The Joy of Discovering Buster Keaton

21 Feb

busker-keaton-kitten-on-headIt’s been 100 years since Buster Keaton first began making movies. And to think that much of my life I had never even heard of him. I’d heard of Charlie Chaplin, but never Buster Keaton.

I actually first discovered Buster Keaton while reading One Summer: America, 1927 by Bill Bryson. He wrote about a lot of different things, like Charles Lindbergh and the original murder that inspired James M. Cain to write both The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity. But what really stood out to me was his description of a movie called Steamboat Bill, Jr. and a house that falls on the actor in such a way that the window goes over him while he stands.

It sounded impressive. No stuntmen, either. I had to see it.

Discovering Buster Keaton was like discovering a composer that one has never heard of before, but turns out to be as brilliant as Mozart.

And one of the wonderful things about discovering Buster Keaton has been sharing that discovery with other people. I began by showing a short video to my preteen cousin about Keaton’s comedy. He thought it was cool and wanted to see more, so we watched “Cops.” He wanted more, so next we watched “The Scarecrow.” Later, we saw The General and The Navigator. Other visitors to the house have seen Steamboat Bill, Jr. and in a class I am teaching on the history of American film, Buster Keaton has been a universal hit among my teenage students. I have not yet come across someone who was not surprised and delighted by Buster Keaton.

What is the appeal? Buster Keaton has by far been the easiest sell in terms of convincing people to watch silent films. He seems to take people by surprise at how fresh his work is.

I wonder if partly – in this age of sophisticated technology, CGI, highly developed stunt work, and a bonanza of action in films, noise, yelling and introspective heroes – if he is not a profound relief to us, as well as a revelation at what can be done simply with imagination and an extraordinary physical ability. And at a time of constant multi-tasking (especially through our cell phones and social media) there is something relaxing about watching someone fully absorbed by one task at a time.

imagesThere is concentration in his stunts – it’s not overwhelming, with a dozen things going on at once. One watches, spellbound, as he sits on the nose of a train and uses a railroad tie to clear another railroad tie from the train track. There is nothing else to distract us. We are focused intently on him, his hand gestures, his stunts, his stoic face, as he is totally focused on the task at hand.

He’s a stoic Sir Galahad in a pork pie hat. Nothing phases him – even the most extraordinary ill-luck. He just keeps working at whatever task he has, trying to rescue the woman he loves or save his father from a hurricane or go under water to fix a broken ship that has run aground near an island filled with cannibals.

And his work evokes awe. I don’t think I laugh as much during his films as I do some others, but I smile all the way through, with a mixture of wonder, respect, and delight…always waiting to see what he will come up with next.

In short, his stoicism (he never stops to feel sorry for himself), he athleticism and complete control over all his movements (on par with the control of a ballet dancer), his dedication in the face of all obstacles, his invention in the face of all obstacles – he is inspiring and refreshing. And funny. Not only was it a joy to discover him, it has been a constant joy to watch others discover him.

I’ve shared this before, but it is such a great video, I wanted to share it again. It is called “Buster Keaton – The Art of the Gag.”

This post was written as part of the “The Third Annual Buster Keaton Blogathon.” Thanks so much to Silent-Ology for hosting!! Be sure to click here for many more posts celebrating Buster Keaton.



Posted by on February 21, 2017 in Movies


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33 responses to “The Joy of Discovering Buster Keaton

  1. Little Bits of Classics

    February 21, 2017 at 1:11 pm

    Your article made me think of my first time with Buster Keaton. It was Seven Chances that hooked me, even though I’ve seen a couple of his short movies before. I suppose with Keaton it’s mostly all or nothing for me. I either love one of his films or am totally indifferent. But when I love it, that’s LOVE with capital letters 😀

    Liked by 2 people

    • christinawehner

      February 21, 2017 at 2:02 pm

      Seven Chances is pretty amazing, with the unforgettable ending! That makes sense about his films being either love or indifference. It’s funny how films or actors can be like that. I’m like that about Henry Fonda’s movies.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Eric Binford

    February 21, 2017 at 1:40 pm

    I love Buster Keaton! I think Sherlock Holmes Jr. is his best movie. Unfortunately, personal problems and an ill-conceived contact with MGM destroyed his career. Still, his 1920s stuff is consistently inventive and hilarious. And, he almost stole Limelight (1952) from Chaplin and he’s the funniest thing about A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966).

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      February 21, 2017 at 2:07 pm

      It is sad he was not able to keep on as Charlie Chaplin did and so hard not to want more as a Keaton fan! He’s even funny just saying “pass” in Sunset Boulevard. I have not seen Limelight yet, but am very curious. I wonder if Keaton would have been better at making talky films than Chaplin…because he was less sentimental?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Eric Binford

        February 21, 2017 at 3:15 pm

        “I wonder if Keaton would have been better at making talky films than Chaplin” … Interesting proposition. Yes, Chaplin tends to be too maudlin. That’s why my favorite post-silent Chaplin is Monsieur Verdoux, a black comedy about a serial killer. Anyhow, I’ve read that Chaplin, after watching his first cut of Limelight, eliminated most of Keaton’s footage — he realized that Keaton was walking away with the movie so maybe you are right … 😉

        Liked by 1 person

        • christinawehner

          February 21, 2017 at 3:26 pm

          That’s interesting about Keaton’s footage. I kind of wish he could have made a talky film….it would at least have been very interesting!

          Liked by 1 person

  3. Michaela

    February 21, 2017 at 1:41 pm

    I really, really need to catch up on my Buster films. I thoroughly enjoyed Sherlock Jr., I just saw Spite Marriage and thought it was good but not outstanding, and I can barely remember Seven Chances (except for that chase sequence, of course). I actually saw Seven Chances in a film history class and although the other students seemed to like it, I couldn’t help but wonder why my professor hadn’t picked a more iconic Keaton film. One of the reasons why I want to be a film professor is because I’ve seen my own teachers give the wrong introductions to certain stars, directors, etc. — at least, in my opinion they do. But that’s a topic for a different day. Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      February 21, 2017 at 2:15 pm

      That’s a great point about teachers giving the wrong work to introduce an actor/director to their students. Kind of like assigning Hard Times or Tale of Two Cities to introduce Charles Dickens, even though they are his least humorous and Dickensian. I bet your students will love your classes!

      Have you seen The Navigator? That is a really fun one. I showed it to my younger cousin and it become one of his favorites.


      • Michaela

        February 21, 2017 at 3:09 pm

        Out of his silent work, I’ve only seen the three that I mentioned. I’m certainly not averse to watching Keaton, it’s just that if it’s not showing on TCM, there isn’t much chance of me seeing it. Of my three local movie theaters that play classics, none of them ever show a Keaton film (or really any silents), and I’m always cautious about buying films on DVD sight unseen. Silent movies in particular can be quite pricey, which is a real shame. I’ll keep an eye out for The Navigator on TCM, for sure!

        Liked by 1 person

        • christinawehner

          February 21, 2017 at 3:24 pm

          Yeah, I know what you mean – silents are so expensive! I look at some of the prices and despair. I’ve ended up renting most of the silent movies I’ve seen from a place called Classicflix, which mails the DVDs to you. But it’s hard to see many silent films.


        • Katherine

          February 21, 2017 at 6:40 pm

          Your local library may be a good source for Keaton’s silents. Also, several of them are on Youtube (don’t think ‘The Navigator’ is, though).

          Liked by 1 person

          • Vicky

            February 25, 2017 at 11:53 am

            Besides the library and youtube, is a place where most of Buster’s work can be seen…

            Liked by 1 person

  4. Lea S.

    February 21, 2017 at 6:26 pm

    A beautiful reflection on Buster’s timeless work–and very relatable. I, too, was surprised and delighted by Buster’s work, not only because of his impeccable timing, grace, and cleverness, but because he seemed so amazingly modern. He’s probably one of the best “introductory” actors of the silent era. It’s not surprising that your students are fans of his, too.

    “Discovering Buster Keaton was like discovering a composer that one has never heard of before, but turns out to be as brilliant as Mozart.” That’s it, exactly. Thank you for contributing this to the blogathon Christina!

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      February 21, 2017 at 8:08 pm

      And thank you! He does seem very modern, doesn’t he. It’s interesting how that happens with actors. It makes one wonder what people will think of the different silent comedians in a hundred years. Though I’m sure Chaplin and Keaton will both be much loved!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Elizabeth

    February 22, 2017 at 12:21 am

    Wonderfully written. I agree that there is something so fresh and modern about his work despite its age. I think that is probably why he served as my entry into silent film as well. It was just so easy with Buster to enjoy films from nearly a century ago! I also was happy to read that you have teenage students that connect with and enjoy Keaton’s work. That certainly sounds promising for the future of silent film!

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      February 22, 2017 at 4:01 am

      Thanks! I so agree – it seems like teenagers are more willing than ever to discover silent films, which is so exciting (they also loved Douglas Fairbanks – Mary Pickford was a harder sell, though). I wonder if it’s because Keaton and Fairbanks are like modern precursors to superheroes?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Elizabeth

        February 23, 2017 at 12:20 pm

        I do think both Fairbanks and Keaton have a timelessness about them. They certainly are precursors to the modern day superhero except all of their stunts were real or at least a lot closer to real than most of the movies today. I wonder if that may be part of the fascination as well. Either way, that would make for a fascinating study!

        Liked by 1 person

        • christinawehner

          February 23, 2017 at 9:19 pm

          It would be! I think you’re right. There is something exhilarating in knowing they did a lot of their own stunts. It adds an extra excitement and awe – at their ability and courage.

          Liked by 1 person

  6. Patricia Nolan-Hall (@CaftanWoman)

    February 22, 2017 at 6:07 am

    A simply beautiful article.

    Buster’s movies came into my life when I was a kid, so I simply accepted him as another great movie guy. I do get to share the sense of discovery when sharing a movie with those new to him. In crowded theatres there is a wave to the laughter. It starts early for repeat customers and there is the pleased surprise of those joining in. I wish everyone could have the opportunity of enjoying Buster with a crowd.

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      February 22, 2017 at 10:09 am

      Thank you! That must be so much fun and a special experience to be in a crowd. I have never had a chance to see any of his films in a theater. The closest I have come is to sitting in my classroom while we watch some Keaton. That moment when people are surprised has to be my favorite!


  7. Joe Thompson

    February 22, 2017 at 8:49 pm

    Hi Christina. What a beautiful tribute to Buster Keaton. “Buster Keaton has by far been the easiest sell in terms of convincing people to watch silent film” — That has been my experience, too. I like the way you talked about his concentration and compared him to a ballet dancer.

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      February 23, 2017 at 9:13 pm

      Thank you! I was watching a lot of ballet recently, which is what brought the comparison to mind. I wonder what he would have thought if he knew he would become one of the best introductions to silent films for so many people and to the art of silent comedy and slapstick? Such a great testament to him.


  8. Simoa

    February 24, 2017 at 8:39 am

    Wonderful, heartfelt tribute, Christina! And thanks for the book rec! 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      February 24, 2017 at 12:56 pm

      Thank you! I hope you get a chance to enjoy the book – it was a really interesting read. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Nicole

    February 24, 2017 at 8:52 am

    Such an eloquent piece! You’ve hit a lot of points right on the dot, and I couldn’t agree more with your musings. Last year, my cousin was visiting from Poland, and I took her to a screening of The General. She had never heard of Buster before, and she was so amazed and shocked by the end of the film. A couple of weeks later, she asked if we could see any more of his films, and it was like music to my ears!!

    Liked by 2 people

    • christinawehner

      February 24, 2017 at 1:03 pm

      What a lovely story – and seriously awesome that you were both able to see a screening of The General! That must have been amazing to see on the book screen (I’ve always wanted to have that experience).

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Vicky

    February 25, 2017 at 11:52 am

    “He seems to take people by surprise at how fresh his work is.”

    This by far was the most surprising aspect of Buster. When I first viewed his silent work, all filmed outdoors and with impeccable cinematography, I just could not believe how it “felt” closer to our era than flicks from the 40s and 50s. And after the downhill boulder scene in Seven Chances I became absolutely hooked. The mix of reality (filmed outdoors), the surreal (the giant fake boulders), his beauty (young and in dapper clothes) and the simple, yet intense storyline plus his awesome stuntwork, has just floored me ever since. I cannot get enough of him.

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      February 25, 2017 at 4:56 pm

      Thanks for sharing your story of discovery! It is very interesting how you mentioned how modern he feels compared to 40s and 50s films. I so agree! In some ways, it feels like silent films in general (at least the best ones) are closer to our own times than those made between the 30s and 50s.

      (That Seven Chances boulder scene is stunning, isn’t it? I was pretty flabbergasted, too.)


  11. Silver Screenings

    February 25, 2017 at 4:32 pm

    Beautifully written, Christina. There are several Buster Keaton films I’ve yet to see, but I don’t want to rush out and see them. I want to savour each one…because I don’t want there to be a day when there’ll be no more new-to-me Buster K. films.

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      February 25, 2017 at 5:00 pm

      No more new Buster Keaton films to see – that is a scary thought! You are very wise and give me pause about my slightly more headlong pursuit of his films. There are still a few I have not seen – savoring is definitely something to consider!

      Liked by 1 person


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