The Greatest Poker Face in Film

When hard-pressed to name my favorite comedies I invariably resort to naming several Marx Brothers movies (Animal Crackers, Duck Soup, A Night at the Opera, etc.), Charlie Chaplin movies (The Gold Rush, The Kid, City Lights, etc.), and also several films of Buster Keaton.

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Born in Kansas in 1895, Buster Keaton, the Great Stone Face, was one of the most daring comedians to ever live. Keaton’s trademarks included a pork pie hat, flat shoes, and a countenance whose expression never changed. Some have called it an emotionless face, but that is a tragic mislabel as Keaton’s face conveyed a wildly versatile range of emotion. Although he never cracked a smile, Keaton exercised emotion through other means. Buster Keaton utilized his eyes and movements to express every subtle color on the emotional spectrum and he did it to great comic effect. What made Keaton so daring was not only these unique trademarks, but his extremely elaborate and sometimes highly dangerous stunts and complex comedic choreography.

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If Charlie Chaplin was the master of comic poetry and delivering a tear along with a smile, then Buster Keaton was the master of slapstick, physical comedy and technological inventiveness. I daresay only Jackie Chan (who himself was inspired by Keaton) comes close to the physical daring of the Great Stone Face. A true genius, he invented most of the stunts himself and performed them all himself too.

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As a film comedian of the 1920s and 30s, Keaton’s films followed the standard formula of the little, endearing underdog up against a big, dangerous world and sometimes there is a woman to be won (Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd also used this familiar formula). Keaton’s schtick, however, was to capitalize more on the stunts and technical wizardry. Like French magician and special effects pioneer, Georges Melies, Keaton understood the magic that the movies could create and used the camera to tell jokes and devised special effects as elaborate sight gags. It’s difficult to watch Sherlock, Jr. (1924), and not be amazed by the visual inventiveness and marvel at some of the pioneering camera tricks Keaton employed (the scene where he enters the movie screen and he stays the same although the film is constantly edited and altered behind him is still astonishing today). The pool playing scene still cracks me up even after seeing it twenty times.

Keaton’s manic ballet-like choreography did not merely limit itself to himself and performers, but to objects and industry as well. It wasn’t enough that he and the camera were dancing about; because in The General (1926) Keaton choreographed several actual locomotives along real train tracks. He makes the trains almost dance from track to track and around each bend. The results are nothing short of amazing and never less than hilarious. It’s a wildly ambitious historical wartime epic, but it’s a comedy! And it might just be the only Civil War movie where you actually root for the South. Both The General and Sherlock, Jr. are probably among the best comedies ever made.

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The stunt work in all of his films remains incredibly impressive, but perhaps (apart from The General and Sherlock, Jr.) Our Hospitality (1923), College (1927) and Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928), feature some of his most iconic stunts. Our Hospitality has a death-defying vine swing to rescue the girl from the brink of a raging waterfall. College has Keaton attempting and failing (quite comically) at every single sport his campus offers and then (after much ridicule and in a last ditch effort to save the girl) he attempts again and excels with gusto at all the sports revealing his true athleticism and versatility as a performer. The storm sequence in the finale of Steamboat Bill, Jr. is fantastic, clever, and extremely funny. The stunts in that sequence represent some of his most famous, including the house-face falling and a well placed window. All of his features from Three Ages (1923) to The Navigator (1924) to Battling Butler (1926) and more are well worth a look. His work in the realm of short films was no less impressive and, unlike Chaplin whose characters generally stayed in familiar contemporary environments, Keaton would become a cowboy, a detective, a city slicker, or whatever and interact with history to tell a funny story.

After a few failed marriages and loss of creative control on his projects, Keaton deteriorated into alcoholism but continued to make screen appearances until his death in 1966. He appeared with Charlie Chaplin in Chaplin’s Limelight (1952); and in Around the World in 80 Days (1956) as a train conductor (fitting); an episode of The Twilight Zone in 1961; and he had a brief cameo in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963). He even had a starring role in the surreal avant-garde piece Film (1965) from writer Samuel Beckett. The Roman era musical comedy starring Zero Mostel, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966), would be Keaton’s last film. A fitting departure to be directed by the anarchically great Richard Lester (The Bed-Sitting Room, A Hard Day’s Night, Three Musketeers).

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Buster Keaton’s legacy and influence on film remains an important part of film history. The vaudevillian turned movie star contributed much to comedy, film, and filmmaking in his lifetime. If you haven’t seen any of this man’s work I encourage you to find some. It’s been nearly a century since his film debut but his films still retain their undeniable ability to entertain and delight.

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Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” August, 21, 2009.

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