Buster Keaton – cinematic butterfly

keaton-sherlock_optComedy has always been a film genre slightly looked down upon. It’s not considered as classy and meaningful as a drama or a love story, or as imaginative and insightful as a sci-fi film.

Looking at comedies today one can’t help but agree. As funny as The Hangover is, you can’t put it in the same category as Inception; The Dictator has got more disgusting jokes per minute than any other comedy prior to it. Romantic comedies have become a genre of their own, the sentimentality allowing us to laugh and cry at the same time, whilst the brainier part of our body acknowledges the silliness of the entire scenario.

However, if we take a look at silent comedies, notably the slapstick genre, we discover a kind of subtlety and intelligent humour that’s missing from movies nowadays. This type of humour seems to have only been revived briefly by comedy geniuses such as Monty Python, Rowan Atkinson, Fry & Laurie and to a lesser extent Mel Brooks. Their time has passed unfortunately and there seems to be no one valiant or talented enough to try walking in their shoes.

What’s left for comedy lovers to do is to back to the beginning. It all started with The Sprinkler Sprinkled  in 1895 and it peaked with the genius of Buster Keaton. Some may say of course that it is Charlie Chaplin who holds the title of the greatest slapstick comedian of the silent era, but given that Chaplin’s sound films exceed the quality of his silent ones, it would be unfair to limit him to his silent career only and label him as a slapstick comedian. Moreover, Chaplin’s silent films haven’t aged as well as Keaton’s.

It is true that, judging by box-office success, Chaplin was the more famous and financially successful one. He was also a good business man. His humour however was fit for a 1920s – 1930s audience. Buster Keaton’s comedy style may have been too subtle and mature for the audience of the day. That may be the reason for which he was hailed as a genius only towards the end of his life, when he was “rediscovered” by a younger, more sophisticated audience. However, at that point he was no longer making movies of the same calibre and he was still seen by some of his peers, Chaplin included, as a bankrupt old man who had to do menial TV appearances for a living.

Looking at Buster Keaton’s career, one discovers a man who was born in show business. He wasn’t asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, he just took over the family business at the age of four. He was, of course, a natural, but then again there might have been a great many things he could have excelled at if given the opportunity. One will never know how he would have been as a civil engineer, but the intricacy with which he would build up his gags and even the fact that he designed his own house stand proof that he might have been just as good at it as he was at comedy.

Most great directors are said to be/have been perfectionists and that may well be true. There is no other way to achieve greatness. Most of Buster Keaton’s film stand proof of the man’s perfectionism, which was sometimes pushed to the extreme. Many books have been written about his physical abilities and acrobatic skills and in the world of today may even be put into question, if we forget that special effects were in their infancy in the 1920s and that Buster was always one to perform his own stunts.  His grace and physical beauty were often compared to those of a butterfly and even the great Orson Welles called him “the most beautiful person to ever be photographed”. Who can argue with that when they’re looking into Buster’s big eyes who never laugh, but express many intense emotions despite him being called The Great Stone Face.

It is hard to decide what’s more fascinating about Keaton’s films: his ability to express a great range of emotions while keeping such a straight face, his ability to perform some of the most dangerous and awe-inspiring stunts ever to be captured on camera or his cinematic genius that created some of the best and funniest films of the silent era. To find proof of all of that one needs to look no further than Sherlock Jr. (1924). The gags created for this feature film, the shortest feature he’s ever released, are nothing short of extraordinary and even surrealist filmmakers like Luis Bunuel found inspiration in Keaton’s work.

Keaton’s masterpiece, however is considered to be The General (1927). Keaton’s attention to detail is most visible during the production of this film, which made it become one of the most expensive films of the silent era. He would spare no expense and the finished product would become a yardstick to action comedies and chase scenes of subsequent films and in inspiration to future directors. His vision as a director is coupled with his skills as an acrobat and his love for all things mechanical. Where Chaplin would make as much use of his persona and create a relationship between himself and the audience, Keaton would go out of his way to confuse the audience, show no mercy to his screen persona, but stoicism and determination and from this his unique style of slapstick would emerge.

Buster Keaton’s life story is no fairy tale unfortunately. He hasn’t got a successful biopic, starring an actor of Robert Downey Jr.’s calibre. He didn’t live the rest of his life as a recluse millionaire in Switzerland. He had to work until the end of his life in mediocre productions, “enjoying” his status as a former silent movie star. He was no astute business man, but a naive artistic genius who got the short end of the deal when he signed with MGM, signing away his creative independence. One can only guess the quality of his sound era productions if he had worked in an independent studio like Chaplin did. Unfortunately that wasn’t the case and he faded into oblivion at the beginning of the sound era. Today he is only hailed as a cinematic genius by film scholars mostly, his legacy being preserved by those few fans who still hold dear the wonderful world of silent cinema.

Beauty manufactured?

It is impossible to watch a silent movie and not be in awe of those silent screen actresses with perfect make-up, perfect hair and perfect attitude towards the camera. They did have faces back then, but they had something much more than that. They had everything else hidden from their audience. They were merely an apparition on the screen and one could not know what was there behind the performance of the actor.


Take Theda Bara for instance. Unfortunately most of her films have been lost, but this only adds to the mystery surrounding her persona. She was two different people: Theda Bara, born in the Sahara under strange circumstances, possessing supernatural powers, and Theodosia Burr Goodman, born in Ohio, from a Cincinnati tailor. Known as “the vamp”  for her roles as a  beautiful temptress, she was probably the first femme fatale in the history of cinema. Many say there has never been anyone like her on the silver screen and they wouldn’t be wrong; given the few films of hers remaining, it is very hard to argue with this statement.

This was a time where film viewers found it hard to distinguish between the actor and the character on screen, so Theda Bara, and many other actors at the time, was identified with the characters she was portraying. As a consequence, she was viewed as a villain and disliked, and actresses like Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish were seen as “America’s sweethearts”.

These were the very first movie stars and even if they may have not been much different from the ordinary people, they were hailed as gods and goddesses because their faces could bring many emotions to the audience, they could transport them outside their own world and into their make-believe one.

Old and boring? Was Hugo boring?

Edwin S. Porter - The Great Train Robbery (1903)Many of my colleagues at university were very little impressed with the early silent cinema when we started doing this degree, failing to understand that a lot that belongs to the medium of cinema is very strongly related with history. If you don’t like history, you won’t like film history and by default movie viewing and movie making is compromised.

Among the directors to whom we were introduced at the beginning of our three year learning degree we were acquainted to D.W. Griffith, E. S. Porter, Georges Méliès are just a few and among the most important pioneers of early cinema.



I am not sure if many did in fact see, or how obvious it is how much these directors brought to the evolution of cinema as all we were shown were simple minimalist stories with uncomplicated plots and very few characters. The list of course is much longer than that. Right after Porter, Griffith and Melies established the grammar of cinema, the doors were opened to many opportunities and many creative minds soon developed the medium, bringing it closer to what it is now. The German expressionists followed with F.W. Murnau, Fritz Lang, Robert Wiene and others.


And let’s not forget the Russian formalists with Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov as the most famous representatives,


though Vertov can be considered part of the avant-garde current along with Fernand Léger, Cavalcanti, Abel Gance, Jean Epstein and Luis Bunuel


meliesThe evolution of early cinema is of course much more complex than that and its beauty and mystique still manage to attract new admirers. Fortunately there still are filmmakers like Martin Scorsese who make films like Hugo, which can be seen merely as a great tribute to early silent cinema and its heroes.

The relationship between American cinema and European cinema at this early stage is also very important to observe. As one can talk about an epic film, action, adventure and melodrama in American cinema, European cinema is credited with experimenting. Griffith made Birth of a Nation (1916), Intolerance (1917), Cecil B. DeMille, King Vidor and others alike were starting up their own legacy as great Hollywood directors, all the while keeping an eye on the European film which was being shaped up.

Experimenting with montage, mise en scène, light, decor and anything that can be considered to make a difference for the spectator is what the European filmmakers were doing in the early 1920’s. Even though it was still seen as a pure form of entertainment, the concept of cinema as art was little by little beginning to take shape.