One of my favorite cinematic onlookers can be seen just over seven minutes into Buster Keaton’s Cops from 1922. Keaton plays The Young Man, a hapless guy in Keaton’s traditional “Malec” form: the felt hat-wearing character the French defined by his ability to withstand physical punishment and chaos with stoicism, or at least polite detachment. After stealing a businessman’s wallet, the Young Man soon gets duped by a con artist who pretends that he’s just been evicted from an apartment — a story he bolsters by sitting in front of a pile of belongings (chairs, beds, lamps, clothing) while weeping. In fact, all of that stuff belongs to a family that’s simply moving house. The Young Man parts with nearly all of his money, “buying” the con man’s belongings, and hires a horse-drawn cart to haul all of his new junk, which the family mistakes for a moving service. As Keaton’s character makes his way through the streets of the city with a particularly stubborn horse, you can spot a man wearing a dark apron in a loading bay in one of the background buildings looking at the camera. Or, maybe he’s looking at the entire production of Cops, the crew moving behind the rig, with Keaton pretending to sleep in the front seat of the cart. The man in the apron even cranes his head around the corner as the shot dollies past to keep watching.
There are many, many ways to chart the growth and increasing sophistication of early cinema, perhaps the most recognizable being the transition from silent pictures to talkies. The presence of a few curious onlookers in the background isn’t a relic of a bygone era, especially when you see recent movies filmed in large cities like New York or New Orleans where crowds of people point and gawk at the now much bigger and more involved production circus. But I tend to notice the ways such people in the first couple decades of the 20th century seem captivated by the cinematic process, a technology only about 30 years old at that time, a new entertainment that was still finding its way towards an art form.
You could chart some of the finer details of this history purely through Buster Keaton’s filmography, his one and two-reel comedies from the early ’20s featuring camera-mugging antics, ladder-specific stunts, and wide-eyed expression common to many other shorts of the time, yet all elements that Keaton would either streamline or outright abandon later in his career. His films went from morality tales that relied on violence and extremity (likely a holdover from his days as a member of The Three Keatons, his family’s traveling vaudeville act) with sometimes bewilderingly convoluted plots to simple slapstick masterpieces that showcased his innate athleticism, sharp sense of humor, and knack for camera blocking.
I’ve been watching Keaton since I was young, often without knowing it. Really, I was watching his influence on other performers. There’s a popular genre of video that circulates on YouTube and TikTok — put together by different people but often with little to no variation in terms of content — featuring Keaton’s famous gag from One Week, which he re-used to more iconic effect in Steamboat Bill, Jr., where the side of a house falls on top of him. Keaton escapes unscathed by unwittingly standing in the path of an empty window, and these videos track all the other films that pay homage to the stunt: Jackass 2, Project A Part 2, MacGyver, Arrested Development, among others.
Jackie Chan and Tom Cruise seem to be particularly astute students of Keaton’s, who pay tribute to Keaton throughout their careers by upping the ante with larger set pieces, faster action, and more dangerous gags. The influence on Cruise is more subtle, seen in similarities of demeanor and stature, in Cruise and Keaton’s chosen groove as seemingly well-beaten but indestructible agents of chaos, and in a shared propensity for sprinting away from the authorities, especially in a film like Cops or 1921’s The Goat and their spiritual descendant Mission: Impossible.
This legacy belies the fact that Keaton’s film career, and specifically the prolific seven-year stint he had between 1920 and 1927 where every one of his hits was made, was fairly short. The sharp downfall that came not long after Keaton signed a contract with MGM, one of the great tragedies in American cinema, has been dissected and bemoaned as the death of a brand of physical comedy and cinematographic innovation that, ironically, didn’t die for very long because it has since become hugely influential. While Keaton’s reputation today is sound, the aftermath of the talkie revolution left him an old dog who couldn’t make the grade the way more powerful people Charlie Chaplin could.
It’s odd then, watching him now, how, seemingly since his first film, Keaton was primed for the future, the rare performer and artist whose natural abilities lent themselves to posterity by sheer ingenuity and charisma. That’s not a particularly novel insight, but it’s worth repeating, and is apparent in two new books about Keaton’s life and career: Camera Man by Slate film critic Dana Stevens and Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker’s Life by James Curtis. Stevens’s book takes a more discursive but no less fascinating approach to her subject, a mixture of biography, history, and memoir, while Curtis is more straightforwardly chronological.
Keaton’s best films proudly display their inner workings of plot and character, with familiar archetypes and stunts made surprising through his sheer velocity.
The question as to what exactly it is about Keaton that makes him so enduring is quicksilver. There’s something about his emotional inaccessibility that’s always appealed to me, a lack of sentimentality and twee quirkiness that is extremely endearing. His characters often had names of their own, but Keaton’s everyman was tied to him, on screen and off. Such celebrity brings with it speculation. What kind of person was he? What was he like as a friend? By all accounts, in comparison to his career, Keaton’s personal life was a failure, a distant father, a poor husband, and an alcoholic. But what’s gleaned from his movies is a beleaguered, almost irritated melancholy.
In an interview with RogerEbert.com, Stevens characterized Keaton as a “projectile being thrown through history,” a man at once fascinated by technology’s possibilities and utterly ambivalent about innovating it himself. What he did do was utilize it to his advantage, a dramatic problem solver whose art can be looked at like the blueprint for a storytelling machine. One of the beauties of silent film is the visibility of its seams, how scenes cut together, how dialogue is conveyed without captions, how one gag chases itself to the next. Keaton’s best films proudly display their inner workings of plot and character, with archetypes and stunts familiar to the audience, but made surprising through his sheer velocity.
While other stars of the silent era like Chaplin and Greta Garbo successfully made the transition to sound, Keaton struggled into near obscurity. That’s the story, at least, certainly one Chaplin himself believed when he offered Keaton a small part in Limelight in 1952. The common narrative is that he became obsolete. Stevens’s book makes time for a welcome correction to this idea, illustrating how Keaton enjoyed a career comeback in the late ’40s and early ’50s, while also making what he saw as a joyful transition to television. In the final chapter, Stevens includes a quote from Keaton to his memoir co-writer. “I think I have had the happiest and luckiest of lives. It would be ridiculous to complain…I count the years of defeat and grief and disappointment, and their percentage is so minute that it continually surprises and delights me.”
Keaton himself continues to delight, especially online. All of his films, now in the public domain, are streaming in some form, with most of his one and two-reel works available on Youtube. He is eminently GIF-able, as Stevens notes, and more immediately engaging than his peers, a handsome, lithe body who has been lovingly fawned over for generations, most recently on TikTok. But the measure of any type of success has less to do with the newest fad or technology and more to do with something universal, or at least, universally compelling. Keaton endures partially because he wasn’t precious about his work, at once consumed by it but never sentimental about its legacy. The “greatest of all the clowns in the history of the cinema” as Orson Welles once put it, running and dodging his way into the future.