Buster Keaton: The Silent Power of Slapstick

 

The power of silence to communicate messages through acting and behaviour.  I wonder if observation becomes the skill of the audience evoking creativity within the audience rather than passive entertainment?

Here is a film to warm you up…

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buster_Keaton

Joseph Frank “Buster” Keaton (October 4, 1895 – February 1, 1966) was an American comic actor, filmmaker, producer and writer.[1] He was best known for his silent films, in which his trademark was physical comedy with a consistently stoic, deadpan expression, earning him the nickname “The Great Stone Face”.[2]

Buster Keaton (his lifelong stage name) was recognized as the seventh-greatest director of all time by Entertainment Weekly.[3] In 1999, the American Film Institute ranked Keaton the 21st-greatest male star of all time. Critic Roger Ebert wrote of Keaton’s “extraordinary period from 1920 to 1929, [when] he worked without interruption on a series of films that make him, arguably, the greatest actor-director in the history of the movies.”[2]

Orson Welles stated that Keaton’s The General is “the greatest comedy ever made, the greatest Civil War film ever made, and perhaps the greatest film ever made.”[4]

A 2002 worldwide poll by Sight & Sound ranked Keaton’s The General as the 15th best film of all time. Three other Keaton films received votes in the magazine’s survey: Our Hospitality, Sherlock, Jr., and The Navigator.[5]

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[edit] Early life in vaudeville

Keaton was born Joseph Frank Keaton[6] into a vaudeville family. He was named “Joseph” to continue a tradition on his father’s side—he was sixth in a line bearing the name Joseph Keaton[6]—and “Frank” for his maternal grandfather, who disapproved of the parents’ union. Later, Keaton changed his middle name to “Francis”.[6] His father was Joseph Hallie “Joe” Keaton, a native of Vigo County, Indiana. Joe Keaton owned a traveling show with Harry Houdini called the “Mohawk Indian Medicine Company”, which performed on stage and sold patent medicine on the side. Buster Keaton was born in Piqua, Kansas, the small town where his mother, Myra Edith Cutler, happened to go into labor.[7]

According to a frequently-repeated story, which may be apocryphal,[8] Keaton acquired the nickname “Buster” at about eighteen months of age. Keaton told interviewer Fletcher Markle that Harry Houdini happened to be present one day when the young Keaton took a tumble down a long flight of stairs without injury. After the infant sat up and shook off his experience, Houdini remarked, “That was a real buster!” According to Keaton, in those days, the word “buster” was used to refer to a spill or a fall that had the potential to produce injury. After this, it was Keaton’s father who began to use the nickname to refer to the youngster. Keaton retold the anecdote over the years, including during a 1964 interview with the CBC‘s Telescope.[9]

At the age of three, Keaton began performing with his parents in The Three Keatons. He first appeared on stage in 1899 in Wilmington, Delaware. The act was mainly a comedy sketch. Myra played the saxophone to one side, while Joe and Buster performed on center stage. The young Keaton would goad his father by disobeying him, and the elder Keaton would respond by throwing him against the scenery, into the orchestra pit, or even into the audience. A suitcase handle was sewn into Keaton’s clothing to aid with the constant tossing. The act evolved as Keaton learned to take trick falls safely; he was rarely injured or bruised on stage. This knockabout style of comedy led to accusations of child abuse, and occasionally, arrest. However, Buster Keaton was always able to show the authorities that he had no bruises or broken bones. He was eventually billed as “The Little Boy Who Can’t Be Damaged,” with the overall act being advertised as “‘The Roughest Act That Was Ever in the History of the Stage.”[10] Decades later, Keaton said that he was never hurt by his father and that the falls and physical comedy were a matter of proper technical execution. In 1914, Keaton told the Detroit News:

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.[10]

Keaton claimed he was having so much fun that he would sometimes begin laughing as his father threw him across the stage. Noticing that this drew fewer laughs from the audience, he adopted his famous deadpan expression whenever he was working.[11]

The act ran up against laws banning child performers in vaudeville. It is said that, when one official saw Keaton in full costume and makeup and asked a stagehand how old he was, the stagehand then pointed to the boy’s mother, saying, “I don’t know, ask his wife!” According to one biographer, Keaton was made to go to school while performing in New York, but only attended for part of one day. Despite tangles with the law and a disastrous tour of music halls in the United Kingdom, Keaton was a rising star in the theater. Keaton stated that he learned to read and write late, and was taught by his mother. By the time he was 21, his father’s alcoholism threatened the reputation of the family act,[10] so Keaton and his mother, Myra, left for New York, where Buster Keaton’s career swiftly moved from vaudeville to film.[12]

Although he did not see active combat, he served in World War I, during which time he suffered an ear infection that permanently impaired his hearing.[13][14]

[edit] Silent film era

In February 1917, Keaton met Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle at the Talmadge Studios in New York City, where Arbuckle was under contract to Joseph M. Schenck. Joe Keaton disapproved of films, and Buster also had reservations about the medium. During his first meeting with Arbuckle, he asked to borrow one of the cameras to get a feel for how it worked. He took the camera back to his hotel room, dismantled and reassembled it. With this rough understanding of the mechanics of the moving pictures, he returned the next day, camera in hand, asking for work. He was hired as a co-star and gag man, making his first appearance in The Butcher Boy. Keaton later claimed that he was soon Arbuckle’s second director and his entire gag department. Keaton and Arbuckle became close friends.

In 1920, The Saphead was released, in which Keaton had his first starring role in a full-length feature. It was based on a successful play, The New Henrietta, which had already been filmed once, under the title “The Lamb” with Douglas Fairbanks playing the lead. Fairbanks recommended Keaton to take up the role for the remake five years later, since the film was to have a comic slant.

After Keaton’s successful work with Arbuckle, Schenck gave him his own production unit, Buster Keaton Comedies. He made a series of two-reel comedies, including One Week (1920), The Playhouse (1921), Cops (1922), and The Electric House (1922). Keaton then moved to full-length features, his first starring role being in The Saphead (1920).

Keaton’s writers included Clyde Bruckman and Jean Havez, but the most ingenious gags were generally conceived by Keaton himself. Comedy director Leo McCarey, recalling the freewheeling days of making slapstick comedies, said, “All of us tried to steal each other’s gagmen. But we had no luck with Keaton, because he thought up his best gags himself and we couldn’t steal him![15] The more adventurous ideas called for dangerous stunts, performed by Keaton at great physical risk. During the railroad water-tank scene in Sherlock Jr., Keaton broke his neck when a torrent of water fell on him from a water tower, but he did not realize it until years afterward. A scene from Steamboat Bill Jr. required Keaton to run into the shot and stand still on a particular spot. Then, the facade of a two-story building toppled forward on top of Keaton. Keaton’s character emerged unscathed, thanks to a single open window which passed directly over him. The stunt required precision, because the prop house weighed two tons, and the window only offered a few inches of space around Keaton’s body. The sequence became one of the iconic images of Keaton’s career.[16]

The film critic David Thomson later described Keaton’s style of comedy: “Buster plainly is a man inclined towards a belief in nothing but mathematics and absurdity … like a number that has always been searching for the right equation. Look at his face — as beautiful but as inhuman as a butterfly — and you see that utter failure to identify sentiment.”[17] Gilberto Perez describes “Keaton’s genius as an actor to keep a face so nearly deadpan and yet render it, by subtle inflections, so vividly expressive of inner life. His large deep eyes are the most eloquent feature; with merely a stare he can convey a wide range of emotions, from longing to mistrust, from puzzlement to sorrow.”[18] Keaton even inspired full academic study.[19]

Aside from Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928), Keaton’s most enduring feature-length films include Our Hospitality (1923), The Navigator (1924), Sherlock Jr. (1924), Seven Chances (1925), The Cameraman (1928), and The General (1927). The General, set during the American Civil War, combined physical comedy with Keaton’s love of trains, including an epic locomotive chase. Employing picturesque locations, the film’s storyline reenacted an actual wartime incident. Though it would come to be regarded as Keaton’s proudest achievement, the film received mixed reviews at the time. It was too dramatic for some filmgoers expecting a lightweight comedy, and reviewers questioned Keaton’s judgment in making a comedic film about the Civil War, even while noting it had a “few laughs”.[20] The fact that the heroes of the story were from the Confederate side may have also contributed to the film’s unpopularity.

It was an expensive misfire, and Keaton was never entrusted with total control over his films again. His distributor, United Artists, insisted on a production manager who monitored expenses and interfered with certain story elements. Keaton endured this treatment for two more feature films, and then exchanged his independent setup for employment at Hollywood’s biggest studio, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM). Keaton’s loss of independence as a filmmaker coincided with the coming of sound films (although he was interested in making the transition) and mounting personal problems, and his career in the early sound era was hurt as a result.[21]

[edit] Sound era and television

Keaton signed with MGM in 1928, a business decision that he would later call the worst of his life. He realized too late that the studio system MGM represented would severely limit his creative input. For instance, the studio refused his request to make his early project, Spite Marriage, as a sound film and after the studio converted, he was obliged to adhere to dialogue-laden scripts. However, MGM did allow Keaton to direct his last originally developed/written silent film The Cameraman, 1928, which was his first project under contract with MGM.

Keaton was forced to use a stunt double during some of the more dangerous scenes, as MGM wanted badly to protect its investment. He also stopped directing, but continued to perform and made some of his most financially successful films for the studio. MGM tried teaming the laconic Keaton with the rambunctious Jimmy Durante in a series of films, The Passionate Plumber, Speak Easily, and What! No Beer? The latter would be Keaton’s last starring feature. The films proved popular. (Thirty years later, both Keaton and Durante had cameo roles in It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World.)

In the first Keaton pictures with sound, he and his fellow actors would shoot each scene three times: one in English, one in Spanish, and one in either French or German. The actors would phonetically memorize the foreign-language scripts a few lines at time and shoot immediately after. This is discussed in the TCM documentary Buster Keaton: So Funny it Hurt, with Keaton complaining about having to shoot lousy films not just once, but three times.

Keaton was so depleted during the production of 1933′s What! No Beer? that MGM fired him after the filming was complete, despite the film being a resounding hit. In 1934, Keaton accepted an offer to make an independent film in Paris, Le Roi des Champs-Élysées. During this period, he made one other film in Europe, The Invader (released in America as An Old Spanish Custom in 1936).

[edit] Educational Pictures

Upon Keaton’s return to Hollywood, he made a screen comeback in a series of 16 two-reel comedies for Educational Pictures. Most of these are simple visual comedies, with many of the gags supplied by Keaton himself. The high point in the Educational series is Grand Slam Opera, featuring Buster in his own screenplay as an amateur-hour contestant. When the series lapsed in 1937, Keaton returned to MGM as a gag writer, including the Marx Brothers films At the Circus (1939) and Go West (1940), and providing material for Red Skelton. He also helped and advised Lucille Ball in her comedic work in films and television.[22]

[edit] Columbia Pictures

In 1939, Columbia Pictures hired Keaton to star in ten two-reel comedies, running for two years. The director was usually Jules White, whose emphasis on slapstick made most of these films resemble White’s Three Stooges comedies. Keaton’s personal favorite was the series’ debut entry, Pest from the West, a shorter, tighter remake of Keaton’s little-viewed 1935 feature The Invader; it was directed not by White but by Del Lord, a veteran director for Mack Sennett. Moviegoers and exhibitors welcomed Keaton’s Columbia comedies, proving that the comedian had not lost his appeal. However, taken as a whole, Keaton’s Columbia shorts rank as the worst comedies he made, an assessment he concurred with in his autobiography.[23] The final entry was She’s Oil Mine, and Keaton swore he would never again “make another crummy two-reeler.”[23] These Columbia films are his final starring series for any film studio.

[edit] 1940s and feature films

Keaton’s personal life had stabilized with his 1940 marriage, and now he was taking life a little easier, abandoning Columbia for the less strenuous field of feature films. Throughout the 1940s, Keaton played character roles in both “A” and “B” features. Critics rediscovered Keaton in 1949 and producers occasionally hired him for bigger “prestige” pictures. He had cameos in such films as In the Good Old Summertime (1949), Sunset Boulevard (1950), and Around the World in Eighty Days (1956).

Keaton also had a small bit part as Jimmy, appearing near the end of the film It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963). Jimmy assisted Spencer Tracy‘s character, Captain C. G. Culpepper, in storing his police car in a shoreline garage. Keaton was given more screen time in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966). The appearance is all the more touching since it was Keaton’s last public appearance.

Keaton also appeared in a comedy routine about two inept stage musicians in Charlie Chaplin‘s Limelight (1952), recalling the vaudeville of The Playhouse. With the exception of Seeing Stars, a minor publicity film produced in 1922, Limelight was the only time in which the two would ever appear together on film.

In 1949, comedian Ed Wynn invited Keaton to appear on his CBS Television comedy-variety show, The Ed Wynn Show, which was televised live on the West Coast. Kinescopes were made for distribution of the programs to other parts of the country since there was no transcontinental coaxial cable until September 1951.

[edit] 1950s and television

Keaton pretending to have his foot stuck in the railroad tracks of a train ride at Knott’s Berry Farm in 1956

In 1950, Keaton had a successful television series, The Buster Keaton Show, which was broadcast live on a local Los Angeles station. An attempt to recreate the first series on film as Life with Buster Keaton (1951), which allowed the program to be broadcast nationwide, was less well-received. He also appeared in the early television series Faye Emerson’s Wonderful Town. A theatrical feature film, The Misadventures of Buster Keaton, was fashioned from the series. Keaton said he canceled the filmed series himself because he was unable to create enough fresh material to produce a new show each week. Keaton also appeared on Ed Wynn’s variety show. At the age of 55, he successfully recreated one of the stunts of his youth, in which he propped one foot onto a table, then swung the second foot up next to it, and held the awkward position in midair for a moment before crashing to the stage floor. I’ve Got a Secret host Garry Moore recalled, “I asked (Keaton) how he did all those falls, and he said, ‘I’ll show you’. He opened his jacket and he was all bruised. So that’s how he did it—it hurt—but you had to care enough not to care.”

Unlike his contemporary Harold Lloyd, who kept his films from being televised (and therefore became lesser known to today’s audiences), Keaton’s periodic television appearances helped to revive interest in his silent films in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1954, Keaton played his first television dramatic role in “The Awakening”, an episode of the syndicated anthology series Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Presents. About this time, he also appeared on NBC‘s The Martha Raye Show.

Keaton as a time traveler in The Twilight Zone episode, “Once Upon a Time”, November 1961.

On April 3, 1957, Keaton was surprised by Ralph Edwards for the weekly NBC program This Is Your Life. The half hour program, which also promoted the release of the biographical film The Buster Keaton Story with Donald O’Connor, summarized Keaton’s life and career up to that point.[24]

In December 1958, Keaton was a guest star as a hospital janitor who provides gifts to sick children in a special Christmas episode of The Donna Reed Show on ABC. The program was titled “A Very Merry Christmas”. He returned to the program in 1965 in the episode “Now You See It, Now You Don’t”. The 1958 episode has been included in the DVD release of Donna Reed‘s television programs.[25] Actor Paul Peterson, a regular on “The Donna Reed Show,” recalls in the book “The Fall of Buster Keaton” (2010, Scarecrow Press) that Keaton “put together an incredible physical skit. His skills were amazing. I never saw anything like it before or since.”

In August 1960, Keaton accepted the role of mute King Sextimus the Silent in the national touring company of Once Upon A Mattress, a successful Broadway musical. Eleanor Keaton was cast in the chorus, and during rehearsals, she fielded questions directed at her husband, creating difficulties in communication. After a few days, Keaton warmed up to the rest of the cast with his “utterly delicious sense of humor”, according to Fritzi Burr, who played opposite him as his wife Queen Aggravaine. When the tour landed in Los Angeles, Keaton invited the entire cast and crew to a spaghetti party at his Woodland Hills home, and entertained them by singing vaudeville songs.[26]

In 1960, Keaton returned to MGM for the final time, playing a lion tamer in a 1960 adaptation of Mark Twain‘s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Much of the film was shot on location on the Sacramento River, which doubled for the Mississippi River setting of Twain’s original book.[27]

In 1961, he starred in The Twilight Zone episode “Once Upon a Time“, which included both silent and sound sequences. Keaton played time traveler Mulligan, who traveled from 1890 to 1960, then back, by means of a special helmet.

Keaton also found steady work as an actor in TV commercials, including a popular series of silent ads for Simon Pure Beer made in 1962 by Jim Mohr in Buffalo, NY in which he revisited some of the gags from his silent film days. In 1963, Keaton appeared in the episode “Think Mink” of ABC’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington sitcom, starring Fess Parker.

In 1964, Keaton appeared with Joan Blondell and Joe E. Brown in the final episode of ABC’s circus drama, The Greatest Show on Earth, starring Jack Palance. That same year, he appeared on Lucille Ball’s CBS television show, The Lucy Show, in an episode (“A Day in the Park”) filmed in color but initially televised in black and white; this featured him sitting on a park bench, reading a newspaper, which he gradually unfolded into a huge, single sheet, a gag first seen in his 1921 short The High Sign. Harvey Korman played a policeman in the scene.[28]

Keaton with fellow comedian Joe E. Brown in a 1962 episode of Route 66.

At the age of 70, Keaton suggested that, for his appearance in the 1965 film Sergeant Deadhead, he run past the end of a firehose into a six-foot-high flip and crash. When director Norman Taurog balked, expressing concerns for Keaton’s health, Keaton said, “I won’t hurt myself, Norm, I’ve done it for years!” Keaton also starred in three other films for American International Pictures (Beach Blanket Bingo, Pajama Party, and How to Stuff a Wild Bikini).

In 1965, Keaton starred in a short film called The Railrodder for the National Film Board of Canada. Wearing his traditional porkpie hat, he travelled from one end of Canada to the other on a motorized handcar, performing gags similar to those in films he made 50 years before. The film is also notable for being Keaton’s last silent screen performance. The Railrodder was made in tandem with a behind-the-scenes documentary about Keaton’s life and times, called Buster Keaton Rides Again, also made for the National Film Board. He played the central role in Samuel Beckett‘s Film (1965), directed by Alan Schneider. Also in 1965, he traveled to Italy to play a role in Due Marines e un Generale, co-starring alongside with the famous Italian comedian duo of Franco Franchi and Ciccio Ingrassia.

Keaton’s last film appearance was in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966) which was filmed in Spain in late 1965. He amazed the cast and crew by doing many of his own stunts, although Thames Television said his increasingly ill health did force the use of a stunt double for some scenes.[29]

Mohandas Gandhi

“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”

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