He is arguably the greatest actor-director in the history of the movies, one whose name and image need little introduction – but much of Buster Keaton’s early film work remains less known, less celebrated, perhaps in part because quite a substantial part of it was thought to have been lost forever. But many of those early shorts (from the very earliest with Fatty Arbuckle and Al St. John to Keaton’s earliest directorial efforts) were instrumental in shaping and creating the Keaton persona, the comic who wanted you to laugh with him but didn’t want to ask you to. This post highlights just three of those early greats… there were too many to choose from, so consider this a chronological introduction to Keaton the director.
The High Sign (Dir: Buster Keaton & Eddie Cline, 1920 – released in 1921)
Starring: Buster Keaton, Bartine Burkett, Charles Dorety, Ingram B. Pickett
Although The High Sign was the first two-reel film Keaton directed as an independent filmmaker under Metro Pictures, it wasn’t the first to be released. In fact, it was shelved for almost a year; Keaton, keen to carve out an independent voice, was reportedly unhappy with how similar it was to his previous efforts with Fatty Arbuckle and wasn’t impressed with the ‘unsympathetic’ character. With hindsight, it’s one that sits closer to Charlie Chaplin’s ‘audience pleaser’ persona and there are several parallels with Chaplin’s Little Tramp, including a wandering vagrant lifestyle and a particular enthusiasm for rule-breaking – for example, stealing a police officer’s gun and replacing it with a banana. However, The High Sign’s biggest problem is the plot, which is disjointed and – even for a silent – a stretch of the imagination. Having convinced the world that he is an excellent shot via a wonderfully inventive Pavlov’s dog gag, Keaton gets a job at a shooting gallery owned by the Blinking Buzzards, a local mob outfit. A passing businessman hires Keaton as a bodyguard, but a dual identity problem arises when he is taken to the mob’s headquarters, and asked to kill the same man he has just pledged to protect.
This sets the scene for a wonderfully inventive trick house that’s rigged with trap doors, fake doors and ‘escape’ mirrors. A fan of a ‘mechanical comedy’ Keaton would return to this gag style time and time again throughout his career, but it also provided the foundations of his relationship with the audience – one built on openness and a lack of anticipation. By showing the traps and props that are built into the structure he allows the audience to guess what’s going to happen, but the stunts still manage to solicit surprise and delight through Keaton’s deadpan execution, sheer inventiveness and the fast-pace of his physical comedy. The best shot here is a cutaway that shows a cross section of the house (two floors, four rooms) and demonstrated the elaborate cat-and-mouse chase to its full effect. Within the structure of the narrative, Keaton the clown has little allegiance to either party (or indeed ‘society’) – he exists outside of both because his true purpose is to entertain, he is just playing a character that has somehow got involved with a near-farcical situation.
Another notable element of The High Sign that Keaton would employ throughout his shorts is the use of long shots and close ups. If, to borrow from Chaplin, ‘life is a tragedy when seen in close up, but a comedy in long shot’, Keaton makes good use of long establishing shots that allow moments and actions to be viewed through a comic lens. The close up focuses attention on the character emotions, whereas the long shot offers more distance and a greater appreciation of the comic gags.
One Week (Dir: Buster Keaton & Eddie Cline, 1920)
Starring: Buster Keaton, Sybil Seely, Joe Roberts
Disclaimer: it’s impossible to analyse this short without bias as this is – by far – my favourite Keaton short. If you haven’t seen it, do yourself a favour and watch the video. It’s only 20 minutes…
Marketed as Keaton’s first film, One Week centres on the trails and tribulations faced by a young couple during their first week of married life. It’s a typically unsentimental view of marriage (the opening title card? ‘The wedding bells have such a sweet sound but such a sour echo’) and is unusual because the female lead (played gamely by Sybil Seely) is an integral part of the plot. Typically for Keaton though, her character isn’t sentimentalised or romanticised, she’s an equal – part of the action – but also a foil to his comic gags. It’s an interesting active/passive role that requires participation but not real input. But in-spite of this, and the tongue-in-cheek opening, there’s an instantly recognisable element of partnership and camaraderie and an undeniable sweetness – Seely even goes as far as to paint some hearts on the exterior of their new house.
In fact, this is a tale of three elements – the newlyweds and their portable house, a generous wedding gift. Unperturbed to discover it’s a flat-pack, the duo set about building. But a jealous ex-lover has got there first and re-ordered the instructions (perhaps Keaton was also predicting the rise of Ikea?) and the resultant structure defies the definition of house – the roof is too small, the veranda is wonky, doors are in the wrong place… it’s a comedy structure, a giant prop that provides the basis for a series of outlandish gags. One stunt sees an entire wall fall off; the open window (sans glass panel) just about misses Keaton who’s surveying the landscape. This idea of playing with props is something that came from Keaton’s vaudeville days, and this particular gag would be used in later shorts, despite its potential danger. Perhaps the ‘horror’ house is a metaphor for the dangers of marriage, but as both are so enamoured with something that’s ‘theirs’, it’s more about the dangers of idealising marriage and married life – a modern notion in the 1920s.
The house narrative also allowed Keaton to employ the talents of Joe Roberts, who would go on to appear in 16 of Keaton’s 19 shorts. Instantly comedic due to the differences in their physical appearances, there’s something of Laurel and Hardy dynamism to their relationship. In One Week, Roberts plays a piano delivery man who leaves Keaton to move the instrument into the house alone – really just another opportunity for Keaton to show off his gymnastic ability and stunt creativity. That thread is of course woven into almost every Keaton short, but in this film that’s put aside in the final scenes as he allows his comedy to be surpassed by a spectacular scene involving the wonky house and a train (hint: it doesn’t end well). The closing moments bring it back to the personal, with a charming shot of Keaton and Seely walking away from the physical objects that symbolised the start of their married life together. The life they started to create might have disappeared but their partnership hasn’t.
But despite all the humour and creativity, what stands out most (or at least to a modern viewer) is the way Keaton plays with the medium of film, sharing an in-joke with the audience when the camera almost catches a naked Seely reaching for a dropped bar of soap in the bath. A hand covers the camera lens, protecting her modesty and the audience’s blushes. It’s a small gesture – over in seconds – but it speaks volumes about Keaton’s sophistication as a filmmaker and his willingness to engage in a narrative (or in this case an extended joke) that acknowledges the limitations of a new(ish) medium whilst also inviting the audience to participate.
Convict 13 (Dir: Buster Keaton & Eddie Cline, 1920)
Starring: Buster Keaton, Sybil Seely, Joe Roberts
The line between comedy and darkness is narrow and difficult to navigate. It’s easy to laugh at macabre, everyday situations because of their familiarity but it’s more difficult to conceive these scenarios with a comic angle. Clearly with his second release, Keaton felt comfortable enough to explore a more challenging type of comedy, and it’s testament to his genius (both as a comedy actor and his ability to spot the potential of a new medium) that it was a success. On the surface this is a short about (mistaken) identity and the power of transformation, but it also makes a wider comment on death and metamorphosis – unconventional comedy themes, but under Keaton’s touch, simultaneously thoughtful and relatable.
How does he manage this? By starting the story in one place – luring the viewer in, earning their trust – and then taking it somewhere completely unexpected but completely accepted because, as an audience, you know there’s a joke in it. The short starts at a golf course. Playing to character, Keaton is a bad golfer, forced to put like a snooker player and then taking a boating trip to retrieve a lost golf ball. There’s a wonderful moment of self-parody as he eagerly attempts to row back to shore using his golf club – the effort and energy it takes almost outweighs the comic benefits. Almost inevitably he knocks himself unconscious with a wayward shot. Upon awakening, he discovers that an enterprising criminal has swapped clothes with him, turning Keaton into a convict. The only escape from the hordes of officers out to catch him is to surrender to the local prison, itself the perfect backdrop for a multitude of black humour gags, including a well-executed (pun intended!) hanging joke that sees Keaton replace the noose with an expandable rope, leaving him bouncing up and down off the elevated hangman’s platform. It’s a grim joke, and it takes a lot of self-belief to offer such dark comedy, but Keaton must’ve known his deadpan delivery and talent for absurdity would enable him to carry it off.
After that, Keaton almost undoes the rest of the short. He’s proved his resilience, so of course he’s going to be able to survive anything else that prison throws at him. But never one to rest on his laurels, he surprises the audience by switching to a guard uniform and squaring off against Joe Roberts, playing another inmate. It seems Roberts takes Keaton by surprise too – you can see him planning the way out of the problem, using brain rather than brawn. This is Keaton, the thinking comedian, fast on his feet and capable of finding any solution. In this sense, both Convict 13 and One Week show Keaton establishing and reinforcing the Keaton character, one that would be taken through much of his subsequent work.
One aspect that seems particularly atypical in Convict 13 is the level of violence. Given the setting it hardly comes as a surprise, but it does have the effect of making the short feel like a series of gags held together by a loose narrative. It’s also something that Keaton doesn’t really explore in any of the later shorts (or features). Perhaps it was an avenue he wanted to explore but decided wasn’t for him. Convict 13’s other flaw is that *spoiler* it all turns out to be a dream feels like a bit of a short sell, but perhaps that’s because that trope has become an overused cliché.
Further reading: Keaton’s Silent Shorts: Beyond the laughter by Gabriella Oldham / My Wonderful World of Slapstick by Buster Keaton / Silent Echoes: Discovering early Hollywood through the films of Buster Keaton by John Bengston