A Lone Figure, Standing Upright Amid the Cyclone
THE American silent cinema of the 1920s gave us three great comedians: Harold Lloyd, whose hyperkinetic optimism seemed the perfect embodiment of his epoch; Charles Chaplin, whose Victorian sentimentality was just a touching bit behind it; and Buster Keaton, who was so far ahead of his time that we're still running to catch up with him.
Two new releases from Kino add substantially to our understanding of Keaton's remote, introverted, often enigmatic art. A new, double-disc edition (also available as a single Blu-ray disc) of Keaton's 1928 Steamboat Bill, Jr." presents both the familiar, public domain print that has been a staple of film societies and television screenings for decades, and an alternate version, newly discovered in the Keaton estate archive, that uses different takes or different angles for many shots and is cleaner and sharper than the standard print. (It was common in the silent era to produce two different negatives, one for domestic and one for export use; in this case, it isn't clear which is which.)
And a second two-disc set, titled Lost Keaton," brings together all 16 of the short comedies that he made from 1934 to 1937 for Educational Pictures, a Poverty Row operation that picked up Keaton's contract after he was dropped by MGM. Visibly struggling with his alcoholism, and working with budgets that would barely have covered a day's shooting on one of his 1920s features, Keaton still managed to snatch a few moments of poetry from the meager materials he was given to work with. As cheap as the Educational two-reelers were, they allowed him a certain degree of creative freedom-- something he would not know at his next studio, Columbia, where his work was supervised by the producer of the Three Stooges shorts.
After The General" (1926) and College" (1927), Steamboat Bill, Jr." was Keaton's third costly failure in a row, and would prove to be the last film he would make for his own independent production company. Audiences had turned their back on him (In The New York Times the reviewer Mordaunt Hall described Steamboat Bill" as a sorry affair"), just as Keaton had turned his back on them, quite literally, at times, given his penchant for shooting himself from behind. Keaton invited neither the audience's identification, as Lloyd did, nor its sympathy, as Chaplin did. He presented a closed-off, self-sufficient figure, his emotions, if any, hidden behind his famous stone face.
Again and again he returns to the same composition: his small figure, isolated in the center of a vast, empty space--the desert, the ocean, the bare stage of a theater. When other people enter the frame, they provide no companionship. The male characters in his films tend to be hulking authoritarians, like the father--a tough-as-nails riverboat captain -- played by Ernest Torrence in Steamboat Bill," and his women are either implacably angry or doll-like and ineffectual. (Marion Byron, in Steamboat Bill," falls into that second category.) Machinery often fills the emotional void left by people in Keaton's world (his affection for his locomotive in The General" runs far deeper than his interest in his bubbleheaded fiancée), and the one force that can be counted on is not love or friendship, but simple Newtonian physics. What goes up, must come down.
A lot of things come down during the climax of Steamboat Bill, Jr.," including most of the Mississippi river town (actually Sacramento) where the story is set. Struck by a cyclone, the buildings around Keaton collapse or are torn away, yet he remains strangely unmoved, even when, in one of the most astonishing sight gags ever filmed, the entire facade of a two-story house hinges away from its framework and falls right on top of him. When the dust clears, Keaton is still standing there, spared by a window frame that has passed directly over him. His miraculous salvation seems a matter of utmost indifference to him.
An almost supernatural figure of beauty and grace in the silents, Keaton abruptly descends to the real world in his talkies. He takes refuge in a new character, often named Elmer, who is as slow and clumsy as the old Keaton was graceful and fleet, a country bumpkin who brings down disaster just where the silent Buster--the ultimate master of his urban domain--would most often elegantly elude it.
Perhaps Elmer was Keaton's calculated concession to the public's preference for more accessible, warmhearted comics, but the new character suggests a deeper change in Keaton's perception of himself. Failure and shame become the dominant themes of the Educational comedies, which cast him as a watch repairman with fantasies of becoming a trapeze artist ("Allez Oop"), a handyman who lays waste to a farm ("Hayseed Romance") or a sailor who can't stay out of the brig ("Tars and Stripes").
But lethargy and resignation suddenly give way to moments of startling originality. One Run Elmer" (1935) finds Keaton in another lunar landscape, his tiny gas station the only human edifice in an unbounded desert. In a plot twist worthy of Samuel Beckett (a great Keaton fan), another character finally appears (Harold Goodwin, an old Keaton crony) and builds a slightly bigger, slightly more modern station directly across the road. Finding that they're members of rival baseball teams, Elmer and the stranger work out their competition (in the absence of many real customers) by hurling fastballs at each other. Destruction is mutually assured and quickly achieved.