From The Scarecrow, made in 1920, it’s Buster Keaton who lives in a house “where all the rooms are in one room.” Keaton multi-tasks and makes multi-use of every square inch of space. New York City apartment dwellers, take note.
I recently had a pleasant email exchange with noted author and producer Jerry Zolten who told me that he had picked up a one-sheet poster for the Keaton short from a collector who ran an appliance store. The collector had been deeded a bunch of movie posters by the daughter of a movie house owner who didn’t know what to do with the extra posters lying around, so she gave them to him.
Jerry kindly gave me permission to display the poster here.
Jerry is a very interesting guy, and in addition to teaching university courses on stand-up comedy and the roots of rock ‘n’ roll he produced a remarkable audio documentary about the music and radio of the Vietnam War. It’s so difficult to capture the true spirit of a former time, but if you were alive at the time, this will give you flashbacks:
Legend has it that “Buster” Keaton was given his monicker by Harry Houdini after he saw the young vaudevillian Joe Keaton being knocked around and taking pratfalls in his family stage act. Keaton always had a fondness for magic, and in 1936 he did a short two-reeler called Mixed Magic. The little known film, which can be difficult to track down, had Buster playing a magician’s assistant. The movie was a talkie and made after Buster’s great silent films of the twenties.
Frankly, the movie is not very good. While watching, I was lamenting the lost comic opportunities that Buster would have taken in the early days. There he is, Buster backstage holding onto a stage curtain rope, trying to save his sweetheart up in the flies; think of the great daring, acrobatic, athletic possibilities that Buster would have taken advantage of in the golden era. But they never happen. Instead there are just anemic cutaway shots that make me shake my head. Well, to be fair, there are actually a couple of good laughs, and those interested in magic and magicians will be especially interested in the posters and apparatus depicted. So with those limitations in mind, take a look at Buster Keaton in Mixed Magic.
While Buster Keaton was called The Great Stoneface, he actually was able to portray a wide range of nuanced emotion in his movies. Here is a love scene from The Cameraman (1928). Buster has just messed up his job interview for a movie newsreel company, but Marceline Day, one of the company’s employees, sees something special in him.
In 1925 Buster Keaton made the feature film Seven Chances. Filled with great sight gags, the movie’s final chase scene has never been surpassed.
Here’s the set-up: Buster’s grandfather’s will says that if Buster gets married by seven pm that day, Buster will inherit seven million dollars. So in order to fulfill the will, Buster, chased by dozens of money-seeking would-be brides, runs through a myriad of obstacles to reach his one true girlfriend in time.
The inventiveness of the full 13-minute chase is really jaw-dropping. You can see the amazing avalanche sequence, the last four minutes of the chase, by clicking on the video above.
The finest physical comedian, bar none, in the history of the cinema. No CGI. He broke his neck doing the water tower stunt, but he didn’t discover it until decades later when he complained of severe headaches, and X-rays revealed broken neck vertebrae. Buster Keaton.