What Made Buster Keaton’s Comedy So Modern?

ritics like to create causes. If a pair of new Grover Cleveland biographies appears, we say that, with the prospect of a President returning to win a second term after having been defeated at the end of his first, who else would interest us more than the only President who has? In reality, the biographers started their work back when, and now is when the biographies just happen to be ready. And so it is with the appearance of two significant new books about the silent-film comedian Buster Keaton. We start to search for his contemporary relevance—the influence of silent-comedy short subjects on TikTok?—when the reason is that two good writers began writing on the subject a while ago, and now their books are here.

The truth is that Keaton’s prominence has receded, probably irretrievably, from where it stood half a century ago—a time when, if you were passionate about movies, you wore either the white rose of Keaton or the red rose of Chaplin and quarrelled fiercely with anyone on the other side. In Bertolucci’s wonderful movie about the Paris revolt of May, 1968, “The Dreamers,” two student radicals, French and American, nearly come to blows over the relative merits of Charlie and Buster: “Keaton is a real filmmaker. Chaplin, all he cares about is his own performance, his own ego!” “That’s bullshit!” “That’s not bullshit!” Meanwhile, Janis Joplin growls on the stereo behind them.

In a weird way, the terms of the quarrel derived from the German Enlightenment philosopher Gotthold Lessing’s search for the “essence” of each art form: poetry does time, sculpture does space, and so on. To the Keaton lovers, Chaplin was staginess, and therefore sentimentality, while Keaton was cinema—he moved like the moving pictures. Chaplin’s set pieces could easily fit onto a music-hall stage: the dance of the dinner rolls in “The Gold Rush” and the boxing match in “City Lights” were both born there imaginatively, and could have been transposed there. But Keaton’s set pieces could be made only with a camera. When he employs a vast and empty Yankee Stadium as a background for the private pantomime of a ballgame, in “The Cameraman,” or when he plays every part in a vaudeville theatre (including the testy society wives, the orchestra members, and the stagehands), in “The Play House,” these things could not even be imagined without the movies to imagine them in. The Keaton who created the shipboard bits in “The Navigator” or the dream scene in “Sherlock Jr.” was a true filmmaker rather than a film-taker, a molder of moving sequences rather than someone who pointed the camera at a stage set. (One could make similar claims for the superior cinematic instincts of Harold Lloyd, who tended to get dragged into these arguments in much the same way that the Kinks get dragged into arguments about the Beatles and the Stones—though Lloyd, like Ray Davies, was such a specialized taste that he could only extend, not end, an argument over the virtues of the other two.)

Take the long sequence toward the end of “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” (1928), in which Keaton, playing an effete, Boston-educated heir who rejoins his father, a short-tempered Southern steamboat captain, gets caught in a cyclone that pulverizes a small town. The episode is breathtaking in its audacity and poetry, an unexampled work of pure special-effects ballet. The houses explode, in a thousand shards of wood, as Keaton wanders among them. The moment when the façade of a house falls on Keaton, who is saved by a well-placed attic window, has been “memed” as the very image of a narrow escape. But it is merely an incident in a longer sequence that begins when the roof and walls of a hospital building are whisked away like a magician’s napkin; then a much bigger house falls on Keaton, who, accepting it neutrally, grabs a tree trunk and holds tight as it flies across town and into the river. Nothing like it had ever been seen in a theatre, or even imagined in a book, so specific are its syntax and realization to moving pictures.

How are we to share these glories in 2022? Fortunately, Cohen Films has produced mint-quality restorations of all the great movies, and Peter Bogdanovich’s last work, the 2018 documentary “The Great Buster,” is a terrific anthology of highlights. Even more fortunately, those two new books, each excellent in its way, are weirdly complementary in their completeness. James Curtis’s “Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker’s Life” (Knopf) is an immense year-by-year, sometimes week-by-week, account of Keaton as an artist and a man. Every detail of his life and work is here, starting with his birth, in 1895, as Curtis painstakingly clarifies which of two potential midwives attended to the matter. (Mrs. Theresa Ullrich rather than Mrs. Barbara Haen, for the record.) His perpetually touring and performing parents, Joe and Myra, had been on the road when it happened, in the one-horse town of Piqua, Kansas. Curtis takes us through the progress of the brutal comedy act that Joe Keaton raised his son to star in; things were so hard at the turn of the century that at one point Harry Houdini, with whom the three Keatons shared a show, had to pretend to be the kind of psychic he despised in order to draw the rubes into the theatre. We even hear about gags that Buster Keaton helped invent for Abbott and Costello in his later, seemingly fallow, years.

Dana Stevens, in “Camera Man” (Atria), takes an original and, in a way, more distanced approach to Keaton. In place of a standard social history of silent comedy, much less a standard biography, Stevens offers a series of pas de deux between Keaton and other personages of his time, who shared one or another of his preoccupations or projects. It’s a new kind of history, making more of overlapping horizontal “frames” than of direct chronological history, and Stevens does it extraordinarily well.

Some of these pairings, to be sure, are more graceful than others. The comedienne Mabel Normand appears for the somewhat remote reason that Chaplin refused, early in his career, to be directed by her, a fact that’s taken as an index of the misogyny that reigned in the world of silent comedy. (The truth is that Chaplin, a once-in-a-century talent, routinely bullied anyone who tried to tell him what to do.) On the other hand, a chapter on Robert Sherwood and Keaton is genuinely illuminating. Sherwood, now forgotten despite four Pulitzers and an Oscar, was one of those writers whose lives reveal more about their time than do the lives of those writers gifted enough to exist outside their time. The author of well-made, well-meaning plays advancing progressive causes—he ended up as one of F.D.R.’s chief speechwriters—he championed Keaton, notably in the pages of Life, with acute discernment, a reminder that the categories of popular culture and serious art were remarkably permeable in the twenties. Just as Hart Crane was writing poetry about Chaplin when Chaplin was still only very partly formed, Sherwood recognized Keaton’s greatness almost before it seemed completely manifest. Writing about Chaplin, Lloyd, and Keaton in the early twenties, he maintained that their efforts “approximate art more closely than anything else that the movies have offered.” Sherwood even wrote a feature for Keaton, which, like James Agee’s attempt at writing a movie for Chaplin, proved unmakeable. Sherwood’s script got Keaton marooned high up in a skyscraper but couldn’t find a way of getting him down. When Keaton and Sherwood saw each other in later years, Sherwood promised to get him down, but never did.

Keaton seems to have been one of those comic geniuses who, when not working, never felt entirely alive. He fulfilled the Flaubertian idea of the artist as someone whose whole existence is poured into his art: the word “dull” crops up often as people remember him. Curtis is particularly good on the early years. Joseph Frank Keaton spent his youth in his parents’ knockabout vaudeville act; by the time he was eight, it basically consisted of his father, Joe, picking him up and throwing him against the set wall. Joe would announce, “It just breaks a father’s heart to be rough,” and he’d hurl Buster—already called this because of his stoicism—across the stage. “Once, during a matinee performance,” Curtis recounts, “he innocently slammed the boy into scenery that had a brick wall directly behind it.” That “innocently” is doing a lot of work, but all this brutality certainly conveyed a basic tenet of comedy: treating raw physical acts, like a kick in the pants, in a cerebral way is funny. “I wait five seconds—count up to ten slow—grab the seat of my pants, holler bloody murder, and the audience is rolling in the aisles,” Keaton later recalled. “It was The Slow Thinker. Audiences love The Slow Thinker.”

A quick mind impersonating the Slow Thinker: that was key to his comic invention. The slowness was a sign of a cautious, calculating inner life. Detachment in the face of disorder remained his touchstone. Of course, stoicism is one of the easier virtues to aspire to when your father has actually put a handle on your pants in order to ease the act of throwing you across a vaudeville proscenium, and it’s easy to see the brutality as the wound that drew the bow of art. But in this case the wound was the art; Keaton minded less the rough play than his increasingly drunken father’s refusal to let him out of the act long enough to go to school. He seems to have had exactly one day of public education.

In New York, the Keatons found themselves at war with city reformers who were evidently more passionate about keeping children off the vaudeville stage than about keeping them out of the sweatshop; arrests and court appearances ensued. After that, the family largely avoided New York, often retreating to the backwoods resort town of Muskegon, Michigan, the nearest thing young Buster ever had to a home. It was only when Joe started drinking too hard and got sloppy onstage that, in 1917, the fastidious Buster left him and went out on his own. It was the abuse of the art form that seemed to offend him.

In those days, young comedians were being swept off the stage and into the movies more or less the same way that garage bands were swept out of high-school gyms and into recording studios in the nineteen-sixties. Keaton fell in with Joseph Schenck, then a novice movie producer, who paired him with Roscoe (Fatty) Arbuckle in the equivalent of the John Belushi–Dan Aykroyd teaming, a “natural” comedian with a technical one. The partnership was an immediate success, starting with the two-reel short “The Butcher Boy” (1917), and was only briefly interrupted when Keaton was drafted and spent part of 1918 in France, having a good time serving in the Great War.

Keaton often credited Arbuckle with showing him how movies worked. But Schenck’s role was just as important. Anita Loos recalled him as someone who brings “forth the aroma of a special sort of smoked sturgeon that came from Barney Greengrass’s delicatessen”; and he and his brother, Nick, who later ran M-G-M, were cynosures among the generation of Russian Jews who dominated Hollywood for the next half century. Joseph Schenck was married to the film star Norma Talmadge; many dry-eyed observers thought that he was the trophy, and that Talmadge married him to keep the producer in her pocket.

Keaton’s early entry into the movies, after his almost complete isolation from a normal childhood, meant that he was really at home only within the world of his own invention. One gets the impression that he mainly lived for the choreography of movie moments, or “gags,” as they were unpretentiously called, though they were rather like Balanchine’s work, with scene and movement and story pressed together in one swoop of action. Keaton was not a reader, unlike Chaplin, who fell on Roget’s Thesaurus with the appetite of his own Tramp eating the shoe. Sex was of absent-minded importance for Keaton; his marriage to Norma Talmadge’s sister Natalie, in 1921, was apparently ceremonial and, after two children were born, celibate, at her mother’s insistence. Nor was he a family man; after they divorced, he hated losing custody of his kids, but it isn’t clear if he saw them much when he had them.

Around 1921, when false charges of rape and murder devastated Arbuckle’s career, Keaton was sympathetic, and then smoothly moved on, making solo movies. “He lives inside the camera,” as Arbuckle observed. Being anti-sentimental to the point of seeming coldhearted was at the core of his art. “In our early successes, we had to get sympathy to make any story stand up,” he said once, in a rare moment of reflection. “But the one thing that I made sure—that I didn’t ask for it. If the audience wanted to feel sorry for me, that was up to them. I didn’t ask for it in action.” Life dished it out, and Keaton’s character just had to take it.

Critics have drawn a connection between the Arbuckle scandal and Keaton’s short comedy “Cops” (1922), made between Arbuckle’s trials, in which Keaton, having been caught accidentally tossing an anarchist bomb, is chased across Los Angeles by hundreds of police officers. This is the kind of conjecture that shows little understanding of the way that artists work, rather like the belief that Picasso’s barbed-wire portraits of Dora Maar, in the nineteen-forties, are protests against the Occupation, rather than a product of his own obsessive imagery. “Cops” is not about false accusation; it’s about the massed comic power of regimented men in motion, uniform action in every sense. Pure artists like Keaton work from their own obsessions, with editorials attached awkwardly afterward.

His first feature, no surprise, was a movie about a movie, an ambitious parody of D. W. Griffith’s legendary epic “Intolerance” (1916), in which Keaton’s sister-in-law Constance Talmadge had appeared. His “Three Ages,” seven years later, stowed together three parallel stories—one Stone Age, one Roman, and one modern—and mocked both Griffith’s cosmic ambitions and his cross-century editing scheme. The caveman comedy is the same as all caveman comedies (Keaton has a calling card inscribed on a stone, etc.), but the Roman sequences are done with even more panache than Mel Brooks’s “History of the World, Part I.” Soon, Keaton was earning a thousand dollars a week, and becoming so rich that he, the boy who never had a home, built his wife a wildly extravagant faux Italian villa.

Dana Stevens takes up the really big question: What made Keaton’s solo work seem so modern? Just as “Cops” can be fairly called Kafkaesque in its juxtaposition of the unfairly pursued hero and the implacable faceless forces of authority, there are moments throughout “Sherlock Jr.” (1924) when Keaton achieves the Surrealist ambition to realize dreams as living action. Sequences like the one in which Keaton seems to step directly into the movie-house screen, and leaps from scene to scene within the projection in perfectly edited non sequiturs, make the Surrealist cinema of Buñuel and Maya Deren seem studied and gelatinous.

Stevens argues that Keaton’s art was informed by the same social revolutions as the European avant-garde: “The pervasive sense of anxiety and dislocation, of the need to reinvent the world from the ground up, that groups like the Surrealists or the Bloomsbury authors sought to express in images and words, the human mop-turned-filmmaker expressed in the comic movement of his body.” But Keaton also looks surreal because the Surrealists were feeding off the same sources as Keaton was, in circus and vaudeville and the music hall and stage magic. The Cubists, the Dadaists, and the Surrealists all had the sense that, as bourgeois pieties had grown increasingly meaningless, the only grammar from which one could construct a credible art was that of farce. So those clowns and comic artists who held down the tradition of burlesque and nonsense comedy were, willy-nilly, the modernist’s dream brothers.

And then, in a modernist way, Keaton’s movies very often are about the movies, which was a natural outgrowth of his single-minded absorption in his chosen medium. In “Sherlock Jr.,” he plays a dreamy projectionist who falls into his own films, and in “The Cameraman” (1928) the joke is that Keaton’s character accidentally makes newsreels filled with camera tricks, double exposures, speeded-up time, and backward movement. Even that great cyclone scene in “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” is meant not to provide an illusion of reality but to show off the possibilities of artifice.

Keaton’s subject, in a larger sense, is the growth of technology and the American effort to tame it. There is scarcely a classic Keaton film of the twenties that doesn’t involve his facing, with affection or respect more often than terror, one or another modern machine: the movie camera, the submarine, the open roadster. Throughout “The Navigator” (1924), he looks uncannily like Wilbur Wright in the Lartigue portrait. Keaton seems, in the combined integrity and opportunism of his persona, to explain how those alarming machines emerge from an older American culture of tinkerers and bicycle repairmen.

Keaton’s greatest work was made in the five years between “Three Ages” (1923) and “The Cameraman.” “The General” (1926), the first of Keaton’s features to enter the National Film Registry, was—surprisingly, to those who think of it as Keaton’s acknowledged masterpiece—a critical flop. A carefully plotted Civil War tale, more adventure story than comic spoof, it shared the typical fate of such passion projects: at first a baffling failure, for which everyone blames the artist, and which does him or her immense professional damage, it then gets rediscovered when the passion is all that’s evident and the financial perils of the project don’t matter anymore. Nobody questioned Keaton’s decision to make it, since the movies he had made in the same system had all been profitable. But businessmen, understandably, hate trusting artists and waiting for the product, and are always looking for an excuse to impose a discipline the artists lack. It takes only one bomb to bring the accountants down on the head of the comedian. Stevens, comparing the film to Michael Cimino’s “Heaven’s Gate,” writes, “The General was less a cause than a symptom of the end of a certain way of making movies. The independent production model that for ten years had allowed Buster the freedom to make exactly the movies he wanted . . . was collapsing under its own weight.” The thing that baffled its detractors (even Sherwood didn’t like it) and, at first, repelled audiences was the thing that seems to us now daring and audacious: the seamless mixture of Keaton’s comedy with its soberly realistic rendering of the period. No American movie gives such a memorable evocation of the Civil War landscape, all smoky Southern mornings and austere encampments—a real triumph of art, since it was shot in Oregon. Many of the images, like one of a short-barrelled cannon rolling alone on the railroad, put one in mind of Winslow Homer.

Two years later, in a studio sleight of hand so sneaky that Curtis spends a page and a half figuring out what the hell happened, Keaton became the subject of a baseball-style trade, in which Joe Schenck had Keaton transferred from United Artists to his brother Nick, at M-G-M. That gave M-G-M a cleanup-hitter comedian—United Artists already had Chaplin—while making sure that, post-“General,” Keaton would be more closely supervised by M-G-M’s boy genius, Irving Thalberg. Chaplin tried to warn Keaton off M-G-M. “Don’t let them do it to you, Buster,” he said. “It’s not that they haven’t smart showmen there. They have some of the country’s best. But there are too many of them, and they’ll all try to tell you how to make your comedies.” Keaton’s passivity made him reluctant to heed the warning, and off he went, Schenck to Schenck.

The mostly disastrous years that Keaton spent at M-G-M are the real subject of Stevens’s chapter on F. Scott Fitzgerald. Thalberg will always have his defenders, but once one gets past the “quality” films he sponsored, it becomes clear what a con artist he was. He sold one observer after another—including Fitzgerald, who took him as the model for his idealized “last tycoon,” Monroe Stahr—on the subtlety of his intellect, while everything he did revealed him to be the most ruthless kind of commercial-minded cynic. Thalberg robbed the Marx Brothers of their anarchy and Keaton of his elegance, turning him, as Stevens complains, into a mere stock rube figure. The Thalberg system tended to work well for an artist just once—as in both the Marxes’ and Keaton’s first films for M-G-M, “A Night at the Opera” and “The Cameraman.” But Thalberg didn’t grasp what had actually worked: the expensive style of the production, pitting the Marxes against the pomposity of opera, and placing Keaton against a full-scale location shoot in New York City. What Thalberg thought worked was schlock imposed on genius: big production numbers for the Marxes and unrequited-love rube comedy for Keaton. In many subsequent movies, at M-G-M and elsewhere, his character was named Elmer (and once even Elmer Gantry), to typify him as a backwoods yokel.

The M-G-M comedies did decently at the box office, but Keaton, an artist injured by the persistent insults to his artistic intelligence, started to drink hard, and soon the drinking drowned out that intelligence. The actress Louise Brooks recalls him driving drunk to the studio, where he silently destroyed a room full of glass bookshelves with a baseball bat. She sensed his message: “I am ruined, I am trapped.” In 1933, he was fired by Louis B. Mayer, essentially for being too smashed, on and off the set, to work. Keaton’s M-G-M experience, despite various efforts by Thalberg and others to keep his career alive as a gag writer, ruined his art. The next decades are truly painful to read about, as Keaton went in and out of hospitals and clinics, falling off the wagon and then sobering up again. His brother-in-law, the cartoonist Walt Kelly, recalls that “nobody really wanted to put him under control because he was a lot of fun.” What we perhaps miss, in accounts of the boozers of yore, is an adequate sense of how much fun they all thought they were having. Drunks of that period could not be shaken from the conviction that they were having a good time until they were hauled off to the hospital.

As Curtis establishes, when Keaton did dry out, by the nineteen-fifties, he had much better later years than the public image suggests. That image persists; a recent, impassioned French documentary titled “Buster Keaton: The Genius Destroyed by Hollywood” maintains that “in just a few years he went from being a worldwide star to a washed-up artist with no future.” Curtis makes it clear that this assertion is wildly exaggerated. Keaton did as well as could have been hoped. But the notion that sound killed off the silent comedians is one of those ideas which, seeming too simple to be true, are simply true. Chaplin endured because he had money and independence, but even he made only two more comedies in the thirties; Harry Langdon was ruined and Harold Lloyd kept his money and withdrew.

Keaton did have to undergo a certain amount of whatever-happened-to humiliation; he is one of Gloria Swanson’s bridge party of silent has-beens in “Sunset Boulevard.” In tribute after tribute, he was condescendingly associated with custard-pie-throwing comedies of a kind he had almost never made. But he was properly valued in France, had successful seasons at the Medrano Circus, and worked ceaselessly as a gag man, even inventing an entire routine for Lucille Ball that became part of the pilot for “I Love Lucy.”

His most famous late appearance was alongside Chaplin in “Limelight” (1952), Chaplin’s last interesting movie, in which they play two down-on-their-luck vaudevillians. Claire Bloom, who played the ingénue, recalls that, in twenty-one days of shooting, Keaton spoke to her exactly once, when showing her a tourist-type photograph of a beautiful Beverly Hills house. He told her that it had once been his home, then fell silent. This seems sad, but Curtis also evokes him watching the camerawork and helping direct Chaplin: “It’s okay, Charlie. You’re right in the center of the shot. Yeah, you’re fine, Charlie. It’s perfect.” Even when he was too frail to run or move much, as in the 1966 film “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” made a year before his death, and directed by his idolater Richard Lester, his face was a beacon not merely of endurance but of a kind of lost American integrity, the integrity of the engineer and the artisan and the old-style vaudeville performer.

Two kinds of American comedy made themselves felt in the first half of the twentieth century: the comedy of invasion and the comedy of resistance. The first was the immigrant comedy of energy, enterprise, mischief, and mayhem. The Marx Brothers are supreme here, but Chaplin, who, although an immigrant of the Cockney rather than the Cossacks-fleeing variety, could play the Jewish arrival brilliantly, and the immigrant-comedy vein runs right up to Phil Silvers’s Sergeant Bilko, swindling the simpleton officers at the Army base. In response comes the comedy of old-American resistance to all that explosive energy, struggling to hold on to order and decency and gallantry. It’s exemplified by W. C. Fields’s efforts to sleep on his sleeping porch in “It’s a Gift,” while the neighborhood around him refuses to quiet down. The division extends even to the written humor of the period, with S. J. Perelman the cynical navigator and commercial participant in the endless ocean of American vulgarity, and James Thurber wistfully watching from Manhattan as the old values of the republic pass away in Columbus.

Keaton is the stoical hero of the comedy of resistance, the uncomplaining man of character who sees the world of order dissolving around him and endures it as best he can. (In “Steamboat Bill, Jr.,” it’s the nostalgic world of the river steamboat; in “The General,” it is, for good or ill, the Old South.) Keaton’s characters have character. They never do anything remotely conniving. And the one thing Keaton never does is mug. There are moments in all his best features, in fact, that anticipate the kind of Method acting that didn’t come into fashion for another generation, as when he impassively slips to the ground beside the girl in the beginning of “The Cameraman,” registering the act of falling in love by the tiniest of increments. The best thing in “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” might be a bit of acting so subtle that one wonders whether people got it at the time. Under suspicion of sexual instability—“If you say what you’re thinking I’ll strangle you!” the title card has the captain saying bluntly to a friend, after watching his son caper with his ukulele—Bill, Jr., is compelled by his father to throw away his Frenchified beret, and try on a sequence of American hats. Keaton doesn’t attempt, as Chaplin might have, to adopt a distinct persona in each hat but actually does what we do in front of a clothing-store mirror: he wears his trying-on face, testing a daring expression, sampling the aesthetic effect of each hat for the sake of his vanity while trying not to offend his father by seeming too much the hat aesthete. Somehow he is both preening and hiding. It’s an amazing moment of pure performance, and every bit as “cinematic”—showing what extreme closeups can do—as the big special-effects sequences.

“Though there is a hurricane eternally raging about him, and though he is often fully caught up in it, Keaton’s constant drift is toward the quiet at the hurricane’s eye,” the critic Walter Kerr observed of Keaton. What remains most in one’s memory after an immersion in Keaton are the quiet, uncanny shots of him in seclusion, his sensitive face registering his own inwardness. In this way, maybe there is some relevance in a Keaton revival today. Critics may invent their causes, but sometimes a good critical book, or two, can create a cause that counts. Chaplin is a theatrical master and needs a theatre to make his mark. His movies play much, much better with an audience present. Keaton can be a solitary entertainment, seen with as much delight on a computer screen as in a movie palace—rather as our taste for the great humanist sacrament of the symphony depends in some part on having open concert halls, while chamber music has whispered right throughout the pandemic. Keaton is the chamber-music master of comedy, with the counterpoint clear and unmuddied by extraneous emotion. It may be that our new claustrophobia is mirrored in his old comedy. The hospital has blown away, and that house has fallen on us all. 

Kaynak https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2022/01/31/what-made-buster-keatons-comedy-so-modern-biography-james-curtis-dana-stevens

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What Made Buster Keaton’s Comedy So Modern?

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