whether physically or emotionally-the laughs come as a result of his presenting the same face that he had presented even when things were going great. In a sense, then, what may be said to separate the comedy of Keaton from that of Chaplin and Lloyd is that Keaton never really expects to win or fulfill his dream.

Keaton’s view of the way the universe works can be appreciated in the manner in which he has his character run into opponents. One of the cornerstones of a Keaton film is that, unlike with Lloyd who typically has a specific romantic rival, his actions tend to force him into confrontations with not one person but entire groups of people. For instance, in what may be his most celebrated film, The General, Buster Keaton’s opposition is not only not limited to just one person, it’s not even limited to just one army; Buster literally finds himself having to go up alone against both the Union and the Confederate armies at different times. This film is a brilliant evocation of Keaton’s character key; he is alone in a universe that threatens to destroy him and in which he only wants to be able to go about his common little business in peace. This legacy can be felt throughout the history of American comic films, the story of the little guy fighting off interests to pursue their goal has been replayed by every comic actor from Bob Hope to Jerry Lewis to Woody Allen.

Jerry Lewis and Woody Allen in particular also owe a great debt to Buster Keaton the director. Just as Woody Allen experimented with the medium in Zelig and Jerry Lewis in practically all of his films, Buster Keaton too used the camera to expand the scope of comedy. His earliest experiment was probably a short made in 1921 called The Playhouse in which Keaton developed a matte system that allowed him to fill the screen with multiple images of himself. Keaton’s most famous use of camera experimentation, of course, is his masterpiece Sherlock, Jr. in which he uses editing capabilities unique to the medium of film to manipulate time, space and other temporal laws of reality. This film clearly was the inspiration for Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo and its spell can be felt on a variety of other films.

Buster Keaton has over the past thirty or forty years come to eclipse Charlie Chaplin as the pre-eminent silent film comedian for many, especially those put off by Chaplin’s sentimentality. A strain of cruelty runs through Keaton’s film that is much more in touch with not only contemporary film, but with the essence of comedy itself. His place in movie history must also take into account his standard as one of the earliest innovators of experimental editing and camerawork.

Constance Talmadge’s Extraordinary Comic Performance in D.W. Griffith’s “Intolerance”

The rare airing of “Intolerance” on Turner Classic Movies gives moviegoers a chance to learn two things. One, nudity in films is a not a post-1960’s invention. More importantly, those with a sharp eye could learn that not all silent film acting was melodramatic posturing marked by theatrical gestures and wild-eyed facial signals. Or, at least, they could have learned this by focusing on the parts of “Intolerance” dominated by the performance of Constance Talmadge. 

Talmadge played the Mountain Girl in the storyline of D.W. Griffith’s epic that takes during the Babylonian Empire. Despite the storyline, or perhaps because of it if you view from the perspective that a point was being made, Talmadge’s Mountain Girl is the most modern female character in the movie. The joy of watching “Intolerance” which is a notably joyless film otherwise lies in that wonderful experience of finding something new in a movie that has been around for awhile. 

Those who associate, and deservedly so in most cases, silent film acting with overstating the obvious will definitely have their eyes opened while laughing along with Talmadge’s subversively contemporary character. So unusually subtle is Talmadge’s performance that much of her motivations may depend upon the viewer’s perspective. An amazing thing about watching her sections of the film is the way that she may draw you in to thinking her narrative is going to lead her in one direction only to find that she was playing you. Big time.  

It is a truly masterful comic performance in which Constance constantly surprises you even in the most throwaway of scenes. Be sure not to miss the tiny little segment where she’s teasing a goat or you will miss a terrifically funny shock of surprise. What is even more important not to miss are the scenes where the Mountain Girl slowly becomes empowered. The disgust and mistrust of those she has known before and the dawning admiration for the man who represents to her what her life could be is all right there in Talmadge’s big, expressive eyes.  

Or is it? It is a great comedic performance to be sure and maybe Talmadge is broadcasting the underlying and forgotten conceit that makes comedy work: you can’t trust it. Irony is a presence in all great comedy even if the comedic intention is decidedly more on the side of sincerity. Those coming to “Intolerance” in the scenes where Talmadge’s Mountain Girl first comes to adore Prince Belshazzar could interpret Talmadge’s extraordinarily facial expressions as those of a scheming con artist targeting her big score as those who have been following her story the whole time could interpret them as the signs of a woman falling under the spell of a rescuer.  

The vitality of the entire epic rests almost single-handedly upon Constance Talmadge’s Mountain Girl who is the psychic grandmother such other comic-action heroines of present day as Xena, Warrior Princess. Audiences at the time were clearly won over by Talmadge’s performance since the entire storyline of the Babylonian sections of “Intolerance” were used to create a standalone film marked most especially by the fact that in this version Talmadge’s Mountain Girl does end up the victim of tragedy. 

Does the Future of Movie Comedy Include Using Technology to Allow Silent Film Comedians to Co-Star with Contemporary Actors?

“The Artist” may have stimulated some interest in the silent film legends of the past. If nothing else, the choice of misguided Oscar voters did introduce to audiences the realization that movie history goes back beyond when Eddie Murphy was funny. The next step for Hollywood studio executives is to figure out a way to turn the “The Artist” into a commodity that takes the form of a bovine creature from which money pours through its teats rather than milk. 

At this point, another winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture enters into the discourse. “Forrest Gump” followed up on the precedent set a decade earlier by Woody Allen’s masterpiece “Zelig” in seamlessly pairing contemporary actors with figures from the past. Almost twenty years have passed since Forrest interacted with LBJ and JFK and surely the technology has improved since then. The next logical step in taking advantage of the spike in interest for silent film stars is obvious. 

Comedy legends like Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and, for some, Charlie Chaplin are just as capable of producing laughter today as they were nearly a century ago. You can’t get those raised in the Platonic cave in which the shadows seem to indicate that what Jimmy Kimmel does is considered funny to sit down and watch the silent movies of Keaton and Lloyd without some serious straps. But what about a new movie starring Harold Lloyd or Buster Keaton or Thelma Todd or Zasu Pitts in which they interact with Vince Vaughn or Mos Def or Jack Black or Amy Adams? 

The computer technology is clearly there to pull this off. It’s been done to an extent in the world of advertising already. Now, as far as I’m concerned, taking classic movie star footage out of context in order to insert it into a commercial to sell products is nothing less than an abomination, regardless of the product in question. But taking existing footage of silent film comedians and integrating them into a contemporary story that allows sophisticated interaction between the past and present and the dead and alive hardly seems provocative. 

“Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid” utilized this conceit to the best of its ability considering the limitations of technology at the time. While that Steve Martin homage to the films of the 1940s and 1950s is a wonderful movie, the restrictions placed on those scenes in which Martin interacted with Barbara Stanwyck and Humphrey Bogart would seem ridiculously outdated in comparison to what is possible today. Just like “Jurassic Park” changed the landscape of special effects by allowing humans and dinosaurs to share the same space, if “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid” were made today, you could actually have Steve Martin walk behind Burt Lancaster or really seem to kiss Bette Davis. 

Woody Allen’s “Zelig” was the real breakthrough film here and though almost every critic missed its brilliant philosophical foundation to focus on the breathtaking technological innovations, at least everyone seemed to realize how authentically revolutionary the cinematic aspects of this film really were. Well, everyone but Oscar voters, of course. You can’t really be too hard on Oscar voters giving Best Cinematography to an Ingmar Bergman film, but come on! 

The seamlessness with which Woody’s Zelig character interacts with famous historical characters is as impressive now as it was in 1983. Imagine what could be done today. And imagine the possibilities of a movie comedy with Jane Lynch married to Buster Keaton or Ben Stiller playing Harold Lloyd’s brother.