Some of Buster Keaton's most amazing stunts
March 31, 2020 11:41 AM   Subscribe

In the 1920s, Buster Keaton was one of the most famous silent film stars in the world. In classics like Steamboat Bill, The General and Sherlock Jr, he performed all his own stunts, many of which could have killed him if anything went wrong. Here's a roundup of some of his best, and an analysis of his comedic genius.

He did get hurt quite often, though. One sequence in Sherlock Jr left him with a broken neck that went undiagnosed for years. And his costars did too. Filming a scene in The General, he failed to warn actress Marion Mack that she was about to get doused, hard. Her reaction in the final cut is genuine. (I have no idea how he pulled off this one without dislocating a shoulder.)
posted by gottabefunky (29 comments total) 44 users marked this as a favorite
 
Thanks for this post, gottabefunky. Back when airplane travel was a thing, I had a tradition of watching silent movies on flights. It just felt kinda poetic to be watching these 90+ year old movies on a skinny little tablet, with bluetooth headphones, 35000 feet in the air.

I love Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, but Keaton is in a league of his own. The railroad-tie-tiddlywinks-from-the-cattle-catcher stunt - from the front of a moving train! - is really something, and so many sight gags from One Week, The High Sign, etc. are still a blast to watch. I find myself laughing out loud.

I'm doing my best to indoctrinate the kids. He was a true true artist.
posted by AgentRocket at 12:02 PM on March 31 [3 favorites]


I have no idea how he pulled off this one yt without dislocating a shoulder.

I think it has to be an example of his excellent mime skills, with him never actually grabing the car. I guess he sort of jumps up and off the edge of the screen with perfect timing.
posted by paper chromatographologist at 12:07 PM on March 31


There is a great story about a young callow film critic named Roger Ebert meeting an old silent film legend Buster Keaton and expressing his admiration with the awkwardly phrased question, "How did you fake all those stunts?" Keaton just gave him a look and said, "No fakes." Then he pulled open his shirt and showed Ebert his entire torso covered in black and blue and purple and yellow bruises. These were practical effects. Keaton really was taking those blows, and they hurt as much as you would think they did.
posted by seasparrow at 12:08 PM on March 31 [1 favorite]


OK, I just watched it again on quarter speed and my explanation can't be correct.
posted by paper chromatographologist at 12:09 PM on March 31 [2 favorites]


He was also a master of early film technology, pushing it way farther than anyone before him. In his day, composite scenes were created by covering part of a lens, filming, then rewinding the film, moving the cover to uncover the covered part, and cover the uncovered part, and filming again. This required insane levels of care to get right. Sherlock Jr. has some of the most famous examples of this, but my mind gets blown whenever I watch The Playhouse.

(content warning, brief blackface)
posted by lumpenprole at 12:22 PM on March 31 [1 favorite]


Keaton got an early start: "Born in 1895 to Joe and Myra Keaton, Joseph Francis Keaton got his name when, at six months, he fell down a flight of stairs. Reaching the bottom unhurt and relatively undisturbed, he was picked up by Harry Houdini who said the kid could really take a “buster,” or fall. From then on, his parents and the world knew him as Buster Keaton. By the age of three, Keaton joined the family’s vaudeville act, which was renamed The Three Keatons. For years he was knocked over, thrown through windows, dropped down stairs, and essentially used as a living prop. It was this training in vaudeville that prepared him for the fast-paced slapstick comedy of the silent movies." (pbs.org)

Keaton became "The Great Stone Face," but as a child performing with his family, he was known as "The Little Boy Who Can't Be Damaged.” More Buster (including co-star 'war' stories) at the Guardian.
posted by Iris Gambol at 12:27 PM on March 31 [3 favorites]


By the age of three, Keaton joined the family’s vaudeville act, which was renamed The Three Keatons. For years he was knocked over, thrown through windows, dropped down stairs, and essentially used as a living prop

Heard an interview with him in which he said, tongue nicely in cheek, by law he was not allowed to perform in the act at such a young age, but as long as he didn't say anything throwing him back and forth like a rag doll just counted as plain old parenting.
posted by mark k at 12:30 PM on March 31


I read his biography. One time a child abuse advocate stood up during an act and said, "You can't do that." His father picked up Buster and threw him at the man.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 12:42 PM on March 31 [8 favorites]


One of my all-time favorite Buster Keaton bits is from The Blacksmith -- what he does to this car, starting around 13:00. It's just genius.
posted by BlahLaLa at 12:43 PM on March 31 [1 favorite]


I saw Neighbors when I was around 9 or 10 and been in love with him ever since.
posted by kokaku at 1:00 PM on March 31 [1 favorite]


Sherlock Jr. has some of the most famous examples of this

You're likely referring to the dream sequence, when he "walks into a film" and then has the scene change on him repeatedly. I've heard he brought in a surveyor to help make sure each of the shots was lined up just right.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:10 PM on March 31 [1 favorite]


I love Buster Keaton. I know he's the Great Stone Face, but really, his face was so expressive; just a widening of the eyes or a twist of the mouth said so much. We watched a lot of his films with our kids when they were little. His athleticism and creativity always blow me away.
posted by ceejaytee at 2:01 PM on March 31 [4 favorites]


Buster does Canada The Railrodder YT (sry can't link)
posted by WillieD at 2:27 PM on March 31


The Railrodder from the National Film Board of Canada
posted by blob at 3:08 PM on March 31 [2 favorites]


A brilliant actor and filmmaker. The General is one of my favorite films of all time. 10 or 15 years ago a friend gave me a framed photo of Buster based on a prop (about 3:53 here) and it's been on my desk ever since.

His stunts and physical comedy are incredible, as is the trick camera work, set design, etc. I also really admire the scripting/editing that perfectly sets up jokes or escalates tension so so efficiently and clearly. Just genius.

I've made many acquaintances watch Buster Keaton films, it's funny how it takes some people a bit to rewire the part of their brain that interprets 'silent black and white film' as VERY SERIOUS. One friend got about half way into The General before asking "Wait, is this a comedy? Am I supposed to find this hilarious?"
posted by soy bean at 4:01 PM on March 31 [2 favorites]


I got beat to linking The Railrodder (which I can recall seeing on the CBC as a young kid in the late 70s and early 80s and just being utterly baffled) but a documentary was also made about its filming that was pretty great IIRC.
posted by hearthpig at 4:18 PM on March 31


He was good with spoken words as well. See A Funny Thing Happened On The Way to the Forum, playing Erronius, the befuddled old man in search of his children, stolen in infancy by pirates.
posted by BWA at 4:26 PM on March 31 [2 favorites]


If you're in the SF Bay Area, you have the opportunity to see a screening of the silent 1920 film Mark of Zorro paired with Keaton's One Week. It's part of the (delayed) 2020 Cinequest. Playing at San Jose's California Theater with live Wurlitzer organ accompaniment!
posted by JDC8 at 4:38 PM on March 31


Simply the best of the best. Thanks for posting this.
posted by ivanthenotsoterrible at 6:05 PM on March 31


eta: to paper chromatographologist: I think that was done by him placing a hook on the bar, which was attached to a wire running to a body harness. At least, that's how I would do it.
posted by ivanthenotsoterrible at 8:11 PM on March 31



eta: to paper chromatographologist: I think that was done by him placing a hook on the bar


How was it really done? Undercranking.
posted by zamboni at 10:01 PM on March 31 [1 favorite]


The best Buster Keaton documentary (IMHO) was made by Kevin Brownlow and David Gill in the late 1980s, the Emmy award-winning Buster Keaton: A Hard Act to Follow, which aired in the US as part of the PBS American Masters series.
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

Each installment is about 50 minutes long.

(When you get done with that, if you like it as much as I think you will, look up Unknown Chaplin and Harold Lloyd: The Third Genius, made by the same two men.)

Another good one is the recent The Great Buster, made by Peter Bogdanovich.
posted by pmurray63 at 10:33 PM on March 31 [7 favorites]


Thanks to zamboni for context; happy to be corrected.
posted by ivanthenotsoterrible at 7:55 AM on April 1


ee A Funny Thing Happened On The Way to the Forum, playing Erronius, the befuddled old man in search of his children, stolen in infancy by pirates.

A poignant note about this: Keaton did this film and did all his own stunts in it, despite having lung cancer. This was in the days when doctors sometimes kept a cancer diagnosis a secret from their patients if they thought they couldn't handle it; so Keaton thought he just had a particularly stubborn case of bronchitis.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:16 AM on April 1


soy bean: I'm in the middle of writing an article on the filming of The General--heck of a story.
posted by gottabefunky at 11:44 AM on April 1


eta: to paper chromatographologist: I think that was done by him placing a hook on the bar

How was it really done? Undercranking.


It's possible it was undercranking, but that generally refers to the practice of deliberately slowing down your crank to show it faster later. The problem is that there was no standard speed in the silent film era. That's one of the reasons most early transfers of silent films look so weird.

More modern transfers try to take that into account, but it's still dicey. It is also completely within the realm of possibility that Keaton did dislocate his shoulder, slam it back into place, and go on with his day. That probably wouldn't have even merited an entry in his diary.
posted by lumpenprole at 3:13 PM on April 1 [1 favorite]


It's possible it was undercranking, but that generally refers to the practice of deliberately slowing down your crank to show it faster later.

Exactly. You film the stunt at the slower speed, then show it at a higher FPS.

It is also completely within the realm of possibility that Keaton did dislocate his shoulder, slam it back into place, and go on with his day. That probably wouldn't have even merited an entry in his diary.

Undercranking… and a general disregard for health and safety.
posted by zamboni at 3:43 PM on April 1


A poignant note about this: Keaton did this film and did all his own stunts in it, despite having lung cancer.

Not exactly, no. Keaton's illness did force the use of a double for some shots, as the double himself finally revealed -- with director Richard Lester's permission -- in Part 3 of the documentary I linked above.

Doesn't take away from the poignancy.
posted by pmurray63 at 7:31 PM on April 1


Another short (8:34) appreciation worth watching was part of the Every Frame a Painting series: Buster Keaton - The Art of the Gag
posted by pmurray63 at 7:59 PM on April 1


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