Buster Keaton's Vaudeville

Movies Features Buster Keaton
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Buster Keaton’s genius is both obviously apparent and exquisitely subtle. Born Joseph Francis Keaton, Jr. in 1895, he was performing in his family’s vaudeville act by age four. He was given his famous moniker by Harry Houdini, when as a young lad he fell down some stairs. Urged on by his mentor, the great Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, Keaton made the transition to movies in 1917, performing in a series of comic two-reelers. But his true talent blossomed in the ’20s when he started directing and starring in his own movies.

His short film, One Week, illustrates his combination of classic vaudeville slapstick and brilliant sight gags. Keaton, along with his newly married bride (Sybil Seely), attempts to put together a prefab house. But a rival suitor has intentionally mis-numbered the boxes, and Keaton’s attempt to follow the directions leads to anarchy, with the front door on the second floor and the house balanced on a point. The making of the house is hilarious, as Keaton is continually flummoxed by his creation. It leads to one of his most famous stunts—where he’s about to be crushed by a falling wall, only to be saved by a perfectly placed window (a stunt repeated later in Steamboat Bill, Jr.). But what Keaton and Seely do inside their house is even better (a clever bathroom scene reveals Keaton’s understanding of the “meta” aspects of cinema), and the climax involving two different train tracks is one of the greatest sight gags in Keaton’s oeuvre.

It’s hard to imagine contemporary comedies without Keaton’s influence. Check out his short, Our Hospitality, which features a truly spectacular stunt over a waterfall that is frequently echoed by Jackie Chan’s work. Or watch The Playhouse, where Keaton plays every character in a theater, and you realize where Being John Malkovich got one of its best scenes. And every comic with a gadget must pay homage to Keaton’s obsession with electricity and props, which reaches its pinnacle in The Electric House.

Keaton’s feature films tend to be richer in characters and drama, though less humorous with fewer gags-per-minute. Still, The General is widely recognized as one of the finest comedies ever, and you can’t go wrong with The Cameraman, College or Seven Chances. Even The Navigator, not considered one of his best, has perhaps my favorite Keaton moment, when his leading lady uses Keaton as a canoe.

Unfortunately, the transition to sound and the economics of Hollywood in the ’30s dimmed Keaton’s star, and he was reduced to playing bit parts in uninspired films. But his body of work from 1920-1928, almost all of which is available on DVD, is one of the finest of any filmmaker.