Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Buster Keaton 100 Years On

by James Burkinshaw

A hundred years ago today (March 21, 1917), Joseph Frank "Buster" Keaton made his first, brief film appearance in the Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle production, The Butcher Boy. 

As America's most popular comic film actor at that time, Arbuckle was doing the little-known vaudeville actor Keaton a big favour by offering him the modest role of a shop customer who gets involved in a flour fight. However, as film historian Tom Dardis notes, "from the very first second of Buster's appearance in the film it is quite apparent that his way of doing things, the very tempo of his movements, is absolutely different from all the other characters'. In contrast to their frenzy, Buster displays a commanding, austere dignity."

This is one thing that sets him apart from his great contemporary and rival, Charlie Chaplin, who was far readier to appeal to sentiment by shamelessly mugging for the camera. In contrast, Keaton’s soulful eyes and impassive expression suggested an almost primordial sadness - a tragic sensibility amidst the farcical chaos of slapstick. He prided himself on doing all of his own stunts - and sustained a spectacular range of injuries over his career, including a broken neck that went undiagnosed for several years.

Keaton was not just an innovator on screen but behind the camera. While working with Arbuckle, "One of the first things I did was tear a motion picture camera practically to pieces and found out the lenses and the splicing of film and how to get it on the projector . .  then get in the cutting room . . . and find out how I get trick photography and things I could do with a camera that I couldn't do on the stage." 

The first Keaton film I ever saw was Sherlock Jr, about a film projectionist who, in one celebrated dream sequence, dives into the screen and becomes comically caught up in the action of the film he is showing (see 17-minute mark, below). The impact is as magical today as it must have been when audiences first saw the movie in 1924 - a celebration of cinema's capacity to absorb us in a world of illusion.

A year earlier, Keaton had made another masterpiece, Our Hospitality, a loving re-creation of America in the early nineteenth century. Highlights include the extraordinary, epic journey of a primitive, ramshackle train, based on Stephenson's Rocket, and the great comic moments arising from the everyday realities of a simpler past: guns that can only fire one bullet before needing to be reloaded; early “traffic congestion” in 1850s New York, bicycles with no pedals, etc.

The plot is driven by a blood feud between two Southern families, into which Buster's character naively blunders. The film follows various frustrated attempts by the host-family to shoot Buster down in cold blood without, at the same time, violating their strict Southern code of hospitality which forbids them to kill him while he is physically under their roof.

Unlike the canny Chaplin, Keaton was always more of an artist than a businessman - and, with the arrival of "talkies" in the 1930s, his career nosedived. It was not until the 1960s, near the end of his life, that he was rediscovered and his genius fully acknowledged. His final film appearance was in the only movie ever directed by the writer, Samuel Beckett, titled (in Beckettian style) Film. 

Beckett had wanted Keaton to play Lucky in the original stage production of Waiting for Godot, but Keaton had turned it down - mainly because he couldn't make any sense of the play. Despite similar misgivings about Film, he accepted the role. Although (in Beckett's own words) an "interesting failure", it remains a fascinating collaboration between two great twentieth century artists - and a poignant coda to Keaton's extraordinary career.

Keaton and Beckett, 1965

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