Thursday, July 1, 2010

#15: Buster Keaton

- “When we made a picture we ate, slept and dreamed them.”

Although we have had our spats in the blogosphere, this entry in my favorite directors series owes a nod to Wonders in the Dark’s Allan Fish. Before Allan began his epic countdown of his Top 100 films of the silent era, I wasn’t completely in the dark concerning the cinema of Buster Keaton. I was familiar with some of his more well-known features – The General, Sherlock, Jr., Steamboat Bill, Jr. – but as with most of silent cinema, I hadn’t really taken the time to fully delve into the work. The outstanding series at WitD, and the fantastic reviews posted daily by Allan, were the impetus needed. And while still far from being a Keaton expert, I have at least now made my way through his features and a number of shorts, and come to understand what I had been missing by putting off Buster’s work. I was already a fan of Keaton, and even before diving head-first into the rest of his career, felt certain that Sherlock, Jr. was the best silent film I had ever seen. I still stand by that bold declaration, but realize that he has a handful of features that are nearly just as good, along with an array of shorts that are equally as impressive.

Where does one even begin to praise such a titan of cinema? Keaton’s genius for comedy needs no explanation or analysis and I don’t know if I have enough knowledge to do so anyway. But it is still astounding to watch the physical gags and well-choreographed chases that he performed in his greatest films. Keaton has to be considered the first great stuntman of the screen. Even if his routines are not as harrowing or spectacular as they appear – and I don’t know enough about his production methods to say so – the fact that they come across as magnificently as they do speaks to the unmatched physical gifts he displayed in front of the camera. In an era when technology lacked far behind the creativity of many talented directors, Keaton was able to translate his wildly inventive scenarios into believable adventure-comedies. Watching him do things like clinging to the pistons of a charging train, dodging avalanching boulders barreling down on him, or fighting off deep sea creatures truly separates him from any of his contemporaries. Perhaps other comedians of the era were funnier, perhaps there were adventure stories that provided greater thrills (both debatable points), but I have personally never come across someone who combined the attributes as seamlessly as did Buster. In addition to being one of the greatest comedians of cinema, I think a case could be made for him being one of the earliest action stars.

What ultimately made the greatest impression on me is something that longtime fans of Keaton have probably known all along: for all the praise of his comedy and physical skills, his talent as a director is just as impressive. His films are not just plopping a camera down and taking in whatever the star does in front of it. Although Keaton is quoted as saying that he made his films without any scripts or written direction, I find it impossible to believe that there was not considerable planning and forethought given to how something would play out. If everything was purely off the cuff, then it’s even more impressive. Even so, Keaton clearly understood the possibilities that film provides and made great use of them. The celebrated dream sequence in Sherlock, Jr. feels just as fresh in today’s CGI-dominated movie world as it must have in 1924.

Below, I rate the Keaton that I have enjoyed so far. It clearly is not everything that needs to be seen in Buster’s career – I have seen all of the features where Keaton is generally accepted to have been the director and 14 of his shorts. There are plenty of other shorts that I still need to get to and I look forward to them. It should also be noted, that in some of these films (such as Steamboat Bill, Jr., The Cameraman and Spite Marriage) Buster is not credited as director, but it has been generally accepted that he remained the controlling hand. So perhaps it is cheating a little, but most critical analysis and histories accept Buster as being, at the very least, a co-director in these projects.

1. Sherlock Jr. (1924)
2. The Navigator (1924)
3. The General (1927)
4. The Cameraman (1928)
5. Our Hospitality (1923)
6. Seven Chances (1925)
7. Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928)
8. Battling Butler (1926)
9. Go West (1925)
10. College (1927)
11. Three Ages (1923)
12. Spite Marriage (1929)

1. The Scarecrow (1920)
2. Neighbors (1920)
3. Cops (1922)
4. The Goat (1921)
5. One Week (1920)
6. Daydreams (1922)
7. The Blacksmith (1922)
8. The Playhouse (1921)
9. The Paleface (1922)
10. The Electric House (1922)
11. The Boat (1921)
12. Hard Luck (1921)
13. The High Sign (1921)
14. Convict 13 (1920)


  1. Wow! This IS a surprise. I've only seen The General, which is, needless to say, a remarkable work.

  2. Dave, a great choice. I'm not a huge fan of silent movies aside from the most obvious classics, but I love the silent comedies of the Big Three--Keaton, Chaplin, and Lloyd. I haven't seen as many of Keaton's features as you. At the top of the heap I would place "Sherlock, Jr." "Our Hospitality," and "The General"--all of them masterpieces--like you putting "Sherlock, Jr." at #1. Next would come "Steamboat Bill, Jr." and "Seven Chances." I would place "The Navigator" below those two. Although I know of many who would rate it as highly as you, its physical restraint compared to the others I've named places it lower in my estimation. "The Cameraman" and "College" struck me as the weakest of the lot, although another viewing of the former might raise it in my estimation. Of the shorts I've seen only "Neighbors," which was excellent, and "Balloonatics," which I liked even more. I'm wondering if its absence from the list of shorts means you don't rate it as highly as the others, or is it possible you haven't seen it? I'll be watching to see if Chaplin appears in the countdown.

  3. Great choice. Keaton "thinks big" - even his shorts are fall of incredible, ambitious conceits. I just watched "One Week" the other day - how many filmmakers would conceive or attempt that giant, misshapen spinning house? Keaton does - and "throws it away" in a short! And he can really capture a period evocatively, as he does in The General and Our Hospitality.

  4. I have always been on the fence as whether I like Keaton or Chaplin's work more. Visually, Keaton is a better filmmaker; he films are to use a Hitchcock term "pure cinema." Much of what you see in his films cannot be duplicated in another media. Emotionally I respond to both Keaton's blank somewhat cold though thoughtful exterior, and to Chaplin's reactionary, or maybe rebellious is a better term, response to his adversaries and also his pathos. Either way they are two of the greatest artists the cinema has ever produced and just plain funny.


    Sherlock Jr.
    The General
    Our Hospitality
    Steamboat Bill Jr.
    The Navigator
    Battling Butler
    Seven Chances
    Go West
    The Cameraman
    Spite Marriage
    Three Ages


    The Playhouse
    The Scarecrow
    One Week
    The Electric House
    The Boat
    The Blacksmith
    The Love Nest
    Convict 13
    The Paleface
    The Ballonatic
    The High Sign

  5. Like R.D., I also love BALLOONATICS, as I told T.S. of SCREEN SAVOUR, who is on sabatical from his excellent Keaton series. I will be back later this afternoon with a full response.

  6. The halfway mark and things are getting interesting. I'm placing bets with myself as to the choices and running order for the remainder of the list - and keeping my fingers crossed that one of my personal favourites, Sam Peckinpah, scores highly.

    I’ve nominated you for a Versatile Blogger award.

    Details here:

    Best wishes,


  7. Well, it in a contest between the Little Tramp and the guy with the stone face, it's painful to pick one over the other. They are two of teh greatest artists the cinema has ever produced, and for me, both would place well into the top ten. But I will give a narrow edge to Chaplin, who could be my #1 director, though people like Bergman, Bresson, Ozu, Murnau, Welles and Ford especially always come into play. But who can argue with this placement, and man have you done your homework we all these excellent choices. Timing was of course Keaton's most noteworthy feat, and in THE GENERAL he created perhaps the most technically pitch-perfect feature of the silent era. Your singular enthusiasm produced one of your very best lead-in essays too!


    1 The General
    2 Sherlock Jr.
    3 Our Hospitality
    4 The Navigator
    5 Steamboat Bill Jr.
    6 College
    7 The Cameraman
    8 Seven Chances
    9 Go West
    10 Spite Marriage
    11 Battling Butler
    12 Three Ages


    1 Cops
    2 The Playhouse
    3 The Electric House
    4 Balloonatics
    5 Neighbors
    6 The Scarecrow
    7 One Week
    8 The Goat
    9 The Blacksmith
    10 Daydreams
    11 The Paleface
    12 Hard Luck
    13 The High Sign
    14 The Love Nest

  8. After subjecting myself to the Educational shorts in the new Kino "Lost Keaton" collection it's good to remember Buster's best work. There's some good or at least interesting material in what I've seen so far, but their impoverished circumstances are rather sad. For a long time I've preferred Keaton's analytic cool to Chaplin's pathos but I've tried to be more evenhanded lately. Because I trace modern "action" movies back to The General I may feel that Buster has something to answer for, but if they made more action movies his way we'd all be better off.

    I restrict myself to his indy features because I'm reluctant to credit Keaton as director of even the silent M-G-Ms, though The Cameraman is pretty good.

    1. The General
    2. Our Hospitality
    3. Sherlock Jr.
    4. Seven Chances
    5. The Navigator
    6. Steamboat Bill Jr.
    7. The Three Ages
    8. Go West
    9. College
    10. Battling Butler

    Shorts: I saw them all during AMC's greatest day, the Keaton centennial in 1995, but that was so long ago that I've forgotten some of them.

    1. One Week
    2. Cops
    3. The Playhouse
    4. The Boat
    5. Neighbors
    6. The Frozen North
    7. The Goat
    8. The Electric House
    9. Hard Luck
    10. The Paleface

  9. JAFB - Yes, I thought this one might surprise some folks, but I also knew that there would be plenty of agreement on such placement.

    R.D. - Balloonatics is one that I just haven't seen yet. I have a copy and should have seen it before this entry, but just didn't. I look forward to it though, since both you and Sam are fans. I could almost break my rankings of Buster's features into tiers. #1 is solid, then 2-3 could go either way, 4-7 could probably go in any order, and then I definitely think the others fall short of the top 7.

    MovieMan - Can't add much except to say that I agree!

    Neil - Thanks for the acknowledgment! I'll try to pass the award on, but I'm terrible about keeping up on such things, so forgive me if I fail on that one. But I definitely appreciate the recognition!

    Sam - The Chaplin vs. Keaton debate is one that will likely rage for as long as movies are made. As you say, both can be appreciated for different reasons and I love the work of both men. Your lists are great as well and it's hard to argue with your top four!

  10. Samuel - Wonderful thoughts and rankings. It seems to be a general consensus that The General, Sherlock Jr. and Our Hospitality absolutely have to be in the top 3-4 of any Keaton list, even if I do place one of them slightly outside of those spots.

  11. I've seen 10 Keaton features......

    1. Sherlock Jr
    2. The General
    3. The Navigator
    4. Our Hospitality
    5. Steamboat Bill Jr
    6. The Cameraman
    7. Battling Butler
    8. College
    9. Go West
    10. Spite Marriage

    I still have not seen Seven Chances and Three Ages. I have seen many of Keaton's shorts but only The Paleface recently. I couldn't make a list because I would not know what order to place them in. Individual scenes are rather vague as much time has passed. Even some of the features have not been watched by about a decade. My top 2 are totally untouchable and are locked in those spots forever.....M.Roca

  12. Buster Keaton's one-man Olympics.