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Tuesday, May 15, 2018

The comfort of Buster Keaton's short films

Buster with his classic melancholy face.
It all started with Buster--why my blog exists in the first place, and why I'm a classic movie obsessive and evangelist.  Comedic film master Buster Keaton was my gateway drug to the ever-expanding universe that is classic film.  So when Rick of Classic Film and TV Cafe announced the 'comfort movie' blogathon to celebrate 'National Classic Movie Day' on May 16th, I had a flashback to 2010 and my long, cold winter days of enjoying short film after short film of Buster's, and I knew I had my topic.  Happy Classic Movie Day everyone!

[For more reasons to get hooked on classic movies, go here to explore all the great entries in the blogathon]. 

Buster Keaton (1895-1966) was a giant of early cinema comedy, along with Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd. Like those two, physically Keaton was not a giant, but a small compact athletic man, whose trademarks include a 'pork-pie' hat, a flat facial affect that, while never smiling still conveyed a range of emotion, and jaw-dropping acrobatic stunts.  To watch a Buster Keaton film is to be transported into a surreal setting that looks rather similar to early 20th century America, only, well, surreal. Keaton's career tanked quickly after talking pictures replaced silent film, and his many-faceted later career is certainly not without interest, but his silent films remain his most visible and beloved legacy.

Keaton's film career started with short films in the late 1910s, made with silent star comedian and mentor Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle. Keaton starred alongside Arbuckle, but learned film direction as well during this period. Buster then came into his own as an independent filmmaker, and with his New York and Hollywood studios, assembled his stock company of actors and crewmembers and started a prolific period turning out nineteen hit two-reelers from 1920-1923.  The rest of the 1920s he focused on creating silent features, including such classics as Our Hospitality, The General, and Steamboat Bill, Jr.  Keaton was both a brilliant slapstick comedian and creative pioneer of the visual medium of film.  The features are brilliant, but an entire short only requires 20-25 minutes of your time!

So if your idea of comfort is taking your mind off your troubles, you could do worse than to settle down and treat yourself to a few doses of Keaton short film hilariousness.  You will be enraptured by what you see, just as Buster here:
Gif from http://bustermylove.tumblr.com/
Following are just a few reasons I find these short films to be so addictive, with a specific film to highlight each.

Absurdist humor: I don't typically laugh at traditional slapstick humor, with pratfalls, pie-throwing stunts and the like. What I enjoy most about Buster's form of comedy is how he creates a slightly surreal universe and then puts himself into both large and small situations that are absurd, and then reacts appropriately.  Most of his films have this characteristic, but I'd like to highlight The Balloonatic (1923).  In this, one of his last shorts in this period, Buster's character takes an unplanned ride in a hot-air balloon, maroons himself in a wilderness near a river, and finds a young woman who is enjoying her own private camping expedition. Buster is smitten and wants to prove himself to her, and runs into trouble. In this film the outdoors is the primary setting, which Buster returns to in other films (see Battling Butler for one), but there is an absurd assortment of wildlife just hanging around camp to menace our hero and heroine, including, a steer with horns, and of course a black bear.  Buster also finds himself in possession of a trick canoe that breaks into three parts at the most inopportune times. Look closely at the name printed on the canoe -- 'Minnie Tee Hee' - likely a parody of the common native American name 'Minnehaha'.  
Buster in his boat 'Minnie Tee Hee" plays a joke on the viewer. Gif from
my friend Vânia (aintthatakick.tumblr.com)
Stunts that only Buster could pull off:  Charlie Chaplin was often called 'balletic' in his movements. Keaton was the Gene Kelly to Chaplin's Fred Astaire -- more overtly athletic but still incredibly graceful. In The Scarecrow (1920), Buster is rooming with romantic rival 'Big Joe' Roberts, in a house that consists of one room, converted for multiple uses thanks to a number of mechanical 'marvels'. In a sequence that is just a warm-up for later, but hilarious in its own right, the two men sit down for dinner and all condiments and utensils hang from the ceiling, and the two men start grabbing them and swinging them back and forth to each other in a synchronized motion that clearly was not choreographed in one sitting.  It's stunning.
Gif from quietbubble.wordpress.com

Keaton's love of dangerous stunts is showcased when he is being chased by a dog ('Luke the Dog', who featured prominently in Keaton's shorts as well as earlier in the films he made with Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle).  The extended chase takes them to the top of a hollowed out brick farmhouse, where they literally run around on a narrow foundation raised on walls well above a safe distance to the ground as only one part of a breathtaking chase sequence.  Buster was known for doing his own stunts, and somehow survived breaking countless bones in his career.
Gif from quietbubble.wordpress.com

Don't look away for five seconds:  Buster's films were chock full of gag after gag, but also the physicality and kinetic energy was off the charts.  As Hal Hinson said in a 1994 Washington Post article, "Keaton's films are like elaborate laboratories set up for research into the physics of slapstick." One of the best examples is The Electric House (1922), in which recent college grad Buster is hired to 'electrify' the home of a wealthy family while they're away on vacation. You often see clips of the escalator-driven staircase with poor Buster being thrown around trying to keep his balance as the mechanism goes out of control. I particularly love the billiard scene, in which the billiard balls are cycled from the pool table bowling-ball style, and the ball rack descends from the wall on an extension arm.  All goes well early in the film, but later a series of malfunctions going on in each room simultaneously sends Buster, and the viewer, into a tailspin of hilarity. The billiard balls start jumping around, the mechanical wall arm socks a houseguest in the jaw, and Buster, trying to escape, gets his head caught in a pair of sliding doors. (Apparently, he actually did break a leg doing the stair stunts for this film). 
Buster showing Joe Roberts how to play 'Electric Pool'
in The Electric House
Warmth of character:  Despite Buster's character's 'stone face', there is never any doubt that he's a good and honorable guy who would not hurt anyone or anything. This does not mean that he backs down from a fight, but that through his exceptional pantomime and emotion-filled eyes, can immediately get you, the viewer, on his side. Many of his misadventures come about for the love of a (deserving or not) woman, and this is nowhere more evident than in one of my favorites, One Week (1920)This short, about the trials a newlywed couple has trying to set up their new home, literally, captures all the stunts and absurd humor that he's known for, but features an unusually warm and loving relationship with his new bride, played by Keaton favorite Sybil Seely.  They share a sweet moment when Buster catches Sybil drawing interlocking hearts on the wall of the home they are building from a kit.  
Buster and Sybil Seely as cute newlyweds.
Gif from An-Unconventional-Lady.tumblr.com
They also are partners sharing the chores.
Gif from aintthatakick.tumblr.com
Seriously--marriage goals.
So if you decide to approach Buster to cure what ails you, here's my prescription based on your need using the 'Comfort Scale':

Your ‘comfort need’
Take...
Minor Annoyance
One short film (I suggest One Week or Cops). Be warned: stopping at one is very, very hard!
I might need a drink
.... at least three shorts: (add The Balloonatic or The Scarecrow)
The world might end!
You require a marathon viewing of at least 10 shorts. (add The Boat, Frozen North, The Electric House, The Playhouse, The Goat, Paleface)

Where to watch:  The short films have been published on DVD and Blu-Ray in a number of editions over the years. Several of them are available now to stream on YouTube and Amazon Prime Video.  

12 comments:

  1. Doctor, I think you should make fridge magnets with your prescription. Required in every home.

    Buster is the best. I have sat in crowded theatres watching his shorts and the memory makes my sides ache from the laughter.

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    1. Maybe I WILL make those fridge magnets - we all need reminders every so often! I have seen two of Buster's features on the big screen, but have yet to enjoy his shorts that way. Lucky you! (and I know you're a huge fan of Buster).

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  2. Buster is a wonder and these films are such timeless treasures. They are a marvel of great feats and laugh out loud moments. Great post!

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    1. Thank you! Timeless treasures, indeed.

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  3. Yup, you're right – you can't take your eyes of Buster for 5 seconds, because you'll miss too much! He knew how to give audiences their money's worth, and his films are the perfect Rx for difficult days.

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    1. Thanks for stopping by. I just love watching these films, and for belly laughs my favorite of his features is Our Hospitality. Just a genius!

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  4. I'm a huge Keaton enthusiast, and you covered every point as to why his independent silent work is so wonderful. Well done!

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    1. Thank you for the kind words and stopping by. It's hard to sum up Buster K in one post, but at least I hit the high points!

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  5. You list four wonderful reasons for watching Buster's movies. Another one is that he was a genius and my proof is SHERLOCK JUNIOR, one of the most innovative movies about movies ever made. Love your clip of Buster atop the farmhouse!

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    1. Omigosh, I love Sherlock Jr.! I could watch that over and over - so clever and one of his best. Keaton was so ahead of his time. Thanks so much for stopping by!

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  6. I fell for Buster in his twilight years, not knowing he never stopped working his comedy magic. He made it all look so easy.It was not as he explained in many interviews regarding his approach. However he took get joy in creating with his writers the comedy he pulled off so well. His third wife, Eleanor ironically had never really seen his work or knew very much about him-even though her family worked behind the movie camera at MGM studios. A good friend of hers screened some of his wonderful silent shorts. When she left that room there were stars in her eyes-and so are ours. We who love his comedy all did it too. Thank you for your insightful blog from one great fan to many many others!

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    1. Hi Diane, I appreciate your thoughtful comment. It's hard to imagine Eleanor not having seen his work while having been married to him for so long. Considering the challenges he faced relatively early in his life and career, I'm glad he had a resurgence in his final act. It must have been magical seeing his shorts screened with someone that knew him through his wife. Thank you for stopping by!

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