Classics 101 - The Four Clowns: The Great Stone Face

In the first part of this series, we discussed how Universal-International deliberately destroyed their treasure trove of silent films in 1948, and the disregard most 'modern film-goers' had for 'old-time silent movies.' That all changed on September 5, 1949, when Life magazine, one of the most popular publications in the nation, published a cover story entitled Comedy's Greatest Era, by James Agee. This installment of Classics 101 will take a look at the second of Agee's Four Clowns, Buster Keaton.

Li'l Joseph Keaton was born in 1895 to poor vaudeville folk; he was on stage as part of their act by the time he was three, and his father discovered the kid had a talent for being thrown across the stage and splatting against the wall or furniture without breaking any bones. 'That was quite a buster!' Harry Houdini said backstage one night, and the name stuck. (If Houdini gives you a sobriquet, you keep it.)

The Great War broke up the act; Buster was drafted and sent to France, where he saw no action (except for the occasional fraulein). Returning after his stint, he chanced upon old pal Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle on the streets of New York; Roscoe had just signed a new contract to make two-reel comedies; would Keaton like to join him as a writer and occasional actor? Buster was reluctant, but decided movies with Fatty beat getting thrown across the stage, and although he admitted he knew nothing about films or filmmaking, he slept on it and accepted. For the next three years, Keaton was featured -- in ever-larger roles -- in more than a dozen of Fatty's 2-reel films, and when Arbuckle was promoted to full feature production in 1920, Keaton was given his own production unit to make short films.

For the next ten years, Keaton turned out films that were consistently funny, brilliant, and inventive; his best movies were made in conjunction with other writers and directors, yet were uniquely his own. And he'd discovered that no matter what silliness was going on around him, it got bigger laughs if he didn't laugh along.

Among his masterpieces of that period were One Week (Buster and his new bride try to build a pre-formed house with the wrong instructions); The Playhouse (with Buster playing every character on the stage and in the audience); and Cops (with more police officers than you'd think there could possibly be, even in Los Angeles, giving chase to Mr. Keaton). Frankly, although these three are great films, you can't go wrong with any Keaton short of the 1920s.

By 1923, his shorts had proven successful enough that he was elevated exclusively to feature films, beginning with Three Ages. Although Keaton had starred in The Saphead (1920), an adaptation of a play, Three Ages is the first feature vehicle tailored for him; it's a parody of D.W. Griffith films looking at love through three epochs: prehistoric times, the Roman era, and modern day (well, 90-years-ago modern day). In all three periods, Keaton loses Margaret Leahy to Wallace Beery and fights to get her back, succeeding in the final reels. The highlight of the modern portion is Keaton leaping from one rooftop to another, missing, and falling several stories, hitting canopies all the way down in one of those 'how did he do that?' moments that happen all the time in Keaton's work.

Keaton really hit his stride with his first release of 1924, Sherlock, Jr., although at 45 minutes, it's awfully short to be considered a feature. Buster is a cinema projectionist who's taking a home study course in detectiving, and also wooing Kathryn McGuire. Alas, she's also being wooed by Ward Crane, and the rotter has stolen her brother's watch, hocked it to buy gifts for Kathryn, and plants the pawn ticket on his romantic rival. Buster, broken-hearted and back in the nickelodeon, dreams that he's up on the screen as Sherlock, Jr., engaged in a battle of wits with the wily Crane and winning the hand of the comely Miss McGuire.

The plot is the clothesline on which hangs a succession of dizzying 'did I really just see that?' gags, with Keaton performing the impossible in such a way that it becomes possible and he did the stunts himself. It wouldn't be fair to describe them all, but let's just mention one to give you an idea of what we're talking the film fantasy segment, he tails the gang of crooks to their hideout and places an old lady's dress in a hoop in the side window. He enters the building, confronts the gang, grabs their stolen loot, and leaps through the window, into the lady's dress. It takes only a second for the thugs to rush out, but by then all they see is a little old lady hobbling down the street. The entire stunt was filmed with split-second timing and no camera tricks, and the film is stuffed with inventive bits of business like that. Supposedly, Keaton broke his neck performing the stunt involving a water tower at the railroad yard.

Keaton's next project began when it was brought to his attention by an associate that an old, broken-down luxury liner, the SS Buford, was about to be scrapped. Inquiries were made, and a price of 5,000 for the ship was agreed upon. At that time, there was no script, just a general idea that a good comedy could be made on an abandoned ocean liner. They were right; The Navigator is a triumph for Buster and hugely profitable, his first enormous hit. His later films would be judged against this standard in many ways.

Buster's a spoiled rich boy in love with Kathryn McGuire, the spoiled rich girl across the street. Her father's a ship builder, and his new ship, the SS Navigator, is about to be launched. Anarchists set the ship adrift at night, supposedly empty, but alas, Buster is on it (long story) and so is Miss McGuire (longer story) and the two of them don't know the other is there as the ship floats out to sea. The highlight of the film is a hilarious sequence where they figure out there's someone else on the boat and give chase with split-second timing up and down the ship's levels while the camera looks on in bemusement. After that, it's a series of funny gags as the ship drifts for weeks with the two of them - finally approaching an island filled with headhunters.

The Navigator stands as perhaps Keaton's best and most likeable feature comedy. I saw this on the big screen in New York and it brought down the house; whenever I show it, people instantly become Keaton fans. His clueless rich guy persona is at its best here, Miss McGuire is lovely and matches him for athletic prowess (and man, does she look good in a wet dress), and the story makes sense. A great film.

The success of The Navigator led three years later to a turning point in Buster's career; if a film about a boat was a hit, one about a train should be as well, right? So why did The General -- a film now acknowledged as Buster's greatest, and one of the best films ever made -- fail to find an audience?

Buster's a Southerner who's refused entry into the Confederate Army because he's too valuable as a railroad engineer - although the induction officer neglects to tell him that, making it look to everyone in town that Buster's a coward, losing him his girl played by the lovely Marion Mack. A year later, his beloved engine, The General, is stolen by Union spies, with Marion aboard. Buster cops another train and chases the General North while the Yankees destroy everything on their trail (they're certain the entire Reb Army is behind them, you see). Buster manages to nab The General, and the girl, heading back South, this time with the Union soldiers in hot pursuit.

Buster's masterpiece was considered a big-budget fiasco at the time without many laughs. To this day, I know people who prefer 'the funny Keaton films' to this one, while admitting they admire The General. Me? I could watch it every week, but I acknowledge the laughs come from his character and that this isn't the fount of hilarity that some of his other features are.

Keaton's producer, Joe Schenck had just moved over to United Artists, and approved a colossal budget for this film (the single, solitary staging of the wreck of the train off the fiery bridge reportedly cost nearly 0,000 to stage, and that was just one shot in the film). Yet the reviews were terrible:

'This is by no means so good as Mr. Keaton's previous efforts. Here he is more the acrobat than the clown, and his vehicle might be described as a mixture of cast iron and jelly.' -- New York Times

'Long and tedious -- the worst thing Keaton's ever done' -- Herald-Tribune

The film was a flop, and even though Keaton would make good films again -- both Steamboat Bill, Jr. and The Cameraman are well worth seeing -- his career was now no longer in his hands. As the silent era ended, Keaton became an employee of MGM's, where he was stuffed into increasingly unfunny talkie features, often partnered with Jimmy Durante. Parlor, Bedroom and Bath, The Passionate Plumber, and Speak Easilyare light on laughs, and the few prime Keaton moments are too few. His personal life and his drinking both spiraled out of control, and he was unceremoniously dumped by MGM in 1934.

He lived another 32 years, though, making bad comedy shorts for Educational Pictures and worse comedy shorts for Columbia before heading over to MGM to serve as a gag-writer for Laurel & Hardy, the Marx Bros. and Red Skelton. Keaton was a perennial TV favorite in the 1950s, and appeared in several of the Beach Party films of the 1960s. He also had unforgettable roles with Charlie Chaplin in Limelight (1952) and Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard (1950).

His last film, released posthumously, was A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forumin 1966; he died in February of that year.

Speaking of Keaton's silent films, historian/writer Walter Kerr said his repertoire was 'rich, bizarre, unindebted to others, and inimitable in itself.' Agee pointed out that Keaton combined the talents of 'a dancer, acrobat, clown and mime.' Audiences liked him, and most of his films made money. Yet he lacked the financial and business opportunities to own his films, as Chaplin did; the years took their toll, and throughout the 1950s Buster was convinced that most of his films were 'lost' forever. A Keaton fan named Raymond Rohauer led a search to find and restore Keaton's films; thanks to him, today we can enjoy almost all of them. Kino has released the Keaton masterpieces on Blu-ray in gorgeously restored form with beautiful musical scores.

Keaton famously chided the comics of the 1940s for 'never worrying about the script or the next scene. My God, we ate, slept and dreamed our pictures!' It shows.

Next: Harold Lloyd

Clifford Weimer is a writer and film historian in Sacramento, CA. He can usually be found lurking about the dark corners of a movie theatre at