Buster Keaton is vastly underrated. Watch just one of his movies, and you will see the roots of modern physical comedy. And none of this slapstick nonsense propagated by the likes of Red Skelton and the Marx Brothers. Buster was the most athletic, clumsy, silent comedian there was.
Buster began his life as a vaudeville star, touring with his parents. It was during these shows that he discovered audiences laughed more if he was expressionless, than if he smiled or laughed himself. Buster became known as “The Great Stone Face,” but he was anything but stony. Buster’s eyes; now that was acting! He managed to express his feelings, most often of sorrow or dejection, perfectly, with only his eyes. His mouth was never upturned, in any photograph or film. He often played love-scorned characters, and he conveyed the hopeless of his character through his eyes. But, he also endeared audiences to him and created sympathy. Buster’s eyes made audiences want to take him in their arms, he was so dejected over the loss of whichever lady love (usually named Sally), he had failed to win. This balance between stoniness, the non-reaction to comedic happenings, and the pleading sadness, found only in Buster’s eyes, is unmatched.
His physical comedy is also unparalleled. Many will argue that the Marx Brothers pioneered physical gag humor, but Buster actually wrote gags for the Marx Bros. His road from making his own endearing and brilliant pictures to writing for a vaudeville team was a long one down.
Buster began in pictures as an independent filmmaker, with his own unit under producer Joseph Schenck. He wrote, starred in, and directed his own films, often serving as a director of photography and stunt coordinator as well. In a later interview, Buster spoke of his process of creating a movie during this time. He said that the team (whom he worked with through almost all of his independent pictures) sat around a table, and thought of beginnings. When they had a good story beginning, they thought of how it would end. They let the middle take care of itself. Buster would improvise physical gags on set, making up the “middle,” of the movie as he went along. This process worked well, and during this time, he made The General, The Saphead, and The Navigator.
In 1928, the MGM studio-machine signed Buster. MGM, run by Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg, did not take kindly to Buster’s working method. More concerned with budgets and creating a box office hit for as little money as possible, Buster was forced not only to change his entire creative process, but the types of films he made. His first movie with MGM, The Cameraman, was his last silent. Buster had wanted to make it as a talkie, but giving Buster a sound stage was not in the budget. The Jazz Singer had been released the year before, but making a talkie was still expensive. The Cameraman, although Buster had to work from a script and was not allowed to improvise gags, was also the last great Keaton film. MGM changed Buster’s working method, forced him to use stunt doubles, restricted him with budgets, and even got him to star in a musical (Free and Easy, his first talkie). Their greatest mistake was pairing shy, sad Buster with Jimmy Durante, nightclub comedian, who was loud, brash, and steamrolled Buster right out of their scenes. Durante’s fast-talking style of comedy might have been en vogue at the time, but it clashed with Buster’s stone face, physical style, and Buster got the worst of it. Buster was excited about the advent of talkies, and had even wanted The Cameraman to be made as a talkie. However, he thought that silent, physical comedy could be incorporated to a talkie. Stretches of 30 seconds with no words and only action were fine with Buster, but not Durante or MGM. They filled every moment with puns. Buster began drinking more and more. In 1933, MGM chose not to renew their contract with Keaton.
The only work Buster could find after that was writing gags for other comedians, even re-writing some of his own gags, for the likes of Skelton and the Marx Bros. Buster re-wrote a famous sequence from Spite Marriage, a movie he had made in 1929, for a knock-off film starring Red Skelton. The scenes in which Skelton puts on a false beard and clumps and stumbles his way onto stage as a Union soldier with his matinee idol are carbon copies of Buster’s scenes, made years before. Buster, unfortunately, signed off on it and even coached Skelton. It was a job. A Night at the Opera, the Marx Bros. hit in 1935 (also one of AFI’s Top 100), has several sequences lifted from Buster Keaton routines. Buster worked on the movie, and found the brothers very difficult to work with. They were rambunctious, and their style of comedy was unintelligent. They used cheap gags and relied on Groucho talking fast to cover it up. Buster managed to pull off some of the weaker puns that came with the new talkie comedies with his stone face. He was serious, endearing, and shy. His voice was unassuming and sweet, like his eye expressions. Groucho, on the other hand, had more trouble selling cheesy puns, developing his fast-talking style. Buster could sell a bad pun with sincerity, while Groucho was also falsely exasperated, which made his jokes sound forced and self-aware. This self-awareness and almost self-mockery was not to Groucho’s advantage, as it pointed directly to his weaknesses, and invited the audiences to groan at the bad puns as much as he was. Buster’s sincerity in one-liners invited the audience to sympathize with and cheer for his characters. Who cheers for Groucho Marx? Even in his conquests with women, he’s crude and rough. He rolls his eyes. The hero-thwarted-in-love was popular in these situational comedies, and Buster’s ability to make an audience sympathize with him, helped this often cheap plot. Groucho’s exasperation grated audiences. The gags featured in many Marx Bros. movies that were not originally Buster’s routines, Buster wrote and staged for the brothers. They began in vaudeville as he did, but their humor was much weaker. Buster worked for MGM in this capacity until 1950.
In 1940 he had married his second wife Eleanor, and Eleanor had coaxed and encouraged Buster into getting in front of the camera again. In 1950, he played one of the “waxworks” in Sunset Boulevard (Best Picture winner that year, launching William Holden to fame and co-starring Gloria Swanson) and went on to several more small, but signature film roles in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum with Zero Mostel and Limelight with Charlie Chaplin.
Chaplin’s Limelight was a semi-autobiographical feature about his fall from grace. In it, an older Charlie Chaplin takes in a young, struggling ballerina and helps her to regain confidence in herself as a performer. In the process, the much younger woman falls in love with Chaplin, who is constantly trying for a comeback. In the end, Chaplin refuses the woman at least 20 years his junior, although this was not so in real life. Buster plays Chaplin’s old vaudeville friend, and in a benefit performance, Buster does a few gags with a piano and violin alongside Chaplin. His part is small, but it is beautiful. The two share a scene in the dressing room before their performance and talk about show business. Chaplin’s character has been hopeful up to now, and Buster’s is more jaded and honest. Buster still manages to convey the same endearing qualities he had in the 20’s as a much younger man. Chaplin was a hero of Buster’s, a man he looked up to and admired as a pioneer in comedy and in filmmaking. I would suggest (much to the film community’s chagrin) that Buster’s oeuvre outshines Chaplin’s in craftsmanship, character, and intelligence. Chaplin certainly was a pioneer, especially in his independent efforts and the creation of United Artists with Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. Limelight is not an outstanding movie and is a very thinly veiled defense of Chaplin, but Buster is superb in his small role.
Yet three of Chaplin’s movies (Modern Times, The Gold Rush, and City Lights) are included on AFI’s Top 100 list, and only one of Buster’s (The General). Chaplin was played by Robert Downey Jr. in a biopic (and all the scenes of his liaisons with much younger women were truthful). Buster’s biopic starred Donald O’Connor, and blew his drinking problem out of proportion, according to those who knew Buster. The Marx Brothers were a huge commercial success in their time (while Buster decidedly was not) and are still a household name. With the help of Eleanor, Buster began to travel in his later years, promoting and attending screenings of his films, and even performing a vaudeville-esque act with his wife. In 2004, Turner Classic Movies released a documentary titled So Funny It Hurt: Buster Keaton and MGM, dispelling many misconceptions about Buster. Before she died in the late 80’s, Eleanor also co-authored a book of photographs, most rare and never-before-seen, about her husband. TCM dedicated the month of October 2011 to Buster, screening his movies on Sunday nights. Buster gained some of the recognition he deserved, but most will never recognize that he was the father of modern comedy.