Think Slow, Act Fast: Buster Keaton Shorts, 1920–21

Presented at Silent Winter 2013

Cast Buster Keaton (The Groom), Sybil Seely (The Bride), Joe Roberts (Piano Mover) Production Buster Keaton Comedies 1920 Producer Joseph M. Schenck Direction/Scenario Edward F. Cline and Buster Keaton Photography Elgin Lessley THE SCARECROW Cast Buster Keaton (Farmhand), Sybil Seely (Farmer’s daughter), Edward F. Cline (Hit-and-run truck driver), Joe Keaton (Farmer), Joe Roberts (Farmhand), Al St. John (Man with motorbike), Luke the Dog (The Dog) Production Buster Keaton Comedies 1920 Producer Joseph M. Schenck Direction/Scenario Edward F. Cline and Buster Keaton Photography Elgin Lessley THE PLAYHOUSE Cast Buster Keaton (Multiple characters), Virginia Fox (Twin), Edward F. Cline (Orangutan trainer), Joe Roberts (Actor/stagehand), Joe Murphy (One of the Zouaves) Production Buster Keaton Comedies 1921 Producer Joseph M. Schenck Direction/Scenario Edward F. Cline and Buster Keaton Photography Elgin Lessley

Print Source Cohen Film Collection

Live Musical Accompaniment by Donald Sosin

Essay by Richard Hildreth

Buster Keaton was born of vaudeville. His mother, the former Myra Edith Cutler, and father, Joseph Hallie Keaton—known simply as “Joe”—were knockabout comics on the late 19th century’s medicine show circuit. Joe and Harry Houdini—later legendary as the ultimate escape artist and dedicated debunker of spiritualist charlatans—were partners in the Mohawk Indian Medicine Company. The traveling show featured Houdini’s prestidigitation and the Keatons’ raucous physical comedy. Keaton, named Joseph Frank on his birth certificate, always claimed that Houdini dubbed him “Buster” in 1897, when the then-two-year-old toddler hurtled head-over-heels down a flight of stairs, rising without a care or a scratch.

The boy was thrown into the Keatons’ family act in 1899. The basic schtick involved the toddler’s disobedience met by the father’s physical violence. The young Keaton quickly learned how to fall, roll, take a punch, and, most importantly, keep an outward veneer of calm while suffering intense pain.

After nearly two decades of touring North America, the act broke up because of Joe Keaton’s drinking. In 1917, Keaton, now 21 years old, met Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, a vaudevillian who had become the most successful comedian in the motion picture business. Keaton, on his own since the family act’s dissolution, asked Arbuckle if he could borrow a camera to learn how it worked. As legend has it, Keaton stayed up all night, disassembling and reassembling the apparatus, until he was certain he understood the magic of movies. History recounts that he returned the camera the next morning and asked Arbuckle for a job.

Together, Arbuckle and Keaton made 14 short subjects. Arbuckle left in 1920 to begin a brief career in feature films, leaving Keaton the sole star of the shorts series. In 1923, after making 45 other shorts under producer Joseph Schenck, Keaton transitioned to feature-length productions with Three Ages, a send-up of D.W. Griffith’s bloated epic Intolerance. He went on to make ten more silent features.

The three shorts showing in Think Slow, Act Fast come from Keaton’s own production unit, Buster Keaton Comedies, and testify to Keaton’s uncanny ability to use an engineer’s approach to building comedy.

One Week is the first film released by Keaton after becoming the primary creative force in Arbuckle’s operation. A parody of Home Made, an instructional film produced in 1919 by the Ford Motor Company promoting prefabricated housing—a linchpin of America’s suburban growth—One Week exaggerates the problems an amateur might encounter with a build-by-numbers house. The young couple assembling their first home in a sub-development—actually the Metro Pictures studio lot—achieve epic levels of architectural disaster that Keaton accomplishes through mechanical wizardry, all of which he designed himself. There is very little camera trickery in this short, all the effects are mechanical, not photographic. For the malformed house to spin in the film’s climax, it was mounted on a massive turntable.

The Scarecrow, also about the pitfalls of technology, presages the automatic kitchen via an elaborate Rube Goldberg apparatus. Offering a glimpse of the transformation of America’s population from rural to suburban in the early 20th century, the film opens inside a single-room farmhouse outfitted with a profusion of labor-saving devices. State-of-the-art technologies like phonographs and natural gas are highlighted in a distinctly agrarian environment, complete with pigs, ducks, and cornfields. A chase sequence follows the progress of the moment, beginning on horseback, moving through a railroad yard, and ending on a motorcycle.  

With The Playhouse, Keaton and his cameraman Elgin Lessley advanced the art of photographic effects with their mechanical ingenuity. On a single strip of 35mm film, they created shots with as many as nine images of Keaton interacting with his multiple selves. To achieve this effect, Lessley masked part of the camera lens, filmed Keaton’s antics, then rewound the film to its original starting frame, moved the lens mask, then filmed the relocated Keaton again. This required precise timing for Keaton’s performance, and excruciating accuracy for Lessley. Once they had begun, there was no way to correct any miscues or misplaced elements in the frame. Unfortunately, the show within the film features Keaton in blackface, a performance that modern audiences find objectionable. (Minstrel shows were a standard element of 1920s live theater, and blackface performances did not entirely vanish from American entertainment until the 1960s.) Keaton and Lessley used the multiple exposures again, most notably in the 1924 feature Sherlock, Jr.

When the “talkies” came along, Keaton’s days as a top box-office draw were numbered. He worked as a gag writer for MGM, he appeared in shorts at Columbia and Educational, he even went back to the stage. Far from forgotten, Keaton remained visible in the 1950s and ’60s. He was Speedy Alka-Seltzer’s comic foil in TV spots and print ads for the fizzy cure-all. He was one of many cameos in the epic 1963 comedy It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. He joked alongside Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello in four “Beach Party” movies, starting with Pajama Party in 1964. He is the reason for “Once Upon a Time,” a nostalgic Twilight Zone episode. In it, Keaton is an ennui-afflicted janitor from the peaceful days of 1890 magically transported to the fabulous future of 1961, where he finds not Utopia, but traffic jams, smog, and noise pollution. The world of the late 19th century is delineated with out-of-tune piano music, title cards, and undercranked camerawork, producing the then-stereotypically “sped-up” look of silent movies.

For a long time, Keaton’s silent-era films could only be seen on worn and scratchy prints muddied from several duplications and format changes circulating at colleges or the few revival houses; or on late-night television, scanned and broadcast from those same sorry film prints. Thankfully, restored versions of all his classic features and most of his noteworthy shorts are now available for home viewing. The availability of his films allows Keaton to continue as an inspiration to today’s performers and filmmakers. Circus legend Geoff Hoyle often cites Keaton as an influence on his work. The godfather of Hong Kong action cinema, Jackie Chan—as renowned for performing his own stunts as Keaton was—told film critic Joe Leydon that “I just want that one day, when I retire, that people will still remember me like they remember Buster.”