The Movies' Greatest Action Hero?
June 6, 2015 5:09 PM   Subscribe

Joseph Frank 'Buster' Keaton (1895-1966) was best known for doing extreme physical comedy with a a consistently stoic, deadpan 'Great Stone Face'. Stringing together some of his greatest stunts (including some less-familiar ones), you see less 'pratfalls' and more real heroics.
Trigger Warning: '80s pop music soundtrack
via longtime linkblogger The Presurfer

posted by oneswellfoop (23 comments total) 40 users marked this as a favorite
I want Tony Zhou to break down some of Keaton's segments the way he does.
posted by clvrmnky at 6:10 PM on June 6, 2015 [3 favorites]

Don't worry; he gets the girl in the end.
posted by willF at 6:20 PM on June 6, 2015

Buster Keaton: Running through the intersection of parkour and silent film. Chased by a mob.
posted by otherchaz at 7:12 PM on June 6, 2015 [7 favorites]

Wow, impressive set of clips. Its wonderful to watch someone great at their work and making something amazing.

Also. clvrmnky thank you for pointing out Tony Zhou. Those videos are great so far as well.
posted by Hicksu at 7:16 PM on June 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

Phat brawls & pratfalls, excellent.

I love Buster Keaton, Jackie Chan, etc... Who are the best female physical comedians?
posted by BrotherCaine at 7:17 PM on June 6, 2015 [2 favorites]

Kinda of surprised they cut off one of the Steamboat Bill Jr. stunts right before the move that broke a vertebrae in his neck. Apparently, he didn't realize it until years later when it showed up on an x-ray.
posted by damayanti at 7:21 PM on June 6, 2015 [3 favorites]

Would love to hear Zhou on Keaton, yes. We've had Tony Zhou on Jackie Chan and action comedy and the same principles apply. Zhou talks briefly about Keaton in that video (part of the enjoyment is when action generates a logical chain of reactions) too.

The linked video is fun, because hell, Keaton is amazing and who doesn't want to watch him do his thing? But it also reminds me, a number of these moments are cut from longer sequences that are better as sequences - because of that building logic of the movement, and the pacing of the "wow"s and so on. (And yeah, weird to cut before the accidental neck breaking bit in the top-of-the-train sequence.) Keaton was a physical genius but also a very smart moviemaker and it's missing something to chop up his scenes too much.

Also true of Keaton, among Zhou's points - using objects from the environment in novel and funny ways; showing him getting hurt (though he doesn't do the Jackie Chan "ow ow" faces); earning the big finish by starting from disadvantages, and mainly succeeding not because he's shown as superior but because he never gives up. I haven't watched for the editing to know if the points about editing apply to Keaton; that would be a good project (though he was blessedly from before the era of chopped-up shots so some of his clarity is just from the style of the era maybe).
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:24 PM on June 6, 2015 [4 favorites]

The brief summary of his fall and rediscovery as best I remember it from a long ago documentary narrated by Buster Keaton:

When sound movies started being made ("Talkies"), comedies switched to wisecracking jokes, and they dropped the physical humor. "They ruined my character" Buster Keaton said. He didn't do these new comedies well, and turned to alcohol. Other than a few things here and there he was mostly forgotten.

Many decades later, he married to a woman who became kind of a manager. She had heard that there were fans in Europe, so they went to France, bringing his films with him. He thought it would be a small group of fans and was surprised when he entered a filled auditorium. After his movies they clapped politely. Someone came up to speak and told the astonished crowd that no only was Buster Keaton still alive, but he was in the audience. They gave him a long standing ovation.

Thus Buster Keaton was rediscovered.
posted by eye of newt at 7:56 PM on June 6, 2015 [12 favorites]

Yes, LM, this was kind of "Buster Keaton from concentrate" more than Pure Buster Keaton, but I considered it a near-perfect Introduction to Buster for those too young to already KNOW. I considered digging up the videos of the longer sequences (so much on YouTube, THANK YOU copyright expiration), but realized if I dropped myself into that hole, I would never get around to posting this.

Jackie Chan "ow ow" faces
Chan is the only person since Keaton I can think of whose skill at such physical comedy is truly comparable (that's a great video from Every Frame a Painting LM linked to), but his 'character style' had to be different, not to contrast with Keaton but to contrast with every other martial arts performer. Kung Fu Keaton would just be... weird.

And then I was just pointed to another montage of the moves of another more recent great physical comic, Dick Van Dyke. Not in the same league, because his are almost all funny pratfalls, but his solid dance training makes many of these moves into a thing of hilarious beauty. (And Mary Tyler Moore's dance training allowed her to keep up with him when she needed to) (Note: '60s post-big-band soundtrack) BTW, DVD is still alive, in his 80s, and occasionally doing live stage work that includes a little bit of dance & pratfalls.
posted by oneswellfoop at 8:28 PM on June 6, 2015 [5 favorites]

A good introduction to my man Buster.

I forget who called him 'the Da Vinci of Comedy', but it's a description which has never steered me wrong.
posted by Capt. Renault at 8:56 PM on June 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

I read a Keaton bio that said he broke the vertebra as a boy in vaudeville.

Bob Dylan looks a lot like him in the Subterranean Homesick Blues promo film.


If Keaton had missed the 2" clearance in Steamboat Bill Jr. it would have been his last film.
posted by brujita at 11:36 PM on June 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

Holy crap. How is that jump from one building to another and then down the side through the awnings even possible? I mean, it's obviously done in parts, but still, is that what it looks like? Did they just have a big mattress at the bottom and hope for the best?
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 12:08 AM on June 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

Still my favorite Keaton clip, from The General, starting about 1:30..
posted by etaoin at 4:49 AM on June 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

Joakin Zieglar: yep, that's pretty much how Keaton worked: preplanning and then hoping the damn thing worked. For you young'uns out there, please note that this was pre-any kind of special effects, so any movie stunts from the early era were done by actual live people; plus Keaton did all his stunts himself, no stand-ins or stunt people covered for him.

Keaton was the son of vaudeville performers; he was part of his parents' act from infancy. It sounds like massive child abuse now, but the biggest laughs were when his father literally threw him around on the stage, out into the audience or against a wall --- he said that he even had a handle sewn into the back of his clothes to make it easier for his father to throw him farther. He developed his signature "Old Stone Face" as a kid, because it got even bigger laughs from those audiences to see him thrown around and never change expression.

Legend has it that he got the nickname 'Buster' from Charlie Chaplin, who --- after witnessing the Keaton family act and the then-toddler Keaton getting flung around --- exclaimed "that kid's a real buster!", then-current slang for tough kids.
posted by easily confused at 4:54 AM on June 7, 2015 [2 favorites]

The NFB recently uploaded The Railrodder (1965), one of Keaton's last films, and a kind of travel advertisement for Canada. Even though he was 69 years old at the time, there are still some pretty scary stunts performed on a moving rail repair vehicle... thing.
posted by sixohsix at 5:35 AM on June 7, 2015 [2 favorites]

My 10-year old son's favorite movie to watch when he has friends over is The Navigator.
posted by ShooBoo at 5:53 AM on June 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

Did they just have a big mattress at the bottom and hope for the best?

The jump from one building to the other was done on top of a skyscraper that had sort of smaller buildings on top, and he jumped between those. So you get the view as if it's really high, but the roof of the skyscraper was actually immediately below so he was just a couple of meters high. Saw this in a documentary film once, but I can't remember its name.
posted by Pyrogenesis at 7:12 AM on June 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

I love Buster Keaton, Jackie Chan, etc... Who are the best female physical comedians?

Lucille Ball? There must be others, but, I'm drawing a blank.
posted by oh yeah! at 7:14 AM on June 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

I had a friend paint this onto the back of jean jacket back in 1988. I still have the jacket. It's hung up at my place like a piece of art.

As mentioned above, his career dived when MGM bought out his studio and his contract because his films were so popular. Problem was, they refused to let him make the films he wanted but forced him to make the films they wanted, which with the exception of perhaps the Cameraman, were awful. They canned him because we no longer a box office draw. This story would happen again and again of course, in the history of film.

Buster Keaton: A Hard Act to Follow is a great overview of his life and career.
posted by juiceCake at 8:12 AM on June 7, 2015 [2 favorites]

Man, he really was the original parkour star. Fabulous.
posted by suelac at 8:20 AM on June 7, 2015

Who are the best female physical comedians?

IMO, from kinda binge-watching a whole bunch of Keaton/Chaplin/Harold Lloyd/Keystone Kops/etc a few years ago, no small number of their female costars were pretty much keeping right up with the men, although they didn't get the big show-stopper stunts and posterity definitely hasn't given them due credit. This article cites Mabel Normand and Marion Davies as two of the big names in silent physical comedy.

And I've said it before somewhere on MF, but I really think Ellie Kemper could do amazing work with physical comedy, although (again, IMO) she hasn't had a chance to do much, just little pieces here and there (like, in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt she tries to "casually" lean against a door jamb, only the door jamb is further away than expected, so she just keeps leaning until she bumps against the jamb at a really awkward angle, which she holds for a minute like she meant to do that and then quickly rearranges herself in a more natural stance, staying almost deadpan the whole time. Stuff like that makes me want to see what she could do if someone let her loose on a whole Keaton-esque routine.)
posted by soundguy99 at 8:56 AM on June 7, 2015 [5 favorites]

Just this morning my son and daughter watched The General from start to finish. I was so proud.
posted by bstreep at 12:29 PM on June 7, 2015 [2 favorites]

Who are the best female physical comedians?

I'd have to offer up Betty Hutton, a precursor of Lucille Ball, for consideration.
posted by On the Corner at 5:32 AM on June 10, 2015

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