Silent Genius

The Stacks: The Deadpan Genius of Buster Keaton

He never cracked a smile on screen, but Keaton’s silent films are as funny as anything Hollywood ever made. Also melancholy, profound, and … but let’s go with funny.

04.25.15 4:00 AM ET

As the modern world swirled around him, Buster Keaton maintained what critic James Agee called a “mulish imperturbability.” In his seminal Life magazine essay on the silent film comics, “Comedy’s Greatest Era,” Agee wrote, “Very early in his movie career friends asked him why he never smiled on the screen. He didn't he realize he didn't. He had got the dead-pan habit in variety; on the screen he had merely been so hard at work it had never occurred to him there was anything to smile about. Now he tried it just once and never again. He was by his whole style and nature so much the most ‘silent’ of the silent comedians that even a smile was as deafeningly out of key as a yell. In a way his pictures are like a transcendent juggling act in which it seems that the whole universe is in exquisite flying motion and the one point of repose is the juggler's effortless, uninterested face.”

Film historian David Thomson saw the Keaton visage as an almost philosophical choice: “Keaton's impassivity was to save himself from crying. In maudlin, self-reflective close-up, Chaplin wept in crises. Keaton is the more profound artist because he was not beguiled into comfort by his own self-pity. He saw that the conscientious, humorless hero he played must prove himself by facing frustrations and disasters without ever cracking.”

For a long time it was hard to find Keaton’s movies. When I first watched them at a revival house in Manhattan in the mid-’80s, only a few of his films were available on VHS. Fortunately, that’s changed. The Ultimate Buster Keaton Collection, a 15-disk blue ray compilation, is tremendous and worth the investment. A Hard Act to Follow, the definitive Keaton documentary, was never released on DVD but can now be found on YouTube. It’s an outstanding introduction to Keaton’s life and work.

So is the following essay by Pulitzer Prize winning poet Charles Simic. This piece is featured in the appealing new anthology of Simic’s non-fiction, The Life of Images, a collection that New York Times book reviewer Dwight Gardner said, “reminds us that Mr. Simic can be as intense (and as intensely charming) in his nonfiction. In fact, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t prize some of Mr. Simic’s essays as much, if not more, than I do his best poems.”

I’m proud to present Simic’s take on Buster in this space because Simic is one of my favorite writers and Keaton is one of my all-time heroes. You’ll leave with a greater appreciation for both of them.

—Alex Belth

Only recently, with their issue on videotape, have all the films of Buster Keaton become widely available. It’s likely one may have seen The General (1926) in some college course, or caught a couple of shorts at some museum retrospective of silent comedy, but such opportunities were rare and for most moviegoers in this country nonexistent. When Keaton’s name came up, people who knew who he was would often say how much they preferred his laid-back stoicism to Chaplin’s sentimentality, admitting in the same breath that, regretfully, they had not seen one of his films in a long time.

I first heard about Buster Keaton from my grandmother, who was also of the opinion that he was the funniest of the silent-movie comedians. This didn’t make much sense to me at the time since she described him as a man who never smiled, who always stayed dead serious while she and the rest of the audience screamed with delight. I remember trying to imagine his looks from what she told me, going so far as to stand in front of a mirror with a deadpan expression until I could bear it no longer and would burst out laughing. In the early post–World War II days in Belgrade, there was still a movie theater showing silent films. My grandmother took me to see Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, the cross-eyed Ben Turpin, but for some reason we never saw Keaton. Is that him? I would occasionally nudge her and whisper when some unfamiliar, somber face appeared on the screen. Weary of my interruptions, which disrupted her passionate absorption in films, one day upon returning home she produced a pile of old illustrated magazines. She made for herself her customary cup of chamomile tea and started thumbing through the dusty issues, allowing me to do the same after she was through. I remember a black-and-white photograph of a sea of top hats at some king’s or queen’s funeral; another of a man lying in a pool of blood in the street; and the face of a beautiful woman in a low-cut party dress watching me intently from a table in an elegant restaurant, her breasts partly exposed. My grandmother never found Keaton. It took me another seven years to actually see a film of his. By the time I did, my grandmother was dead, the year was 1953, and I was living in Paris.

Most probably, I was playing hooky that afternoon, sneaking into a cinema when I should’ve been in class, but there was Buster Keaton finally on the screen, wearing a porkpie hat and standing on the sidewalk at the end of a long breadline. The line keeps moving, but for some reason the two fellows standing in front of him do not budge. They are clothing-store dummies, but Buster does not realize that. He takes a pin out of his lapel and pricks one of the slowpokes, but there is no reaction; meanwhile the line up ahead grows smaller and smaller as each man is handed a loaf of bread. Then Buster has an idea. He pricks himself to see if the pin works. At that moment the store owner comes out, sticks his hand out to check for rain, and takes the two fully dressed dummies under his arms and carries them inside.

A few other gags have remained vivid in my memory from that first viewing of Keaton’s shorts. In the one called Cops (1922), Buster buys an old horse and a wagon. The horse is deaf and doesn’t hear his commands, so he puts a headset over the horse’s ears, sits in the driver’s seat, and tries to telephone the horse. In another scene, he pats the same horse on the head, and the horse’s false teeth fall out. In the short called The Playhouse (1921), Keaton plays all the roles. He’s the customer buying the ticket, the conductor of the orchestra and all his musicians, the nine tap dancers, the stagehands, and everyone in the audience, both the grown-ups and the children.

As for the appearance of Buster himself, everything about him was at odds. He was both strange looking and perfectly ordinary. His expression never changed, but his eyes were eloquent, intelligent and sad at the same time. He was of small stature, compact and capable of sudden astonishing acrobatic feats. Keaton, who was born in 1895 in a theatrical boardinghouse in Piqua, Kansas, started in vaudeville when he was three years old. His father, the son of a miller in Oklahoma, had left his parents to join a medicine show. That’s where he met his future wife. Her father was coproprietor of one such show. For the next twenty years, they toured nationally, often in the company of famous performers of the day, such as Harry Houdini. Eventually, the Three Keatons, as they were called, developed a vaudeville comic act that consisted of acrobatic horseplay centered on the idea of a hyper child and his distraught parents. Buster hurled things at his pop, swatted him with flyswatters and brooms while his father swung him around the stage by means of a suitcase handle strapped to the boy’s back. What looked like an improvised roughhouse was really a carefully planned series of stunts. The point is worth emphasizing, since it was with such and similar acts in vaudeville that silent-film comedy stagecraft originated.

The first principle of Keaton’s comic personae is endless curiosity. Reality is a complicated machine running in mysterious ways whose working he’s trying to understand. If he doesn’t crack a smile, it’s because he is too preoccupied. He is full of indecision, and yet he appears full of purpose. “A comic Sisyphus,” Daniel Mowes called him. “Our hero came from nowhere,” a caption in High Sign (1920) says, continuing: “he wasn’t going anywhere and got kicked off somewhere.” Bedeviled by endless obstacles, Buster is your average slow-thinking fellow, seeking a hidden logic in an illogical world. “Making a funny picture,” he himself said, “is like assembling a watch; you have to be ‘sober’ to make it tick.”

In the meantime, my mother, brother, and I were on the move again. We left Paris for New York. A few years later I was back in France as an American soldier. It turned out that they were still showing Keaton films in small cinemas on the Left Bank. That’s when I saw most of the shorts and a few of the full-length films like The General and The Navigator (1924). Since there always seemed to be a Keaton festival in Paris, a day came when I took my children to see the films. They loved them and made me see the gags with new eyes, since they often noticed comic subtleties I had missed.

“A good comedy can be written on a postcard,” Keaton said. A comic story told silently, that even a child could enjoy, we should add. Is it the silence of the image that frees the comic imagination? Of course. Think of cartoons. In silent films we can’t hear the waves, the wind in the leaves, the cars screeching to a halt, the guns going off, so we fill in the sound. For instance, in Keaton’s fifth full-length film Seven Chances (1925), a man learns that his grandfather is leaving him $7 million providing he is married before seven o’clock in the evening on his twenty-seventh birthday, which just happens to be that day. He proposes to every woman he knows and is rebuffed, and places an ad in the afternoon paper, explaining his predicament and promising to be in church at five that afternoon. Several hundred prospective brides, old and young, show up wearing bridal gowns, one of them even arriving on roller skates. The prospective bridegroom runs for his life, and the brides stampede after him through busy downtown Los Angeles. All of us who saw the movie can still hear the sound of their feet.

In an essay entitled “How to Tell a Story,” Mark Twain makes the following observations:

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To string incongruities and absurdities together in a wandering and sometime purposeless way, and seem innocently unaware that they are absurdities, is the basis of American art. Another feature is the slurring of the point. A third is the dropping of a studied remark apparently without knowing it, as if one were thinking aloud. The fourth and the last is the pause.

Twain explains what he means:

The pause is an exceedingly important feature in any kind of story, and a frequently recurring feature, too. It is a dainty thing, and delicate, and also uncertain and treacherous; for it must be exactly the right length—no more and no less—or it fails of its purpose and makes trouble. If the pause is too short, the important point is passed and the audience have had the time to divine that a surprise is intended—and then you can’t surprise them, of course.

Comedy is about timing, faultless timing. It’s not so much what the story is about, but the way it is told, with its twists and surprises, that makes it humorous. Keaton draws a hook with chalk on the wall and hangs his coat on it. A brat in the theater drops his half-sucked lollipop from the balcony on an elegant lady in a box who picks it up and uses it as a lorgnette. The hangman uses a blindfold intended for the victim to polish the medal on his jacket. The shorts, especially, are full of such wild inventions. No other silent-film comic star was as ingenious.

Among hundreds of examples from Keaton’s films, one of my favorites comes from the short Cops. At the annual New York City policemen’s parade, Buster and his horse and wagon find themselves in the midst of the marching cops. Buster wants to light a cigarette, and is searching his pockets for matches, when a bomb thrown by an anarchist from a rooftop lands next to him on the seat with its short fuse already sizzling. There’s a pause, “an inspiring pause,” as Twain says, building itself to a deep hush. When it has reached its proper duration, Buster picks up the bomb absentmindedly, lights his cigarette with it as if this were the most normal thing to do, and throws it back over his head.

The short Cops is paradigmatic Keaton. Again, the plot is simplicity itself. In the opening scene we see Buster behind bars. The bars turn out to belong to the garden gate of the house of a girl he is in love with. “I won’t marry you till you become a businessman,” she tells him. Off he goes, through a series of adventures, first with a fat police detective in a rush to grab a taxi, the contents of whose wallet end up in Buster’s hands. Next, he is conned by a stranger who sells him a load of furniture on the sidewalk, pretending he is a starving man being evicted. The actual owner of the furniture and his family are simply moving to another location. When Buster starts to load the goods into the wagon he has just bought, the owner mistakes him for the moving man they’ve been expecting. His trip across town through the busy traffic culminates when he finds himself at the head of the police parade passing the flag-draped reviewing stand where the chief of police, the mayor, and the young woman he met at the garden gate are watching in astonishment. Still, the crowd is cheering, and he thinks it’s for him. After he tosses the anarchist’s bomb and it explodes, all hell breaks loose. “Get some cops to protect our policemen,” the mayor orders the chief of police. People run for cover, the streets empty, the entire police force takes after the diminutive hero.

What an irony! Starting with love and his desire to better himself and impress the girl he adores, all he gets in return is endless trouble. It’s the comic asymmetry between his extravagant hope and the outcome that makes the plot here. The early part of the movie, with its quick shuffle of gags, gives the misleading impression of a series of small triumphs over unfavorable circumstances. Just when Buster thinks he has his bad luck finally conquered, disaster strikes again. The full force of law and order, as it were, descends on his head. Innocent as he is, he is being pursued by hundreds of policemen. Whatever he attempts to do, all his stunts and clever evasions, come to nothing because he cannot outrun his destiny. After a long chase, he ends up, unwittingly, at the very door of a police precinct. The cops are converging on him from all sides like angry hornets, blurring the entrance in their frenzy to lay their nightsticks on him, but incredibly Buster crawls between the legs of the last cop, he himself now dressed in a policeman’s uniform. Suddenly alone on the street, he pulls a key out of his pocket, locks the precinct’s door from the outside, and throws the key into a nearby trashcan. At that moment, the girl he is smitten with struts by. He looks soulfully at her, but she lifts her nose even higher and walks on. Buster hesitates for a moment, then goes to the trashcan and retrieves the key. “No guise can protect him now that his heart has been trampled on,” Gabriella Oldham says in her magnificent study of Keaton’s shorts. At the end of the film, we see him unlocking the door and being pulled by hundreds of policemen’s hands into the darkness of the building.

What makes Keaton unforgettable is the composure and dignity he maintains in the face of what amounts to a deluge of misfortune in this and his other films. It’s more than anyone can bear, we think. Still, since it’s the American Dream Buster is pursuing, we anticipate a happy ending, or at least the hero having the last laugh. That’s rarely the case. Keaton’s films, despite their laughs, have a melancholy air. When a lone tombstone with Buster’s porkpie hat resting on it accompanies the end in Cops, we are disconcerted. The images of him running down the wide, empty avenue, of his feeble attempt to disguise himself by holding his clip-on tie under his nose to simulate a mustache and goatee, are equally poignant. Let’s see if we can make our fate laugh, is his hope. Comedy at such a high level says more about the predicament of the ordinary individual in the world than tragedy does. If you seek true seriousness and you suspect that it is inseparable from laughter, then Buster Keaton ought to be your favorite philosopher.

From the book The Life of Images: Selected Prose by Charles Simic Copyright © 2015 by Charles Simic. Reprinted by permission of Ecco, an Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.