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Buster Keaton and Why Silent Comedy Still Matters

Buster Keaton and Why Silent Comedy Still Matters

We’re fast approaching the 100th anniversary of the heyday of silent cinema. While not everything from that era has stood the test of time–as a matter of fact, only around 20% of films made during the silent era even exist anymore–comedy and horror have had the best go of it. Nevertheless, it seems more and more that the classic silent comedians are becoming qualified as quaint nostalgia, instead of being heralded for the powerhouse of laughs they earn. My very favorite of these old greats is Buster Keaton, who is gearing up for a much-needed rediscovery: Kino Lorber is now releasing brand new 2K transfers of four of Keaton’s films.

Most people agree that the big three names in silent comedy were Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, and Buster Keaton. While I love all three (read my review of Chaplin’s The Kid and an appreciation of Lloyd‘s work), I think Keaton has earned solid ground as my favorite. He got his start in shorts as a foil to Fatty Arbuckle and would then go on to star in his own (read my review of his Shorts Collection here). Beginning in 1923, he started essentially writing, directing, and starring in his own feature films, mostly free of interference from producer Joseph M. Schenck. These films represent some of the purest expressions of an artist who filled his movies with gag after gag.

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While Chaplin’s movies made the most money per film, and Lloyd made the highest grosses in total, Keaton was a bit more of an acquired taste. They didn’t always make money, and certain critics at the time–namely the trade papers and The New York Times–were not kind at all to his breed of comedy. Still, I think his humor has stood the test of time the best. His stoneface demeanor feels right at home in today’s deadpan comedy space, and his amazing acrobatic stunt work remains incredibly influential, most notably to Jackie Chan.

The films released by Kino in this newest batch, carefully and painstakingly restored by Lobster Films, represent some of Keaton’s best known and most beloved films. Three Ages was Keaton’s first feature as director, and he swung for the fences immediately. A parody of D.W. Griffith’s three-and-a-half-hour 1916 epic Intolerance, Three Ages intercuts three different eras of human history–cavemen times, Ancient Rome, and the roaring ’20s, following the lead character in each (Keaton all three times) as he attempts to find love. Having already directed 20 very successful short films, Keaton’s structure for Three Ages allowed for essentially interwoven shorts, but still with a narrative thrust throughout.

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The basic boy attempting to court girl storyline for each of the ages allowed Keaton to explore many different avenues for comedy, employing physical gags and prop humor specific to those different times. Keaton, throughout his career making independent shorts and features, was all about crafting specific bits that showed off his timing, his reactions, and his supreme athleticism. While the shorts retroactively feel like a precursor to Looney Tunes (a basic framework to contain various hilarious set pieces), Keaton made a point to spend time crafting the narrative of his features, making sure they worked both as films and as gag depositories.

While Three Ages showed off Keaton’s potential for scale and scope in his direction, the other three films each showcase a specific aspect of his talent, beginning with his arguable masterpiece: 1926’s The General, a movie that was incredibly ahead of its time in the untapped field of the action comedy. The story of a Civil War nobody who chases down a stolen prize locomotive known as “The General,” who then turns it around and heads back the way he came with enemy soldiers on his trail all the while, gave the film a glorious percussive sense of pace, where Keaton was able to show off his acrobatics as well as his sense of humor.

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The General is much more of an action movie than a comedy by today’s standards. Watching it again recently, it’s easy to see why someone like Jackie Chan emulated Keaton in terms of how he shows action–in wide shots, in order to show off the physical prowess and “realness” of the stunt in question. Keaton is actually riding on a runaway train engine, and he’s actually risking his life hanging off of it.

It’s also impossible to ignore what is clearly this movie’s influence on George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road. The basic structure is identical: People in a vehicle go as far as they can in one direction, being pursued by enemies, there’s a moment to reflect, then they turn right back around and go back where they came, all on that same mode of transport. But, as with Mad Max, The General offers little moments and hiccups and obstacles along the way to build the excitement. It’s a masterwork.

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Unfortunately, people didn’t really care for The General at the time, and the picture lost a considerable amount of money for producer Joseph M. Schenck, who told Keaton he’d have to play much more in established, safer genres. The result was College, a movie that feels incredibly similar to Harold Lloyd’s The Freshman, where Keaton plays a new student at an esteemed university. The character is a smart guy but is trying to prove himself as a physical specimen and sportsman. Obviously, Keaton’s character was supposed to be a complete buffoon on the field of play, but this meant the real Keaton–who was incredibly cut, given what a physical comedian he was–had to go over the top with how inept he was, tossing his body around like a rag doll while being crappy at shot put or hammer throw, and overrunning the bases on the baseball field, getting his whole side out.

Keaton’s his final independent feature before going to MGM would be one of his finest: 1928’s Steamboat Bill Jr, showcase for everything Keaton had honed up to that point–enormous set pieces, acrobatic stunts, a boy-meets-girl storyline, and well-crafted, clever slapstick. Keaton often reminds me of a human Looney Tune and Steamboat Bill Jr is like that to a T. Surely you’ve seen the gag where someone is standing in front of a house/building and the whole front of it falls forward, and the man is only not killed because they’re standing directly where the window is? That’s Buster Keaton, and that’s from this movie, which ends with a massive typhoon hitting a town and Buster getting blown away in it.

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Keaton’s work may have not been for everybody at the time, but I think he’s aged the best of any of the major silent comedians. Though most of our comedy today is based on improvisational dialogue (which gets old), it’s the tone and delivery–often deadpan, and usually at the expense of a sad sack main character–that strikes so close to Buster. Go discover or rediscover Buster Keaton’s work and see what I mean.

Let me know in the comments below what your favorite silent comedy is and why!

Images: Kino Lorber/Lobster Films


Kyle Anderson is the Associate Editor for Nerdist and a lover of comedy from all ages. You can find his film and TV reviews here. Follow him on Twitter!

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