Deadpan funny man

Remembering Buster Keaton who never once smiled on screen but had audiences rolling with laughter.

Updated - November 17, 2021 12:04 pm IST

Published - October 04, 2014 07:04 pm IST

Buster Keaton

Buster Keaton

Some people rate Buster Keaton as an even better comedian than the great Chaplin himself. His mastery of the cinematic medium, his daring stunts without using a double, and his several technically outstanding movies are cited as proof. He never smiled and stayed straight-faced throughout, which is why he is known as the stone-faced comedian.

In the silent film, Playhouse , there is an orchestra of nine persons playing various instruments and all the nine are played by Keaton! What’s more, they all appear in a single frame in one shot. He explains how the shot was taken in his autobiography, but leading cameramen are still puzzled about how he pulled it off. That was Keaton’s genius.

Another film, The General, was about a train of the same name used in the American Civil War. Keaton is in love with a girl who tells him that she will take him seriously only if he is a soldier. Though not interested, he does not want to give up the girl. He joins the army, takes control of the train, and saves it from enemies. When the train goes over a bridge, the bridge collapses, bringing the train down into the river. Keaton shot this sequence in one take, and it is believed to be the most expensive single shot taken in cinema until today. The various methods he employs to save the train borders on the incredible and it’s astounding even to the modern viewer.

The General , which Keaton wrote and directed, was initially a commercial disappointment but later hailed as a masterpiece. Orson Welles called it not only a great movie but even said it was the most remarkable film ever made.

In Spite Marriage (1926), Keaton marries a young woman and comes to his bedroom eager to commence the honeymoon. But the bride is drunk to the gills, not able even to stand. The next scenes are a hilarious sequence of how he keeps trying to carry her, undress her and put her to bed, and how she keeps slipping and falling.

The drunken bride-helpless bridegroom sequence was used to great effect in the Gemini Studios-S.S. Vasan magnum opus Chandralekha (1948 Tamil, 1949 Hindi).

Keaton was born in October 1895, in Kansas, USA, and his parents who were in vaudeville introduced Baby Keaton almost as soon as he was born into the world of entertainment. While the parents were busy on stage, he used to be hidden in the costume box and once he managed to get out of it and crawled onto the stage, raising howls of cheers and laughter in the audience. Because of his diminutive size, his father used him as a human mop to clean the stage floor, which added to the fun. Once his dad threw the ‘mop’, which landed in another corner of the stage, and he looked around with the audience cheering wildly. Famous magician Houdini, working then with them, picked him up and finding him unhurt exclaimed, ‘What a buster!’ The name stuck and he became Buster Keaton for good.

He was introduced to films when he was 21. His first film The Butcher Boy has an interesting storyline, where he goes to buy molasses in a shop and the shopkeeper (Fatty Arbuckle) gives him a tub brimful of the stuff.

When he asks for money, Keaton says it’s at the bottom of the tub. A battle ensues to recover the coin and soon everyone is covered in sticky molasses. The film was a hit and established Keaton as a talent to be watched.

The talkies eventually pushed Keaton out of demand, but he made a comeback in the 40s and 50s, with films such as Sunset Boulevard . He also played a major role in Limelight , the Charlie Chaplin classic.Marital problems and alcohol addiction sunk him into depression and Metro-Goldwyn Meyer did not renew his contract.

But he made a comeback when his films evoked enormous response in France after the Second World War where there was renewed interest in silent films, which restored his fame to a good extent.

Many of his movies created history, but one must mention The Cameraman, Steamboat Bill, Jr., The Passionate Plumber, Three Ages,Sherlock, Jr . and The General . The great master of movie comedy who never smiled on screen suffered from health problems, mostly of his own making, and passed away in 1966 in Woodland Hills near Los Angeles.

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