Piqua, Kansas

The Pratfalls of a Prairie Pragmatist

In 1895, Joseph Frank “Buster” Keaton was born on the flat plains of Kansas. The tiny town of Piqua, Kansas, to be exact. He supposedly acquired the nickname “Buster” after he fell down a flight of stairs when he was 18 months old. A family friend exclaimed, “Gee whiz, he’s a regular buster!” Buster Keaton’s pratfalls have been keeping people in stitches ever since.

Guarneri Hall will present one of Keaton’s silent film masterpieces, Sherlock Jr., on November 15 at 6:30 p.m. Violinist Stephen Copes and pianist Stephen Prutsman will be joined by Guarneri Hall’s resident ensemble, NEXUS Chamber Music, for a reading of Prutsman’s score for the film. Keaton scholar and aficionado John Tibbetts will bring his special passion and deep knowledge to a pre-performance talk.  

Discovery by Chance

Tibbetts is overflowing with information and insights into Keaton’s films. He recalls exactly when his passion for Keaton was ignited. “Like a lot of people who grew up in the 50s and 60s, about the only connection we had to some old guy named Buster Keaton was a series of commercials on television, especially for Alka-Seltzer, in which this funny guy with a flat hat and a vest and a craggy, rumpled face would interact with Speedy, the Alka-Seltzer character,” Tibbetts said. “They were very nice, charming, funny commercials. That was Buster Keaton to me until about 1965.”

In the mid-60s, Tibbetts, now a professor emeritus at the University of Kansas, was a student at the school. He and two other people started a film society. “There was a guy from Boston and an exchange student from London,” Tibbetts said. “We decided that because there was a new influx of movies on 16-millimeter available to rent, we would establish a series of screenings of whatever we could find of film classics. Well, lo and behold, it turned out that at that very time, a strange character named Raymond Rohauer began releasing on 16-millimeter the films of Buster Keaton.”

From 1965 to 1969, the University of Kansas Film Society introduced the films of Buster Keaton to the entire Midwest. “And what a revelation it was,” Tibbetts said. “I’ll never forget the first time we booked a film called The General, sight unseen. Let me tell you, it was one of the great revelations of my life. For one thing, this was not the craggy-faced, funny-looking guy in a flat hat that we knew from the Alka-Seltzer commercials. No, this was a lithe, nimble, young man with a hauntingly beautiful face and superb acrobatic skills.”

From Vaudeville to Movie Magician

Young Buster Keaton

Showbiz was in Keaton’s blood. His father was the proprietor of the Mohawk Indian Medicine Company and would take the family on traveling shows to sell his patent medicine. When Buster was three years old, he began his entertainment career as one of the Three Keatons, which included his mother and father. The act involved Keaton’s father throwing Buster against the scenery and around the set. He had a suitcase handle sewn into Buster’s clothing so his son could be easier to toss.

In 1917, Keaton transitioned from vaudeville to film when he met Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, who asked Keaton to be in the film, Butcher Boy. He appeared in 14 Arbuckle shorts by 1920 when Keaton’s career and genius were about to explode. “Buster Keaton, throughout the decade of the 1920s, from 1920 when he formed his own production company to 1928 and 1929 when he went to MGM and relinquished personal control, during that decade was a flowering of silent movies the likes of which no other filmmaker at that time could rival,” Tibbetts said. 

The Keaton "Look"
The Buster Keaton “look”

Tibbetts says that it was during the 20s that Keaton pioneered the Keaton look, the Keaton use of the camera, and a wholly unique style of comedy. “Keaton’s flowering of films during this time stands among the very, very greatest artistic achievements by any artist in any medium, and established him — and I don’t think this is controversial anymore at all — as America’s greatest filmmaker,” Tibbetts said. “During that period, no filmmaker, and I’m including Griffith, Von Stroheim, King Vidor, and others, can rival him.”

Sherlock Jr. was made in 1924 when Keaton’s creativity was at its peak. Tibbetts cites many reasons why he thinks it is one of Keaton’s greatest films. “In the first place, great acrobatics,” Tibbetts said. “I mean, the guy broke his neck in a sequence involving a water tower. You have to see it to believe it. The physicality of the man was absolutely incredible. And it’s really there to shine, whether he’s riding on the handlebars of a motorcycle or diving on and off rooftops. It reflects his background in vaudeville.” Tibbetts also appreciates the story. “A lot of us who love the Holmesian saga of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle take pleasure in the fact that Sherlock was the subject of one of Keaton’s films,” he said. “He plays the great detective Sherlock Junior  — and he solves a case!”

But Tibbetts says there is one thing he appreciates about Sherlock Jr. above all else. “To me, the great shining glory of Sherlock Jr. is encapsulated by the word ‘magic.’ It’s a magic film. It’s a fantasy. It’s a fantasy underpinned by the trap doors and special effects of the vaudeville theater, which he employs in spades.” There is also the fantasy of the plot about a young man who works as a projectionist while he is studying to become a detective. “While he’s watching the movies on the screen, he begins to dream and fantasize that he is in the picture,” Tibbetts said. “And guess what, he marches up to the screen and gets into the picture and becomes part of the movie he is watching, and that movie within a movie is about the young Sherlock Holmes.”

The Prairie Pragmatist

As a fellow native Kansan, Tibbetts feels a kinship with Keaton. For years, Tibbetts was one of the organizers of the annual Buster Keaton festival held annually at Iola, Kansas, near Piqua. Tibbetts believes that Kansas and the Midwest were important influences on Keaton’s art. “Critics like Walter Kerr of The New York Times and James Agee have written about Keaton as a creature of the Midwest, as a prairie pragmatist who tinkers with machines, who looks below the hood, figures things out, who is very unpretentious about it all, but somehow survives,” Tibbetts said. “One critic even said the flatness of Keaton’s porkpie hat resembles the flatness of the Kansas terrain. Well, I think that’s a stretch, but that’s the kind of thing critics are having fun with writing about Keaton.”

Brilliant Silent Comedy Even Better with Music

Stephen Prutsman

Before the advent of “talkies,” movies were almost always accompanied by music played live in the theater, usually on piano or organ. The other great comic of the silent era, Charlie Chaplin, also composed the music to accompany his films. Tibbetts says we don’t know exactly what music was used in Keaton’s films but that there was almost certainly music. “You never showed a film silently if you could help it during the silent era,” Tibbetts said. “We know very little about what participation Keaton enlisted for the music to his movies, what music was originally performed, and who composed it. There must have been some connection because Keaton was in control of everything.”

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