After discussing Buster Keaton’s life in Part 1, I decided to take a more specific look at some of his films. Keaton the man and Keaton the filmmaker are difficult to view separately.
Keaton may not have been born onstage, but he grew up there and was a born performer. The film legacy of Keaton survives, although it nearly did not. Thankfully, some of his films have been fully restored, others are less fortunate, yet at least tattered copies remain. Watching Keaton films, along with those of Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd and Fatty Arbuckle, one recognizes comedy routines and camera movements that seem very familiar. The reason is because these comic genuses have been copied and imitated through the decades. Keaton in fact was hired by MGM to develop gags for Red Skelton, the Marx Brothers and others from his own material. At least he earned a little money for it.
Arbuckle & Keaton Short Films
Keaton made 14 short films wit Fatty Arbuckle before heading out on his own.
The Butcher Boy (1917)
Keaton’s first film. Fatty Arbuckle writes, directs and stars. Keaton is a market customer whose function is to cause commotion of which Fatty is the beneficiary. Novice Keaton holds his own with Arbuckle.
The Bellboy (1918)
Fatty Arbuckle was the star, Keaton was a junior bellboy. Keaton’s job was to look perplexed and engage in a number of pratfalls. He shows how well he works as part of a team with expert comedic timing. The showcase gag is when Keaton gets stuck in an elevator and Arbuckle “rescues” him.
Below are a representative sample of Buster Keaton’s work, but certainly not his entire filmography.
Out West (1918)
A Western with Arbuckle and Keaton. Gags that would become film staples like a chase atop a moving train and decoupling cars to escape pursuit, and tricked by the oasis mirage in the desert. Keaton is the bumbling sheriff. Sadly, the racial depiction of Blacks and Native Americans is what you expect.
Arbuckle and Keaton are feds after bootleggers. The quality of the surviving prints are in poor condition. Aside from a few physical gags, a weak film.
The Hayseed (1919)
Arbuckle delivers the mail and Keaton runs the post office. Arbuckle gets in trouble over an insured letter. Keaton’s function is a few physical gags and magic tricks. An average film at best.
Keaton Short Films
The Scarecrow (1920)
Keaton wrote and directed with Eddie Cline. He and his buddy in the film compete for the affection of a young lady. Keaton is mistaken for a scarecrow in a field in which he fools his pursuers. The opening scene with his buddy, they have all kinds of labor saving gimmicks which is kind of cool.
One Week (1921)
Keaton’s first independent short film. A newlywed, he and his bride are given a house – which they have to assemble. The house from hell. A mix up with the instructions and they build it incorrectly, resulting in a cockeyed structure that ends up a disaster with a train demolishing their house.
A very creative and funny film. in search of a Keaton short film to start into his collection? Start here.
The High Sign (1921)
Written and directed by Keaton. The first of his independent productions but shelved for a year due to his displeasure with it.
Mistaken for an expert marksman working in a shooting gallery, Keaton is hired by both sides of a dispute to kill the other. The climax in a two-story house is rather wild.
The Boat (1921)
Written and directed by Keaton and Eddie Cline. The boat was constructed in his basement and was too large to fit through the door. His house crumbles as he pulls it through the door. He loses his car while launching it. Naturally, more trouble ensues during sailing.
There is one particularly inventive scene where the boat is turned over and over during a storm. Keaton constructed the set to turn 360 degrees with him turning as well.
The Paleface (1922)
Also co-directed by Keaton and Cline. Keaton is a butterfly collector who stumbles into a conflict between oilmen and Native Americans. The oilmen have cheated the Native Americans to get their land. Keaton is mistaken for one of the oilmen and is burned at the stake, but the asbestos underwear he has on saves him and impresses the Native Americans. Keaton helps them to turn the table on the oilmen. The racial stereotypes are quite evident here. Keaton’s stunts are impressive.
The Love Nest (1923)
Written and directed by Keaton. To escape disappointment in love, Keaton goes to sea, joining a whaling ship called The Love Nest whose captain is prone to throwing his incompetent stewards overboard. Keaton replaces the last steward.
Keaton Feature Films
The Saphead (1920)
Keaton directed this remake, it was his first starring role in a feature. Keaton portrays the undistinguished son of a rich man who agrees to take the fall for his dishonest brother-in-law who intends to make himself wealthy with the family’s money. Keaton’s character of course saves the day and wins back his girl.
The Navigator (1924)
Co-directed by Keaton, much of The Navigator takes place on a ship with some underwater photography. Interesting concepts for the time. Rejected by his love, Keaton sales alone, on the wrong ship. Mishap, ensues, but somehow he saves his girl and her father from foreign agents.
Keaton and his gal jump into the ocean to escape cannibals (another racial stereotype) and are surprised by a surfacing mini submarine. How many times have we seen this gag since?
A ship is a great stage for comedy routines, with Keaton taking full advantage of the opportunities. Keaton works well when his film is based on an object like a ship, house, camera or train, which become a character in the film. A very successful film for Keaton.
The Seven Chances (1925)
Directed by Keaton and based on a play. The opening shots were filmed in garish Technicolor, but not the remaining film. Keaton reportedly did not like the subject matter but owed money to the producer.
Keaton plays a businessman who will inherit seven million dollars if he marries by the end of the day. His girlfriend rejects his proposal because it is for the wrong reason, then he cannot find any woman to accept his proposal, until his buddy plants a story in the newspaper, then hundreds of single women chase him. Finally his girlfriend reconsiders and marries him just in time. One of the best gags involves him running down a hill. Hundreds of rocks chase him, one even knocking down a large tree where he takes refuge.
Go West (1925)
Written and directed by Keaton. He plays a man thinking he is headed east by train but is really traveling west. He knows nothing about being a cowboy, but befriends a cow along the way called Brown Eyes. He protects her from coyotes, going to the slaughterhouse and rustlers. He leads a cattle drive through Los Angeles. Sometimes clever, sometimes very routine.
The General (1926)
The first thing I noticed is crisp black and white photography, in fact, the restoration of this film is impressive. It’s been years since I’ve seen this film from start to finish.
Keaton is a train engineer who is deemed too valuable to the South to be taken into the army. His train is stolen by Union soldiers and Keaton’s character gives chase. The story is a railroad version of a ballet between these trains. Keaton’s athleticism and courage to perform those stunts on a moving train is so impressive.
The train is a character in the film. It is both a protagonist and antagonist to Keaton’s character, Johnnie Gray the train engineer. The train is the reason he cannot join the army and impress his girl. He is deemed a coward. The theft of his train also sets him on the path to become a hero using The General, a train he procures to chase his train.
The use of the tracking cameras with the coordination of the trains, all done without special effects or computers speaks volumes about Keaton’s skill as a director and production supervisor.
The film is beautiful to watch in every regard and represents Keaton at the height of his career.
Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)
Keaton is Bill, Jr., who travels from Boston to see the father he hasn’t seen in over 20 years. Father and son are strangers.
The cyclone sequence is quite amazing. Building explode and collapse, people are blown across the frame, a steamboat is sunk, the jail holding his father is lifted into the river. The cyclone afforded the opportunity for Keaton to use his physical skills and become the story’s hero.
The Cameraman (1928)
At first, I did not like this film. I found Keaton’s character rather pathetic. He played a cameraman who wanted to be hired to film current events for newsreels. A young woman he was sweet on worked there and she tried to help him get work.
The story was rather thin, but Keaton make the most of the physical gags, in fact, his physical work was impressive. He invented gags that had nothing to do with the story, but it livens the film. The plot is so threadbare that it’s a clothesline with Keaton gags hung on it. The film’s conclusion didn’t rescue the film, but made it palatable for me.
Spite Marriage (1929)
Keaton is beginning to show his age and/or the effects of his drinking. There is more wear and sadness in his face, he looks older than he is.
He plays a bumbler, in love with an actress on the rebound. As an actor in her play, Keaton’s character pretty much destroys the set and performance, but it gets big laughs from the audience. Keaton’s gags are so good that he would later recycle them for Marx Brothers and Red Skeleton films. There is a good documentary (So Funny It Hurts: Buster Keaton and MGM) that shows the Keaton originals and the Chico Marx/Red Skelton versions.
Interestingly, MGM seemed to make a lot of films incorporating infidelity, divorce and comic violence, yet they also preached morality. I found this apparent in the MGM films produced starring Keaton.
Keaton does the best he can with the role, but the plot is thin and the material is beneath him. His face is less sad and more depressed given what MGM has handed him.
Free and Easy (1930)
Keaton’s first talkie film. The material did not fit him. Yes, he’s a bumbler, who harbors a crush on the young lady hoping to break into show business. Little of his talent is used here. MGM continued to ignore what made him a star.
His part included scenes where his character gets lose inside a movie studio disrupting several different films in production. Since MGM was a movie factory, the film showed off their big dream world productions. Keaton is asked to sing and dance as his character is given a part in a big film.
And So it Goes
According to IMDb.com, Keaton has 152 acting credits, as well as 39 directing credits. This does not include his appearances on talk/variety television programs, his stage work or commercials.
Keaton’s is a life of contrasts: incredible peaks and valleys, despair and happiness, professional servitude and artistic freedom. He spent his life as actor, but was a born performer, seeking to connect with his audience, whether one person or thousands.