Keaton’s ‘Great Stone Face’ stars in Museum’s Silent Film Benefit

lthough Harold Lloyd represents bigger box office, only Buster Keaton rivals and, many say, surpasses Charlie Chaplin for sheer cinematic artistry.

His films are laden with sight gags, slapstick and the most dangerously acrobatic displays of physical comedy in cinema history.

But at the heart of each film is Keaton himself, whose slightly melancholy stone face stands at the center of the maelstrom of action swirling around it.  

His look is like a blank slate upon which a thousand emotions can be etched.  

lthough Harold Lloyd represents bigger box office, only Buster Keaton rivals and, many say, surpasses Charlie Chaplin for sheer cinematic artistry.

His films are laden with sight gags, slapstick and the most dangerously acrobatic displays of physical comedy in cinema history.

But at the heart of each film is Keaton himself, whose slightly melancholy stone face stands at the center of the maelstrom of action swirling around it.  

His look is like a blank slate upon which a thousand emotions can be etched.  

As the film historian Gilberto Perez once stated, “with merely a stare he can convey a wide range of emotions, from longing to mistrust, from puzzlement to sorrow.”

‘The Goat’

Released in 1921, “The Goat” is a two-reel short, which appears to have the flimsiest of plots.

Keaton is mistakenly photographed as the notorious Dead Shot Dan, an imprisoned murderer.

When Dan escapes, Keaton’s photograph appears on the Wanted poster. Keaton is now an outlaw and on the run.

On the surface, the film turns into a fast-paced series of chase sequences strung together.

But like all of Keaton’s greatest movies, the film represents something far more and is a sophisticated weave of disparate scenes and gags exploring the deceptiveness of reality.

“The Goat” reveals how abruptly everyday, mundane reality can transform into something that is so menacing that all Keaton can do is run from it.

The number of misdirections in the film is countless.

Buster stands immobile in a bread line behind two mannequins that he mistakes to be real.

He defends a young lady and knocks a man unconscious, but later believes he’s murdered him. A man falls into a vat of mortar and is thought to be a ghost.

The sheriff chasing Buster is actually his girlfriend’s father. An Indian is mistaken for a dime store statue.  

A phone booth is believed to be an elevator. A carpenter is thought to be a doctor about to perform surgery with carpenter’s tools.

And, in one of the film’s real cinematic moments, a distant train speeds directly toward the camera to reveal that Buster is inexplicably perched on the front of the engine.

Even the title of the film is misleading.

The picture has nothing to do with the farmyard animal, but is a slang term, and refers to Buster’s hard luck character.

The decade of the 1920s was unquestionably Keaton’s most productive. He had met Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle in 1917 and quickly became the comedian’s devoted friend, prolific gag writer and assistant director.

By 1920 the famous film producer Joseph Schenck had given Keaton his own production unit: Buster Keaton Comedies.

He was soon writing, directing and starring in his own films. He produced 19 short films and 14 features during this time, and “The Goat” is one of the best known of Keaton’s two-reelers.  

Keaton’s best comedy was grounded in stunts that are some of the most dangerous ever executed on film.

He was gracefully acrobatic, fearless and able to endure excruciating pain.

He once broke his neck and didn’t realize it for years.  

Shaped by vaudeville

His gags were shaped by his experiences as a child performing in vaudeville.

As a boy of 3, his father enlisted him into the family act.

He strapped a handle to the boy’s body, and hid it under his clothing.

The act called for Buster to disobey his father, who then tossed the boy about the stage violently, with Buster often landing against stage sets, in the orchestra pit or into the audience.

The act was often one step ahead of the law, with Buster’s father accused of, and occasionally jailed for, child abuse.

“By the time I got up to around 7 or 8 years old,” Keaton once stated, “we were called ‘The Roughest Act That Was Ever in the History of the Stage.”

Keaton loved the act and often laughed while performing.

He soon noticed, however, that the audience laughed heartily when the action stopped for a moment, and he stood expressionless before them.

He later incorporated the move into his films and became known internationally as “The Great Stone Face.”

MGM contract: the biggest mistake of his career

In 1928 Keaton left his own studio and signed with MGM.

He later believed it to be the single greatest mistake of his career. Charlie Chaplin had warned him: “They’ll ruin you helping you.”

He was exactly right. Keaton lost creative control of his films and was soon broken by the demands of the studio.

Although his movies continued to be financially successful, he was forced to abandon writing and doing his own stunts.

He protested to studio heads that the scripts he was forced to produce were laden with bad dialogue, and that every script he received “stinks.”

His personal life nosedived. He started to drink heavily, and his wife, Natalie Talmadge, divorced him, taking with her the couple’s magnificent Italianate Hollywood mansion.

Keaton soon claimed bankruptcy and was sued by the Internal Revenue Service.

To compound all of this, during a bout of hard drinking, he married a woman before his divorce from Talmadge was final.

Keaton explained that the episode occurred during a blackout, and he didn’t remember the ceremony ever taking place.

But his personal life was now at the center of a full-fledged Hollywood scandal.

After a couple of “stinkers” for MGM, the studio fired him.  In 1934, in an attempt to get his drinking under control, Keaton was involuntarily committed to a sanitarium, which ended when he escaped from a straightjacket using the secrets purportedly taught to him by Harry Houdini.  

After a number of failed attempts, Keaton was able to rein in his drinking, and, in 1938, married an MGM dancer who was more than 20 years his junior.

The marriage was a happy one, and he seemed to have resolved the personal issues that had so plagued him earlier. But his career was in tatters.

Throughout the 1940s, he drifted, finding work on stage, producing the occasional film and writing gags for comedians like Lucille Ball.  

Keaton’s revival

Just when he seemed to have faded totally from view, the highly respected film critic James Agee published a 1949 article on Keaton in LIFE magazine.

Of Keaton, Agee wrote: “One who never smiled, carried a face as still and sad as a daguerreotype through some of the most preposterously ingenious and visually satisfying comedy ever invented. That was Buster Keaton.”

Keaton’s star was suddenly on the ascendancy again.

Then, in 1950, Billy Wilder cast Keaton in a non-speaking role in his cinematic masterpiece, “Sunset Boulevard.” The movie’s exploration into the tragic decline of a former ingénue of the silent screen caused a re-evaluation of silent film.

In 1953, Charlie Chaplin cast his old friend in a musical number near the end of his film, “Limelight.”

It was the only time the pair appeared together on screen, and Chaplin invited Keaton to write his own gags into the sequence.

The film launched Keaton from obscurity.

His films were suddenly in demand and his personal problems and the mediocrity of his sound pictures were now forgotten, easily outshone by the brilliance of his silent films.

Dangerous stunts

When he died of lung cancer in 1966, his preeminent position as one of the cinema’s greatest comedians had been once again fully established.  Late in his career, when he was an old man and still performing dangerous stunts, a colleague asked Keaton how he could perform such stunts without feeling the pain.

Keaton responded by unbuttoning his shirt and impassively exposing a torso riddled with bruises.

Not even Keaton could have written a better metaphor for his life.   

Silent Film Benefit

See Keaton in “The Goat” as part of this year’s Catalina Island Museum Annual Silent Film Benefit entitled “Make ‘em Laugh.” Like to dress up and receive a discount on the price of admission to the Silent Film Benefit?

Come in your best 1920s dress and receive 50 percent off the benefit’s ticket price. Prizes will be awarded to the best-dressed individual and couple. Judging will occur upon arrival. Tickets are $13 for members of the museum, $15 for general admission and $7.50 for those in period dress.

To buy tickets, call (310) 510-2414, visit the museum in person, visit the Silent Film event page on www.CatalinaMuseum.org or mail your payment to Catalina Island Museum, PO Box 366, Avalon, CA 90704 (Attn: Silent Film). The Catalina Island Museum is Avalon’s sole institution devoted to art, culture and history.

The museum, its digital theater and store are located on the ground floor of Avalon’s historic Casino and are open seven days a week, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

For more information, call at (310) 510-2414 or visit CatalinaMuseum.org.

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