Roger Ebert salutes Buster Keaton
November 13, 2002 7:22 AM   Subscribe

Roger Ebert salutes Buster Keaton in an article in which he says the Great Stone Face is "the greatest actor-director in the history of the movies." High praise indeed! Any other Keaton fans out there? (This is from the Chicago Sun-times--I don't believe registration is required.) And if you want to see Buster smiling--sort of--here's a picture of him with one-time movie partner Fatty Arbuckle.
posted by Man-Thing (18 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Thanks -- I'm a big Keaton fan, and that's a good intro. I knew about everything he describes, but he tells it so well:
Keaton is famous for a shot in "Steamboat Bill, Jr.," where he stands in front of a house during a cyclone, and a wall falls on top of him; he is saved because he happens to be exactly where the window is. There was scant clearance on either side, and you can see his shoulders tighten a little just as the wall lands. He refused to rehearse the stunt because, he explained, he trusted his set-up, so why waste a wall?
posted by languagehat at 8:11 AM on November 13, 2002

I love Buster Keaton. I once saw a special that included a bunch of stuff by Keaton and by Harold Lloyd. There was a film which I think was called "The Windy Day". Anybody who might be familiar with it can feel free to tell me it's real name and star.
posted by websavvy at 9:02 AM on November 13, 2002

There is one short called "The Playhouse" in which Buster plays multiple roles, including every member of the band and various people in the audience--from a bratty child to an old woman. My favorite sequence, one that my kids and I used to watch over and over--is when Buster has to disguise himself as an ape because he let the real animal escape. His expressions are side-splitting. He truly was amazing--and his lack of sentimentality means his best work has aged very well indeed.
posted by Man-Thing at 9:04 AM on November 13, 2002

I love Buster Keaton, too. The man was a genius. But Woody Allen is the greatest actor-director in the history of the movies.
posted by Ty Webb at 9:14 AM on November 13, 2002

The Siskel Center in Chicago held a Keaton film festival last year, and it was the first time I'd ever seen one of his films (actually, I saw two). I've got to say that I agree wholeheartedly with Ebert - comedy dates so easily, but Keaton's stuff is still orginal and funny. Not to mention his technical skills as a director - some of his shots are more sophisticated than almost anything you'd see today.
posted by risenc at 9:44 AM on November 13, 2002

I never knew that Buster Keaton died the same year as the world's most famous movie-man, Walt Disney. Both men were geniuses in their own way. Both died too soon.

A TV special a few years ago had some home movies of Keaton where he was goofing off. He was brilliant just improvising his pratfalls, pretending to stop a traing with his hand, or a well timed look at his famous stone-face.
posted by IndigoSkye at 10:00 AM on November 13, 2002

I've always had a weakness for Harold Lloyd, who I consider superior to Keaton
posted by matteo at 10:11 AM on November 13, 2002

Other than Woody Allen, what other actor-directors would even be in the running as the greatest? Orson Welles? Great director, at times; good, but not great actor. Chaplin, of course, but my vote there goes to Keaton. Olivier? He did display his chops on both sides of the camera, but is he the greatest? Ed Wood? (Who can forget his performance in Glen or Glenda?) Leonard Nimoy? Or perhaps William (Star Trek V) Shatner?

I can't say I'd cast my vote for the Woodman. I pretty much stopped seeing his movies after Husbands and Wives. It wasn't the hand-held camera that made me turn that one off, but the fact that all the characters talked just like Woody Allen. I fear someday he will disappear up his own navel.
posted by Man-Thing at 10:19 AM on November 13, 2002

I totally agree with Ebert. It's interesting though that at the time both Chaplin and Lloyd were the big stars. Keaton was hardly on the map. However, he's always included as one of the greatest silent stars of all time.

One reason for this (as posited by Scott Bukatman, an old film professor of mine) might be that Keaton was the first to really get the difference between theater acting and film acting. When you look at Chaplin and Lloyd's films now (and this isn't a put down, I love them both), the acting seems really melodramatic. That's because they were still in the whole stage mode. Keaton's famous stone face worked because you could see what he was looking at, and pick up tiny changes in his expression. That was a huge leap forward in film.

Oh, and someone mentioned 'The Playhouse' in which Keaton played several roles at once. That deserves a little more explanation because it still blows my mind. He played multiple characters on the screen at once. But, mind you, this was before they really had ways to mess with film once it was processed. So how did he do it?

He did it by covering part of the lens, filming one character, stopping, rolling the film back to the beginning then re-shooting it with a different part of the lens uncovered. In some shots he re-exposes the film up to fifteen times! The planning involved in that just boggles my mind.

I always find it odd that when a special about him talks about his innovations in film, they always show the famous 'jump-cut' montage in 'Sherlock Jr' and not stuff from 'The Playhouse'
posted by lumpenprole at 10:27 AM on November 13, 2002

Welles is a good choice, his performances in "Touch of Evil" and "The Third Man" are both great. Cassavetes, though lesser known, also certainly deserves a mention.
posted by Ty Webb at 10:28 AM on November 13, 2002

Not much too add except that I agree Keaton is as great as any genius that's worked in the cinema. I would like to see the film "Film" he made with Samuel Beckett.

The Buster Keaton Society site has a fair amount of info, and this fan has many links.
posted by liam at 10:28 AM on November 13, 2002

Hey thanks! Now I know who played the silent witchdoctor in "How to Stuff a Wild Bikini". It's hard to forget those eyes.
posted by oh posey at 10:30 AM on November 13, 2002

The tragedy of Keaton is that the studios didn't understand him -- then as now, the studios are to cinematic talent as the RIAA is to music. He did his best work as an independent. When the studios got him, they squandered him in the end by putting him up as a straight-man/sidekick to Jimmy Durante, almost as if they wanted to punish him. Posterity has the last laugh (sort of), in that everyone remembers Keaton as a genius, but who the hell ever thinks about Jimmy Durante?
posted by George_Spiggott at 11:39 AM on November 13, 2002

what other actor-directors would even be in the running as the greatest?

Two words: The Hedgehog. At least, he's the only actor-director to have signed my underpants.
posted by MrMoonPie at 11:54 AM on November 13, 2002

But Woody Allen is the greatest actor-director in the history of the movies.

Oh, man, that has to be one of the funniest things I've read all week. Thanks for the laugh.

Anyway, Keaton and Lloyd rule, and I'm mystified why Chaplin always gets so much more attention and praise while not being half as funny or interesting as either of those two.

As for great comedic actor/directors, I'd suggest Jacque Tati
posted by Ayn Marx at 5:24 PM on November 13, 2002

I've come round to the pleasures of Chaplin more in recent years, but I'll still take Keaton over him or any of the other silent comedians every time. Sadly, what George_Spiggott says is right: once MGM took him on it was never the same He still had autonomy with his first MGM film, The Cameraman, but with the second, Spite Marriage, you can see trouble ahead. The first half of that film is stuff anyone could've done; not until the second half does it become a "Buster Keaton film". Whereupon cue the talkies and the real beginning of the downward slide. Still, what he gave the world during the 20s will always remain a fantastic thing of joy. The Brownlow & Gill documentary on him from the 1980s is about as good an introduction as you could want.
posted by H.B. Death at 4:02 AM on November 15, 2002

Whenever us snobby Euros tease the Americans about the lack of truly great (Shakespeare, Monet etc.) artists I'm always suprised that Keaton isn't used as a retort. IMHO he is that great.
posted by fullerine at 4:30 AM on November 15, 2002

... Shakespeare, Monet ..

What? Shakespeare and Monet weren't American?
posted by Ayn Marx at 4:10 PM on November 15, 2002

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