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.
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.