Why We Still Remember Buster Keaton
It has been 100 years since Buster Keaton started making movies. I am very honored to contribute my post to the celebration of one of the greatest film makers of all time. If you love movies, Keaton movies are a must to watch. To learn more about him and his movies there are several posts to read thanks to Lea S from Silent-ology. She is hosting this Keaton Tribute. You can find more posts on Keaton using the link below:
Buster Keaton helped pioneer the movie and Television industry; however, he did so much more. Besides acting,writing, directing, producing, choreographing and doing his own stunts, he mentored and continues to influence comedians and film makers today. He started making movie shorts (around 22 gag minutes) at a time when most film was thought to be a collection of pictures, flickering quickly across a reel of film. Moving pictures or Flickers, as they were called at the turn of the 20th century, were a novelty past time for potential trill seekers, vaudeville gags or even a bit of pornography.
To explore and celebrate Keaton’s stage and film work, I wanted to look at some elements of his Genius, some historical basics about theater, his movement from one performing art to another, and finally his to his last movie: Funny Thing Happened on The Way to The Forum.
Elements of Genius
Comedians like Keaton, Chaplin, and “Fatty” Arbuckle took the everyman (underdog) and bought him to heroic heights using their own brand of comedy. While Chaplin made a homeless man heroic, Keaton made the working man a hero. Keaton’s hero was a regular guy trying to do the right thing, personally and professionally; but, life kept throwing obstacles in his way which forced him to become extraordinary. Keaton’s dead pan or stoic expression when facing these obstacles became part of his trademark. How philosophically Greek of him! Stoicism is a Greek/Roman world view or belief: Regardless of what life throws at you, it is your fate; so, no whining or complaining allowed. Just accept it and move on with your life. Keaton’s stoic expression earned him the title, Mr. Stone face.
While the muscles in his face may have been set to stone acceptance, his expressive and soulful eyes screamed a myriad of emotions. If the eyes are the Windows to the Soul, Keaton’s eyes gave his audiences a grand tour. Revered actor, Spencer Tracey, claimed the best performance is found in no performance, just quite, subtle, pauses. This is definitely one of the many elements to Keaton’s genius: timing, soulful eyes and stoicism. His signature look also included a “pork pie” hat that he would eventually have to make himself. Keaton said a comedian does funny things; a good comedian makes “things” funny. That hat is one of those things.
Some Art (stage comedy)
Keaton was more than just an actor/comedian; he was a performer who understood the depth and history of his Art. Just as philosophy (Stoicism) flourished in Ancient Greece and Rome; so did theater. According to the classics, there are two basic types of the human condition. These are considered divine or god-like: Sadness (includes ranges of loneliness, grief, loss, crying, and Tragedy), and Joy (includes ranges of elation, happiness, redemption, laughter, and Comedy). There is a rule for these two types; you cannot not have one without the other. Remember the symbol for theater: the connected masks of two opposite expressions: One is laughter and the other is sorrow. Some comedians have tried to define and explain comedy by using the expression, Tragedy Plus. Comedian Sid Caesar explained it this way:
If you have no tragedy, you have no comedy. Crying and laughing are the same emotion. If you laugh too hard, you cry. And vice versa.
The movie Forrest Grump is a perfect example of this: It is tragic story of a mentally challenged and physically disabled orphan boy who is raised by a single mother who is willing do anything to help her son, and does. His best friend grows up being sexually abused by her father. She loves him too; but, as an adult cannot see pass his limitations. He goes to college to play football and soon after is drafted in the Vietnam war where he finds himself, in jungle combat, holding his only real friend in his arms as he dies of his wounds. Laughing yet?
Born and Nurtured in the Performing Arts
Buster Keaton parents worked the Vaudeville circuit. They were literally “on the road” doing a show in Piqua, Kansas when Joseph Frank Keaton was born on October 4, 1895.
Vaudeville is a multi-act (usually around 12 different acts) variety stage show that was popular in the USA and Canada during the late 1890s and early 1900s. Since it started with an all-male audience, it had an element of the obscenely comical. Many Vaudeville performers eventually migrated to the flickers/movies. Some were successful and many were not.
Keaton’s father had a business partner: The great magician, Harry Houdini. They owned a traveling show: Mohawk Indian Medicine Show. They performed their acts and sold a “medicine” on the side. It was Houdini who witnessed 18 month old baby Keaton tumbled down a long flight of stairs; after the fall, the toddler stood up as if nothing happened. Houdini said, referring to the fall, “that’s a Buster.” Keaton loved to tell that story; so, the nickname stayed with him for the rest of his life.
Keaton’s Dad understood the power of a pratfall in physical comedy. Besides, he must have believed that a family that clowns together, stays together. It did not take long for the toddler to became part of the act at the age of 3 years old. While being thrown into the stage screen or elsewhere, in a skit about a child being disciplined, Keaton’s Dad soon realized that a laughing baby was not as funny as a straight-faced baby. So, Keaton learned to control the urge to smile or laugh while performing the “toss about.”
From Vaudeville To Silent Movies and Life
Due to his father’s alcoholism affecting their act, Keaton’s mother took him and left Vaudeville for New York City. Keaton meets and befriends “Fatty” Arbuckle who is under contract to Joseph M. Schenck. Keaton is hired as his gag man (comedy writer) and eventually co-star. His first movie was The Butcher Boy. By 1920, he had starred in 14 movie shorts with Arbuckle.
It is in silent movies that Keaton will precisely execute his hilarious stunts and surprising gags. According to Keaton landing on his feet like a cat came natural to him. He said you have to stay limp and break a fall with a hand or foot, if not, he would have been killed years ago. I have included a video link that highlight some of his most popular stunts. Any stunt he did with trains or grabbing and holding onto a moving vehicle mesmerize me. Just remember, those stunts are done as you see them; so, there were bruises and fractures involved. He even broke his neck in a scene where tons of water fall on his head from a water tower.
Similar to one of Keaton’s movie plots, an obstacle interrupts the Young 22 year old’s life: World War I – The Great War. The last war to be fought by civilized man. Or, so they believed. Keaton served in the 40th Division in France. Luckily the “Sunshine” Division delivered supplies to the troops. It was a bit safer than fighting in ” No Man’s Land” between enemy trenches. Nonetheless, it was still seriously dangerous work. Keaton suffered an ear infection that left him with permanent partial hearing.
Keaton’s Impact on Silent Movies
So, Keaton is born in Vaudeville, eventually makes history in silent films, and goes on to influence early television and finally perform in “talkies” movies. To understand what I mean by making history in Silent movies, I’ll use the words of two experts. One is by Orsen Wells. Many film historians believe Wells made the greatest movie in film history: Citizen Kane. Wells said, The General (1926), which Keaton directed and starred, was cinema’s highest achievement in comedy and perhaps the greatest film ever made. This is high praise indeed; but, he isn’t the only one singing Keaton’s praises. Film Critic Roger Ebert went even further with his praise: Keaton is the “greatest actor-director in the history of Film.” I totally agree with both gentleman. By influence in television, I mean he done things like write gags for people like Red Skelton and the Marx Brothers or tutored and influenced people like Lucille Ball in comedic basics and timing. Most film experts agree that out of all the films he made the following three are Keaton masterpieces. If you only watch three Keaton’s films, make sure you don’t miss these three: Sherlock Jr. (1925) / The General (1926) / The Cameraman (1928)
A Funny Thing Happened on The Way to The Forum (1966)
Keaton’s career spanned from 1898 and ended in 1966. Just a few months before his death (February 1, 1966), he was working on Funny Thing Happened on The Way to The Forum in Spain from September to November in 1965. It is based on a book by Bert Shevelove and Larry Gelbart. Their book is based on a collection of Roman plays by Plautus. However most of the book uses one play in particular, Pseudolus (192 A.D). The book evolved into a criticality acclaimed and long running Broadway musical.
It is important to note that many elements of an ancient Roman play evolved into the elements of a successful Vaudeville stage show. Music is one of the main attractions for both types of stages. As a matter of fact, Greek/Roman plays kept a chorus of singers on stage that sang the actions or emotions throughout the play. Not surprisingly, the movie begins with the main character singing the praises of the show to the movie audience. The song, A Comedy Tonight, expresses the fun and surprises of people popping up in disguise, puns galore, mistaken identities, uniting lovers, outwitting adversaries, courtesans, music, some dancing, slamming doors, some transgender, and basically a giddy romp of daffiness. The music in the Broadway play and movie were brilliantly composed by Steven Sondheim. The movie is a combination of a Classic plot, vaudeville format, and 1960s views on equality and love.
Keaton’s character (Erronius) is a elder Roman senator. Who is not only a bit blind and hard of hearing but also senile. He has been away looking for his children who were kidnapped by pirates. In the house next door, lives Michael Hordern (Senex) who is wealthy (Patrician) Roman citizen with a domineering wife, Patricia Jessel (Domina). They have a horny 18 year old son (Hero) who is helplessly in love with the girl (Philia) from another house next to theirs. Hero is played by a very young Michael Crawford (Phantom of the Opera). Hero has never spoken but a few words to Philia. He fell in love while watching her from his window. It makes no difference because their love is ill fated since she is of lower birth (slave-courtesan [Virgin]. Philia lives in a brothel managed by the greedy, Pimp master, Phil Silvers (Marcus Lycus).
The star of this musical comedy is Pseudolus (Zero Montel) who is Hero’s personal slave. Since the hero is an underdog (slave), it already sounds like a Keaton movie. Pseudolus is a quick witted and resourceful slave who is always looking for money in any way he can; usually by conniving, lying and trickery. What he wants most is to be freed in this 1966 musical. Pseudolus agrees “to get the girl” if Hero agrees to free him. Of course in the original play, the idea of freeing a slave would never be part of their agreement. In 192 A.D., the Roman audience would have rioted and mobbed the festival Temple at such a suggestion. Besides, if they had starting freeing slaves, which would have created Roman jobs, the Roman Empire may have not Fell as it did.
The plan is to get the girl; Hero will convince her to love him; then, they will runaway and live happily ever. However, they need a love portion to convince Philia she loves him. Remember, they haven’t actually spent time getting to know each other yet. This is a crazy, bold scheme that Psuedolus is more than ready to implement in order to be free.
While Hero’s parents are away to visit the Mother-in-Law, Pseudolus and Hero pay a visit to the
brothel House of Marcus Lycus to find the Philia. Of course, they have to look at all the merchandise (ladies) that the House of Lycus has to offer. None of them are Philia since she is not up for sell. They discover she is promised to a Roman Captain, Miles Gloriosus. In the Broadway play, the Captain introduces himself to the audience in song, I am Parade. Even Carly Simon’s song, You’re So Vain doesn’t hold a candle to this insufferable Captain’s view of himself. Later in the movie, he sings some of this in another song, Bring me My Bride.
Psuedolus lies to Lycus and insists he must buy her for Senex; or, he will be beaten or worst. He cannot tell Lycus that it is Hero really wants to buy the girl. Since Hero is only 18 years old, he cannot buy a slave. Again, ideas from the 1960s change the original storyline. This movie was made during the Vietnam war when 18 became the average age for a soldier serving overseas. Many 18 year olds were drafted and sent to fight in Vietnam while at the same time they not allowed to vote or buy alcohol in the states.
Lycus explains to Pseudolus that he is very frighten of the Captain because a few years ago he sold him a “dud virgin.” So, it is very important that virginal Philia is perfect for this flesh transaction. Besides, Lycus doesn’t trust Pseudolus. He doubts that he has the money to buy Philia. He is correct. Psuedolus lies and tells him he came into money from his uncle who was recently killed. Here is one of many gags straight out of Vaudeville: Psuedolus’ uncle was an elephant trainer who was killed during the mating season.
However, when Lycus revels to Psuedolus that Philia is from Thrace, quick witted Psuedolus lies and tells Lycus that Thrace is in the droves of a terrible plague. So, if the Captain would be angry enough to kill him over a “dud virgin” what might he do to him for inflicting the plague on his House? Lycus rightfully becomes even more frightful and being a greedy businessman realizes His House of the Courtesan are also exposed to this horrendous disease. Cunning Psuedolus offers to take the “infected”girl from House of Lycus to the House of Senex (Hero’s Dad). And as an added a favor, he will pretend to be Lycus and face the Fearsome Captain, himself. Lycus believes he has manipulated Psuedolus to his advantage. Of course, we know Psuedolus out maneuvered Lycus.
So, Hero and Psuedolus bring Philia home. To calm her, they lie by telling her the Captain will come for her there. In the meantime, Hero is running around Rome looking for the ingredients for a love portion. However, the head slave, Hysterium (Jack Gilford), who is the best groveling, obedient slave in Rome, discovers Philia and knows Psuedolus must be behind this confused girl’s presence. He threatens to tell the master and expose the whole sham. Psuedolus uses some good old fashion blackmail to convince Hysterium to help the lovers runaway before their master (Senex) returns and finds out.
Senex (Hero’s Dad) is ordered to go back home early; since, he broke a gift for his Mother-in-law. When he returns, he finds Philia, who thinks he is her Captain. She offers herself to him. Luckily they don’t get very far before they are discovered. To explain her presence, Senex is told she is the new maid. This is when the guys sing a very sexest song, Everyone Ought to have a Maid while posing throughout Roman ruins. Psuedolus needing to get Senex out of the house before the Captain shows up uses his master’s desire for the new maid (Philia) to convince him to bathe in the empty House of Erronius, just next door; so, he could have more privacy with Philia later.
While in the House of Erronius, Senex is singing and cooing about his future conquest. It is at that moment, Erronius (Keaton) returns home after 20 years of searching for his children. I love the fact that Keaton worn a Roman hat that reminds his fans of his signature pork pie one.
In one of the funniest scenes in the movie, Erronius (half blind and deaf) is stopped from entering his house by Hysterium who just left his singing master in the bath. Erronius tells Hysterium of his kidnapped children by pirates. He explains that he has traveled the world to find them. Even though twenty years has passed, he will know that they are his children because they both worn a ring like his: The rings have a gaggle (at least seven) of geese carved into each of them. Hysterium is desperately trying to keep the old senator from entering his house. Senex is singing so loudly that even near deaf Erronius says it sounds like his house is haunted. Hysterium immediately repeats to him that he cannot enter that house because his house is haunted. At that moment, Pseudolus overhears them. He hears Erronius say he needed a soothsayer. Psuedolus disguising himself as a soothsayer tells the senator to run around the seven hills of Rome seven times in order to get rid of the haunting. Here is a clip of that scene.
Keaton’s First Scene in Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum
Keaton was very ill while making this movie. Most of his stunts were done by others. However, that is not how Keaton “rolled.” There is a scene where Keaton runs into a branch of a tree and falls hard to the ground. It is typical Keaton stunt because you don’t see it coming; and, it is hilarious. Keaton did that stunt himself without warning to the director or anyone else. I think Keaton knew that this movie was his swansong. He passed away a few months after the movie wrapped in November of 1965. He passed away from lung cancer on February 1, 1966. The movie was released in October of 1966. His third wife of twenty six years, was with him at home. People said he was restless and played cards the night before he died. He had come full circle in his life. He started in Vaudeville in 1898 and ended his career making a movie that is as vaudeville as you can get in 1965. Comedy and Tragedy coming together and making perfectly divine laughter and sadness.
He deserves Paradise who makes his companions laugh – Koran
None of the images are owned by me
SONG LYRICS BY STEVEN SONDHEIM: Comedy Tonight (Prologue)
SUMMARY OF ORIGINAL PLAY: PSUEDOLUS BY PLAUTUS (ancient Roman playwright, April of 192 B.C. [Third Day of Feastival])
The Art of A Gag: by Every Frame A Painting https://m.youtube.com/#/watch?v=UWEjxkkB8Xs