Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Buster Keaton

Buster Keaton is my favourite comedian of the silent era. The man was a genius of physical comedy, performing stunts that would cause the bravest of modern-day risk assessors to succumb to paroxysms of fear. The next time Tom Cruise brags about performing some of his own stunts (i.e. climbing a wall while wearing a harness), think about Buster Keaton nonchalantly falling three stories onto the ground or impassively passing in front of a moving locomotive. Buster not only performed all of his own stunts, he would often perform the stunts of other characters in his movies.

I love Charlie Chaplin, he had a great talent for pantomime and an ability to create deeply moving films. The humanization that Chaplin brought to his films has stood the test of time. Audiences continue to be enthralled by the humorous little guy, who despite being buffeted by misfortune, would dust himself off and keep trying. Harold Lloyd’s films were more profitable than Charlie Chaplin’s and Buster Keaton’s as their spirit matched the heady optimism of the twenties. It’s easy to relate to Lloyd’s happy, bumbling character and how can you not admire his daring climb in “Safety Last” (1923)? (Especially since he performed the stunt wearing dress shoes and sporting partial prosthesis on his hand). I believe Buster Keaton was best, though. Roger Ebert put it very well:

The greatest of the silent clowns is Buster Keaton, not only because of what he did, but because of how he did it. Harold Lloyd made us laugh as much, Charlie Chaplin moved us more deeply, but no one had more courage than Buster. I define courage as Hemingway did: "Grace under pressure." In films that combined comedy with extraordinary physical risks, Buster Keaton played a brave spirit who took the universe on its own terms, and gave no quarter.

Although likely apocryphal, the story is told that Keaton got his “Buster” moniker from the great Harry Houdini. Houdini, who toured with Keaton’s vaudeville family, witnessed the six-month old slip down a flight of stairs and remarked “what a buster!” However it was obtained, the name stuck, and Keaton’s talent for taking falls grew. Young Buster toured the vaudeville circuit with his family in a popular act that saw the straight-faced child tossed all over the stage by his father, with Buster miraculously escaping injury. When Buster began in movies, he retained this incredible sense of physical comedy as well as his trademark stoic expression. Buster’s first films were with his friend, the great Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. Buster played supporting roles to his mentor and, when Arbuckle was embroiled in scandal, he remained steadfastly loyal.

Buster’s golden period was during the twenties, where he produced his greatest work including “Sherlock Jr.” (1924), “The Navigator” (1924), “The General” (1926), “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” (1928), and “the Cameraman” (1928). The thirties, however, were difficult for Keaton, who lost much of his creative control when he left his studio to join MGM. His marriage to his first wife ended in divorce, he was forced to file for bankruptcy, his friend and mentor, Fatty Arbuckle, died of a heart attack, and Keaton spiraled into an alcoholic haze. It was a dark time for Buster, but he managed, with the help of his family, to bring his drinking under control. He married his third wife, Eleanor in 1938 and their happy marriage lasted until Keaton’s death 26 years later. Throughout this time, he continued to work in entertainment, on television, in film, and on stage.

Keaton was rediscovered by critics and audiences after a Life cover story in 1949. His popularity resurged, and he managed to make as much money in the last ten years of his life as he had during his golden period. Shortly before his death in 1966, he remarked: “I can’t feel sorry for myself. It all goes to show that if you stay on the merry-go-round long enough you’ll get another chance at the brass ring. Luckily, I stayed on."

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