Well, not quite 116 years. Buster Keaton would’ve turned 116 today, and his films have been delighting audiences for 94 of those years. One of the three great silent comedians (along with Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd), Keaton’s name doesn’t always strike the immediate recognition among mainsteam audiences that Chaplin’s might, but for me, and for many who have seen his films, Keaton’s particular brand of stone-faced endurance against any and all elements that would seek to do him in – from enemy soldiers to angry fathers to hordes of cops to nature itself – can hardly be beat.
Keaton was a genius at physical comedy, and though Chaplin practically has a patent on the word “pathos,” Keaton’s stoicism manages to get just as much or more true emotion. You feel for him because he refuses to ask for your empathy. Meanwhile, he was busy working through some of the most incredible stunts ever put on film, which he did all himself. The first “whoa” moment watching a Keaton film is always “whoa, they did this before they had computers and stuff,” and the second is always “whoa, he’s doing this himself without stunt double to fill in.” Chaplin did this too, don’t get me wrong, and I love Chaplin to bits, but I get a sense of real danger with Buster that’s quite exhilarating without ever failing to be funny.
Many of his best-known films are available on YouTube in fairly decent quality, and I’ll be posting a bunch of them over the next month (as part of Project Keaton, a tribute hosted by the Kitty Packard Pictorial), but to start off, here’s one of Keaton’s signature sequences from one of his best films – the hurricane sequence from 1928’s Steamboat Bill, Jr.. The house collapsing around him and framing him in the upper window is the most famous moment in here; my personal favorite moment, though, is when he’s battling the wind and tries to beat it by jumping forward. Such a simple movement, and yet laugh-out-loud funny.