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#189. Buster Keaton

I have mentioned a few times before in previous posts that there was a triad of comedians who excelled in silent film slapstick. First came Charlie Chaplin, then Harold Lloyd. Finally, Buster Keaton rounds out the list with some of the best-known stunts in cinematic history. In fact, with each successive actor, the stunts seemed to become more impressive. While Chaplin did a lot of his slapstick with people, Lloyd hung from buildings, and Keaton let buildings fall on top of him. The trick was that all three actors were working in the same time period. Even though they were offset by a few years, there was definitely some cross-influence between them, as well as competition for box office sales. Even with this competition, Buster Keaton made a unique name for himself. This week’s two films highlight a few of Keaton’s classics.

Sherlock, Jr.Sherlock, Jr.
Year: 1924
Rating: Not Rated
Length: 45 minutes / 0.75 hours

Part of Buster Keaton’s success was due to his branding. Chaplin had his “Tramp” with the short mustache, rounded hat, and cane; Lloyd’s characters wore his trademark glasses, and Keaton’s brand was the pork pie hat he wore in most of his films. This, of course, was a bit of a reference to Lloyd’s characters, who also wore a similar hat. Another theme Keaton used often was that of the underdog. Chaplin might have idealized homelessness, but Lloyd’s wealthy characters were often contrasted by burly antagonists, like in The Kid Brother (1927). Keaton’s few “Junior” films pulled from Lloyd, creating characters who were against the odds, but not because society had been hard on them. Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928) came four years after his first “Junior” film, but still maintained the underdog aspect.

What was almost more impressive than Keaton’s stunts were the special effects used in many of his films. In the aforementioned Steamboat Bill, Jr., the front of a house falls on top of Keaton, his only salvation being an open window in the façade. In Sherlock, Jr. (1924), he actually broke his neck when a load of water from a water tower fell on him. Fortunately, his underwater escapades in The Navigator (1924) later that year were performed safely. Obviously, some effects need to be performed in person, but scenes like walking into a movie from the stage could be done with early camera tricks. The need in Sherlock, Jr. to enter a film was the main character’s daydream that he could solve a case involving a stolen item. As he transposed himself with the detective in the movie, he was trying to recreate the circumstances that would help him get the girl.

Three AgesThree Ages
Year: 1923
Rating: Not Rated
Length: 63 minutes / 1.05 hours

Intellectual property theft was big in the early days of film, which was why Keaton’s stunts ended up being so difficult to copy: he thought the best ones up himself. Furthermore, while we are all familiar with parody films, having a vast array of popular culture to pull from, this genre is by no means new. Even in 1923, with major motion pictures only having been around for a few decades, parodies were being made to highlight a film’s cultural significance. At over three hours long, D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916) gave moviegoers a look into three different historical eras to show that persecution and bigotry were rampant throughout time. This allowed Buster Keaton to easily break into cinema from the Vaudeville stage. With Three Ages (1923), Keaton began his slapstick career, seven years after Intolerance hit theaters.

At a third of the length, Three Ages stole the central plot device of using parallel storylines from Intolerance, but instead to show that man has always loved women, instead of the moral browbeating of its epic predecessor. The first of the Ages is that of the stone age, where a prehistoric man (Buster Keaton) would use whatever primitive tools necessary to convince the woman (Margaret Leahy) that he loved her. Unfortunately, as we would then see in the age of ancient Rome, it’s not so simple as that. There are rivals (Wallace Beery) who will compete for the love of the woman, often leaving the weaker and less-athletic men to think up more elaborate schemes to win the heart of a girl. Finally, in the “modern era” (in this case, the Roaring Twenties), the audience sees that things have not changed between the three ages: love has always been the way it is.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 Keaton classics

Bacon #: 2 (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn / Patty McCormack -> Frost/Nixon / Kevin Bacon)

10 responses to “#189. Buster Keaton

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