"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice

Million Dollar Movie

Here’s James Agee on our man Buster:

Very early in [Keaton’s] movie career friends asked him why he never smiled on the screen. He didn’t realize he didn’t. He had got the dead-pan habit in variety; on the screen he had merely been so hard at work it had never occurred to him there was anything to smile about. Now he tried it just once and never again. He was by his whole style and nature so much the most deeply “silent” of the silent comedians that even a smile was as deafeningly out of key as a yell. In a way his pictures are like a transcendent juggling act in which it seems that the whole universe is in exquisite flying motion and the one point of repose is the juggler’s effortless, uninterested face.

Keaton’s face ranked almost with Lincoln’s as an early American archetype; it was haunting, handsome, almost beautiful, yet it was irreducibly funny; he improved matters by topping it off with a deadly horizontal hat, as flat and thin as a phonograph record. One can never forget Keaton wearing it, standing erect at the prow as his little boat is being launched. The boat goes grandly down the skids and, just as grandly, straight on to the bottom. Keaton never budges. The last you see of him, the water lifts the hat off the stoic head and it floats away.

…Much of the charm and edge of Keaton’s comedy, however, lay in the subtle leverages of expression he could work against his nominal dead pan. Trapped in the side-wheel of a ferryboat, saving himself from drowning only by walking, then desperately running, inside the accelerating wheel like a squirrel in a cage, his only real concern was, obviously, to keep his hat on. Confronted by Love, he was not as deadpan as he was cracked up to be, either; there was an odd, abrupt motion of his head which suggested a horse nipping after a sugar lump.

Keaton worked strictly for laughs, but his work came from so far inside a curious and original spirit that he achieved a great deal besides, especially in his feature-length comedies. (For plain hard laughter his nineteen short comedies — the negatives of which have been lost — were even better.) He was the only major comedian who kept sentiment almost entirely out of his work, and he brought pure physical comedy to its greatest heights. Beneath his lack of emotion he was also uninsistently sardonic; deep below that, giving a disturbing tension and grandeur to the foolishness, for those who sensed it, there was in his comedy a freezing whisper not of pathos but of melancholia. With the humor, the craftsmanship and the action there was often, besides, a fine, still and sometimes dreamlike beauty. Much of his Civil War picture The General is within hailing distance of Mathew Brady. And there is a ghostly, unforgettable moment in The Navigator when, on a deserted, softly rolling ship, all the pale doors along a deck swing open as one behind Keaton and, as one, slam shut, in a hair-raising illusion of noise.

Perhaps because “dry’ comedy is so much more rare and odd than “dry” wit, there are people who never much cared for Keaton. Those who do cannot care mildly.

Oh, yeah. And Buster loved baseball too.


1 Chyll Will   ~  Sep 27, 2011 11:46 am

Keaton is my second favorite silent-area comedian next to Charlie Chaplin. Both had an exceptional talent for physical comedy and expression (although Harold Lloyd leads both in the extent of how dramatic their stunts were), but with Keaton, any expression came across as an exaggeration of the situation precisely because of the fact he had such little movement in his face; you would think he was either extremely brave, extremely pensive or extremely zoned out of his surroundings in a Zen-like fashion. Whereas you really felt sympathy or scorn for Chaplin and Lloyd characters, Keaton invited no such sympathies because it seemed like he was never paying attention himself; if he said anything to audience, it was mainly "What?"

2 Alex Belth   ~  Sep 27, 2011 11:54 am

You hit the nail on the head, Will. Thanks.

3 Chyll Will   ~  Sep 27, 2011 12:01 pm

One of Keaton's last performances was a throwback to his silent era characters in a short film called The Railrodder, interesting also in that the director of this short went on to direct this cult classic animation...

4 Chyll Will   ~  Sep 27, 2011 12:05 pm

[2] No problem, Alex, keep up the good work!

feed Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share via email
"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver