The General (1927), Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928), and Sherlock Jr. (1924)

Posted by on Jan 2, 2012 in One-Man Show | 0 comments


Disclaimer: Don’t try any of this at home, kids.

Writers have labeled Buster Keaton a great many things. One coined him The Great Stone Face, in response to the stoic expression on Keaton’s bottle-like mug, atop which a porkpie hat often rested. Others took note of his elastic grace, regarding his comedic acrobatics. Some called him a discreet romantic with meticulous historical accuracy. Several have analyzed Keaton’s portfolio as a director, and taken note of his fierce and discerning eye. But the most suiting tag that writers have stamped on Keaton is also the simplest: The Best.

I told myself for quite some time that when I wrote about Buster in this chapter, I would undoubtedly feature The General. If you make a quick search online or in the index of film texts, you’ll no doubt find immense critical praise and, often, an unwavering blanket statement of it being his very best. But, for me, Keaton’s best cannot be contained in one film, or even a handful of reels. If I really had to, I could narrow it down to three features. So I did.

If one considers all the elements of a film’s quality, The General will reign supreme. But, ultimately, casual viewers (as most children are) will remember his gags and not necessarily the titles they came from. As far as the premise goes, I find Sherlock Jr. to be the most intriguing. In terms of gags, Steamboat Bill Jr. probably takes the cake. In terms of the whole package – a solid 100 minutes of entertaining – The General stakes its claim. But more important than plugging any single Keaton title, I implore you to just try one. I think you’ll find, as I have, that it will beckon you in for more. No other director/performer demands repeated enjoyment as much as Keaton (also give Our Hospitality, The Navigator, and Seven Chances a try).

Sherlock Jr. may be short (44 minutes), but there’s just as much (if not more) excitement, action, and story arc as any feature you’ll see today. It has to be the most accessible silent film ever made, as you’ll find yourself mezmerizingly engaged from the moment he steps into the movie screen. In it, Keaton plays a projectionist (accused of stealing from his would-be love’s household) who enters a movie screen during a dream, becomes a detective, solves the case, and wins her heart. The scheme requires more camera tricks than anything else he has done (or at least that I can recall), though some of his best stunts required none! The best part of the film is Keaton’s fascinating examination of cinematic fantasy and audience reality (I admittedly have a special affinity for self-reflexive films).

Critics panned The General for Buster1shamelessly combining comedy and carnage, since the story takes place during the Civil War (and it was a mere 13 years after the groundbreaking Birth of a Nation). Keaton stole (and reversed the sides of) a true story about a group of soldiers that plotted to steal an enemy train, but were stopped and trounced by a lone engineer. But what sounds like a modern-day epic was instead a classic comedy in the hands of Keaton, who still managed to create one of the most expensive single shots in history ($42,000), later replicated in The Bridge on the River Kwai. Keaton’s hero tracks the train by foot, handcart, bike, train, and cannon, encountering such pratfalls as logs, explosions, falls, track breaks, stray cars, runaway trains, fiery cars, misfires, a faulty axe, and a bear. The last half-hour (the victory ride and battle) presents every edge-of-your-seat cliché you’ve ever seen, as one clumsy idiot bests an entire army. Not only is it touted as Keaton’s best, but also the greatest silent comedy and one of the greatest films of any era or genre, as evidenced by its placement in Sight & Sound’s famous poll of the best films ever made.

Steamboat Bill Jr. is a little less conversation(al,) a little more action (packed). Its one long gag has been referenced, spoofed, and completely stolen too many times to even try to repeat. If you’ve seen someone narrowly avoid death, by passing through a doorway or passage of some kind, you know what I’m talking about.

At the beginning of his career Keaton was part of a vaudeville family act where his father comically tossed him all over the stage. Shortly thereafter he learned screen comedy in shorts before landing full-length features. His career waned when sound came, not because of talkies, but because studios didn’t grant him the same creative control.

Nowadays whenever someone whispers Keaton, it’s usually closely followed by a comparison to Chaplin (Harold Lloyd has the discomfort of being compared to both). But as Andrew Sarris notes, “Keaton is now generally acknowledged as the superior director and inventor of visual forms. There are those who would go further and claim Keaton as pure cinema as opposed to Chaplin’s essentially theatrical cinema.”

Keaton often directed his silent films with the aid of a co-director, and always cut them himself. His films, always purposely, start slowly. When the camera begins to move more and more, so does the action. Unlike Chaplin’s features, Keaton’s did not look for laughs every minute, or even every reel. Keaton purposely built his films like a one-hilled rollercoaster, so that the action and laughter mounts at the exact moment when your anticipation is stretched to the limit. It’s also worth noting Keaton’s perception of the women he so actively tries to woo in his films, since he often presents their beauty through their idiocies and irritations. Think, for example, of the moment in The General when he fakes choking her and kisses her instead. This comes after showing her calmly cleaning the train during the chase, discarding burnable wood because it has a hole in it, driving the train the wrong direction, and setting fire to the bridge too early. His presentation may seem misogynistic, but is actually quite equal, considering he’s often just as bumbling and clumsy.

But the real reason for Keaton’s brilliance lies in his stuntwork and physical gags. Long before Hollywood’s leading men had their own team of stunt doubles, Keaton was doing the stunts for his costars! Long before Jackie Chan was breaking bones, Keaton was breaking his neck (unknowingly) in Sherlock Jr. “Keaton was a wonderfully resourceful inventor of mechanistic gags; as he ran afoul of locomotives, steamships, prefabricated and over-electrified houses, he put himself through some of the hardest and cleverest punishment ever designed for laughs,” James Agee wrote. “In Sherlock Jr., boiling along on the handlebars of a motorcycle quite unaware that he has lost his driver, Keaton whips through city traffic, breaks up a tug-of-war, gets a shovelful of dirt in the face from each of a long line of Rockette-timed ditch-diggers, approaches a log at high speed which is hinged open by dynamite precisely soon enough to let him through and, hitting an obstruction, leaves the handlebars like an arrow leaving a bow, whams through a window of a shack in which the heroine is about to be violated, and hits the heavy feet-first, knocking him through the opposite wall. The whole sequence is as clean in motion as the trajectory of a bullet.”

Within each gag, Keaton remains in long  or medium shots to let the gag unravel in its entirety. This often takes a decent amount of time, such as the two cannon fiascos in The General, but that also makes them more charming. We see the mechanical failure, his reaction, and then the final saving grace, as fate and comedy sees fit. “Another of Keaton’s strategies was to avoid anticipation,” Roger Evert noted. “Instead of showing you what was about to happen, he showed you what was happening; the surprise and the response are both unexpected, and funnier.”

Throwing one log onto another in The General. Narrowly fitting into the window in Steamboat Bill Jr. Falling from a three-story building in Sherlock Jr. Each could have crushed and killed him, but that’s what makes Buster Keaton a cinematic immortal.

“(I’m just sorry) that the museum, or some dime theater, isn’t showing every short film Keaton ever made, night and day, over and over,” Agee wrote. “Barring only the best of Chaplin, they seem to me the most wonderful comedies ever made.”

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