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.