The American Interest

Books, Film, and History

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The Great Stone Face

The recent release of a series of 1930s-era two-reelers reminds us how great Buster Keaton was even when he wasn't at this best. The Great Stone Face was no slapstick peddler, but a true harbinger of film comedy as an art form.

Published on August 10, 2012
Lost Keaton: Sixteen Comedy Shorts 1934-37

KINO (2 disc set, Blu-ray), $34.

During lazy summers in my college years I sought an ad hoc cinematic education by watching as many old films as I could. In those ancient times, when one could only get movies by trekking to the video store, I once lucked into a deal that offered a dozen movies for the price of two. Trouble was, the pickings in the classics section were slim, and I found myself locked in competition with an old guy who came to the store with his middle-aged daughter. He had been a huge Buster Keaton fan since he had encountered the Great Stone Face as a kid. So I was left mainly with Charlie Chaplin.

I had already seen many Chaplin films by this point, and knew that he was the uncontested king comedian of the pre-sound era. Keaton was dexterous, yes; no one could take a fall—or a proper bashing—like he could. But Chaplin’s Little Tramp was indelibly sealed into mid-20th-century American culture. He roamed the American cultural landscape no less prominently than Mickey Mouse or Elvis Presley but was far more beloved by the millions who had suffered the Great Depression and a second Great War, and who grew old with him. There is boundless humanity on display in Chaplin’s work. He made for a stark contrast with Keaton, who was notably immune to women in his pictures and seemed almost as if he were an alien oddity dropped amid the hustle and bustle of an accelerating American life. Keaton’s large, limpid eyes reflected that hustle and bustle even as Keaton himself remained a befuddled observer of an onrushing madness, like a discarded candy wrapper lifted up and tumbled about in the wind.

So I happily watched or watched again Chaplin’s City Lights, The Kid and The Gold Rush, thinking this guy unquestionably deserved his status. I then read a James Agee essay about Monsieur Verdoux, which insisted that it was a macabre masterpiece, and that Chaplin had a harder edge than anyone was used to seeing. I screened that, too, and it was difficult to believe that the same gentle humanist I knew had crafted such a film.

But I soon ran out of Chaplin items to watch—as it happened, around the same time the old man ran out of Keaton films. So, basically, we switched, and that’s how I laid eyes on the classic Keaton works: The General, Steamboat Bill, Jr., The Cameraman and Sherlock, Jr. I watched these and other movies so intently that I worried about breaking the VCR. They grabbed me by the funny bone and captivated me, but at first I could not figure out why.

Keaton’s talents eventually penetrated me, and they went far beyond simple comedy. He could be mordant but also poetic in his outward visage. This chimerical man somehow managed to inhabit life’s corners and crags with a perfect mutability of form before emerging as he had entered, if a touch wiser. All the while Keaton made you howl, and incidentally made you wonder how he managed not to get himself killed on set. His most famous stunt gag was from 1928’s Steamboat Bill, Jr., in which the front wall of a two-story house comes toppling down, Keaton below, with only an open window to save him.

Having been captivated by Keaton’s silent-film era masterpieces, I took an interest in the man. He was a remarkable character in many ways. First, he obviously was not only an actor but also a filmmaker and director. Second, he was a technical innovator; in a sense he invented the special effect. For both of these reasons there are at least half a dozen full biographies of Keaton, and literally hundreds of critical and academic essays about him. Only Chaplin outpaces Keaton in those categories. Third, unlike most of the silent-era stars, Keaton’s career just seemed to keep going, and going and going. He made the transition into the talkies, of which more below. He diversified his portfolio, too, even writing uncredited gags for a few Marx Brothers movies. He inhabited the early days of television, when he had his own show for a while and also appeared frequently on other programs like the Colgate Comedy Hour with host Eddie Cantor. The Baby Boom generation then saw Keaton in unforgettable cameo roles in films like It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Keaton continued working nearly up to his death from lung cancer at age 70 in February 1966. No other American comedian spanned quite so many generations in so many roles, and without ever once losing his trademark stone face.

Orson Welles cited The General as perhaps the finest film ever made, but Keaton’s fetishization of a man’s love for his locomotive—a metaphor if there ever was one—flopped at the time of its 1927 release. Audiences wanted more pratfalls and less moralizing, fewer sight gags and more pies to the face. Keaton’s darker, more introspective form of levity blended comedy and tragedy in almost Shakespearean style, but didn’t quite resonate with filmgoers whose concept of comedic perfection was limited to the Keystone Corps. When I cried during The General, was I crying because what I was seeing was so funny, or because of Keaton’s equanimity in the face of suffering? It was both, I soon realized. And that’s when it dawned on me what comedic films that aspired to high art were really like. Yet Keaton managed not to write off the typical viewer, even if he didn’t always appreciate the fare.

Keaton’s glory days of creative freedom came to a close with The General’s lack of financial success. His films had been distributed by United Artists, but he moved on to MGM in 1928. While far from a fecund period in his career, he did manage to make The Cameraman, another legitimate gem in the American movie canon. But he made a lot of slop there, too, particularly some pictures with the ever-grating Jimmy Durante.

Keaton’s personal life hit some rough spots, too. He married a couple times, and divorced a couple times, at great financial cost thanks to his propensity for womanizing. MGM cut him loose, and a depressed, booze-sodden Keaton, unable to scare up much top-billing work, signed with Educational Pictures for 16 two-reel comedies. Keaton started this Depression run (his as well as the country’s) in 1934 and trekked on with it to 1937.

The Educationals (as they’ve come to be known among Keaton buffs) haven’t gotten a lot of attention over the years, but a new KINO release affords us an opportunity to consider these films. Keaton’s 1934–37 two-reelers have been discussed more than they’ve been watched—discussed as in, “Keaton was surely slumming it at that point of his career with those awful Educational shorts”, and so forth. It was by no means unique for an archetypical performer, as Keaton was in the realm of silent comedy, to hit Poverty Row once the word got loose that his particular trick had played out. Cinema has always been plagued by faddism. Even Bela Lugosi, the everyman’s Dracula, ended up at Monogram churning out drivel by Ed Wood. Keaton was no Lugosi—he had far more range, for starters. But he was a silent comedian now tasked with the burdens of sound.

Critics like Agee always regarded sound pictures as a lesser art form than their silent antecedents, and Americans used to a particular mode of cinematic entertainment had some adjusting to do in the 1930s. A visual medium imbued with sound could put film at the level of opera as a testing ground for the senses, but it took a few years for sight and sound to coalesce into something truly artful. Keaton’s Educational series helped advance that process.

As its name suggests, Educational Pictures started life as a studio that produced learning programs, mostly stuff for kids in school, until its owners and promoters discovered that comedic entertainment paid the bills a lot more generously. The shorts were designed to play on multi-bills, with a longer feature to follow. Someone at Educational had the cheeky idea of including a title card heralding the upcoming short (no matter what it was) as “The Spice of the Program.”

I’m not sure how spicy Keaton’s first film with Educational Pictures, The Gold Ghost, was, but it’s one of the better entries in his Poverty Row tenure—more in keeping with Samuel Beckett than Mack Sennett. Jilted in love in Boston, Keaton’s character heads for the Old West, arriving in a ghost town draped in cobwebs. Keaton promptly appoints himself sheriff. We might as well be in some cinematic Endgame, as Keaton indulges what was becoming a pronounced surrealistic bent in his work. Finding a gun, he aims it a bucket in the street, and instead hits a lamp overhead; determined to shoot the lamp again, he takes careful aim, and the bucket gets it in the side.

Dust is a recurring theme throughout these films, as if Keaton was commenting on his own silent film career in the sound era: the dusty relic to which time has been unkind. There is also plenty of onanistic imagery at play. Keaton, with his mid-section blocked off, and without shirt and pants, stands over a basin, just washing his clothes, but pumping away all the same. The joke is caustic enough that the audience probably dismissed any meaning deeper other than the literal, just as soon as one flashed into anyone’s head, but the gag reappears in 1935’s Hayseed Romance, as Keaton, now playing Elmer (a reoccurring character for him) works himself for all he’s worth with a water pump, and then mans a two-person saw, solo-style.

Elmer doesn’t always have the same last name. Nor does he always have the same body. In Palooka from Paducah (1935), which features several members of Keaton’s real-life family, Keaton’s gargantuan, wrestling brother goes by Elmer. The hicks from the sticks go to the big city in hopes of striking it rich. We get a lot of WWF-type shenanigans, with Buster, for reasons that are never explained, acting as the referee in his brother’s big bout. There are plenty of continuity errors in the Educationals, just as there are a number of avant-garde touches. Still, you know what’s intentional—and usually pretty damn clever—and what’s the latest mistake, an indication that Keaton, or frequent director Charles Lamont, weren’t exactly obsessed with perfection.

It can be difficult to reconcile the blunders, the tacky jokes and the recycled bits from Keaton’s earlier films with the genuine artistic flourishes. They tend to come in the quieter moments, even when the action being expressed is of the loud, splashy variety. Also, voice can be an issue in these shorts, for Keaton’s was not especially pleasing. There are worse voices, and when Keaton sings (as in 1936’s Grand Slam Opera), the voice works well. But there’s no denying its reedy quality and its limited range, which makes for an awkward contrast with Keaton’s physical range, and his remarkable shape-shifting capacity. Sometimes an arresting intertextuality seems to be at work, with the films commenting on themselves. Several of the films feature deft logical reversals, too. So the last thing anyone should be doing while watching a comedy is laughing: “No levity, no levity”, a professor intones after some hijinks in The Chemist, also from 1936.

The same film also features a sort of defenestration-in-reverse, as Buster is tossed into a building through an open window. We see other variations on this theme in that same year’s Three on a Limb, with a standard-issue defenestration scene, and in Blue Blazes, where the defenestration occurs by accident. It’s as if Buster can’t help but get himself launched through open windows and into his next mess, a stark contrast to how an open window once provided salvation way back in Steamboat Bill, Jr.

Most of the Keaton Educationals have at least a few moments that prove instructive about his capacity for art. The shot of airplanes pulling trailers in 1937’s Ditto might as well have been a nod to Futurism, but two in particular exemplify Keaton at his best.

Grand Slam Opera gives Keaton an onscreen writing credit, and it’s as purely Keatonesque as any of the films from the glory period. In a timeless riff on talent contests, Keaton treats us to a hotel room show consisting of his character’s rehearsal for an upcoming gig. If you ever wanted to see Keaton imitate Fred Astaire, here’s your chance. Not surprisingly, the rehearsal proves to be disruptively raucous; the woman in the room below comes barging upstairs, demanding quiet. A contrite Buster waits for the woman to return to her room and then sends her off to Slumber Land with a gentle, soft-shoe dance, while string music plays on the gramophone. It’s a quiet, touching moment in the midst of a comedy, when one person reaches out in kindness to a virtual stranger. The scene does something so far from simple that it has proved beyond the means of most filmmakers and actors to imitate.

Some did try using Keaton as a guide. There was a lot of Keaton in Jacques Tati, the French director and actor behind Les Vacances de M. Hulot, Mon Oncle and Play Time. We might almost think of him as the French Buster, and even here, in what to date was the nadir of Keaton’s career (his Columbia two-reelers, which commenced in 1939, took him down a few more levels), there’s an international influence in terms of how sound could be deployed to accentuate silence, and vice versa. Tati became the mid-century master of that balance, but 1935’s One Run Elmer was a fine Keaton primer, while also displaying his knack for blending the surreal with the real, fostering a unique shade of meaning in the process.

Keaton’s titular character in One Run Elmer is alone in the great expanse of the American Midwest or West (we can’t really tell). But there he is, the proprietor of a gas station in some hellish, forsaken outpost, when without any warning a truck turns up with men on the back. They scatter, but one man opens a competing service station right across the street. As it turns out, he’s a baseball player, as “Elmer”/Keaton is, so they proceed to try and blow fastballs past each other. Keaton’s station gets destroyed as a result. (You almost wonder if Gordon Matta-Clark would have approved.) The film plays almost as a silent, with only occasional sounds puncturing and helping to shape the narrative. The dust motif is amped up several notches here. We’re nose deep in the Dirty Thirties, with the mother of all dust storms presumably lingering on the horizon.

The denouement, naturally, centers on a game of baseball, as American as you can get, but one set among scrubby, worn down bushes, with sand underfoot, and nothing that could possibly be green. Even the chatter, so common to baseball fields then and now, is piped in, an intentionally artificial effect that matches the film as a collage of disparate media, which to Keaton’s thinking it probably was. A player runs the bases wearing spurs and a holster, and when Keaton launches himself, like a great Stone-Faced bomb, at the catcher, a quiet victory, well beyond the trappings of sandlot baseball, is secured. But given that we’re talking about the Educational two-reelers and not the classic early 1920s, it’s probably best to call it a double rather than a home run; it’s impressive in a truly loony sort of way all the same.

In the era of silent films an actor’s face counted for a great deal more than it did once talkies arrived. Some of those faces, even ones that made the move into the sound era, are iconic: W.C. Fields with his tattered top hat. Fatty Arbuckle with his cheeks bulged out like a chipmunk’s. Harold Lloyd swinging from the end of huge minute hand. Chaplin, of course, with his black hat and signature mustache. But no one had a face like Buster Keaton, a face that not only defined deadpan but that suggested the surreal even before anything happened on screen. As Keaton’s life collected disappointments that must have seemed to him surreal at least on occasion, he channeled himself into these Educational Pictures two-reelers. They’re not his best work, not by any stretch. But without them, we’d not have a view of what’s tantamount to a kind of artistic heroism: the fallen clown trying to measure up to earlier glories, and revealing more of himself in the process.

Colin Fleming’s first book, Between Cloud and Horizon: A Relationship Casebook in Stories (Texas Review Press), is forthcoming.