I am very excited about today’s post! Today, we’re going to hear from H.N. Hernandez, a good friend of mine, a lover of old films, and an aspiring journalist. It is my hope to tap into his wealth of movie knowledge here on the blog, and I think it will be quite nice to have another voice to read around here! :) Yesterday, I disclosed my love of silent films, and today I’m excited for you to learn about my favorite silent star, Buster Keaton. He has been TCM’s Actor of the Month for October, so if this post entices you, there are still a few more days to set your DVR! So, go get yourself a hot cuppa delicious, grab your reading glasses, and enjoy the first enstallment of the monthly Thursday Theatre Treasures!
By H.N. Hernandez
In comedy films, there is little that excites me more than a great gag, and for great gags I turn to the silent era when physical and sight gags were the main source of laughter. It was an era when comedy was sight based and the films of the various comedians were bursting with energetic physical comedy and fantastic sight gags. Of these comedians, Buster Keaton was the greatest master of the comical gag—of all sorts.
I watch Keaton because he thrills me to roaring laughter. Keaton’s films are filled with comical stunts that cannot be believed until seen and sometimes not even then. His sight gags are clever, startling, often mind-bending and always hilarious. And few can put together a comical chase like Keaton, especially since he has that magnificent run. (His best films all have great comedic chases—just watch Cops, Seven Chances, The General or Sherlock Jr.) His skill in each of these elements and the blended use of them creates the marvelous moments of motion that replay in the mind.
I have several in mind: in Cops when he casually sticks his hand out latching on to a speeding car to get whipped away from pursuing policemen; or in Seven Chances when he’s running and leaping down a hill followed by an ever-growing crowd of rushing boulders; or that time in The Boat when he nails his shoes to the floor so he could keep his footing in a rocking and rolling ship. There are really too many to count, and I could watch each one of them over and over.
A lot of what makes Keaton’s gags, chases and physical comedy so effective is in his skill and abilities as a stuntman.
Famous for doing his own stunts, he started as a boy working with his father in vaudeville doing comical stunts for the stage. As a film comedian his stunts grew in scale, danger and funny. During the making of Steamboat Bill Jr., which included several very dangerous and memorable stunts, Keaton was dealing with divorces and financial troubles which led to concerns that the increasingly dangerous stunts may have been a suicidal effort. (Suicidal effort or not, the costly divorces later cost Keaton his creative independence when he signed with MGM.)
Also important to the humor of a Keaton gag is Keaton’s staid, stoic manner of endurance in the midst of great chaos, craziness and even hostility—the source of his “The Great Stone Face” moniker. The calm, cool attitude with which he survives through all the wacky hardships make him intensely likable and enduring. One of my favorite examples of this trait is in Our Hospitality.
In the film, he’s the son of a feuding Southern family who is accidently invited to dinner in the home of the enemy family. Once the sons of the rival family recognize him they want to kill him immediately, but the father insists that no harm should come to Keaton so long as he is a guest in their house as it would go against their code of Southern hospitality. Father and sons then make plans to kill him as soon as he leaves their home. Keaton catches on and simply invites himself to stay the night which would not only save his life but allow him to further flirt with the daughter.
It creates a hilarious situation in which every time Keaton tries to leave for home he narrowly escapes another assassination attempt which again causes him to return to the hospitality of his restrained, feudal hosts—all with that great stone face. It’s great gag and there are so many others in a long list of excellent Keaton films to enjoy.
Thank you Mr. Hernandez! I know how I’ll be spending my evening tonight – watching Seven Chances with a bowl of buttered popcorn. Please make our new author feel right at home with some friendly comments (I foresee more illuminating articles in the future)! And for those visual learners, I encourage you to watch this short clip featuring some of Keaton’s best gags. I dare you not to fall in love. :)