05 August 2009

The Short Films of Buster Keaton (1920-1923)

d. Edward F. Cline & Buster Keaton / USA / Nineteen shorts, 394 mins.

The short film is often a forsaken art, uncounted by many in catalogues of great movies and spuriously rejected on the premise that bigger equals better. When treated as a launching pad, the short film will feel like nothing but — a couple sets, small-scale slapstick, a limited cast. D.W. Griffith made almost 400 of them in the span of a few years; Charles Chaplin turned out one per week while working for the Essanay and Mutual studios. Once studios realized people would sit for an hour and a half to two hours, shorts began losing their luster; once the dawn of television occurred, mainstream shorts had become a near-relic.

But the short films that Buster Keaton made between 1920 and 1923 — nineteen of them, co-directed and co-written by himself and Edward F. Cline with occasional work by Mal St. Clair — are frequently an exception to the idea that shorts are inherently less satisfying and less accomplished than feature films. At their best they exhibit gusto and enterprise lacking in many feature comedies, from this or any other era. And at their best they dispel the theory that you can't do something grand on a small scale. Indeed, while Keaton's true masterpieces would come later in long form, his short films don't suggest he was holding back anything. In films like One Week (1920), The High Sign (1921), and The Electric House (1922) he constructed elaborate, expensive, and ingenious sets with no less attention to detail than his work in features. In The Playhouse (1921), he flashes his technological mastery of cinema by using multiple exposures to play more than twenty different roles, and in Cops (1922), dozens and dozens of extras fill out an entire police force that chases him through the streets. They're unique even in the world of short comedy and work in a way few other shorts either attempted or achieved.

This success is no doubt tied to two important elements. The first is incidental: Keaton's producer, Joseph M. Schenck, provided the largesse and independent approach that gave Keaton the opportunity to make the films he did, initially these two-reels and later five- to six-reels. The second is contextual, therefore perhaps more crucial: Keaton saw film as film. He would not have been able to do what he did in any other art-form, and this knowledge seemed to both liberate and invigorate him. Chaplin's shorts tended to be more performance pieces set around the Tramp persona, the benefit of film being that the Tramp could appear on the farm in one and backstage at a movie in another; although the sets changed, the straightforward and clean production pattern did not. As Chaplin began pushing the boundaries of the medium's presupposed limits — making four-reelers like A Dog's Life and Shoulder Arms in 1918 — his films grew not only in length and scope but prestige. Keaton, on the other hand, embraced the possibilities of cinema early. His first two films, One Week and The High Sign (the latter was released in 1921, but filmed before One Week) created wildly different scenarios. Whereas each Chaplin short felt like simply the next stop on the Tramp's long journey through the universe, each Keaton short was like a universe within itself.

Much like his feature films, the shorts provide a close-up inspection of Keaton's psychology and what fascinated him as a thinker. Certainly the most prevailing interest he had was with the tension between man and technology — specifically how such technology designed to provide comfort ended up causing so much pain. One Week, one of Keaton's best, follows him as a newlywed attempting to build a do-it-yourself house that he and his bride have been given on the occasion of their wedding. What seems like a sweet gesture is undercut by a grim sense of premature failure, a lopsided, oblique monstrosity that leads to sheer mayhem and must be moved to the correct lot after construction. But there's an intriguing disconnection between the technology gone awry on screen and the technology perfected behind the camera. The Scarecrow (1920) introduces us to Keaton's Goldbergian cleverness, where a house is filled with multi-tasking elements: a sink turns into a bench, a phonograph turns into a stove-top, and a bookshelf opens into a pantry, all designed to provide chuckles but none of which contributes to the ultimate goal of the film, to provide a chase sequence. The entire premise of The Electric House is that Keaton, mistaken as an electrical engineer, is put in charge of wiring a home in order to put it on the vanguard of technology. The staircase becomes an escalator, a mechanized billiards table funnels the balls into a display case and then re-racks them for the players, the food is served on a miniature train, and so on.

The electric house within The Electric House fails, at least as far as the characters on screen are concerned; it is a dangerous home that malfunctions, most notably in the way its escalator sends its inhabitants flying out of windows. The short itself rolls out resplendently, and it is executed with tactical brilliance by Keaton and his crew. Perhaps his most perfectly executed gag film is The High Sign, where an unemployed Keaton (he portrayed unnamed men in most of his shorts, so I'm going to use his name as something interchangeable with his characters) wanders into town looking for a job and accidentally becomes mixed up in a murder plot. The gags there are simple, ranging from an obscenely large newspaper that seems capable of unfolding infinitely to the antics caused by Keaton's clumsy handling of a rifle. His search for employment leads him to accept positions both as an assassin and as a guard of the same man. The centerpiece of the film is a rigged house, full of trap doors and secret walls, which come in handy for the spry and agile Keaton to evade the gang that has his hired him to do the hit-job when he decides to protect the target and the target's daughter.

What becomes evident watching a Keaton short is that, while all silent comedies seem oriented around the slapstick gag, the director differs from his contemporaries in one important way: he was as concerned about the role of technology on-screen as he was about utilizing technology in the process of making movies. He was an early master of cranking the camera at different speeds to create the illusion of frighteningly fast action, such as in Cops and The Blacksmith (1922), the latter of which continued his fascination with man's use of technology. In that short, he plays a blacksmith's assistant who takes over the busy with disastrous results when his boss is arrested. The Blacksmith is one of many films Keaton made where he rather seamlessly blurs the lines between time and technology, a conscious attempt to evoke the simplicity of a bygone era. There's a gentle and respectful humor in The Blacksmith when horses or manual labor are concerned, and a more sinister and destructive humor where luxury is present (the nice car he is called to work upon is destroyed through a Keatonian mix of oil, fire, and heavy devices crashing into it).

As an innovator, Keaton also explored double-exposure, and there's no better example of this than The Playhouse, his great short film from the second year of production. The film opens with a dream sequence in which Keaton attends a vaudeville show where all the performers and the entire audience are played by Keaton — no less than 25 characters by my count, of all ages and genders, appearing through clean editing and skillful use of multiple exposure. Of course The Playhouse also represents another Keaton motif: his self-denigration through a rather pointed take on socio-cultural masculinity. Keaton was fit and healthy (how else could he have done all his own stunts?), but he was a diminutive five-foot-five, drawn into exaggeration when standing next to his regular shorts co-star Joe Roberts, who was barrel-chested and stood six-foot-three. The Playhouse puts Keaton's stage-hand character in the position where he must act like an ape to cover up for the fact he loses a monkey meant to perform with the star of the show. Time and time again Keaton drew on his physical stature to create the set-ups for these jokes, much like Chaplin did regularly in his career. You can spot Chaplin's influence in Convict 13 (1920), an early Keaton short where he is wrongfully mistaken to be an escaped convict and is sent off to prison, where Keaton must survive against larger gentlemen. My Wife's Relations (1922), while not a particularly brilliant short, nonetheless sees the smallish Keaton accidentally wedded to a large and boisterous woman, whose large and boisterous family push Keaton around until they think he is the heir to $100,000.

But Keaton's films always possess a double-edged take on the notion of masculinity. Keaton aims for laughter because of his size, social status, class, or profession, and this is contrasted with other larger men, but he rarely loses based on size alone. In fact, size is often the contributing element in his (often momentary) victories. The chase, Keaton's third and final recurring device in his shorts, is dealt in his favor because of his size and fitness. In one way or another, all his films are a chase — Keaton chasing something (a girl, typically) or someone (an authority figure or upset father, typically) chasing him. His ultimate chase film, and perhaps his definitive short film, is Cops, where a rather innocent mistake on Keaton's part leads to a city's entire police force chasing him through the streets — although that might be simplifying it a bit too much. Cops is actually Keaton's most surreal film, a portent to later films that would capitalize on his dissociative brand of storytelling. It is almost two one-reel shorts glued together by the presence of a subtly metaphoric anarchist. It begins as most Keaton romances do, with an emphasis on culturally defined masculinity and a girl saying he must go out and make something of himself in order to earn her affection. In attempting to become a success he comes into possession of some belongings in a rather dubious way and then, while riding a wagon into the middle of a police parade, accidentally catches a bomb through by an anarchist. (Naturally, he uses the burning fuse to light his cigarette.) Then the short switches gears and he goes on the run from the entire force, evading them with the help of any and all found-objects — ladders, fences, cars, etc.

In addition to mastering the chase film, Cops reveals another intriguing aspect of Keaton's persona: his bleak humor. He outmaneuvers the police with his cunning and athleticism, but even after proving he is physically up to the task, the girl rejects him and he sadly allows himself to be embraced by the police. The short ends with the shot of a tombstone and his pork-pie hat setting askew atop it. Such bleak humor pervades many of his shorts. Convict 13 takes the notion of gallows humor literally. Hard Luck (1921) is a pitiful Keaton repeatedly failing in his attempts to commit to suicide, and The Frozen North (1922) features a scene where Keaton, riffing on the cold-blooded melodramas of William S. Hart, walks into a cabin and assumes his wife is with another man. He shoots them both, only to discover he's walked into the wrong cabin.

Lest I give the impression they're all jewels, I should note that of the nineteen, less than half are films I would strongly recommend (a full list is printed at the end of this essay). While such comparisons to Chaplin are ultimately fruitless and chiefly irrelevant, in their totality Keaton's shorts lack the general uniformity that Chaplin exhibited at Mutual Studios; but conversely and importantly, there are few if any genuine duds in the bunch, so even when they don't quite come together, there's a surprising amount of pleasure to be had along the way. Neighbors (1920) is often seen as one of the better films, but it only delivers half-way for me. In the film, Keaton is attempting to see a girl in an apartment across a courtyard but has a run-in with a police officer who thinks he's black after a mishap with soil and a mishap with black paint. The humor is strained, but the finale — a choreographed sequence in which three men are stacked on top of each other and bounce back and forth across the courtyard, going in and out of apartment windows — is one of the more inspired teamwork gags. In The Boat (1921), Keaton aims to take his family out onto the water in a craft he made himself except it's too hard to pull out of the garage, leading to the collapse of the entire house as he tries to squeeze it through the frame of the garage. The Boat takes Keaton's joy of large-scale property destruction to new levels; it's not every day that a short film shows an entire house, a car, and a boat virtually destroyed for the sake of a laugh. But there's a risk to humor like this in Keaton's universe, which has always been alluring because he world is tangible and often so realistic it invokes the conceit of surrealism. The Boat provides a set-up almost too fake for its own good: after the boat completely sinks, the title card "You can't keep a good boat down" appears and the boat, wonderfully dry and safe, reappears in the next scene as if nothing had happened. It's a distracting break in the traditional Keaton milieu of things that seem possible even if they aren't.

And although there is plethora of originality in these shorts, some have become dismissible because Keaton would refine a certain element in a better film later. The Balloonatic (1923) offers a vertiginous joy-ride as Buster accidentally climbs on-board a flyaway hot-air balloon, but the bulk of the short is him surviving in the wilderness alongside a girl with whom he's fallen in love — scenes and gags done better in the features Our Hospitality and Battling Butler. His short Daydreams (1922), of which only an incomplete version survives today, presents Keaton as a boy determined to make something of himself in the city so he can win a girl's affection, but in the end he becomes chased by police officers in a retread from Cops, released earlier that year. (Although the short is noteworthy for a single scene where Keaton dons a disguise and looks vaguely like Chaplin's Tramp.) The antics at sea in The Love Nest (1923) are in performed in a slightly different, but better, form in The Navigator.

But still, there are many who believe Keaton's shorts are better than his features. Considering them as a whole, I can't say I'm one of them; I will say, though, that One Week, The High Sign, and Cops should be essential viewing for anyone interested not only in comedy or silent films but cinema in general. They are masterpieces in their own right, more sophisticated than perhaps any other silent shorts I've ever seen, and represent on a small scale the already expansive and wild vision Keaton possessed and would bring to life in his features.

The shorts, ranked first by star and then chronologically:

One Week (1920): ★★★★★
The High Sign (1921): ★★★★★
Cops (1922): ★★★★★

The Play House (1921): ★★★★½

The Scarecrow (1920): ★★★★
The Goat (1921): ★★★★
The Blacksmith (1922): ★★★★
The Electric House (1922): ★★★★

Convict 13 (1920): ★★★½
Neighbors (1920): ★★★½
The Boat (1921): ★★★½
Daydreams (1922): ★★★½
The Balloonatic (1923): ★★★½
The Love Nest (1923): ★★★½

Hard Luck (1921): ★★★
The Frozen North (1922): ★★★
My Wife's Relations (1922): ★★★
The Haunted House (1921): ★★½

The Paleface (1922): ★★


Farzan 05 August, 2009  

Truly a good actor and very funny. I always tend to get him mixed up with Chaplin

John 06 August, 2009  

T.S. – an excellent start to your Keaton series. You seem to hit all the right points on Buster and his career.

1- His association with producer Joseph Schenck…

“provided the largesse and independent approach that gave Keaton the opportunity to make the films he did.” So true, when Keaton lost his independence, they (MGM) destroyed a creative genius.

2- Keaton was cinematic

“Keaton saw film as film. He would not have been able to do what he did in any other art-form, and this knowledge seemed to both liberate and invigorate him.” Keaton was, as Alfred Hitchcock once coined “pure cinema.”

First let me say, I love Chaplin and I am not bashing Chaplin or pitting one genius against another. That said, Keaton understood the camera, and what it could do more than Chaplin. The genius of Chaplin’s shorts and most of his work is in his heart and his routines, as you point out. This is not to say that Chaplin was never cinematically adept and did not understand the power of the camera. There is an early scene in “The Immigrant”, where Charlie is leaning over the side of the ship looking like he is seasick and letting it all out. Instead, when he turns around we find out he is fishing. What separates Keaton and Chaplin, as you astutely point out is the technical aspects of film; the use of double exposure in “The Playhouse”, for example. I would imagine this was pretty much of a “wow’ moment for audiences of the day.

3- The Chase

Again, as you so astutely point out, the chase was an essential part of Keaton’s world, in his shorts and in his features (The General is one long chase).

Thanks for a great article. Have you watched any the Keaton/Fatty Arbuckle/ Al St. John shorts? They are not in the same class, and of course, Fatty Arbuckle is the star with Buster a feature actor, still there are some decent ones and are interesting, if for no other reason than historical. Of the ones I have seen, “The Butcher Boy” is best, especially when Buster shows up later in the film.

Of Keaton’s classic shorts my favorites are Cops, The Electric House, The Playhouse, One Week, The High Sign and The Blacksmith.

Sam Juliano,  06 August, 2009  

"Certainly the most prevailing interest he had was with the tension between man and technology — specifically how such technology designed to provide comfort ended up causing so much pain."

Indeed T.S., indeed. This surely lies at the center of his art. You have started your examination of Keaton with a marathon essay that takes up this critical period in his maturation as an artist, While you rightly mention later on that the superb BATTLIN BUTLER and OUR HOSPITALITY are gems, you note (after that spectacular historical lead-in) that there are several that either achieve masterpiece status or come close. I have seen all of these shorts but two. I agree with you that COPS is the masterpiece, but I do love NEIGHBORS, PLAY HOUSE, ELECTRIC HORSE, SCARECROW, ONE WEEK, HIGH SIGN and ELECTRIC HOUSE (the sets for the latter ones I mention here are as you note quite 'elaborate.) I also rather love one that you are a little less enamored of, THE BALLOONATIC, which contains agreat bear gag that relies on no deception. It's natural and priceless. In any case, I always considered THE BALLONATIC one of the best shorts.

Incidentally, that final gravestone shot in COPS with Keaton's hat hung after it (a sly philosophical suggestion) is one of teh greatest individual frames in all of Keaton.

There is so much more to say, but suffice that you have done this period full and glorious justice.

MovieMan0283 07 August, 2009  

I actually do think the short film is largely pointless, with the exception of animation, experimental, and comedy. But I cannot engage further with your piece as pressing duties pull me from the computer at present...just wanted to register my own thoughts on that matter.

T.S. 11 August, 2009  

(Hi, everybody. Sorry for the delay in response; I'm traveling this week!)

@John — I hear what you're saying about Chaplin v. Keaton in terms of behind-the-camera knowledge. Reportedly Chaplin once said that he didn't need to worry about cinematography because all that was necessary was to place it upon a tripod, point it at him, and start filming. Keaton understood all the options the camera afforded him and manipulated them to great success. Naturally, though, I still think that speaks highly of Chaplin (as no doubt you do as well) that he was still able to create these utter masterpieces using really nothing else other than his body and his persona. Keaton probably wouldn't have been able to do that, but then again, he didn't have to.

@Sam — Thanks. You know, sometimes I feel like I sell The Balloonatic a little short. It's not among my favorites, although I do love the sequence on top of the balloon at the beginning and that bear scene does bring a smile to my face as I recall it. That short also speaks to the extreme causal relationship in Keaton's plots; like Cops, the ending seems to occur completely unconnected to the original angle of the story. It's very risky to do, but I think he pulls it off well.

@MovieMan — Actually, I find myself agreeing with you about short films, but still: experimental, animated, and comedy still provide hundreds of possibilities. That's one of the quirks I find rewarding about Jonathan Rosenbaum's 1,000 favorite films — he incorporates shorts onto the list. It's just sad that few others embrace them as works of art on par (or better than) many features.

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