THE CAMERAMAN (1928) AND FILM (1965)

Both Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd warned Buster Keaton against signing with MGM studios. Keaton was enticed by a financially lucrative offer, but his peers cautioned that such a deal would not be worth losing artistic control. Keaton signed anyway and, in his own words, “wound up making the biggest mistake of my life.” MGM in the 1920s was the closest a Hollywood studio ever came to a fascist state and, as predicted, Keaton discovered he had sold his soul. He was finished as an artist. The Cameraman (1928) was Keaton’s first film for MGM and studio interference quickly became the status quo. The … Continue reading THE CAMERAMAN (1928) AND FILM (1965)

SEVEN CHANCES (1925)

Buster Keaton‘s Seven Chances (1925) features the greatest chase scene in silent cinema. It is a typically no-holds barred, Keatonesque climax. The film also highlights Keaton’s major flaw: his inability to rise above the racism of his society. This is a flaw that cannot be ignored; it factors into our moral and aesthetic assessment of the artist. The transgressions are brief here, but blatant and repeated. Surprisingly, the frequent debates pitting Chaplin against Keaton rarely consider this factor. Or perhaps it is not so surprising. On just about every list imaginable, D.W. Griffith ranks near the top of all-time great directors, despite the fact … Continue reading SEVEN CHANCES (1925)

GO WEST (1925) AND ONE WEEK (1920)

Buster Keaton further explored his fascination with the west in his feature Go West (1925). Keaton had previously parodied the westerns of William S. Hart in Frozen North (1922) and Go West is a further development of that exploration. Go West, however, is more influenced by Charlie Chaplin than by Hart; it has qualities which have to come to be termed as “Chaplinesque”, albeit filtered through “Keatonesque” sensibilities. It is said to have been Keaton’s personal favorite among his features, enough that he took solo directorial credit, which was rare for him. Go West is the romantic (and odd) story of a cowhand drifter and his cow, with a girl in the very … Continue reading GO WEST (1925) AND ONE WEEK (1920)

THE NAVIGATOR (1924) AND FROZEN NORTH (1922)

The Navigator (1924) was Buster Keaton‘s biggest commercial success and remains one of his most popular features. Co-directed by Donald Crisp, it is a bona fide classic. Affluent society heir Rollo (Keaton) wakes up one morning, sees a newlywed couple outside of his window, and, bored to tears, decides he wants to get married. Love, of course, never enters the picture. He starts planning a regal honeymoon and eventually remembers that he needs to ask the bride-to-be, another socialite named Betsy (Kathryn McGuire, Keaton’s leading lady from Sherlock Jr.). The super rich were a favorite target for 1920s audiences, which certainly helped this … Continue reading THE NAVIGATOR (1924) AND FROZEN NORTH (1922)

PLAYHOUSE (1921) AND STEAMBOAT BILL JR. (1928)

These two Buster Keaton films, separated by seven years, represent the artist at his most hyperkinetic. Playhouse (1921), co-directed by Keaton and Eddie Cline, is a twenty-two minute short and one of Keaton’s most surreal efforts. The movie iris-ins on Keaton’s Opera House. It’s actually a vaudeville show, in which Keaton is the conductor, every member of the orchestra (dubbed Buster Keaton’s minstrels), a stagehand, and the entire audience. The crowd consists of the actor in three drag guises, a spoiled tyke, a befuddled husband, a lethargic old man, and (alas) Keaton in (mercifully brief) blackface. This is the sole area … Continue reading PLAYHOUSE (1921) AND STEAMBOAT BILL JR. (1928)

OUR HOSPITALITY (1923)

Our Hospitality (1923) was Buster Keaton‘s first true feature film. Keaton’s previous “feature,” Three Ages (1923) was actually three short films assembled together. There was both an artistic and a commercial reason for this: Three Ages was a parody of the similarly structured D.W. Griffith feature Intolerance (1916). Additionally, Keaton had proved his audience appeal in shorts. Metro Pictures realized the inherent risk of a Keaton feature, and the structure of Three Ages created the option of breaking it down into three shorts. Fortunately for all concerned, Three Ages was a commercial and critical success. Our Hospitality may be seen, in retrospect, as a model for Keaton’s features and a precursor to The General (1926). What separates Keaton … Continue reading OUR HOSPITALITY (1923)

SHERLOCK JR. (1924)

Buster Keaton never aligned himself with the Surrealists or the avant-garde. His late in life experience acting in Samuel Becket’s Film (1965) proved a negative experience for the actor. Yet, Keaton possessed aesthetic qualities akin to Surrealist tenets, which made him a revered figure in that movement. Together with Playhouse (1921) andFrozen North (1922), Sherlock Jr. (1924) is one of Keaton’s most pronounced ventures into slapstick Surrealism. At 45 minutes Sherlock Jr. is often listed as both a short and a feature. By 1924 standards it was considered a feature. Either way, it is perhaps the most innovative comedy of the entire silent era and it retains a formidable reputation … Continue reading SHERLOCK JR. (1924)