What I Like About Buster Keaton

By Beth Pederson, Treasurer of the International Buster Keaton Society

I first encountered Buster Keaton at the Egyptian Theater in Ogden about twelve years ago. It was a performance of his short film One Week (1920) with live organ accompaniment.

Here's Beth with her handmade porkpie hat in honor of Buster's birthday (10/4)!

Here's Beth with her handmade porkpie hat in honor of Buster's birthday (10/4)!

The film was an unexpected prelude to the feature I had gone to see, but I have no memory of the actual feature. I watched One Week with my mouth open, thinking, “How can this old film be so funny, and why have I never heard of it before?”

I was floored. When I got home, I hopped on the Internet and looked up everything I could find on Buster. I wanted to learn more! Soon, I encountered the International Buster Keaton Society (www.busterkeaton.com), joined, and got involved. And I’ve never regretted it.

One of the things I like about Buster is that he’s smart. Buster was introduced to film by popular comic Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. Arbuckle held that the mental age of most comedy fans is about twelve years old, a theory that still seems popular today.

Buster disagreed. His comedy is smart, and if you don’t pay attention, you may miss the gag!

For example, in One Week, Buster needs to stop a car which contains both his rival and his girl. He knocks down the traffic cop, takes his hat and billy club, and brings the car to a stop.  He then bops the cop on the head from behind, replaces his hat, and gives the club to his rival.  The rival is quickly collared when the cop turns around, and Buster gets the girl. Smart.

Another thing I like about Buster is that he is cool. No matter what is going on around him, he stays calm – standing expressionless in the eye of the hurricane.

In the short film Cops (1922), Buster is at a policemen’s parade when he needs a light for his cigarette. A lit bomb (thrown by an anarchist) lands in his lap. He casually lights his cigarette and tosses the bomb, still lit, over his shoulder. When it explodes, Buster is taken for the anarchist, and, of course, a chase ensues.

A third thing that I like about Buster is that he is real. 99.9% of the time, what you see on the screen in a Keaton film really happened. No tricks or special effects. Buster wanted the audience to trust him in his films, and often risked his life to get a laugh.

His stunts were generally done in a wide shot with no cutting so that the audience would know it was real. Watch this clip from Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928):

The house that falls over him weighs over two tons, and he only had a couple of inches of clearance in the window frame. All he had to do was hit his mark and stand still, yet this is considered to be the most dangerous stunt in silent film.

The last point I want to make about Buster is that his comedy is timeless. Although the scenery is now nearly 100 years old, the comedy is as fresh and as funny as when it was first placed on film. 

I promise you that anytime you watch a Keaton film, you will reach a point where you will say to yourself: “Wow – I can’t believe he just did that!” DVD Netflix has lots of Keaton’s hard-to-find silent work available; why not add some to your queue today?