Harry Langdon, Harold Lloyd, Charlie Chaplin, and Buster Keaton are considered the greats of early film comedy. At one time or another, all four were popular, and at various times wealthy, but Chaplin was in a league of his own in regards to international celebrity. The other three tried to better Chaplin at the box office, but never really succeeded. In their films, they often took their cues from Chaplin and copied him, and each other.
The type of comedy these actors, writers and directors put on film was called slapstick. Slapstick had its roots in vaudeville and stage comedy. and featured a lot of physical comedy. Since it had no dialogue, silent film was a perfect medium for slapstick. With no words, and gestures universally understood across cultures, slapstick comedies could be screened in any nickelodeon or movie house in the world and still get laughs.
Slapstick was also popular because it was subversively democratic in its message and appeal. As Alan Vanneman puts it:
The world of silent film comedy was an inverted world, a world in which everyone acted out as furiously as we in the real world repress. It was a world in which the little man defeated the big, the ugly defeated the handsome, and the poor defeated the rich. And who among us does not feel that the world treats him as little, ugly, and poor, and who does not dream of turning the tables? The silent clowns were urged on by just these demons, and used their careers to make their fantasies come true.
It was perhaps inevitable that film, as a new art form and industry, would become more conservative as it became older, more successful, and more powerful. This is particularly true when “talkies,” or sound films, came along in 1927. Vanneman asks:
Why did slapstick die with silent film? The talkies hurt slapstick by making films more real. Mack Sennett started the tradition of “undercranking” comedies to speed up the action.29 In an undercranked world, objects seem to lack mass, and violence loses its brutality. A punch in the nose is an insult, not an injury. Sound films had to be shot and projected in real time, making the frenetic chases, fights, and pratfalls that made up so much of silent film comedy seem earthbound, painful, and unfunny. . . . Talkies were new, and public wanted to see new comedies in a new medium. Whatever the movies hadn’t been able to do before was at a premium. Silent films were old hat, and the great stars of the twenties were old news.
Leonard Maltin writes of Buster Keaton:
Keaton – whose deadpan expressions to the onscreen comic disasters that befell him earned him the sobriquet “The Great Stone Face” – became one of the most popular and successful comic actors of the silent era. In fact, his daring comic stunts, which he performed himself without camera trickery, quickly became the stuff of legend.
Keaton himself commented on his famous “stone face”:
One of the first things I noticed was that whenever I smiled or let the audience suspect how much I was enjoying myself they didn’t seem to laugh as much as usual. I guess people just never do expect any human mop, dishrag, beanbag, or football to be pleased by what is being done to him. At any rate, it was on purpose that I started looking miserable, humiliated, hounded and haunted, bedeviled, bewildered and at my wit’s end. (qtd. in Maltin)
Like his omnipresent porkpie hat, Keaton’s “stone face” was part of his “brand.” It distinguished him from the other slapstick artistes, especially the “Little Tramp,” Charlie Chaplin.
It wasn’t just about costume, however, but rather a type of character, a persona, that Keaton almost always played in his movies. Vanneman says that Keaton was “the uncomprehending, indomitable little man whose innocence, persistence and phenomenal dexterity allow him to triumph over the world without ever understanding it.”
Like Chaplin, [Keaton] was a little man living in a big man’s world. Buster was as friendless as Charlie, but he was neither as fastidious nor as aggressive. Charlie tended to feel that the world owed him a living. Even when he had a job, he did as little as possible. Buster, on the other hand, wanted to fit in. He liked things that worked, and was always looking for the instruction book to life.
Also like Chaplin, Keaton got his start in vaudeville. Both of his parents were actors and when young Joseph Frank Keaton came of age, he joined his parents on the stage.
Dan Callahan says that Buster was billed as “The Little Boy Who Can’t Be Damaged” and was being flung roughly around the stage beginning at the age of five. Leonard Maltin claims that ‘Buster’ was a nickname given to him by the famous stage magician, Harry Houdini, after seeing young Keaton “busted about” the stage. Callahan writes that
for Buster, it seems as if life from an early age was all about physical pain and cultivating the endurance to absorb it. Take your lumps and get the laugh, year in, year out. Out of this experience came the creation of his artistic persona: you fall hard, you get right back up; the girl doesn’t you, do what you can and wait until she does. He did not cry and he would not smile. Above all, even if things worked out, Buster knew that everything would soon fall apart again, which led to some of the most ruthlessly unsentimental endings in film history. At bottom, he was a cagey, down-to-earth pessimist who could occasionally liberate himself through graceful movement up into pure physical abstraction.
Keaton made his first film in 1917, after being “discovered” by Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, and the two made many films together. In the early 1920s, Keaton began making films for his brother-in-law, Joseph Schenck. Keaton had full artistic freedom in the making of these films, but Schenck retained the copyrite, which meant all the profits went to him.
According to Maltin, Keaton’s film “work stood apart from the conventions of the period – no wild mugging for the cameras, the use of locations instead of studios sets, minimal title cards, and long shots that proved his extravagant stunts were indeed real.”
Vanneman adds that “Keaton, unlike Chaplin, was fascinated by the techniques of movie-making. Like Harold Lloyd, he made ‘big’ pictures filled with spectacular stunts that showed off his superb athletic abilities.”
Keaton’s fascination with film technique can be seen in many of his films. Callahan notes that Keaton’s shorts in the early 20s “exhibit a consistent self-reflexivity, making them perhaps the first serious films about films themselves. . . . Keaton understood, instinctively, the dream-like nature of films – many of the shorts end with him waking up from a dream-filled slumber.”
Keaton’s short films were enormously popular. Almost as popular were the feature-length films that Keaton made later in the 1920s. This includes the influential Sherlock, Jr. (1924), and Go West (1925). The last three feature films that Keaton made flopped at the box office. One of these films, The General, is often cited as Keaton’s greatest film. Of this film, Maltin writes: “Uncompromising as ever, Keaton refused to use a model for the film’s climax, shooting instead at the unheard of cost of $42,000 a real train crashing through a burning bridge; the frame included men on horseback moving on the river bank as proof it was no camera trick.” Keaton showed a lot of hubris in demanding such perfection, and such a huge budget, and when the film did not do well at the box office, the budgets began to dry up. It’s also important to note that Hollywood was transitioning to sound films during this time. Keaton was increasingly old (porkpie) hat.
After the failure of The General and Steamboat Bill, Jr., Keaton was forced into what Callahan calls a “prison-term” contract at MGM. He became a “gag man” for the studio and specialized in short films. He was fired by MGM in 1933, for “alcoholism.”
Thereafter, Keaton only got bit parts in Hollywood films, like his famous cameo in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950), and his small role opposite Charlie Chaplin in Limelight (1952). Keaton revived his acting career briefly in the 1950s, with cameo roles in the “beach party” films starring Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello, and a number of television appearances.
In contradistinction to Chaplin, Keaton’s reputation has been rising in the minds of critics in the past couple decades. Now you are more likely to see a film by Keaton, rather than by Chaplin, in film textbooks and retrospectives.
University of Maryland
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Dan Callahan. “Buster Keaton.” Senses of Cinema. October 2002.
Tom Dirks. “Filmsite Movie Review: The Great Train Robbery.” filmsite.
Leonard Maltin. “Overview for Buster Keaton.” TCM.
Alan Vanneman. “‘Why Are They All Ugly Little Men?’ Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, and Langdon: the great silent clowns reformatted.” Bright Lights Film Journal. August 2002 (Issue 37).