There are certain things in life that everyone should experience. Like love or seeing the Grand Canyon or never having to watch Elizabeth Berkley act again. I’d like to add another one to the list and posit that the world would be a better place if we could all experience at least one Buster Keaton movie.
For those who don’t know, this is Buster Keaton and a small pony. Keaton is the taller one.
In the 1910s and 1920s, there were three silent film comedians who ruled the roost: Harold Lloyd, some nobody named Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. The masses loved Harold Lloyd and then forgot him. The masses and the critics loved Charlie Chaplin and remembered him -- I think mostly because it seemed weird that Hitler would copy his mustache. Some of the masses, some of the critics and all the finest morose people loved Buster Keaton, and today he’s remembered by pretty much those exact same groups.
Buster Keaton made unusual comedy which combined his gifts for physical grace and athleticism, a willingness to work on a grand scale including – I swear to God – blowing up a bridge and an entire steam locomotive for the sake of one good gag, and an ability to make an audience laugh or break their heart with equal ease. He always played the underdog, something that fit his small stature and deadpan countenance, but he played the underdog with bite. His characters would put up with only so much before they fought back – sometimes with exploding locomotives.
Because Keaton and his writers made much of their film's stories up as they went along, Keaton's movies have a free-wheeling joy and absurdity, never constrained by much of anything. His movies span a wide spectrum of subject matter, from “The General” where he plays an incompetent recruit who ends up saving the day to “Go West” where he plays a cowboy in love with his cow. (Okay, and a woman, but mostly he loves the cow. Her name is Brown Eyes, and she is pretty cute. Like a chunkier Sarah Jessica Parker.)
Whatever the subject matter, viewers can always rely on action and incredible stunts, the likes of which should put Bruckheimer to shame, especially considering this was nearly a century before CGI. With Keaton’s films you can laugh and then gasp as you watch him let a house fall around him, stand nearly horizontal in a tornado, grab on to a speeding car like a real-life cartoon character, hang upside down from a waterfall and jump from a moving train. With that last stunt, he actually broke his neck – but got up and finished the scene and then went another three months without realizing what he’d done. I’m telling you, the guy was tough.
So if you’re looking for a rarefied comedy experience, check out Buster. In fact, if you have 20 minutes or so right now, here are links to part one, part two and part three of his two-reel classic, “Cops.” It might well be your first experience in loving the man with the pork-pie hat.