This month marks the one hundredth anniversary of the motion picture debut of Buster Keaton - in Fatty Arbuckle's film The Butcher Boy. Mark looks back at one of the silent screen's most lustrous stars:
He liked to cook and he knew how to make a custard pie. First, bake two crusts; then paste them together for a strong base, and fill the pie with an inch of flour and water. If you're going to throw it at a blonde, garnish with chocolate or strawberry; if you're aiming at a guy in a dark suit, use plenty of whipped cream.
You can see Buster Keaton covered in custard pie in Hollywood Cavalcade, a 1939 comedy set in the silent movie days. After just ten years of talkies, that's what an entire era had dwindled down to in the popular memory: Silent stars ran around a lot and chucked pies at each other. Physical comedy has never really recovered from the advent of sound. Its last exponent was ...well, who?
Keaton admired Lucille Ball, who liked to hang around with him at MGM back in the Thirties when he'd been reduced to a hundred-bucks-a-week gag writer's job. But compare "I Love Lucy" with, say, any sitcom post-"Friends". Lucy does funny things; the post-"Friends" crowd say funny lines. Physical comedy became the province of trouser-dropping farceurs, and slapstick what an undisciplined picture resorts to when it's run out of steam, plot and discipline — like the messy all-star demolition finale of Stanley Kramer's It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963), in which Keaton's cameo, as in Hollywood Cavalcade, is meant to authenticate the frenzy.
But here's a fact: one hundred years ago this month, in April 1917, in his first ever screen appearance, in Fatty Arbuckle's Butcher Boy, Buster Keaton threw a custard pie. Thereafter, in none of his own films did a single pie fly.
Instead, as one of the few self-contained film-makers — star, writer, director, producer, stuntman — he tapped the true energy in comedy. Not the phony energy when everyone's running round in circles, but the energy that can come from just standing still. No single scene distills the spirit of Keaton better than that sublime moment in his Civil War masterpiece, The General (1926), when he climbs up to the roof of the train, stands on the engine and leans into the horizon, ramrod straight but tilted forward, the wind whipping his hair as the landscape rushes by. It's all in the angle — like the iconic photo of the Marines raising the flag at Iwo Jima a generation later, for which, in its grace and poetry, this scene serves as Keaton's comedic equivalent.
Trains run through his films, and his life. He was born in 1895 at the railroad halt of Piqua, Kansas, just a few weeks before the Lumière brothers' first public demonstration of motion pictures, when a roaring locomotive hurtled head on at a terrified Paris audience. When both Keaton and the kinescope marked their hundredth birthdays in 1995, the industry celebrated the technology, and it was left it to the more modest commemorations of Keaton's centenary to remind us that the technology is only as good as the fellow in the middle of it. That's the difference between Kevin Costner's wasted Waterworld and Keaton's train wreck in The General — which remained, for almost a century, the most expensive single shot in silent pictures (over $3 million in today's terms). In Sherlock Jnr (1924), he finds himself balanced perilously on the handlebars of a speeding police motorbike. Today, we'd crash the bike through a store window. But what does Keaton do? He crosses his legs and starts chatting to the cop.
His folks were passing through Kansas in the Mohawk Indian Medicine Show. Keaton may not have been born in a trunk, but he slept, for his first two years, squashed up in a suitcase. At six months he tumbled down the stairs unharmed, which, they said, so impressed Harry Houdini he nicknamed the kid Buster. He was a showbiz professional by four. "Before that," he'd explain, "I was a burden on my parents." His father had the suitcase handle sewn onto Buster's jacket: "Tighten up your asshole, son," he'd whisper, and then hurl him across the footlights and into the orchestra.
Offstage, things weren't much better: on one single July day, baby Buster had his right index finger irretrievably shredded by the clothes wringer, got his head gashed open by a falling brick and then, after retreating to his bedroom, was sucked out of the window by a tornado and dumped into a distant field. In vaudeville, having survived a cracked skull and broken neck, he was billed as "The Little Boy Who Can't Be Damaged".
The vaudevillian reality – the sense that these things are actually happening to him — is hard to recreate in today's computer-generated capers. But, with only the earliest movie technology, he got to most of the good tricks first. Seventy years before Back to the Future, in The Rough House, Arbuckle and Keaton use reverse-action photography to jump into the picture out of nowhere; in Sherlock Jnr he marches up a cinema aisle and steps into the movie — just like Last Action Hero, except he's funnier than Schwarzenegger. We were suspicious of technology even then, which is why Keaton always filmed his stunts in one take — so the audience knew it wasn't done by tricks or editing. And he didn't use stuntmen. "Stuntmen don't get laughs," he'd say, and he's right. It would be like Astaire using a double for the difficult steps.
It came in useful when he was briefly institutionalized for alcoholism and resultant woes. They put him in a straitjacket, but he remembered an old vaudeville trick and wiggled free. Some things were harder to escape: In 1933, he woke up after an almighty bender to find he'd married his nurse from the funny farm.
He made his own porkpie hats, too: take one Stetson, cut it down to size, mix three teaspoons granulated sugar with one cup warm water, smear over top and bottom of the brim, and let dry until stiff. As far as I know, for Brokeback Mountain Jake Gyllenhall didn't make their own sheep dip. Yet, if the can-do spirit isn't much in evidence, Keaton's influence can still be seen elsewhere: Martin Scorsese, for one, modeled De Niro's ring scenes in Raging Bull on Keaton's boxing match in Battling Butler.
How odd that the heavyweight directors honor him more than the funnymen. Film comedy today seems by far the most forced and formulaic of any genre. The invention and exhilaration have drained away, and Jack Black or Kevin James frantically chewing up the screen is exhausting and depressing compared to Keaton in lugubrious repose. Most contemporary film comedy is referential: gags about other stars, other films, of the moment. For all his obsession with modernity, Keaton's are pure jokes, the kind that just seem to be out there waiting for the first person to stumble across them — like the suicidal man who lies down in the path of an oncoming pair of headlights and braces himself, only to find they pass painlessly by him on either side: it's a pair of motorbikes. They called him the Great Stone Face and to see it leaning out against the countryside in The General always reminds me of that other Great Stone Face, New Hampshire's Old Man of the Mountains, etched by nature into the rock, which looked over Franconia Notch in the White Mountains until its collapse a few years back. By comparison with that crumbled granite, Keaton's comedy is ageless and elemental — the essence of comedy. Or, as he'd put it, "Oh, you mean that genius bullshit."