Finite Focus: Battling the Elements for 116 Years [Buster Keaton]

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.

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Kurt Halfyard

My kids got a huge kick out of this scene, even if the film was watched about a week after the Japan Tsunami, you still have to laugh at Keaton’s antics, even if the screening’s timing was awkward.

I come back to Keaton more than Chaplin, Lloyd or Tati…

Bob Turnbull

As crazy and dangerous as many of his stunts are, I also love the little bits he throws in – like right at the end of that clip when he stands up by drawing his feet together. Brilliant man.

Kurt Halfyard

A lady who saw the Kids Talk Film episode/video above (the Revue Cinema tweeted or facebooked it after it went up on Vimeo) and who was at the screening, sent me an email saying the thing she enjoyed most was hearing Willem & Mirandas laughter while watching it. It is indeed a good movie to see with a crowd and live music in the cinema!!


[…] – now that’s a time capsule right there. For more Keaton-centric stuff, jump over to Row Three where I’ve got a short piece up with a clip from Steamboat Bill Jr., and then stop by The […]

David Brook

I’ve been slowly working my way through a big box set I’ve got of Keaton and I adore it. I definitely prefer him to Chaplin (who’s still great). Some of Chaplin’s sentimentalism can grate at times.

Mark Cousin’s Story of Film has a wonderful (and large) segment devoted to the great silent comedians. It’s amazing how forward thinking they were cinematically – Keaton and Chaplin especially revolutionised a lot of film techniques that are still popular today. You’ve only got to watch the amazing ‘into the cinema screen’ sequence in Sherlock Jr to see that Keaton was a master of special effects cinema. Watching the clip above I was also enjoying the fact that the devastation in Steamboat Bill Jr is far more effective than any of Roland Emmerich’s CGI destruction porn.