Buster Keaton: the reckless performances of an impenetrable face

Joseph Frank Keaton, real name of Buster Keaton, was born in the United States, in Kansas, on October 4, 1895. Like Charlie Chaplin, he is the son of a couple of artists, but less unfortunate. The father has a vaudeville company where the famous saxophonist Mira Keaton and the magician Houdini perform. Little Keaton participates in the shows since he was a child and in some cases becomes the protagonist and the main star. His reckless performances and falls earned him the nickname “Buster”. His mimicry to his acting style immediately appears prodigious. 

Buster Keaton discovers cinema 

buster-keaton

Buster Keaton enthusiastically discovers cinema in 1917. He immediately thinks it is the most suitable means to express what he wants and to bring his characters to life. He leaves his family and moves to New York at the age of 22, where he meets the actor Roscoe Arbuckle, who specializes in throwing pies in the face. 

Thanks to Arbuckle he gets the chance to play his first film The Butcher Boy (1917), a slapstick comedy where actors throw anything in the face in a grocery store. Buster Keaton begins to build his melancholy, humiliated and haunted character. A loser that he really likes to play and that the audience likes. Keaton participates as an actor in 15 films directed and starring Arbuckle. 

In 1920 he played his first feature film, The Saphead by Herbert Blanche. His style differs greatly from short films of Charlie Chaplin for his facial mimicry based on subtraction acting, and on a geometric dramatization of reality. His expression has been called the “stone face”. An anti-narrative and anti-dramatic controlled acting, a face that is the mask of imperturbability. 

Buster Keaton has undergone a great response from the public that allows him to set up on his own and to found his own production company. He shoots a series of comic short films that allow him to become one of the most famous actors in the United States. Meanwhile, war breaks out and Buster Keaton is forced to go to the front against his pacifist will. He can’t believe what’s going on. Having known artists of all nationalities, he could not conceive of the idea that some nations such as Germany were portrayed as evil in person. 

Buster Keaton becomes director

buster-keaton

debut as a director is The High Sign. It is the story of a tramp looking for his fortune in an amusement park who meets a billionaire and his daughter. It is very clear that Keaton’s characters have a lot in common with Charlie Chaplin’s: socially marginalized wanderers in search of fortune who are somehow assisted by fate. In this first film, in fact, the protagonist ends up marrying the billionaire’s daughter. Like Chaplin, Keaton also goes from being an actor of primitive slapstick short films to becoming the director of his own films to create more structured and meaningful plots. 

Buster Keaton and surrealism

With One week, the actor and director becomes a great inspirer of the surrealist movement: magazines all over the world dedicate articles to him and recognize in his film a fundamental moment in the development of surrealism. Even the most important surrealist director in the history of cinema, Luis Bunuel, praises him and greatly appreciates his next film, Convict 13. 

The development of the plot is essential and his acrobatic performances are stylized: Buster Keaton looks at the world in a lucid and detached, as if he himself were an abstraction. Human relationships are meaningless, crushed by an increasingly alienated and aggressive technological civilization. A poetics of individual isolation is a very modern metacinematographic vision of the filmic tale, as in Sherlock jr. and The Cameraman. Buster Keaton’s cinema is a profound reflection on the mechanical reproduction of reality and on the sense of the individual in relation to technology. 

New gags and innovations

In his next film, The Scarecrow, from 1920, Buster Keaton invents a new kind of gag never seen before: the gag of objects that change function. A fridge becomes a bookcase, a gramophone becomes a gas stove. Neighbors also plays Buster’s father. The Haunted House, Hard Luck and The Goat followed in 1921. Also in ’21 he shoots The playhouse where he still invents new tricks and cinematographic techniques, such as the famous scene in which Buster enters a theater and discovers that every person, both among the actors and in the audience, has his own face. 

The dark and dramatic side of Buster Keaton

The following film Cops, from 1922, has a more dramatic inspiration: his friend, Arbuckle, the famous actor of the pies in the face with which he had begun, is overwhelmed by a legal matter and accused of murder and can no longer work. Buster Keaton’s cinema becomes progressively more and more black, irreverent and aggressive. 

The cameraman

the-cameraman

The cameraman is the most important film for Buster Keaton’s poetics. A produced by MGM in 1928 and tells a series of paradoxical adventures of a cameraman who tries to work in the film industry and is hired only after a monkey has made an acceptable reportage in his place. 

The film takes up the very personal discourse initiated by the director with the film The ball number 13, which is considered his comic masterpiece. The relationship between space and the individual becomes the cause of his discomfort: either it is a space that is too large and excessive or it is limited, as in the midst of a crowd that crushes it and creates a claustrophobic feeling, distancing it from the loved one. 

The protagonist is never at ease in the spaces in which he lives, which are spaces of cinematic fiction. In Me and the Monkey, creative materials and images shot by the cameraman with a bizarre and avant-garde style are rejected, while movies shot by the monkey in the traditional way are accepted. And Buster Keaton’s denunciation of the subjugation of cinematographic art to the Hollywood industry, personified by the monkey. A beastly and standardized way of making cinema that rejects the novelties of human ingenuity. 

Cinema as a life experience

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Cinema by Buster Keaton over time becomes a mirror of his life experience. In My Wife’s Relations is inspired by the difficult relationship with his wife Natalie, from which Buster Keaton separates in 1929, after having met the actress Dorothy Sebastian with whom he begins a new relationship. This relationship is also destined to end after a short time. Buster Keaton moves from one relationship to another and this time it’s Eleanor Norris’s turn, who becomes his third wife. 

Sound cinema and the majors

Like Chaplin, Keaton also has to face the years of decline of the great actors of silent cinema. Unlike Chaplin who did not particularly like new technology and continues to make silent films for a few years, in 1929 Buster Keaton decides to make his first sound film, Hollywood. 

The sound, however, greatly strengthens the power of large production studios and creates many difficulties for independent directors. Even if Buster Keaton sees sound as an opportunity for growth and also turns out to be a talented singer, he cannot bear the interference of the majors for which he starts working after the invention of sound: they stifle his freedom and his artistic flair. 

Buster Keaton’s dark years

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Perhaps due to competition at work or problems and sentimental confusion he ends up becoming an alcoholic, always short-tempered. A self-destructive lifestyle due to which in 1932 he was fired from MGM and left by his third wife. 

Alone and unemployed, Buster hits rock bottom between 1933 and 1935, the worst years of his life. He drinks bottle after bottle and also suffers from delirium tremens. 

Actor after the crisis

In 1936, however, he managed to get out of alcoholism and regain control of his life. He finds work at Columbia Pictures and plays for other directors a dozen short films that do not have the success of his previous films but give him the opportunity to survive. 

In 1940 he married the very young actress Eleanor Norris for the fourth time, and found a new job at Metro-Goldwin-Mayer, a leading role in the film Unknown Betrothed. In December of the same year he appears for the first time on TV, in the Ed Wynn program where he performs some of his old sketches. Buster Keaton’s large audience on TV paves the way for him to a new kind of career, that of being a guest of the most important American TV shows. 

Limelight

Limelight

In 1952 Charlie Chaplin calls him for one of the most important roles in Limelight, in which the two great actors create a memorable scene in the finale. In 1955 he collaborated on a film about his life: the story of Buster Keaton. In 1960 they gave him the Oscar for Lifetime Achievement, as a tribute to his extraordinary work in the world of cinema. 

In 1965 he took part in an Italian film with Franco Franchi and Ciccio Ingrassia entitled Two marines and a general. In every scene he appears silent and the only word he says in the finale is “thank you”. In 1964 he was invited to the Venice Film Festival together with his new work, Film by Samuel Beckett

Buster Keaton died on February 1, 1966 of lung cancer, finished shooting his latest film, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

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