Between 1914 and 1928, people laughed longer, louder, and more often than at any other time in history. The reason why is that during those fourteen extremely turbulent years in the world, a group of comic geniuses did things on the movie screen that were more elaborately conceived for comedy, more brilliantly constructed for laughs, and, simply, funnier than anything ever done—-before or since.
These extraordinary people—-among them, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Laurel and Hardy, Mabel Normand, Charlie Chase, and numerous others—-had four distinct advantages over all other comedians in the annals of entertainment: They could not be heard speaking; they were in black and white; their images were magnified a hundred-fold; they had total freedom of movement. All four of these—-separately, and together even more so—-help to make things funnier: Physical comedy, as opposed to verbal, is the belly-laugh kind, and can be truly unrelenting since there’s no waiting for the next line to be heard, and laughter is infectious, building on itself. Black and white intensifies comedy because there are no distractions—-such as eye-color, color of grass and flowers, hair-color, skin-color, costume- and set-colors—-nothing takes your absolute concentration away from what’s funny. Seeing things bigger makes them clearer, and clearer is funnier. Freedom of movement means the whole world becomes your banana peel.
Buster Keaton’s priceless comedies—-the shorts and features he supervised and starred in between 1920 and 1928, the last year of silent pictures—-are my own personal favorites from this glorious era. “Keaton was beyond all praise,” Orson Welles said to me years ago, “a very great artist, and one of the most beautiful men I ever saw on the screen. He was also a superb director. In the last analysis, nobody came near him…I wish I’d known him better than I did. A tremendously nice person, you know, but also a man of secrets. I can’t even imagine what they were.”
After a score of superb two- and three-reelers (all available, along with all the features, in a splendid DVD collection called The Art of Buster Keaton), Buster’s first feature was THREE AGES (1923), an ambitious, witty, yet unpretentious trio of variations on a theme: Two guys (Keaton and Wallace Beery) after one woman through three different Ages, starting with Prehistoric Buster in the Stone Age, ending in modern times; also it is a friendly parody of D.W. Griffith’s famous four-part classic Intolerance, made only seven years earlier, though the picture works on its own terms without knowing the inside joke.
But Keaton’s first full-length story was the charming, rarely-seen masterpiece, OUR HOSPITALITY (also 1923), and it happens to have been the first Keaton film I saw after starting my movie card-file—-when I was halfway to thirteen—-and dismissed it as “pretty dated.” By the time I saw it again 17 years later, I had changed my view radically, giving it my highest rating: “A magnificent comedy set in the 1830s…one of Keaton’s most breathtaking; exhaustingly funny—-great atmosphere, sense of period, pacing, mood. A low-key masterpiece by the greatest silent director of them all.” Seen again today, this lesser-known Keaton work, shot on real locations near Lake Tahoe, Nevada, is certainly among his most lovely, and very typical of him in the mordantly witty and ironic slant of its humor. Taking the infamous, generations-old Hatfield-McCoy family feud as plot and making Buster the innocent target has an amazingly layered set of reverberations, repeatedly exposing the absurdity of blind hatred, blind vengeance. He also has a field day spoofing a primitive early train, and pulls off one of his most spectacular stunts saving the girl (first wife Natalie Talmadge) from going over the waterfall. C.B. DeMille stole the whole sequence for one of his epic dramas, Unconquered (1947), but even DeMille and Gary Cooper couldn’t touch Buster’s one-shot marvel.
In his next (very short but intense) feature, SHERLOCK JR.(1924), Buster plays a small-town movie projectionist who hopes to become a great detective, and, in one of the most amazing (and famous) sequences in silent cinema, Buster dreams himself right into the picture he’s projecting. The special effects he pulled off in that scene would be a piece of cake in today’s computer-generated funhouse movies, but Keaton’s achievement remains a delightful triumph of audacious craft. This isn’t the funniest of the ten golden features Keaton created, but it is certainly the most dazzling in its virtuosity.
From the same year, incredibly, comes one of Keaton’s most popular and enduring pictures, THE NAVIGATOR. The Great Stone Face—Buster’s moniker at the time because he never smiled (he used to say he was “too busy” to smile)—plays a pampered young millionaire who inadvertently ends up on an abandoned ship cast adrift in the ocean with a society girl (Kathryn McGuire) who just turned him down. Sequence after sequence is superbly funny and justly celebrated; my favorite is one writer-critic James Agee used to rave about: where Buster and the girl realize each of them is not alone on the ship and proceed to try to find the other. If you’re unfortunate to only have time for one or two Keatons, this one is essential.
From 1925 comes SEVEN CHANCES in which Keaton plays a guy set to inherit a fortune if he marries by a certain date; it features one of the great silent comedy chases: a thousand brides, literally, after one hapless Buster. The funniest section—when first stones, then rocks, then boulders roll down after him—came about as a result of the first preview audience’s unexpected laugh at some pebbles he dislodged while running down a hill: Keaton, the consummate comedy professional, was now compelled to “top” this and did with a vengeance: It’s just achingly funny.
Also released in 1925 was probably Buster’s most gentle, tender-hearted work, and definitely his least known, GO WEST. What I wrote for my movie card-file in 1969, when I first saw it, still holds true: “Not as hilarious as most Keatons, but nonetheless beautifully directed comedy about Buster’s love for a brown-eyed cow on a Western ranch. Lots of marvelous gags and moments, with a typically energetic chase at the end—-the herd follows him through town to the stockyards—-but it doesn’t have the overall impact of things like Seven Chances or College, and is certainly not on a level with the masterpieces.”
The next year came BATTLING BUTLER, which was one of Keaton’s biggest hits in his day but, ironically, has virtually no reputation now, except perhaps as a little-seen minor Keaton. Although it has a not particularly memorable setup (millionaire playboy Buster pretends to be a prizefight champion to impress Sally O’Neil), the film’s payoff—Buster in an extended David-and-Goliath boxing match—is utterly hilarious, and reveals where Chaplin got the idea and some of the jokes for Charlie’s more famous, but considerably less funny, boxing match five years later in City Lights.
Most film experts cite 1927’s THE GENERAL as Keaton’s absolute masterpiece, with Buster as a Southern railroad engineer who tries to enlist in the Confederate Army to impress his girl (Marion Mack), gets turned down, then becomes a hero by saving his train from the Union Army. Not a popular success in its day, it is his one certified classic and, because of the obviously serious Civil War background, must be considered the forerunner of black comedy. Another quintessential Keaton, though by no means the funniest.
Far more popular in that same year was Keaton’s foray into sports in COLLEGE, one of the most lightweight of his comedies, but for sheer into-the-aisle laughs, one of his best. What that other major comic contemporary, Harold Lloyd, had done for football a couple of years before in The Freshman, Keaton does for every other conceivable college sport, and Buster’s extraordinary athleticism is flamboyantly, uproariously displayed.
Finally, from the great last full year of non-talking pictures, there’s 1928’s STEAMBOAT BILL JR., in which Buster is a pampered mama’s boy who comes down South to meet and impress his macho riverboat-captain father (Ernest Torrence). I saw this a decade ago on the big screen at the Telluride Film Festival with 750 men, women and children, and can’t recall hearing that much laughter in years: It was the hit of the festival, this (then) 70-year-old comedy, and had to be rerun twice to accommodate demand. Steamboat is probably also Keaton’s most consistently funny picture, with a spectacular hurricane-twister sequence that is as breathtakingly hilarious as it is awesome in technical brilliance. Remember, Keaton did all his own stunts, and in Steamboat there is a virtual symphony of unbelievable falls. Buster didn’t smile, yes, but the variety of subtle expressions in all his work is as memorably cinematic as his lithe and vividly expressive body.
One maxim of Keaton’s—“You must always see a comedian’s feet”—is exemplified in these works of Keaton’s mature flowering, and he was, after all, not only the purist, most unique of American comic artists—as American as Mark Twain—he was also the finest director of comedy in world cinema. Long live Buster!