Joseph Frank “Buster” Keaton (1885-1966) was a lot of things: actor, comedian, director, producer, screenwriter, and probably most famous of all a death defying practitioner of stunts. He was prolific during the 1920s – despite the technological limitations of the time, with some clever cinematography and a complete disregard for his safety, we were handed films such as the General (1926) and the Cameraman (1928).
Naturally, it was the silent film era into which he enthusiastically jumped. Having grown up in Piqua, Kansas – his father worked with Harry Houdini, who used modern parlance “That was a real buster!” after he’d seen the young Keaton take a tumble. His father then referred to him as “Buster” and the name stuck, providing this screen legend with the perfect name for some of the crazed antics he became involved in.
Silent era films lacked synchronised recorded sound and various other modern technical wonders. For audiences these days, this may seem like a disaster. For the creatives from the 1920s, such issues were circumvented by relying on, in part, a type of Flatland premise. Others used title cards to suggest what characters were saying, but Buster Keaton largely ditched this in favour of telling his stories visually.
He started at an early age – three, in fact. With his parents they formed the Three Keatons, a slapstick routine that led to accusations of child abuse towards Mr. and Mrs. Keaton. The young Buster was having a blast, however, and in the early days started laughing during routines – judging audience reactions dipped by this break of the fourth wall, he started adopting his trademark deadpan (often a borderline grimace) expression to great effect.
As he grew older he developed his act and, working with Roscoe Arbuckle, landed his first film in 1917 – the Butcher Boy. His first solo project arrived by 1920 and stardom quickly followed – in the 1920s, along with Charlie Chaplin, he was a film superstar. Unfortunately, by the 1930s he began enduring studio interference and in frustration he plunged into alcoholism, but recovered to have a resurgence in his career by the 1960s. Ultimately, his legacy is still blasting itself out of a cannon with no helmet, by which we mean it’s rather strong, old boy.
Silent films aren’t totally redundant as an art form these days, of course. French film the Artist (2011) won five Oscars. Sylvain Chomet’s animated films, like the Illusionist, also pay homage to the silent era – his films tell their story through animation, not dialogue. Even video games like Cuphead, although not silent, have used the artistic styling of the 1930s to stand out in the ultra-polished modern era. We believe we can expect this trend to keep stick around for some time, in niche markets at least.
"The secret is in landing limp and breaking the fall with a foot or a hand. It's a knack. I started so young that landing right is second nature with me. Several times I'd have been killed if I hadn't been able to land like a cat. Imitators of our act don't last long, because they can't stand the treatment." Buster Keaton
Keaton’s stunts (which in the 1920s he performed all by himself) were often so dangerous he once told his cameraman “only stop recording if I’m killed”. He did all of them with his trademark deadpan expression, of course, a comedy style that’s influenced many contemporary comedians (Nick Offerman from Parks and Recreation has perfected it, for instance).
In the clip at the start of this post, YouTube channel Every Frame a Painting wisely uses a piece of music from Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel. We became quite obsessed with this piece of music back in 2014 when the film landed – it’s impish, mischievous, but inquisitive and daring. Every quality Buster Keaton had as a pioneering filmmaker.
The fact Keaton was willing to get himself killed in order to land a spectacular stunt elevates him to rock star status, frankly. Modern viewers may struggle with watching his films in full as it’s such a different form of storytelling than with, for instance, the latest Avengers film, but what can certainly be universally appreciated is the inventiveness of the stunts he created and performed.
There were no stunt doubles or CGI – there was also pretty much no safety. If you wanted to record a stunt that would wow your audience, you’d often just have to put your life on the line. However, the film crews back then were also very clever, often relying on optical illusions and other ingenious tricks to make a stunt appear more realistic than it seemed – Keaton wasn’t alone in relying on such tactics.
If you’re a film buff, or interested in cinema history, then his work is certainly a fine place to delve into. Keaton’s clumsy, accident-prone onscreen personas belied the fact he was in total control of his acrobatic abilities.
The inventiveness of his films still startle, with his stunts (so remarkably clever, despite their apparent simplicity) rival many modern films. As such, we must give full credit to a man who ignored the technological limitations of his time in order to deliver some legendary cinema footage that has inspired many generations since. Bon!