Buster Keaton in CONVICT 13 (1920) – Comedy that earns its stripes

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

Golf and prison life were two fertile subjects for comedy (Laurel & Hardy used both motifs, the latter more than once). In Convict 13, Buster Keaton neatly kills two birds with one stone.

The movie begins with Buster as a golfer, and with a surprising twist on his physical dexterity. Usually, Keaton performs his physical comedy with subtle grace. But in golf, that most frustratingly intricate of sports, Buster never makes a simple miss at the ball; every time he swings, he flies around in full-circle twice before landing on his fanny, as though his golf club was a ball-and-chain he was slinging around. This proves to be an appropriate metaphor when, at one point, Buster gets knocked out and an escaped convict trades clothes with him. (Instant Prisoner – just add uniform.)

It turns out that the warden’s daughter (again, the resourceful Sybil Seely) is the girl on the “outside” whom Buster was trying to impress with his mediocre golf skills. Despite Sybil’s efforts to prevent Buster from getting hanged as a prisoner (resulting in a long-shot sight gag that’s astounding, even for Keaton), Buster proves to be far more adept in prison than at golf. Twice, he manages to thwart prison riots – the second time by using his ball-and-chain skills to subdue potential escapees with nothing more than a medicine ball. Many film historians have compared the iconic images of Keaton and Chaplin to little Davids conquering the big Goliaths; here you actually see Keaton doing it, and it’s immensely satisfying.

Considering the many unfortunate racist jokes that turn up in Keaton’s work, it’s also kind of nice to see Keaton’s black caddy get a laugh on him for a change (when Buster knocks a golf ball into a nearby pond and actually goes swimming to find it). Funny how Buster is more adept and physically looser in a perilous situation than he is at a sport where he should be having fun.

Buster Keaton in THE NAVIGATOR (1924) – Stays afloat, but not without treading water

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

As The Navigator was Buster Keaton’s most financially successful (up to that time) of his independent movies; because Keaton worked so hard on it and considered it one of his best feature films; and because it was added to the National Film Registry in 2018, one wants to like it more than one eventually does. But coming as it does after the daring and inventiveness of Sherlock Jr., The Navigator can’t help but be a bit of a letdown.

The legend goes that Keaton’s art director, Fred Gabourie, found out about a five-thousand-ton ocean liner, the Buford, sitting in a San Francisco boat yard, just waiting to be sold for scrap. Keaton immediately began thinking about the comic possibilities of the ship and arranged to get it. Yet in hindsight, The Navigator seems like a 1920’s version of latter-day big-scale comedies such as Ghostbusters or Men in Black, where the gargantuan setting threatens to overshadow the comedy.

The movie begins promisingly, as Keaton reprises his Saphead persona of the clueless, indulgent rich boy, here named Rollo Treadway. Rollo is so spoiled that he decides on a whim to get married – without first consulting his girlfriend Betsy (Kathryn McGuire), who lives just across the street – and must have his chauffeur maneuver his car to the girl’s house (!) so that he can propose to her.

In a strange bit of plotting, Betsy turns down Rollo’s proposal and is then shown to be in tears for having done so. Why? Was Keaton afraid that Rollo’s derring-do aboard the ocean liner wouldn’t be plausible enough to show why Betsy would eventually want to marry him? The normally adventurous “scenarist” Keaton shows a bit of cowardice here.

Anyway, via some elaborate (not to say credibility-stretching) plot twists, Rollo and his girl end up aboard the same deserted ocean liner, after which the comedy is somewhat hit-and-miss. For every bull’s-eye gag, there are a couple of duds. For the past few decades, much has been made of how the leading ladies in Keaton’s movies are well-meaning but dumb. But Rollo is no prize package, either. When Rollo can’t even hold a plate right side up (one of the “gags” here) and, at one point, nearly drowns the girl who is trying to scoop him out of the ocean, one tends to think he gets what he deserves. (For her part, Kathryn McGuire is Buster’s physical equal here, giving as good as she gets.)

The movie’s gag mechanisms completely break down in its final third, as Rollo and Betsy are threatened by backwards savages, a plot device worn thin by decades of comedies such as “Gilligan’s Island.” We’re supposed to root for this couple who’ve managed to survive for weeks alone on a ship but threatened to be outwitted by primitive tribesmen. After a while, the cat-and-mouse game of Buster-vs.-the-primitives gets a bit tiresome, as does a closing gag swiped from Keaton’s own The Boat.

One is grateful for any excuse to see Buster Keaton at his peak on-screen. But in The Navigator, a large inanimate object seems to get the best of Buster Keaton. It doesn’t seem (sea)worthy of him.

(Trivia: Navigator co-director Donald Crisp, with whom Keaton had much-publicized disagreements, can be seen in a “cameo,” in a still photo as a captain whom Rollo misinterprets as a ghost.)

THE SAPHEAD (1920) – Buster Keaton’s first (weighed-down) feature film

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

The Saphead is another of American cinema’s Great Lost Films that lost its greatness once it was found.

This movie was based on The New Henrietta, a 1913 Broadway play that had been a hit for its star, Douglas Fairbanks. In the play, Fairbanks played “Bertie the Lamb,” the milquetoast son of Nicholas Van Alstyne, a shrewd and rich investor known as “The Wolf of Wall Street.” By the time the play’s producer, John Golden, got around to getting a filmed version of the play underway, Fairbanks was unavailable. Keaton spent the rest of his life claiming that Fairbanks personally recommended him for the part, but Keaton biographer Marion Meade theorizes that Golden probably got Keaton’s name from Joe Schenck, who saw this famous show as a way of ballyhooing Keaton as a star.

Although audiences can be grateful that all of Keaton’s silent films have come to light – this was not the case in the 1950’s and ’60s, when a few of Keaton’s films were thought to be lost or incomplete – The Saphead‘s interest is more historical than hysterical.

Besides its being notable as Buster Keaton’s first feature film, The Saphead is, if nothing else, interesting as a filmed record of what constituted a Broadway play in the 1920’s. Like The Marx Brothers’ Animal Crackers (1930), The Saphead shows the pacing of a ’20s Broadway show was leisurely, bordering on glacial.

Keaton’s character Bertie goes through four main plot points in the movie. (1) Bertie stays out all hours of the night in order to act like a playboy because he thinks this is how to impress his girlfriend Agnes, when in fact Agnes would rather that Bertie be the homebody he really is. (2) This misunderstanding is cleared up, and Bertie and Agnes plan to get married. (3) In the middle of the wedding, Bertie is falsely accused of having had a scandalous affair, and Bertie’s father Nick throws him out. (4) Bertie goes to his new seat on Wall Street and unknowingly saves Nick from financial ruin, thus returning to Nick’s good graces.

If Keaton had been directing the movie, he probably would have either done away with many of the clingy subplots, or he would have zipped through the entire story in a two-reeler. But since Keaton was basically a hired hand in the movie of a proven hit play, he is simply put through his paces, while the story sputters in fits and starts.

One segment that Keaton surely would have cut down to size is the scene where Bertie first visits Wall Street. Still marveling at the fact that he had to invest $20,000 to get a “seat” on Wall Street, Bertie tries out a particular “seat” (actually, an ordinary chair), briefly wriggles around in it, and concludes that it’s certainly not worth twenty grand. This routine is brief, but charming and funny. But then it is protracted when some investors discover that Bertie is a naive first-timer on Wall Street, and they continually taunt and bully him as though he’s a freshman on his first day in high school – because we all know that big-money investors have nothing better to do with their spare time.

This is not to say that Keaton himself is bad in the movie; he acquits himself admirably as an actor (just as he did decades later when he was given “straight” dramatic roles by directors too unimaginative to use Keaton for comedy). (And is it my imagination, or does Keaton give us a near-smile in the scene where Bertie sees his name in the newspaper?) But the only part of the movie that looks truly “Keatonesque” is his climactic scene, where he unknowingly saves his father’s stock by running to anyone who yells the stock’s name and tells them, “I’ll take it!” His speed and physical polish in this scene are the first thing in the movie to warrant a belly laugh – which comes about five minutes before movie’s end.

The ending is a loss, too. It establishes that Bertie and Agnes have married and are having a baby a year later. We see Bertie pacing outside the delivery room and are primed for a closing gag. Then Bertie finds out he’s the father of twins, Bertie tells his dad the good news, and the movie’s over. Huh?? Not even a gag as elementary as naming one of the kids after the Henrietta stock? If this had truly been “his” film, Keaton would have puzzled over that ending for a month before he would have let it go out like that.

The Saphead is watchable enough, but a Keaton buff can plainly see that our hero has been strait-jacketed in a “straight” story. Keaton would depart on cinema’s finest flights of fancy once he was in charge of his own movies.

Buster Keaton in GO WEST (1925) – Starring a cow as the leading lady

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

Go West is the most picaresque and Chaplinesque of Buster Keaton’s features. Normally, Buster just goes through his stone-faced paces, letting the pathos take care of itself and not worrying about whether or not the audience will care about him. But here, Keaton goes out of his way to get the audience’s sympathy. Buster’s character in this movie is named “Friendless,” and the first fifteen minutes seems meant to establish how put-upon he is, literally getting stepped on by an apathetic world. Keaton had just lost his regular gang of gag men — Jean Havez had died of a heart attack, and Joe Mitchell and Clyde Bruckman had been snapped up by other studios — which perhaps explains the movie’s unusually sentimental prologue.

After somewhat meandering adventures in Indiana and New York City, Friendless ends up as a cowhand on an Arizona ranch, and the story gains its footing. Much of the comedy derives from the juxtaposition of Friendless’ stoic resignation versus the rootin’-tootin’ life of a cowpoke. (When Friendless plays in a poker game and accuses the dealer of cheating, the dealer points a gun in his face and commands, “When you say that, smile,” not knowing of Buster’s inability to do so. Friendless puts two fingers to his lips to try and paste a grin on his face.)

Go West gives Keaton his most unusual leading lady: a mourn-faced cow named Brown Eyes, the only friend that Friendless has. She gets a credit in the movie (and even got a salary for her acting — $13 a week), and she deserves it. She’s every inch a co-star.

While Go West isn’t Keaton’s greatest movie (Keaton, typically, said he “didn’t care for it”), it’s hardly laugh-free. It has some strangely touching gags (as when Friendless refuses to hurt Brown Eyes by branding her and instead uses a razor to “shave” a brand onto her). And even when the movie isn’t terribly funny, it’s beautiful and often downright astounding to watch. Keaton’s usual cameraman, Elgin Lessley, captures the Arizona desert on film in a painterly fashion. And some of the scenes — such as Friendless running atop a moving train, and a climax with Friendless blithely escorting a herd of cattle through downtown Los Angeles — leave you almost scratching your head in wonder as to how they got mounted and filmed.

The title Go West, of course, comes from Horace Greeley’s famous command to “Go west, young man,” and fifteen years later, M-G-M copped the title (and even Greeley’s command) for one of The Marx Brothers’ later, weaker comedies. If nothing else, Keaton’s Go West is the funnier one, and while it’s a bit of a take-off on the traditional Western, it nevertheless captures the spirit of the Old West nicely – even when it’s depicting a tenderfoot who falls in love with a cow.

Buster Keaton’s THE GENERAL (1926) – A masterpiece of a train ride

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The General, another of Buster Keaton’s movies to make it to the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry (in 1989), is truly Keaton’s movie epic. Keaton’s heroism and stunts in any of his movies are always amazing to watch, but often they are almost too outsized for the ordinary world in which they take place. For once, Keaton’s settings match his physicality.

The movie is based on a true Civil War incident: the Andrews Raid, in which some Union soldiers hijacked a Southern locomotive named The General and attempted to drive it up north, destroying railroad tracks and cutting telegraph lines along the way. The raid failed when two Southern train conductors caught the raiders.

In his movie of the story, Keaton plays Johnnie Gray, a Georgia train engineer who, when the Civil War reaches his home town of Marietta, is as willing to enlist as anyone. Unfortunately, the recruiter refuses to enlist Johnnie because he is of more use to the South as an engineer than as a soldier. Even more unfortunately, the recruiter doesn’t tell Johnnie why he was turned down, leading Johnnie’s girlfriend Annabelle (Marion Mack) and her family to believe that Johnnie is a coward. Annabelle tells Johnnie she never wants to speak to him again “until you’re wearing a uniform.” But when Johnnie’s train is hijacked by the Northerners, his heroism eventually gets the train back, defeats the Northern soldiers, and rescues Annabelle after the Northerners kidnap her. (Ironically, Annabelle gets her wish; when Johnnie rescues her, he is wearing a Northern soldier’s uniform, which he had to don in order to get behind enemy lines.)

Keaton pulled out all the stops on this movie. He was fascinated by trains, and now one of them would be his co-star. Keaton told his crew that he wanted the movie to be “so authentic it hurts,” and the movie does indeed look like a Civil War photo come to life. The movie’s plotting is wonderfully symmetrical, as Johnnie becomes a hero by pulling the same tricks on the Northern soldiers as they had previously pulled on him. And of course, Keaton spared no personal effort either, constantly jumping on, off, over, and on top of a moving train and making it look as effortless as riding a bike. After seeing Keaton cowering from a boxer in Battling Butler, it’s a pleasure to watch him as a dashing hero.

(Again, a word must be said about Keaton’s lead female, in this case Annabelle. Well-meaning film historians have stated that Annabelle is another “dutiful but dumb” Keaton heroine. True, she does do a couple of silly things in the movie, but so does Keaton. When Johnnie comes to rescue Annabelle from the Northern soldiers, he is constantly “ssh-ing” her so that the Northerners won’t hear them, only to end up making more noise than she does. One wonders if Stan Laurel didn’t crib this routine from The General, since he did it so often in Laurel & Hardy comedies.)

Unfortunately, Keaton literally paid a high price for his authenticity. The General ended up costing three-quarters of a million dollars, slightly more than Battling Butler made. And it is an unfortunate fact of movie history that The General was a bomb financially, beginning the box-office decline that eventually forced Keaton to move to M-G-M.

The movie also earned Keaton some of his most hostile reviews. The New York Herald-Tribune called it “the least funny thing Buster Keaton has ever done.” And perhaps it is, if you’re looking for only a jokey comedy. Happily, the movie was re-discovered in the “Keaton renaissance” of the 1950’s and ’60s, and it has earned its rightful place as a critical darling ever since. (One can’t help but note that it is Keaton’s most adventurous movies, such as The General and Sherlock Jr., that were the most ill-received upon first release. If a movie buff needed any evidence that Keaton was ahead of his time, this would seem to be it.)

The General was one of the costliest movies of its time (including the single most expensive shot in silent-film history, when a bridge that Johnnie has sabotaged sinks a Northern train). But unlike many of today’s brain-dead blockbusters, every dollar of Keaton’s budget is up on the screen. The General is worthy movie-watching just for its sheer spectacle; the laughs are icing on the cake.

Buster Keaton in THE PALEFACE (1922) – Surprisingly sympathetic look at Native Americans

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

Dealing as it does in many of the typical “How!” stereotypes, it’s difficult to believe that modern Native-Americans might enjoy The Paleface. But in its sympathy towards the Indians’ point of view and their eventual comeuppance of the movie’s white villains, it comes as a stark and very funny relief to the gaseous self-righteousness of Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves, which came almost 70 politically corrected years later.

Unusually for a Buster Keaton short, The Paleface spends a generous amount of time setting up its premise. It begins by showing an Indian tribe at peace; indeed, the movie goes so far as to show the tribe segregated by choice, not because they were relegated to it by “white men.” And based on this movie’s characterizations of said white men, the Indians are well rid of them.

It seems that some shady oil barons want the Indians’ land for their own (money-grubbing, naturally) reasons, so when an Indian spokesperson is given a deed for the land, one of the barons’ flunkies knocks the rep out cold and leaves him a silver dollar as “payment” for the deed that was “given up” by the Indian rep. With deed in hand, the barons send a note to the Indians giving them 24 hours to get off their land. The Indian chief (Joe Roberts) instructs the tribe to kill the first white man who passes through their gate.

Naturally, the first entrant is Buster, trying to catch an elusive butterfly. The ensuing adventures transform the ever-resourceful Buster into a Don Quixote for Native Americans. Buster begins his sojourn by being marked for death by the Indians, only to come full circle and be welcomed as the middleman between their tribe and the barons. As with everything else he does, Buster gets straight to the point: If the white men don’t do what’s right, they’ll get what they deserve. Sure enough, the barons underestimate Buster and live to regret it; he conducts a war dance in the barons’ boardroom (literally conducts it – as the Indians furiously dance in a circle around the white men, Buster rhythmically waves his arms as if directing an orchestra).

The Indians retain their deed, and Buster is rewarded with the hand of a beautiful Indian princess on whom he has had his eye. The movie concludes with one of Keaton’s funniest playing-with-the-movie-medium gags: Buster indulges in a long kiss with the princess. The title “Two years later” follows, leading us to expect a shot of Buster with the princess and their children. Instead, we see Buster in the very same embrace with the princess, pausing only to take a breath before he resumes the kiss. For all we know, they might still be locked in the same position.

Keaton biographer Marion Meade calls The Paleface “absurdist.” On the contrary, the movie shows why many critics and movie buffs regard Keaton’s viewpoint as more contemporary than Charlie Chaplin’s. Here, Buster never asks for pity, is resourceful to a fault, and sides with the outsider in a way that makes you automatically side with him. It’s way too much to suggest that a movie could bring about world peace; still, one wonders if a few world leaders couldn’t be at least slightly humbled by watching The Paleface and taking its modest message to heart.

Buster Keaton in MY WIFE’S RELATIONS (1922) – Art reflects marriage?

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

Since the real-life Buster Keaton struggled to maintain more than a shadow in the Talmadge family (into which he’d been married and then all but emasculated in the early 1920’s), it’s not very hard to guess where Keaton got the inspiration for My Wife’s Relations, about an innocent man who is mistakenly married into a family that mostly wants to use him for a punching bag.

Still, the comedy is a bit strained here. In Keaton’s finest works, one gets the impression of an original movie-maker allowed to go to town on his imagination. But his weaker shorts seem like the inspiration for a thousand terrible sitcoms.

An Amazonian woman brings Buster before a judge under the mistaken idea that Buster broke her window. But the judge does not speak English, and as he had been awaiting a couple who planned to get married, he goes ahead and unites Buster and the woman without a second thought – almost as quickly, it seems, as this woman is willing to be resigned to her getting saddled with a husband she never asked for. (Even Seven Chances, a matrimony comedy that Keaton starred in and then spent the rest of his life disowning, presented the unlikely-marriage scenario far more convincingly.)

The movie’s second half is even more mechanical, as Buster’s in-laws come to the mistaken (and again, sitcom-like) conclusion that Buster is due to inherit a fortune, causing them to be uncharacteristically nice to him. Then for no good reason, Buster accidentally dumps a load of yeast into some home-brew, and we can see the climax coming a mile away.

As such, the final chase is typically Keaton-superb – though the best moment comes before the chase, when Buster realizes his in-laws are turning on him, and he quickly draws his coat around him as though the room has taken a huge drop in temperature. It’s a pity the movie didn’t have more such grace notes of character.

Buster Keaton in ONE WEEK (1920) – How not to build a house

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The following is my contribution to Shorts! A Tiny Blogathon, hosted May 2-4, 2015 by the blog Movies Silently. Click on the banner above, and read bloggers’ critiques of short subjects from the dawn of film through 1970!

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

“To sit through dozens and dozens of short comedies of the period and then to come upon One Week is to see the one thing no man ever sees: a garden at the moment of blooming.” –Walter Kerr, The Silent Clowns

One Week was added to the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 2008, and it darn well deserves it. This is the way to start a solo movie career.

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The movie begins with an astonishing scene in which Buster and his new bride (Sybil Seely) move themselves from one moving car to another in order to avoid the advances of Hank the chauffeur (who just happens to be Mrs. Buster’s ex-boyfriend). The scene works like a cinematic Moebius strip, as the couple exits the second moving car, conks a cop on the head so that the traffic will allow the first moving car to advance in their direction, frames Hank for the cop-bopping, and then re-enter the first car as if nothing had happened. And this is a throwaway gag. Never mind Keaton’s superlative physical gifts; a director (Keaton co-directed with Eddie Cline) who starts off a movie that spectacularly has nerves of steel.

The crux of the story is the couple’s attempt to put together a do-it-yourself house from a kit they received as a wedding gift from Buster’s uncle. We already have misgivings when we see Buster saw off the end of a beam on which he’d been sitting, one story above the ground.

A harbinger of things to come.

A harbinger of things to come.

Then jealous Hank sneaks in and sabotages the kit, and from then on, it’s quite clear that Buster would have been better off if his uncle had just bought him a toaster.

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The biggest and funniest sight gag is the completed, deformed house, which endlessly produces gags like a slot machine spewing out coins. One can imagine Keaton viewing a house from all angles like a prism, uncovering every building-a-house gag imaginable. (In some of the set-ups and in Keaton’s spectacular stunts, one can also see the genesis of the wild climax of Keaton’s final independent movie, Steamboat Bill Jr.)

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Praise should also be given to Sybil Seely who, as Buster’s bride, makes the first of five appearances with Keaton. Most of the Keaton canon is not very complimentary to women (perhaps reflecting Keaton’s contentiousness with “real” women in the 1920’s and ’30s). By contrast, Seely is sunny and holds her own with Keaton here. When Buster is baffled by the house’s awkward construction, or when a raging storm turns the house into a frantic merry-go-round, Seely truly seems a partner with Buster, trying to help him or sharing in his sorrows. She grounds the movie in domestic bliss, which makes the more farcical elements that much more plausible.

(There’s also a funny non sequitor where a naked Seely is about to step out of a bathtub, when suddenly an anonymous hand helpfully covers the camera lens to help Seely avoid embarrassing herself. Keaton would probably have called this “directorial commentary.”)

Whoops!

Whoops!

In a New Yorker article celebrating the centennial of Keaton’s birth, critic Anthony Lane gave up all pretense to modesty and called One Week “a strong candidate for the perfect short subject.” I’m not prone to such superlatives, but every time I watch the movie, I’m less and less inclined to disagree with Lane.

(If you have enjoyed this blog, I heartily invite you to visit The Love Nest – A Buster Appreciation Cult, my online, encyclopedic tribute to Keaton’s glorious silent movies from 1920 to 1928. Click here to visit.)

Buster Keaton in THE SCARECROW (1920) – If it only had a brain

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Legend has it that Buster Keaton’s method for making movies was to come up with a good beginning and a good ending, because the middle would take care of itself. Upon seeing The Scarecrow and similar Keaton shorts, one could be forgiven for thinking that Keaton’s imagined endings consisted of only two words: chase scene.

Along with that hoary chestnut come some other comedy cliches in The Scarecrow, such as the string on the door to cure the toothache, and a dog who gets cream pie on his face and is then mistaken for a rabid dog. Then there’s the house that farmhand Buster shares with his work partner (Joe Roberts), with Rube Goldberg contraptions such as a phonograph player that converts into a stove, a bed that doubles as a bathtub, etc. The gimmicks are cute and sometimes funny, but never are they plausible. In fact, much of the movie has the same mechanical-gag quality – even the subtitles, one of which tells us, “All the rooms in [Buster’s] house are in one room.”

The plot’s main point is that Buster and Joe are both vying to marry the same woman (Sybil Seely), though you wouldn’t know it the way this plot point is buried among the gags. Still, the way in which the preacher is pulled off the street – literally – to perform the marriage is pretty novel and funny. Too bad the rest of the story didn’t show as much imagination.

As usual, Keaton’s acrobatic skills and sheer force of personality make you forget about the plot contrivances, at least while you’re watching the movie. But at his best, Buster’s physicality is an essential ingredient of the plot, not a diversion from it.

Buster Keaton: The Irony of the Irish

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The following is my entry in “The Luck of the Irish Blog o’ Thon,” hosted by the blog Silver Scenes from March 15 to 17 in honor of St. Patrick’s Day. Click on the poster above, and read a variety of blogs celebrating cinema’s Irish heritage!

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Famed silent film comedian Buster Keaton was born Joseph Frank Keaton on Oct. 4, 1895. Buster’s father, Joe, was of Scottish/Irish heritage. Keaton’s humor was not overtly Irish by any means. Yet there are certainly overtones of his ancestry throughout his life and his films.

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Keaton began his show business career at the age of three as one of “The Three Keatons” (shown above), consisting of himself, his father Joe, and his mother Myra. The act was best known for Joe’s treatment of Buster. When Buster would goad his father on-stage, Joe made a point of throwing Buster into the scenery or even out into the orchestra pit.

This act got huge laughs, but it was also a huge source of controversy, then and now. Sob-sister Keaton biographers have tried to claim that this act was thinly disguised child abuse, and at the time of the act, child-care authorities were constantly trying to accuse Joe of same.

But it has been well-documented that Buster’s stage costume had a suitcase handle sewn into the back of it, and Buster learned early on how to take a fall like a pro, so that he was never injured as a result of the act. The authorities who were concerned about Buster examined him thoroughly and never found any bruises.

Nevertheless, this early “urban legend” has survived, with fact-free observers concluding that Keaton became the “stone face” character due to his having to take years of public abuse in stride. But Keaton’s films well demonstrate that he knew how to take a fall without getting hurt. Here is just one example, from Keaton’s solo debut film One Week (1920):

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What is surely most “Irish” about Keaton’s movie persona is his stoicism in the face of calamity. The world seems to constantly knock Buster about, and he seems just as constantly to take it with a shrug, as though he knows the world won’t give him an inch and yet he’s still determined to make his way in it.

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Buster began his film career in 1917 supporting Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, who was one of the most popular film comedians of his time, second only to Charlie Chaplin in box-office revenues. Buster proved to be such a magnetic film presence and laugh-getter that eventually Joseph Schenck, Arbuckle’s producer, moved Keaton into Chaplin’s former studio and, from 1920 to 1928, produced short films and features co-written and -directed by Keaton that are now regarded as some of the most remarkable comedies of the silent film era.

To simply catalog some of Buster’s movie highlights is to list some of silent movies’ most famous stunts. In the aforementioned One Week, Buster and his newlywed bride try to build a do-it-yourself house that has been unknowingly sabotaged by the bride’s former boyfriend. resulting in one physical catastrophe after another.

There’s also: Buster swooping over a waterfall to save his girl in Our Hospitality (1923). Buster riding on the handlebars of a driverless motorcycle in Sherlock Jr. (1924). And Buster having a two-ton wall fall on him in Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928), escaping death only because of the wall’s open window falling down around him.

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Most famously, there was his stunt-as-movie, The General (1926), in which Buster plays a Civil War train engineer from Georgia who singlehandedly fights Northern troops with his train as his only weapon. The camera in this movie seems almost as astonished as we the audience are, as it records Buster jumping off, on, over, and on top of his moving train and making it look as effortless as riding a bike.

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All of this was done long before CGI…and all of it was done by Keaton. Other than a high-hurdle in Keaton’s film College (1927) that was performed by an Olympic jumper, Buster did each of his stunts himself, in long shot. Keaton was achingly conscientious about performing “on the level,” demonstrating the hurdles his character went through rather than leaving them to an anonymous stunt man. (Keaton’s famous comment about why he went to all of this physical trouble himself: “Stunt men don’t get laughs.”)

Sadly, after eight years of artistic freedom, producer Schenck pulled the rug out from under Keaton. He sold Keaton’s contract to Metro-Goldywn-Mayer, where Keaton became just another contract player who had no say in the scripts or direction of his M-G-M movies.

Keaton had been known as a fairly hard drinker even before his contract was sold. When Keaton lost control over his movies, he drowned his sorrows in alcohol, to the point that M-G-M couldn’t take him anymore and fired him.

After a long period where his life spiralled out of control — his wife divorced him and changed their children’s last name from “Keaton”; he married another woman while in an alcoholic daze and later divorced her — Keaton eventually picked himself up. He returned to movies in cheap comedy shorts for Educational and Columbia Pictures. And in 1940, he married an actress and dancer named Eleanor Norris, who was 23 years younger than Keaton. Friends were certain the marriage wouldn’t stick, but it lasted until Keaton’s death in 1966.

Buster and Eleanor.

Buster and Eleanor.

So in the end, the story of the real-life Keaton paralleled that of his screen persona. He went through a major series of hard knocks but came out on top at the end. Fortunately, Keaton lived long enough to see a “renaissance” of his silent movies, which finally got the full appreciation they deserved.

Finally, if you have any doubts about Keaton’s Irish heritage, here is a clip from Buster Keaton Rides Again, a documentary filmed a year before Keaton’s death. In particular, note Keaton’s response to a cake that is presented to him in honor of his 69th birthday.

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