Key Roles: The Butcher Boy, One Week, The Frozen North, Our Hospitality, Three Ages, Sherlock Jr., The Navigator, Go West, Seven Chances, The General, College, Steamboat Bill, Jr., The Cameraman, Sunset Boulevard, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
Buster Keaton’s filmic persona and the cinematic vision he built around it trace neatly back to a childhood spent in vaudeville. As a young boy, he performed with his parents in a comedic act that saw him thrown wildly about the stage by his father, playing, essentially, a disobedient-child-turned-abuse-victim. Buster mastered the pratfall in these early years. At the same time, he developed his trademark “stone face,” finding that an emotionless affect drew more audience laughs.
These roots eventually produced a decade of creative flourishing. From 1920 to 1929, Keaton generated an unmatched oeuvre of independent silent pictures. In each of them, he remained stoic, his deadpan expression reading at once forlorn and resolute. His demeanor—so collected in a world that raced and spun and crashed outrageously—differentiated him from the goofball Harold Lloyd or the empathetic Charlie Chaplin. And while the latter two were both prodigious stuntmen, Keaton was always finest at taking the fall.
His most iconic stunt is featured in one of his last great pictures, Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928). The image is unforgettable: Keaton stands amid a swirl of dust, his hair and clothes flapping in hurricane-force winds. Suddenly, the façade of the house behind him begins to tip forward. It plummets to the ground, but Keaton stands, unscathed, his feet now framed by a single open window. The façade weighed tons and Keaton refused to rehearse the stunt.
The actor’s legacy lies with The General (1926), a Civil War comedy in which he plays a train conductor. The stunts here are otherworldly, with Keaton defying all rules of self-preservation to run and climb and take the fall aboard a moving locomotive. The film was something of a flop at the time, but is retrospectively hailed as one of the greatest ever made.
Unfortunately, The General’s failure at the box office lost Keaton his independence as a filmmaker. This ultimately led to his signing with MGM, the decline of his career and a period of great personal strife. His talent was “rediscovered” in the 1950s and ’60s, resulting in a number of cameo-style roles, including as a melancholic symbol of the silent film era in Sunset Boulevard (1950) and in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, his final film role. In both, he is woefully reduced to a relic; mythic in one, properly funny in the other.
Still, as the writer, director, star, and producer of his own films in the ’20s, Keaton displayed genius instincts and a profound work ethic. He was a perfectionist with a sense of humor at once slapstick and subtle—one of a few men who discovered what cinema could do and then set a bar that has rarely, if ever, been surpassed. – Lillian Marx