Five Easy Clips Presents: Buster Keaton

“It’s said that Chaplin wanted you to like him, but Keaton didn’t care. I think he cared, but was too proud to ask. “
-Roger Ebert

Writer, actor, director, stuntman… today’s Five Easy Clips is about none other than Mr. Buster Keaton.

If you have never seen a Buster Keaton movie, you’re very lucky. He’s one of those geniuses whose diehard fans wish they could experience again for the first time. And it’s not out of snobbery– he’s really that good. While mainstream film buffs can’t stop raving over Chaplin, Keaton is the lesser known silent film star… well, I’m happy to be a part of bringing him into the mainstream.

NOTE: If you only want to see one clip, make it #4

Just to see what you’re getting into, here’s a short compilation of stunts from The General, ranked by Sight and Sound as the 15th best film in history. This is the one that Orson Welles named “…the greatest comedy ever made, the greatest Civil War film ever made, and perhaps the greatest film ever made.”

“Life is too serious to do farce comedy.”
-Buster Keaton

Keaton was born in Kansas to a Vaudeville family. As a youngin’ playing the role of “The Little Boy Who Couldn’t Be Damaged”. This poor kid had a suitcase handle sewn into his clothing and was thrown around the stage. Whenever authorities responded to reports of child abuse, he could show them he had no bruises or broken bones. Buster really knew how to take a fall.

In 1917, he met the first major silent film comedian, Fatty Arbuckle, who taught him the tools of the trade.

His first starring role was in the 1920 short One Week, which brings us to the next clip. I could have chosen any one of dozens, but this shows how what we consider now to be post-modern comedy was being written back in the 20’s. I needn’t explain further – you’ll spot it.

“I’ve simply been brought up being knocked down.”
-Buster Keaton

He went on to make a number of feature films. Ebert called this his “extraordinary period from 1920 to 1929, when he worked without interruption on a series of films that make him, arguably, the greatest actor-director in the history of the movies.”

Now a windy scene from his feature Steamboat Bill Jr. If you’re a fan of Arrested Development and have never seen this clip, get ready to be clued in.

“I don’t act, anyway. The stuff is all injected as we go along. My pictures are made without script or written directions of any kind.”
-Buster Keaton

SPOILER FOR PRECEDING CLIP! Apparently there was a nail on the ground marking where to stand.

And now… Sherlock Jr.

Okay, The General gets the raves, but I consider this one Buster’s masterpiece. Too bad it bombed at the box office, and is relatively little-watched today (9,500 votes at IMDb compared to 45,000 for Chaplin’s The Great Dictator or 130,000 for 2009’s Sherlock Holmes).

If you like this clip, watch parts four and five as well, or better yet, watch it from one end to the other. It’s only 45 minutes; that’s two episodes of King of Queens. Part of its genius is its gradual build-up and perfect pacing.

The story up to now: Buster’s character has been accused of stealing a watch from his love interest’s father, but the real culprit is his rival suitor. He returns to his job as a projectionist, falls asleep, and dreams of being… The Great Sherlock Jr. The clip begins soon after the dream begins, and he’s walked into the film being shown. The beginning scenes, by the way, were made using surveying equipment.

“You could write the whole plot on a postcard. We do the rest.”
-Buster Keaton

In 1928 Buster signed with MGM, which he later called a huge mistake. His creative control was stunted in the early sound era, and while much of what he made thereafter was to prove popular, it lacks the genius of what he made in the twenties.

So, to set you off, here’s Keaton’s last short film (from 1965, a year before his death). Since we’re a Toronto-based publication it seems fitting that it was produced by the NFB, and features his trip across Canada. At over 20 minutes it’s the longest clip in this article, and if you’re only going to watch one, you should see Sherlock Jr before this.

“Well, I’d say that the minute sound came in, it was everybody talking their heads off and going for dialogue laughs. All your writers did the same thing. Once that started, it took years to ever get anybody even to touch that old type of material again”
-Buster Keaton

See you soon with another “Five Easy Clips”!

Got any clips to recommend? Please write ’em in the comments!


You can read Adam’s other posts on PP [here]