How much, really, can one learn about a person by asking, “Beatles? or Stones?” That’ll only divide the pop-y intellectuals from the bad boy capitalists (not really a way to divine a personality). If you really need to know whether a person’s palate is high or lowbrow, whether the future excites them or terrifies them, if they value innovation over familiarity, if their outlook is one of glassy-eyed optimism or judiciously tempered with jaundice, or even whether they do their own oil changes, you gotta ask them this: “Chaplin? or Keaton?”
You can start winnowing the wheat from the chaff from the get-go with this question, since more people have heard of Charlie Chaplin than Buster Keaton. They may not have ever seen one of Chaplin’s films, but if they can recognize a James Dean or Elvis coffee mug from 50 paces, they’ll be able to name his twinkly-eyed, bowler-hatted, bristle-mustached face. Buster Keaton, however, was born with a kisser that on bad mornings might scare you off your morning coffee and make you reach for the Dran-o instead. Hook-nosed and sallow, with cheekbones where eagles could nest and dark eyes that, when not languorously slack, brimmed with suspicion and hurt, he looked less like the perky Brit Chaplin and more like one of the Southern European immigrants who comprised the bulk of early nickelodeon audiences.
Sicilian? Sephardic? Navajo? Amazingly none of these; Keaton was Irish, the son of vaudeville performers Joe and Myra Keaton who, while on tour with the Mohawk Indian Medicine Company, birthed Buster in a Piqua, Iowa boarding house in 1895. “The Three Keatons” act consisted of Joe “disciplining” the young Buster by tossing him around like a rag doll. Through experience Buster learned two truisms that would define the timbre of his later legacy: the audience laughs loudest when the performer never cracks a smile, and any pratfall is possible if you know how to land. That second maxim got more difficult as the years went by, as Buster’s maturation (while never a big man, Buster was 5’6” and 21 years old in the act’s final run) and Joe’s alcoholism made Buster’s safety impossible. No longer able to trust his father’s timing on stage, Buster left the act and set out on his own.
Buster Keaton journeyed to New York in pursuit of an offer on Broadway but soon had a chance encounter with silent comedian Fatty Arbuckle, who’d recently formed his own production company and needed actors. Keaton was game for an afternoon’s work. His film debut is enshrined in the Arbuckle quickie The Butcher Boy (1917), but more important to film historians than that first appearance was Keaton’s first exposure to the technology of film. The motion picture camera enthralled Keaton. He asked to take the device home that night, where he disassembled and reassembled the entire contraption lenses, gears, celluloid, hand crank so as to understand its mechanism completely. When he returned, Arbuckle offered him a $40 a week job. Keaton gladly chose Arbuckle’s offer over the $250 a week gig on the Great White Way. Keaton was in love, and the object of his desire was the motion picture camera.
The camera, and, to a greater degree, all technologies and their possibilities, are the driving force behind Keaton’s genius. It’s the recurring springboard of his gags, the lynchpin of his technological contributions to film, the wellspring of his fascinations as an artist. Much is made about Keaton’s legendary comic style (the stoicism, the jaw-dropping stunts, the slightly vinegary pall), but it’s important to separate the skeleton from the flesh. The armature Keaton’s idiom rests upon is the never-ending romance he felt with the mechanical world.
The General (1927), Keaton’s masterpiece, expresses perfectly this kinship with machines; in this case, a giant steam locomotive. The inter-title introducing Keaton’s railroad engineer character Johnnie Gray makes this abundantly clear: “There were two loves in his life. His engine, and ” We cut to a picture of his girlfriend Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack), but the engine proves the less fickle sweetheart. Annabelle Lee is ashamed Johnnie was turned away from Confederate service (only because his railroad training made him more valuable than the usual cannon fodder) and tells him “I don’t want you to speak to me again until you are in uniform”. Heartbroken, Johnnie sits defeated on the locomotive crossbar. In one of the most famous images of Keaton’s career, the engine starts up, lifting Keaton in a gentle carousel motion away from the site of his humiliation, an automated “there, there” from the truer of his two loves.
Chaplin didn’t share Keaton’s admiration of machines, but instead approached them with a prim Luddite disdain, or outright horror. Consider the famous sequence that opens Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936), where Charlie is just another cog in a capitalist assembly line, a point made with sledgehammer subtlety when fatigue and stress reduce him to a ticcy automaton unable to stop straightening everything that looks like a bolt. He’s made an example when a visiting inventor plugs him into a “feeding machine” that’ll allow an employee to work through lunch without stopping. Eating, a simple, organic need, is reduced to an engineering problem. Charlie, strapped helplessly to this mechanized trough, is slapped indignantly with buttered ears of corn and splattered with hot soup. Eventually he snaps and giddily runs amuck, regaining his humanity by willfully destroying the factory that enslaves him.
In contrast, machines are the solutions to Keaton’s problems. In the hurricane climax of Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928), Buster is helpless, frantically struggling against the onslaught of wind and rain. He leaps into the gust, trying to gain ground but crumples repeatedly into a flailing heap by the unsympathetic meteorological assault. But when the storm brings the front façade of a house crashing down on Buster, his neck is saved only by luckily standing where the empty space of the open attic window hits the ground, creating a keyhole of space where he can remain unscathed. (This gag is not an illusion; Keaton built the full-weight set with only a few inches allowance for where he could safely position himself to avoid pulverization). Natural forces may blow Buster willy-nilly, but man-made items always make thoughtful allowance for his safety.
Keaton’s career had a much narrower fertile period than Chaplin’s. A combination of factors, including a bad business decision to sell his independent studio to MGM, a failing marriage, and an inherently more passive attitude towards success truncated Keaton’s career prematurely. The Cameraman (1928), his first film distributed by MGM, is the last that bears a significant stamp of his auteur. Knowing this, it’s bittersweet to see him as a newbie newsreel cameraman who buys a then-outdated hand crank model from a thrift store (possibly the same type that so bewitched Keaton a decade ago) in an effort to win the girl and make something of himself. He may fumble with the gadget in the opening scene and earn the derision of his bosses by running the film backwards, but in the denouement it’s photographic evidence that proves Buster’s square-jawed rival chickened out, and that Buster rescued the unconscious girl instead. Once again machines prove they can be trusted in Keaton’s universe in ways people can’t.
Unlike the tech-phobic Chaplin, who insisted the Little Tramp remain a silent character, Keaton was excited by the possibilities presented by sound film. Unfortunately by the early ‘30s his bad business acumen had caught up with him and he was stripped of all creative control. In four years Keaton was making buddy pics with Jimmy Durante (!?!) and succumbing to the same drinking problem that had bedeviled his father. Chaplin plowed ahead, his place in film history assured, but Keaton had to wait until a critical rediscovery of his work in the ‘50s for scholarship to recognize him as an innovator, artist, and genius. A shuffle of destiny in 1917 and Keaton could have been a footnote in the history of vaudeville instead of a motion picture pioneer, but, thanks to the intervention of the camera, Keaton’s legacy remains immortal. That wonderful machine saves the day again.
Buster Keaton - The General