Buster Keaton (1895-1966) was a child of storm. Kansas tornadoes, he claimed, blew him into the world, christened him, and flung him onto the stage and screen. The story goes that on the night of his birth, October 4, 1895, a tornado almost leveled the tiny farming community of Piqua, Kansas, where his vaudevillian parents happened to be when his mother went into labor. Three years later, during another state tour, his parents left him in a boarding house during their performance. A howling vortex sucked young Keaton out of the second-story window, sailed him over trees and houses, and deposited him safely in the middle of the street three blocks away. The baby just blinked (the first of many deadpan reactions to come). Thereafter, his mother decided he was safer on stage with the family than left to the whims of the South Wind.
While it is undeniably true that Buster Keaton was funny, audiences during his peak years in the 1920s relegated him to third place as a box office draw, well behind Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd. Even his masterpiece, The General (1926), now commonly regarded by critics’ polls as one of the ten greatest films ever made, was dismissed by the critics as “a mild Civil War comedy” and abandoned by audiences (it lost more money than any of his films).
THE THREE KEATONS
Think again. Little Joseph Frank Keaton merely traded one disaster for another. As the newest member of “The Three Keatons,” the roughest vaudeville act in show business, he found himself in a slapstick routine where he was kicked, pummeled, and hurled about the stage by his father, Joe Keaton. Aptly dubbed “Buster” by magician Harry Houdini, another member of the troupe, the rubber-limbed child grew up to become a headliner on the vaudeville circuit, renowned for his incredible abilities to execute (and survive) hair-raising falls. At age 21, he was alone in Hollywood, making films with the redoubtable Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. By l920, at 25, he had his own production company. During the next decade, he made thirty shorts and features, most regarded today as masterpieces.
Keaton’s decline in the 1930s was as abrupt as one of his pratfalls. He lost his independent producer status with MGM in late 1928 and worked thereafter under considerable studio interference. For a while, pictures like Spite Marriage (1929) and Parlor, Bedroom and Bath (1932) made money, but Keaton himself was in trouble. His first marriage had failed, and he was sinking deeper into alcoholism. By the mid-l930s, he was literally down and out, estranged from the studio, capable only of a string of cheap comedies that were but pale ghosts of his work of a decade earlier.
A SLOW CLIMB
The climb back was slow and painful. The upturn began with a successful marriage in 1940 to a young lady named Eleanor Norris, who remained devoted to him during their 26 years of marriage. As his devoted partner and business manager, she guided the last years of his life to his greatest international acclaim. With his alcoholism under control, Keaton returned to MGM in the 1940s as a writer and gagman for Red Skelton and Lucille Ball. Then came an adulatory tribute by critic/writer James Agee for Life magazine in 1949, a successful stint in live television in the early 1950s, a movie biography, The Buster Keaton Story (1957), and memorable cameo roles in films like Chaplin’s Limelight (l953) and Around the World in 80 Days (1956). Beginning in the early 1960s, a major revival of his films was underway in America and Europe. Like his screen persona, the real Buster proved to be a tough and resilient fellow. “What I expected was hard knocks,” he said in his autobiography, My Wonderful World of Slapstick (1957). “I always expected to have to work hard. Maybe harder than other people because of my lack of education. And when the knocks came I felt it was no surprise. I had always known life was like that, full of uppercuts for the deserving and undeserving alike.” Before his death from lung cancer on February 1, 1966, he had the pleasure of knowing his work was hailed again by new generations of viewers.
Now, in this new century, Keaton looks better and better. Recent releases on various streaming platforms provide ample opportunities for a reassessment. With a flick of a lash or a droop of a brow, his deceptively impassive face conveyed, by turns, a poet’s sensibility, a stoic’s resignation, and a nihilist’s heartlessness, making Chaplin look mawkish and old-fashioned by comparison. His amazing acrobatics–falls from trains (Sherlock, Jr., l923), dives from waterfalls (Our Hospitality, 1923), and tumbles down mountainsides (The Paleface, 1922; Seven Chances, 1925)–rival the acrobatics of his contemporary, the great Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. His impeccable period re-creations (Our Hospitality, 1923 and The General, 1926) and his keen-edged social satires (Seven Chances, 1925) beat the more prestigious D.W. Griffith and Ernst Lubitsch at their own game. His intricate, inventive gag trajectories (Neighbors, 1920; Cops, 1922) surpass anything by Harold Lloyd. And his penchant for bizarre, dreamlike situations (The Playhouse, 1921; Sherlock, Jr., 1923) is as peculiar as anything out of the contemporary French avant-garde.
STANDING GROUND AGAINST ALL ODDS
Yet, despite the hazards and exotic imagery, Buster remained ever the prairie pragmatist, the bricoleur of the south forty. In each one of his films, he took a moment to stand his ground against all odds and assess the situation. The pose was familiar: a small figure in a flat porkpie hat and baggy pants stiffly leaning forward slightly against the wind, eyes shaded with the palm of his hand, gaze mutely surveying the far horizon. Every crisis–a cattle stampede (Go West, 1925), a runaway ocean liner (The Navigator, 1924), a stolen locomotive (The General), a deranged house (One Week, 1920), and a recalcitrant newsreel camera (The Cameraman, 1928)–was both a confrontation and a negotiation. “He is an explorer,” wrote critic Walter Kerr in his classic The Silent Clowns (l975), one of the most insightful analyses on Keaton extant. “He explores the universe exactly as he explores film: with a view to measuring the immeasurable before he enters it, so that he will know how to behave when he is there.”
The subject of Keaton as a Kansan inevitably comes up. Hamlin Garland, another Midwesterner, writing in A Son of the Middle Border (1915), suggested that “childish impressions are the fundamentals upon which an author’s fictional out-put is based. . . .” Indeed, Keaton’s films are shaped and driven by his memories of the omnipresent Kansas cyclones, electrical storms, twisting rivers, and flat prairie vistas. It’s a treacherous world full of promises and deceptions. “Who else but a Kansan, always living in a hostile world of storms, drought, insects, heat, foreclosures, could stare back at these terrors with cold impassivity?” asked Humanities scholar Professor Fred Krebs at the first Buster Keaton Celebration in Iola KS, in 1993. “Moreover, who else but a Kansan could turn the impending, even constant, tragedy of the situation into humor? However, it would take a Kansan to laugh at irony inside while giving away nothing to the torrents, twisters, and terrors on the outside.”
FIERCELY INDIVIDUALISTIC KANSANS
Thus, Keaton joins ranks with other fiercely individualistic Kansans of his generation, also from the southeast corner of the state–actress Louise Brooks, explorers Martin and Osa Johnson, photographer Gordon Parks, and playwright William Inge–as embodying what Inge called a “correlation of landscape and character.” Inge, whose plays Picnic (1953), Bus Stop (1955), and Dark at the Top of the Stairs (1957) chronicled the mundane details of Kansas life, could have been describing Buster’s implacable isolation when he noted that it is on the prairie that “man finds his solitude,” a place where he “cannot help but wonder about the nature of all being.”
This is a terrain that does not stifle fantasy but releases it. Is it not true that in the flattest and most prosaic of landscapes, we find the wildest visions and the most uproarious of imaginations? And did not Keaton, the most silent of clowns–whose “deadly horizontal” hat (the term is Agee’s) was such a perfect metaphor for the level prairie–constantly confront the highest precipices, steepest descents, and most improbable of catastrophes? G. K. Chesterton, the English master of paradox, says this sort of contradiction lies at the heart of farce:
“To the quietest human being, seated in the quietest house, there will sometimes come a sudden and unmeaning hunger for the possibilities or impossibilities of things; he will abruptly wonder whether the teapot may not suddenly begin to pour honey or seawater, the clock to point to all hours of the day at once, the candle to burn green or crimson, the door to open upon a lake or a potato-field instead of a London street. Upon anyone who feels this nameless anarchism, there rests for the time being the abiding spirit of pantomime. . . .” Keaton put it more simply: “I used to daydream an awful lot in pictures; I could get carried away and visualize all the fairylands in the world.”
Meanwhile, commentary about the artistic, aesthetic, and psychological implications of his life and work threatens to bury the little fellow under a pile of inflated rhetoric. As if he were a Rohrschach blot, everybody perceived in him a different truth: James Agee compared his face to Lincoln’s, pronouncing him “an early American archetype,” and Federico Garcia Lorca said his strange eyes achieved “the exact balance of melancholy”; Vincent Canby called him a “misunderstood gallant,” and Paul Gallico thought he was “Frustration’s Mime.” The French had their own catch-all term for his maddeningly elusive identity–they simply dubbed him “Malec,” which means, literally, “hole in the doughnut.” More recently, Walter Kerr labeled the essential qualities of Keaton’s films with the mysterious-sounding sobriquets “The Keaton Quiet,” “The “Keaton Curve,” and “The Keaton ‘No.'” It is to be expected that the avalanche of pontification will continue (to which, I fear, this author is now contributing)–already an important film journal has published a psycho-biographical analysis of Keaton’s uncertain grasp of masculinity due to an abused childhood and how that is manifested in the iconography of his movies. (Whew!)
TO BE FUNNY
Buster, of course, would have had none of that. “People like that would ask him about his ‘philosophy,'” recalls Eleanor Keaton with peevish amusement in a recent interview with this writer. “They’d ask, ‘What were you thinking about when you fell off the bridge?’ Buster would stop a minute, then say, ‘To be funny.’ What else? But they have to find all these hidden meanings. I think there are things about Buster no one can reach, and maybe they shouldn’t try!”
No, Buster would have celebrated all this with a wry twist, a wicked blink of the eye, maybe even a growling dismissal. He was never comfortable with happy endings. I am reminded of the epilogues to many of his movies when he would snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, as it were. In One Week, after his mobile home has gotten stuck on a railroad crossing, and after a passing train narrowly averts a collision with it, he breathes a sigh of relief. But in the next moment, a train speeding from the opposite direction smashes the house to smithereens. In College (1928), after Buster marries the girl and the viewer is expecting the usual “happy after after” epilogue, Buster surprises us with a few quick glimpses of the couple’s future–a shot of the young married couple in a cramped apartment surrounded by mutinous kids, a second shot of them, now elderly, bickering and snapping at each other, and, lastly, a stark image of two headstones in a cemetery. And there is that memorable, valedictory moment at the end of The Blacksmith (1922) when Buster, with a bored yawn, approaches the camera, reaches above it, and pulls down a black blind. On it are inscribed the simple but brutal words: “THE END.”