I first saw Buster Keaton on a snowy night in January, a few weeks into the spring semester of my freshman year in college. It was during an introductory film course, and weekly screenings were held Monday evenings in the biology building, which had an empty theater big enough to hold the approximately 150 enrolled students. As so often is the case with introductory film courses, we began with the origins of cinema. That night's screening included Sherlock Jr., one of Keaton's many masterpieces, although at the time I knew neither Keaton's name nor the possibilities in the world of silent comedy. It's now been many years since that night. I don't remember anything else we watched; probably A Voyage to the Moon and The Great Train Robbery, and maybe even a Griffith or Chaplin short, but I can vividly remember Keaton — Keaton and the dollars outside the theater; Keaton on top of the boxcars and taking a nasty spill when hit with a torrent of water; Keaton and the billiards table; and Keaton in the most memorable of sequences, straddling the handlebars of a motorbike and cruising down a highway of near-misses thinking there was someone actually driving the damn thing.
And I remember that I hadn't laughed so hard at a film in a long time. After the screening was over, I bundled myself back into my layers and made my way back to the dormitory. This was at a Midwestern university in the depths of winter, the trees heavy with ice and the patches of grass covered in wind-blown snow; the maintenance teams were out in the full force, dropping rock salt on the roads and sidewalks, but the results were hardly perfect. Shortly before reaching a key crosswalk, my left foot touched a spot of black ice and slipped out fast behind me. I stumbled but kept my balance, preventing myself from falling onto the sidewalk. And then I asked myself the sort of question I've come to ask myself time and time against when my klutziness got the best of me: How would Keaton have handled that?
It's a question a viewer comes to ask himself numerous times in a Keaton film. Perhaps not necessarily how such a thing will be done, but what exactly Keaton is going to do. Modern psychology teaches us that our understanding of humor — ultimately resulting, if all goes according to plan, in a laugh — is formed largely within a brain that isn't built for such a thing. We are always trying to solve something in black and white, our brains so focused on logic and reasonable prediction that when something incongruous to our expectations occurs, our brain has to shift gears in an attempt to make sense of the words or the action. It is a shift in expectation, so often formed through illogical behavior, that stimulates sections of our brains. It's why a Groucho Marx punch-line that can hit your mind so bluntly — the words steer you in one direction, the pun shocks you back to earth.
Keaton — born Joseph Francis, he earned the nickname "Buster" performing as a young man with his vaudevillian family, known for being able to "take a buster" in the way he could fall — plays this expectations game in his comedy. In the best of Keaton's films, things rarely turn out the way we expect they will. It is not simply that he will fall, flee, or fly, but it is what awaits him at the end of that momentarily airborne journey. This works because Keaton's is also a comedy of space, of expertly constructing and implementing set-pieces down to the millimeter so that everything goes according to plan. That plan, of course, is for everything not to go according to plan for the character on screen. When Keaton jumps from one building to another, for example, there is a good chance that Keaton-the-character has drastically underestimated the distance and fails in a gloriously funny fashion; Keaton-the-director, who performed all of his stunts, knows exactly the degree to which he will fail and has it worked out perfectly. In an important way this is different from standard slapstick. David Thomson notes that most silent comedies "did little more than film the comedian's 'act,'" which usually included some sort of slapstick or physical humor; but Keaton's films are elaborate works of art built with the camera in mind — in other words, films, not mere performances. Chaplin, who also made films and avoided simply performing an act, often fell as well, but in a way that tried to defy gravity. Keaton fell in a way that worked with gravity; his world is occupied with physical objects that have real weight and often real consequences.
I have no answer to the question of who was better, Chaplin or Keaton, nor do I have a specific answer to the question of whether I prefer one to the other. Most days I'm able to address the issue by saying my heart loves Chaplin and my head loves Keaton. I tend to agree with Andrew Sarris, who says the difference between the two is the difference between poise and poetry, that Keaton should be acknowledged as a "superior director and inventor of visual forms" (note the obfuscation of whether his films were better), and that unlike Chaplin, Keaton's films proved inimitable. But I also find myself agreeing with Walter Kerr in the sense that Chaplin is instantly accessible because "his comedy is contained entirely in his persona, a persona so multi-layered that it cannot be exhausted." Film critics split hairs when they try to decide who's better, but if Keaton is comes ahead for many, Kerr argues in The Silent Clowns, it's because he was more "compulsively analytical," a trait that speaks well to a critic's mind. Keaton is at once an observer and a participant in his own films. While Chaplin's persona has remained a relative constant in film appreciation, Keaton's films have produced ebbs and flows of attention, although today they have acquired as fervent a love among some as any auteur.
But perhaps no other auteur needs his works to be as delineated as Keaton. By today's standards, his career feels shockingly short. He began in the 1910s, playing second-banana to Fatty Arbuckle in a series of short films, and ended his career writing jokes for other comedians and appearing in cameo roles in film and television in the 1950s and 1960s. But these films do not encapsulate what is meant by "the films of Buster Keaton," the way we might mean something when we say the films of Hitchcock or Chaplin. Keaton's self-designed output — his true work as a cinematic auteur — was entirely constrained within one decade and made entirely in glorious silence. His first independent release (and thus the beginning of his filmography from most perspectives) came out in 1920; what is regarded as his last was released in 1929.
And as if that was not complicated enough, we must consider this peculiar (for Hollywood, at least) aspect of Keaton's personality: he was comfortable letting a co-director claim a title card all to himself. Toward the end of the silent era his name is strikingly absent from the films he made, at least from the director, producer, and writer cards; and yet, they were all cut of the same cloth, all blueprinted by Keaton himself. Take one look at Steamboat Bill Jr., with the character's furious struggle against a storm and that famous falling wall, and say with a straight-face that such a film is more the development of Charles Reisner instead of Keaton. Some might claim that is auteur theory run amok, but it is undeniable that Keaton was the mechanic behind all his contraptions, buoyed by his producer to choose most of his own paths and develop his own vision. Writes Roger Ebert: "[Keaton] usually used the same crew, worked with trusted riggers who understood his thinking, conceived his screenplays mostly by himself. ... Like Chaplin and Lloyd, he was a perfectionist who would reshoot sequences until the laughs worked, would take as long as necessary on a single shot, would supervise every element of his films. No filmmaker has ever had a better run of genius than Keaton during that decade."
This independence and artistry is documented in numerous Keaton biographies, and it is reinforced by fact. Keaton, like Chaplin, worked best in the realm of loose scripts, open shoots, and on-screen experimentation. Producer Joseph M. Schenck, Keaton's brother-in-law and the man behind Arbuckle's comedies who helped transition Keaton into a solo career, afforded the filmmaker an independence to develop his unique brand of comedy and filmmaking without much interference. That was the era of the Keaton masterpieces.
Critics and scholars mourn the fall of Keaton for the same reason we mourn the early fall of Orson Welles: they were geniuses crushed by the studio. Schenck and Keaton (against the advice of everyone, including Chaplin) sold Keaton's contract to MGM, where he was able to make two more films — The Cameraman and Spite Marriage — with relative freedom until the intersection of two disastrous developments: the indifference of the studio system's bottom line and the emergence of sound. Although someone like Alfred Hitchcock flourished in defiance of the studio system's often unreasonable constraints (often undercutting his producers and slyly playing a game of give-and-take to get what he wanted), Keaton was not the kind of artist who could hold up under such a boss. He was fired from MGM in 1933, an alcoholic who had lost his wife, and forced into joke-writing and cameos to make his living. Whenever he went behind the camera again in the sound era, the results were not the same.
And yet, could it have been any other way? As we shall see over the course of this month, Keaton is often revered as the most silent of the silent comedians. Kerr writes that Keaton was silent in the way of "stillness of emotion as well as body, a universal stillness that comes of things functioning well, of having achieved occult harmony." For film critic James Agee, the silence was critical in how Keaton sought to create his cinematic world: "He used this great, sad, motionless face to suggest various related things; a one track mind near the track’s end of pure insanity; mulish imperturbability under the wildest of circumstances; how dead a human being can get and still be alive; an awe-inspiring sort of patience and power to endure, proper to granite but uncanny in flesh and blood."
Maybe if silent films had not fallen out of favor as quickly as they did, and if the studio heads at MGM had been more appreciative of Keaton's creative process, he could have been able to continue making film after film, delighting audiences with his slapstick, his pratfalls, his intricately constructed set-ups, his masterful attention to detail behind the camera. Or maybe he, unlike Chaplin, could never have made the transition to sound, even if he hadn't foregone his independence. (Although certainly there are many who contend Chaplin never fully transitioned into the sound era, either.)
Keaton lived long enough to see a slight resurgence of interest in his films, driven in large part by a 1949 article Agee wrote for Life magazine that trumpeted "Comedy's Golden Era." He died in the mid-1960s without seeing the steps taken by the film criticism and academic communities to place him in the pantheon of great American directors. He did not suffer the egomania that Chaplin did — in Keaton's autobiography, he calls Chaplin the greatest of the silent comedians, whereas Chaplin's autobiography doesn't even mention Keaton — so perhaps he expected to float away into the cinematic limbo of Harold Lloyd or Harry Langdon. Perhaps, too, he could not have imagined that sixty years after Agee he would still be the subject of retrospectives, this time in the fields of film theory, history, and criticism in academic environments, articles and books, and blogs across the Internet.
Taking into consideration that I have already examined the films of Chaplin, my summer series on silent films must involve the works of Keaton. I have heard Keaton's voice, but I cannot hear it in my head now, the way I can call up the purring tones of Chaplin's well-spoken but faded accent. Keaton is silent in all the best ways. Today he is loved, but still not in the same way as other film directors or stars. Unlike the characters he plays on screen, Keaton as a director needs that extra boost from writers willing to lend it to him. In Agee's retrospective on silent comedy, he wrote: "Perhaps because ‘dry’ comedy is so much more rare and odd than ‘dry’ wit, there are people that never much cared for Keaton. Those who do cannot care mildly." The next month on Screen Savour will be an act of not caring mildly, of diving into Keaton's films with the same energy he had when diving into water. Or a window. Or a car. Or between a man's legs. Or over a man's shoulder. Or any number of possible maneuvers that made Keaton unmistakably Keaton.