As a fan and aficionado of Buster Keaton for ten years, I feel it is my duty to share this supreme cinema artist with the rest of the world. There are already many web sites that provide biographies, critiques, and images of the man and his films, so instead of going over that territory, I offer an essay I wrote for a film history course. Whether you're a film historian, a Buster fan, or someone who wouldn't know Keaton from Chaplin (oh, no!), this essay makes a great read.
For a related link, see a page that shows what happens when you become a wee bit obsessed with Photoshop... Alternative Keaton. Also, to view Quicktime clips of the kind of moments described in this paper, go to: Slapstick: Buster Keaton.
If a picture is worth a thousand words, then sixty seconds of a Buster Keaton film is worth over a million words -- and maybe more than that. A skilled director and editor, Keaton was also a master filmmaker who used mise-en-scène to pack his films with information about his characters and the worlds they inhabited. Using intertitles sparingly, Keaton was able to create pictures that spoke for themselves -- and still speak, after more than sixty years.
The High Sign (1921), Our Hospitality (1923), and College (1927) are three films that run the Keaton gamut. As Keaton'S first solo two-reeler¹ The High Sign is a comparatively primitive comedy, with a barebones plot and a central character known only as "Our Hero." Released as Keaton's second full-length feature, Our Hospitality is a different film entirely, a historical comedy with a well-developed story and a defined central character. By the time he produced College, Keaton had clearly perfected his formula for using the central character to shape and drive forward his films.
In The High Sign, Keaton plays "Our Hero," a man who arrives in Scene One when he is tossed out of a moving train. By the end of the film, Keaton has not only survived a stint working at a mob-operated shooting gallery, but he has averted a mob hit on one of the town's leading citizens -- a mob hit he was supposed to carry out! One of the central themes of this film -- if indeed there is any theme at all, given the simplicity of the plot -- seems to be the utter absurdity of the universe in which Keaton's character operates. His character literally lands in the town out of nowhere, emphasizing the notion that he has been placed in a world to which he does not belong.
Keaton's first scene establishes this fact in less than a minute. Immediately after arriving in town, "Our Hero" walks over to a fast-moving carrousel, stretches out his arm, and pulls out a newspaper, apparently snatched from one of the spinning townsfolk. Keaton quickly walks over to a bench, the first of a series of benches set up in a column, like the pews of a church. Sitting down and crossing his legs, Keaton picks up the paper and begins to read. He unfolds the paper once. He unfolds the paper twice. Then he unfolds it again. And then again. This paper is as big as a bed sheet!
Unable to handle the situation sitting down, Keaton mounts the bench, continues unfolding, and finds himself entangled in a mass of paper. He loses his balance and collapses in a heap, knocking over two benches in the process and burying his body in paper. Keaton's head pops through displaying a look of surprise. Suddenly, via a point-of-view shot, the audience sees what Keaton sees and realizes what he was looking for at the start of this adventure -- a job from the help wanted section.
This brief scene does much to prefigure the story to follow. Keaton's character obviously had planned on getting a paper and finding a job, but he probably did not foresee the extreme difficulty he would find in actually reaching the help wanted section. How was he to know that he was picking up not the regular morning edition but the surrealist edition? The string of absurd situations in this film has only just begun, and already the audience has had a full taste.
Presented in long shot and comprising only a single take (minus the POV at the end), the portion of this scene that takes place on the bench is an excellent example of the way Keaton preferred to present his gags -- and his characters. Rather than drawing attention to a single portion of the action or the character (e.g. his hands as he unfolds the paper) or expanding the narrative to include multiple perspectives (e.g. townspeople watching this absurd situation unfold), Keaton uses the film to present what mattered most to him as a director and a comedian -- seeing the gag unfold. According to Robert Benayoun, "[Keaton] was a brilliant film cutter, yet he invariably knew when not to cut, insisting that even the humblest gags must have complete integrity on screen. Keaton in fact was adamant about this, for he realized that comic business must never be unnecessarily fragmented in the editing if it is to be effective; rather, continuity must be preserved" (177).
While Keaton's shorts hinge on a relatively undeveloped, often nameless character -- a young man in a porkpie hat, baggy pants, and slapshoes -- his features, produced later on, focus on a variety of fleshed-out characters, each with his own personality, history, and environment. No longer was the central figure simply an ordinary man functioning in an absurd world; he was a very specific man functioning in an absurd world.
In Our Hospitality, for example, Keaton portrays Willie McKay, a 21-year-old New York City dandy who travels to the Blue Ridge Mountains when he learns he has inherited his father's "estate" (in actuality, a dilapidated log cabin). Later on McKay becomes embroiled in a family feud, the same feud that had killed his father and led his mother to move to New York in the first place. (The mother subsequently died, leaving McKay to be raised by his aunt, who told him nothing of the feud.)
After a brief prologue set at the time of McKay's father's death, the film begins with a cut to New York City circa 1830, when cows still roamed in open fields and traffic was just beginning to be a problem. Keaton makes his appearance, elegantly dressed and standing on a porch somewhere in the city. Wearing a ruffled shirt with fine tie, waistcoat, cutaway jacket, and top hat, McKay is obviously a different sort than "Our Hero." A man of some means, McKay examines a sealed envelope and then, without so much as a wink or a smile, he hops onto his bicycle, removes his top hat, puts the envelope in it, and places the top hat back on his head with an elegant tap. His bicycle ride is ready to begin.
Demonstrating Keaton's fondness for unusual machines, however, the bicycle McKay rides is not just any bicycle, but a contraption of the highest order. Modeled on the Gentleman's Hobbyhorse (Blesh 226), one of the earliest known bicycles, McKay's vehicle immediately strikes ones as being absurdly awkward to ride. Minus anything resembling a seat and without pedals, the bicycle's handlebars are more like metal reins. The metal bar that crosses McKay's abdomen seems designed simply to give him something to lean against. As McKay begins to ride, it becomes apparent that in order to propel himself forward, he must swing his legs back and forth, as if he is riding on a swing. It is not a graceful vehicle to ride; it is difficult to steer and certainly uncomfortable.
Nevertheless, McKay maintains his façade of elegance. His entire frame seems permeated with a sense of serenity untouched by his surroundings. He is proud of his bicycle and, in his mind, all as is as it should be, even if he does look like a fool with his swinging legs and his wobbly bicycle. Glancing about himself nonchalantly, he is apparently not in a hurry. It is conceivable that this character has never been in a hurry. His life in New York has been quiet, peaceful, perhaps even unexceptional -- a far cry from the life he would have lived if he had remained in the mountains where he was born, and an even farther cry from the situation he is about to get himself into. This portion of the scene ends as McKay arrives at an intersection.
This sequence lasts only about thirty seconds, but, as demonstrated, provides a wealth of information about the central character. Keaton's economy of means is exceptional. There is no intertitle explaining what kind of life McKay has led, only a card that reads "Willie McKay." He does not have to be shown at home or at work in order for the nature of his character to be understood. Riding in his fine clothes on his comically inelegant bicycle, McKay is a gentle, fastidious creature who has lived a coddled existence until this moment. He may have lived in a cabin as a baby, but by now he is used to a certain level of material wealth. He is used to fine suits and a life that proceeds as expected.
Some critics, particularly Gerald Mast, have noted that compared with the films of his contemporary Charlie Chaplin, Keaton's films spend a considerably longer amount of time establishing character. Mast notes that by adopting the character of the Tramp, Chaplin saved himself a lot of trouble (134). Keaton, meanwhile, was forced to spend the first couple of reels of each film establishing his character. "Thus," Mast writes, "the Keaton films begin slowly" (135). While this pattern does in fact hold true for Our Hospitality, it is not necessarily something to be viewed negatively. Keaton may take more time to establish character than Chaplin, but the character he does create is rich and, moreover, created via an astonishing economy of means.
James Agee may have put his finger on the essence of Keaton's art when he wrote that the great silent comedians "simplified and invented" the art of physical cliché, "finding new and much deeper uses for the idiom" (3). Continuing, Agee wrote, "They learned to show emotion through it, and comic psychology, more eloquently than most language has ever managed to, and they discovered beauties of common motion which are hopelessly beyond reach of words" (3). Keaton's acting in this scene is a distillation of years of expressing character and story without words. The way he moves his head and eyes, the particular way he swings his legs -- these are manifestations of character so subtle as to defy description by words. That these actions are captured in a silent medium is fortuitous; in a sound film or in real life, they might not speak quite so clearly.
One final factor in this sequence that should be noted is its use of the long shot combined with a single take, produced by a tracking shot. As in the newspaper scene in The High Sign, Keaton employs the camera to reveal his entire figure and the wholeness of the action at work. While this scene does not constitute as much of a "gag" as the scene in the two-reeler, its composition seems to stem from the fact that Keaton viewed the presentation of dramatic, character-building "business" in much the same way he viewed his comic bits. As Mast writes, "Keaton favored the far shot, not only to juxtapose his individual body with the natural universe, but also to provide a distant view of how a particular mechanism works" (130). In this case, the "mechanism" seems to be both the character of the man and the nature of his machine.
In College, a feature that came four years later, Keaton once again employed an early sequence to establish his central character in fine detail, using no intertitles and only minimal interaction with other characters. The film opens with Keaton's character, Ronald, rushing with his mother through a violent downpour to his high school graduation. The pair arrives at the hall soaked to the skin and evidently somewhat late. Ronald is so flustered that he neglects to shut his umbrella as he escorts his mother down the aisle. She takes a seat in the front row, while Ronald finds a chair along the wall to the side at the front of the hall.
Shown is long shot as he sits down, Ronald is still holding his umbrella open, a situation that evidently irritates the man in the neighboring seat, who squirms to catch a better view of the ceremony. Barely taking notice of this, Ronald finally attempts to close his umbrella. His attempt is a feeble one, and, impatiently, his neighbor reaches over and closes it for him. Ronald looks at the man in disbelief: How did he close it so easily?
After a brief cut to the ceremony, the film returns to Ronald, still puzzling over his umbrella. His neighbor, eyes once again on the ceremony, sits impassively, arms folded across his chest. Ronald is still not paying attention to the ceremony at all. Instead, he reopens his umbrella. He will give it a second try. Strangely, when Ronald tries to close it, it seems to bend halfway in on itself, but it will not close. He tries again. Evidently helpless when it comes to solving even this minor predicament, Ronald turns to his neighbor and attempts to show him his the problem. His neighbor ignores him. At last, frustrated, Ronald tosses the umbrella down on the floor beside him. Just as he looks up to watch the ceremony, the umbrella closes with a snap. Ronald's gaze switches instantly to the floor, bewildered.
In College, Keaton plays a character who is, in some ways, quite different from those in The High Sign and Our Hospitality. Ronald is a bookworm and, as the film goes on to show, an uncoordinated, unlucky buffoon. Nevertheless, this character is introduced in much the same way as those in the other two films. In this brief sequence, Ronald's character is delineated quite clearly through the simple mise-en-scène. Lacking enough common sense to close his umbrella immediately upon entering the building, Ronald is evidently absent-minded. Unaware of the way he is annoying his neighbor and carrying on in front of the crowd, Ronald appears to be socially inept. Finally, by encountering problems with something as simple as an umbrella, Ronald shows himself to be weak and helpless. He is a character in need of much improvement, something he will receive by the film's end.
Reaching back to a theme evident in The High Sign, Keaton infuses this sequence with the sort of comic absurdity found in all his films of the period. "In tuxedo, Confederate uniform, or deep sea diver's suit," writes Benayoun, "Buster took inperturbability to the borderline between the serious and the ludicrous, without ever resorting to pathos or ridicule" (101). It is never clear why Ronald's umbrella will not close when he tries it. Perhaps he is too weak to pull it shut. Then again, if this is true, how does it eventually close of its own accord? In any case, it is not terribly important, just another random element that exists in the world of a Keaton character, setting him apart from his universe and thereby drawing out his nature.
As an actor, director, and editor, Buster Keaton was a brilliant filmmaker, and as shown by the sequences described above, an artist able to capture a world of subtle meaning in a few moments. Employing a delicate mise-en-scène , mastering the use of the long shot, and imbuing his films with a sense of the comically absurd, Keaton created films of lasting eloquence, humor and beauty.
Agee, James. Agee on Film. New York: McDowell, Obolesky Inc., 1958.
Benayoun, Robert. The Look of Buster Keaton. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1982.
Blesh, Rudi. Keaton. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1966.
Mast, Gerald. The Comic Mind: Comedy and the Movies. Indianapolis / New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1973.
Meade, Marion. Buster Keaton: Cut to the Chase. New York: HarperCollins, 1995.
Rapf, Joanna E. and Gary L. Green. Buster Keaton: A Bio-Bibliography. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1995.
Slapstick: Buster Keaton
|Go Directly To:|