Buster Keaton in ‘Seven Chances’ (1925)
Experimental feature

Listen to this article

Experimental feature

A selection of 30 Buster Keaton feature films and shorts, accompanying talks and introductions is to run at the BFI Southbank for the next few weeks, 119 years after the actor’s birth and 14 years after the institute’s last major season.

Why now? “We don’t need an excuse,” says curator Geoff Andrew. “He is one of the great masters of cinema. Not just as an entertainer but as a film-maker, and his work remains modern in a way that so many films of that period do not.”

It is an opinion many share. Of all the silent stars, Keaton is the one people feel most tender and protective towards. I have a mesmeric original 1925 poster of him fiddling with a flower, his eyes lowered with the modesty of an Advent-card Madonna. When I asked his admirers what they think of him, the word “pure” came up a lot. “He made comedy beautiful,” sighs the comedian Terry Jones, a devoted fan. “Keaton was the great poet,” says director Richard Eyre.

‘The Navigator’ (1924)

Keaton first appeared in movies in 1917, aged 22, and went on to act in 127 films, direct 29 and write the majority of those. “The level of invention is just mind-blowing,” says Andrew. “In a film like The Navigator (1924) there’s a gag every 10 seconds, but they all make dramatic sense. That’s really what sets him apart from so many of the other great comedy directors – he wasn’t just going for the gag for its own sake.”

This commitment to making his films more than just about an “act”, to keeping a story ever-moving, makes Keaton’s work wonderfully fluid – it whips by, with a confidence and springing rhythm, joke tumbling to stunt, the photography intensely creative, repeatedly using unusually long shots. As a director he was keener than his contemporaries on holding a shot, not to preen, but because he wanted to show that whatever you were looking at (however outlandish) was actually happening. In Seven Chances (1925), when he’s fleeing the hordes of women who have come to marry him, he doggedly runs, dodging enormous boulders also flying at him, for chunks as long as 25 seconds before cutting away, a hair-raising sequence that culminates in him sidestepping a moving train, and dragging a fence into a house. “God, he was brave!” says Clive James. “That bit in The General where he sits on the driving gear of the locomotive could easily have killed him.”

‘The General’ (1926)

Dangerous stunts – and Keaton is well-known for doing most of his own – were in the actor’s bones. Born Joseph Frank Keaton in 1895 in Piqua, Kansas, from the age of four he had learned to use his body in a magnificently resourceful way, touring the country with his family – performers on the vaudeville circuit – as part of a successful show called “The Little Boy Who Can’t Be Damaged”. In it he was punished for his “misdeeds” by a (in real life alcoholic) father who would hurl him against walls and into furniture, forcing the child Keaton to land as imaginatively as possible, ignoring the pain.

“When I was a kid the law said I couldn’t do acrobatics or walk on a wire or juggle,” he once said. “But there was nothing in the law that said you couldn’t kick me in the face, or throw me through a piece of scenery. We were the roughest knockabout act that ever was in the history of the theatre. The old man used to get arrested every other week.”

Years later, when Keaton broke his neck during the filming of Sherlock Jr (1924), he just kept on moving.

‘Sherlock Jr’ (1924)

Stories like these feed Keaton’s reputation for purity and tragedy, for a Pierrot’s grief, along with the knowledge that he had none of the business acumen of the canny Harold Lloyd and little of Chaplin’s dogged brilliance for crowd manipulation. The actor did laugh a couple of times in his early films, but quickly developed that seemingly motionless, stoic visage (a pose, by the way, around which Johnny Depp appears to me to have based his entire early career). Yet it is odd that Keaton ever got the moniker “The Great Stone Face” when he was in fact so expressive. On the big screen you can fully see all his reactions, moving like tiny light-ripples on water, and comprehend the character he always played: a deeply sentient human being dealing, moment by moment, with the problems of life.

Although formally uneducated, Keaton was fascinated by engineering and architecture. Where Chaplin was the “little man” in a hostile universe, Keaton was fascinated by the modern world and particularly its new machinery, continually adapting to circumstances (what I wouldn’t give to watch Keaton figuring out a smartphone). His first response to seeing a movie camera in 1916 was to remove it from its owner Fatty Arbuckle, take it to bits and reassemble it, and so many of his movies involve a deconstruction of everything from objects to buildings to entire cultures – in Steamboat Bill, Jr (1928) entire houses, hospitals, prisons and theatres are demolished in a tornado. Often Keaton is the only thing left standing, just 5ft 5in tall and dream-faced, as though reminding us that civilisation itself is an illusion.

But by 1930, his great days were over. Keaton’s career was not murdered solely by the talkies but rather by MGM insisting that he follow studio procedures when making his comedies. He signed with MGM in 1928, just as the silent era was ending, and he made two of his best original films in those last years – The Cameraman (1928) and Spite Marriage (1929). These successes made the studio think they were right in demanding proper scripts and proper supervision, but Keaton liked to do things his way. He was more and more dependent on drink, his finances a mess, his personal life in tatters with the end of his sexless marriage to the actress Natalie Talmadge. Then came years of unfettered alcoholism.

A myth obtains that his voice wasn’t good enough for the screen, but for the record he actually sounded lovely and macho – just watch the 1937 short film Jail Bait on YouTube and hear for yourself. “I don’t believe he didn’t have a voice for the movies at all!” scoffs Jones. “I think he was elbowed out of making more films by jealousy and competition.” That may be in part true. The ambitious and powerful Chaplin, for example, had at one point held some sway over him.

Keaton’s shambolic working practices and personal life didn’t help, but perhaps the root of his decline was more profound. He was in his way more silent than any of the silent stars – transmitting something spiritual, almost perfectly Zen. He didn’t need a voice.

Another myth prevails that Keaton died a broken man. Although reduced for decades to bit parts (playing a lion-tamer here, an unnamed journalist or professor there) and physically ravaged, he was at least celebrated a little while he was still alive, awarded an Academy Honorary Award in 1958. And he was happy in his third marriage to the young dancer Eleanor Norris.

One afternoon in late 1965, film historian Kevin Brownlow, who has devoted much of his life to restoring silent films, got up the nerve to ring the bell marked “Keatons” in Woodland Hills, Hollywood. It was just over a year before the actor died of lung cancer, at the age of 70, and Brownlow was greeted by a smiling Eleanor – whom he recently described as a kind of “covered wagon wife, as if a Winchester was lying across her knees”, protecting her husband in his final years – and Keaton himself, feeding chickens in the garden, doing an impression for his young fan of the creatures staring glumly at the sky, waiting for more food.

An awestruck Brownlow recorded their conversation, but left fearing the recording hadn’t worked – and indeed it was of very poor quality, possibly unusable. Back in London he kept spooling back and forth, hoping to have captured just one clear sentence …and there it was. A phrase that to this day Brownlow admits sounds like one of the most significant moments of his life: a gravelly, good-humoured voice saying, “this is Buster Keaton talking”.

‘Buster Keaton and the Cinema of Today’, BFI Southbank, London, until February 26, bfi.org.uk

Get alerts on Film when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018. All rights reserved.

Follow the topics in this article