Term Paper: Buster Keaton

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Buster Keaton

Bermel calls Buster Keaton a master of farce, in the same league as Aristophanes and Woody Allen. Buster Keaton often falls in the shadow of his more famous contemporary Charlie Chaplin, but many critics revere Keaton as the superior motion picture artist and director. As MacDonald puts it, "Buster Keaton replaced Charlie Chaplin as the master of movie comedy most admired by Americans seriously interested in cinema," (5). Keaton, born Joseph Francis, was born into show business. His parents Joe and Myra were family vaudeville performers in the Keaton and Houdini medicine show company in 1895 (Feinstein). In an interview with Feinstein, Keaton describes his father as a "grotesque comedian," of course meaning grotesque as a mode of comedy (392). Keaton describes his mother as the "ingenue-soubrette," and a singer-dancer in the family vaudeville production (Feinstein 392). Acting, performing, and wearing costumes were integral to Keaton's childhood. Harry Houdini, partners with the Keatons in their family production, gave Buster his nickname. Young Joseph Francis had fallen down the stairs unscathed, and Houdini, impressed, commented, "That was a Buster," (Feinstein 392). The name stuck.

Buster Keaton transitioned remarkably well from live performances to motion pictures. He reflects on some of the difficulties of making the transition and the key differences between live acting and recording. Keaton comments on the importance of "unrehearsing" after the director has ensured a "mechanically perfect" and therefore stilted take (Friedman 2). Clearly, Keaton was interested in retaining the dynamic, spontaneous, and essentially human dimension that live performances offered audiences and imparting that into his filmmaking career. MacDonald states, "Keaton's aim -- though he never would have admitted it -- was to make a work of art 5).

Another former vaudeville performer Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle helped Buster Keaton transition from stage to film. Vaudevillian elements including deadpan humor, an "exceptional acrobatic technique," and "clumsy antics" became signature elements of the Buster Keaton style ("Buster Keaton" 1). The 1920s marked Keaton's major foray into cinema, with his official directorial debut with the Blacksmith (1922), Three Ages (1923), the Ballonatic (1923), Our Hospitality (1923), Sherlock, Jr. (1924), the Navigator (1924), Go West (1925), Seven Chances (1925), the General (1926/1927), Battling Butler (1926), and the Cameraman (1928).

The General is currently considered to be Keaton's comedic masterpiece, and in terms of complexity, does not have strong competition from his earlier film Sherlock, Jr. Indeed, a comparison of these two films reveals some of the ways Keaton's style and sensibilities matured in a relatively short period of time. Sherlock, Jr. was originally entitled the Misfit, and there were postproduction problems that led to the decision to rebrand the film (Meade). Moreover, "reception was mixed," (Meade 147). By the time Sherlock, Jr. was released, Keaton's name and reputation were established; and the film was regarded by some as his first flop (Meade).

Sherlock, Jr. begins with a melodic soundtrack over the credits, and the opening card reading, "There is an old proverb which says: Don't try to do two things at once and expect to do justice to both." Thus setting the tone for the film, Keaton establishes a broader and overarching theme. This is clearly going to be a film that balances comedy with a serious undercurrent. The next card informs the viewer that doing two things at once refers to the protagonist, a "moving picture operator in a small town theater" who moonlights as a detective. After fade-in, we meet the protagonist: Sherlock Jr. (Keaton), sitting in one of the theater seats reading a book, "How to Be a Detective." He proceeds to lick his thumb to practice deciphering fingerprints. The soundtrack assumes a lighthearted tone. The opening scene establishes the dual identity of the protagonist. Immediately thereafter, the audience meets the Girl (Kathryn McGuire), and hence the central conflict of the story. As a story, Sherlock, Jr. is tremendously successful as it involves the level of farce for which Keaton became so well-known already at the point of production. The acting in Sherlock, Jr. is extraordinary. Buster Keaton's father Joe plays the father of the Girl. Although Keaton himself remains true to his deadpan roots, his gangly body allows him to sneak a liberal amount of slapstick into the film that involves mistaken identity along the lines of a Shakespeare comedy. Keaton pits himself against the Sheik (Ward Crane), who is not only Sherlock's rival for the girl but also his first detective project. By the time Keaton directed Sherlock, Jr., his editorial skills had been honed to nearly perfect. Cuts between scenes are smooth and seamless, and the story is easy to follow. The dream sequence that closes the movie might have been one point of contention with critics, although it allows Keaton's flexibility as an actor to shine as he creates a story-within-a-story.

As Knopf notes, Keaton was brilliant at constructing stories with "geometric progression," and this type of story structure is also evident in Keaton's masterpiece, the General (3). The opening score of the General differs from Sherlock, Jr. For obvious reasons, as Keaton uses a military march as opposed to a lighthearted jazz piece. The General is a different kind of film entirely from Sherlock, Jr. Keaton does not stray from his comedy roots, but the plot and story structure of the General offer greater nuances of characterization and theme. Whereas Sherlock, Jr. offers a simple moral message with a happy ending, the General touches on issues of wartime angst, heroism, courage, and loyalty.

Keaton maintained "executive control" over all elements of the film's production, as Carroll points out (75). Directorially, Keaton has matured in his inclusion of more melancholic shots using "diagonal composition" and a more skillful manipulation of the sequence of events (Carroll 108). It is in the General that the "geometric" structure of Keaton's style really comes to the fore (Knopf 3). Rather than progressing in a simple linear fashion as in Sherlock, Jr., Keaton allows for greater subtleties of cause and effect (Carroll).

Taking place during the Civil War, the General includes an action-packed train car scene that has since become a classic of Hollywood history. Fast cuts between the external view of the train moving, and what the actor is doing create a suspense that is easily comparable to modern action filmmaking. The wide-angle shot of the train on the Rock River Bridge allows Keaton to prove his commitment to continuity, as the reflection of the train appears brilliantly in the water below briefly before the train suddenly stops. The General is a far more complex film on many levels vs. Sherlock, Jr. But both remain true to Keaton's overall "aesthetic and historical" impact (MacDonald 5). In spite of his antics, Keaton is never silly. His body is loose and flexible, moving at once naturally and unnaturally.

The General refers to the train itself, which is the central motif of the movie. As an action film, the General is remarkable, as it takes place almost entirely on the moving vehicle. In the character of Johnny Gray, Keaton allows himself to express the full extent of his physical abilities. He jumps on and off the train, in and out of it, manipulating objects and acrobatically acting. Narration "becomes an almost constant process of explanation," adding tension to the mood (Carroll 108). Derailments, and sabotage by enemy troops, add to the excitement in this bright action-comedy that formed the foundation for other films in its genre. The backdrop of the Civil War adds an ironic and dark element to the film that Sherlock, Jr. does lack. Whereas the latter remains genuinely lighthearted, the reminder of Civil War remains an undercurrent in the General. Themes like man vs. environment, man vs. machine, and man vs. man are extant in the General.

While neither the General nor Sherlock, Jr. contain a deeper… [END OF PREVIEW]

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