These notes accompany the Buster’s Best program, which screens on March 17, 18, and 19 in Theater 3.
The career of Buster Keaton (1895–1966) is both one of the cinema’s glories and one of its greatest tragedies. If one measures auteurism by a director’s ability to visualize an alternative personal universe on film, then Keaton ranks near the top. Buster’s vision of a world where machinery and Nature perpetually challenge human ingenuity and survival is made credible by his uniquely precise mastery of both the mechanics of his art form and the musculature of his own body—and his establishment of a link between the two. In a sense, he was a bionic man a half-century before Lee Majors.
As with all true genius, there is something ineffable here to befuddle scholars. While Keaton’s greatest moments lend themselves to anthologizing as much as those of Sergei Eisenstein or Alfred Hitchcock, his onscreen presence lends an extra element of defiance to prospective imitators. Mercifully, I don’t believe I’ve ever seen Donald O’Connor in The Buster Keaton Story (1957), but I assume Sidney Sheldon’s film makes at least a minimal effort to recreate some of Buster’s “stunts.” No matter how successfully executed these might be, what can’t be recreated is Buster’s expression (or lack thereof) at these moments. For, in addition to his other gifts, Keaton was a great actor.
While both The General and the cyclone sequence from Steamboat Bill, Jr. are, on one level, hysterically funny, you realize you’re laughing at some very dark matter—the most grisly war in American history and a world gone meteorologically mad, respectively. Yes, it is amusing to see a train plunging off a bridge into a ravine, but this is different from the calamity caused by slipping on a banana peel. What dark ghosts haunted Buster in his early thirties that allowed him to find humor in these happenings, and what causes us such delight in addition to being awestruck? I suggest the answers lie somewhere in the direction of Buster’s insouciant pursuit of perfection. After all, his great rival, Charles Chaplin, would, in Monsieur Verdoux (1947), find somber humor in the antics of a misogynistic serial killer, and, on a less sublime level, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy seemed to thrive on the expert application of pain and humiliation.
Buster’s ghosts eventually did him in. In spite of his failing marriage to Natalie Talmadge, he followed her advice in giving up his independence to Nicholas Schenk and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. The double-whammy of the advent of talkies and his descent deeper into alcoholism resulted in his becoming virtually a supporting player to Jimmy Durante. Actually, the decline began shortly after Steamboat Bill, Jr., with the silent Spite Marriage (1929). Keaton was essentially destroyed at thirty-three, the age at which Chaplin had made nothing more formidable than The Kid (1921). What Buster might have accomplished had he been permitted to make his own films as a mature artist we will never know, and I mourn for these lost films.
There are some wonderful glimmerings that surface occasionally over the last forty years of his career, as Buster’s stoically handsome stone face wrinkled and crumbled. These include the hauntingly weird musical duet with Chaplin in Limelight (1952), a touching evocation of past glory in an episode of The Twilight Zone (1961’s “Once Upon a Time”), Samuel Beckett’s Film (1965), and The Railrodder and Buster Keaton Rides Again (both also 1965)—all sad hints at what might have been.