He's one of the three most famous silent comedians, with Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd. (You could add Laurel and Hardy to that list, but most of their films are talkies. By the time they were a double act, the sound era was less than two years away.) I'd also never seen any of his work. Despite the title, by the way, I haven't seen all of Buster Keaton's short films. That's just the title of the Masters of Cinema Blu-ray box set, which for accuracy should also say "extant" and "silent". The set doesn't include:
(a) 'A Country Hero' (1917), believed lost
(b) Keaton's talkie shorts from 1934 onwards
This was my Christmas present from Tomoko, but the person who's got the most from it is Natsuki. He's only three years old, mind you. When he first saw a Keaton film, he hadn't quite worked out how to process images on a television. That didn't matter. Buster Keaton sent him berserk anyway. He's uninterested in Laurel and Hardy and I haven't even tried him on Chaplin, but Keaton for a three-year-old is like Superman and Batman at once. Natsuki was exploding with laughter at Keaton films at an age when I hadn't been expecting him even to be capable of reacting like that to a TV.
To an adult (i.e. me), the films are both good and interesting. They're more varied than you might expect. Keaton was versatile. He wrote, directed and acted and he keeps surprising you with what he'll do next. His films had no set format and he'd happily take on any genre, any setting and any style of comedy. Obviously it's always visual and physical, but this could be anything from a stunt-filled chase scene to a very bad garage mechanic. He also loves special effects sequences, usually practical ones like a living room full of gadgets. As a result, some of these films work better than others. The first one I showed Tomoko ('Neighbors') was so manic and plotless that she wasn't interested. It didn't feel like a story. It was just a string of jaw-dropping stunts and sight gags. Others, though, take you off in all kinds of directions. There's a little run of particularly dark ones, with repeated attempted suicides, killing and 'The Boat'. (These were inspired by Keaton's unfortunate first marriage, which he rips off directly in 'My Wife's Relations'.) There are one or two in this run that I won't be showing to Natsuki any time soon, although I'm regularly telling him not to imitate the slapstick. It is violence, after all, and even for comedy there are moments where it's a bit gratuitous.
Keaton himself is incredible too. The only living actor who bears comparison is Jackie Chan, who's called him his primary cinematic influence. What makes Keaton special, even compared with his silent-era peers, is his physicality. He creates and manipulates space. He started out as a child performer, doing physical gags on stage that got his parents got accused of child abuse. To quote Keaton himself... "It's a knack. I started so young that landing right is second nature with me. Several times I'd have been killed if I hadn't been able to land like a cat. Imitators of our act don't last long, because they can't stand the treatment."
He's called "the Great Stone Face", of course, which always put me off a little. I was wrong. What Keaton's (nearly) done is invent modern acting in the silent era. He doesn't pull faces. He doesn't leap around as if his pants are on fire. Instead he plays his roles deadpan, but with his eyes that are always alive. Put that together with his chiselled romantic idol good looks (despite being short) and you've got one hell of a screen presence. The stillness of his face pulls your eyes towards him. Occasionally he'll use his famous lack of reaction in weird ways, e.g. embracing a girl so disinterestedly that he's probably wondering where he left his car keys. However that doesn't make him any less watchable. He's great, unsurprisingly, and it's interesting to see his first screen role in 'The Butcher Boy'. Even as Henchman #2, you can already see his star quality and you hardly notice Henchman #1.
It's a four-disc set and the first disc-and-a-half are Fatty Arbuckle films that co-star Keaton. I was quite excited by this. I'd never seen anything by Arbuckle, who's best remembered today for the rape trial that killed his career. The girl died. That's hardly going to help anyone's reputation... but as it happens Keaton was always a fierce defender of Arbuckle and said "he was no more guilty of that charge than I was". This got Keaton a mild reprimand from his studio. Arbuckle was tried three times for the same crime, thanks to two hung juries, but the third trial ended not just with an acquittal but with a formal written apology from the jury. It begins, "Acquittal is not enough for Roscoe Arbuckle. We feel that a great injustice has been done him." However this made no difference. Arbuckle's films were banned anyway, as indeed was Arbuckle himself from Hollywood. He did some directing under a pseudonym and eventually returned to acting the year before he died. Louise Brooks said of him some years later that, "He made no attempt to direct this picture. He just sat in his director's chair like a dead man. He had been very nice and sweetly dead ever since the scandal that ruined his career."
Anyway, I like Arbuckle the silent-era comedian. Mind you, he's capable of being slightly creepy in a smiley man-child Billy Bunter way. He'd be terrifying if he played a serial killer. In fairness, though, his happy innocence is usually charming, especially in scenes where his character should have theoretically been scared. Apparently that's how he was in real life too. To quote Keaton again: "He was the best friend I ever had. The longer I worked with Roscoe, the more I liked him. Arbuckle was that rarity, a truly jolly fat man. He had no meanness, malice or jealousy in him. Everything seemed to amuse and delight him."
Also, more importantly, Arbuckle's funny, inventive and a gifted physical performer. He's got the hands of a magician and he can hold his own opposite Keaton. (Sometimes they almost have a Laurel and Hardy vibe, with Keaton as the little one and Arbuckle as the fat one. They have on-screen rapport. They could have been a double act and sometimes effectively they are.)
Random comments on individual films...
ARBUCKLE FILMS WITH KEATON (1917-1920)
'The Butcher Boy' (April 1917) - I don't remember anything particular about this one.
'The Rough House' (June 1917) - wow, that fire. That must have been dangerous to film. This film has no plot whatsoever, being just a string of incidents. The sociopathic slapstick violence makes this one I might be reluctant to show to Natsuki, but this also happens to be a particularly funny film. The cups of water, the police recruitment drive...
'His Wedding Night' (August 1917) - that black lady projects fantastically well on screen, while Arbuckle's female co-star is being allowed to be a scruffy tomboy. However this film isn't that funny and is even more dubious than 'The Rough House'. Arbuckle chloroforms a girl to kiss her.
'Oh, Doctor!' (September 1917) - Arbuckle's character here is nasty, violent and appalling. This is black comedy. At one point they're hoping for an epidemic. After this, though, the films' content becomes (mostly) nicer and more acceptable. Somewhere around this time, I think Arbuckle changed studios.
'Coney Island' (October 1917) - the incidental music on my Blu-rays makes this film less funny. Why the singing? However this film isn't disturbing or violent, although it is deeply cynical about men, women and marriage. Arbuckle dresses up in drag and is very good, being less cartoonish than you might expect with Carry On material.
'A Country Hero' (December 1917) - lost film
'Out West' (January 1918) - parody Western. Be warned that it includes a scene where everyone shoots at a black man's feet to make him dance.
'The Bell Boy' (March 1918) - Arbuckle and Keaton are the staff in a hotel where you shouldn't bring your luggage. Arbuckle arranges a mock bank robbery to impress a girl. What could possibly go wrong?
'Moonshine' (May 1918) - a particularly weird one. It's a self-aware parody Western that keeps describing itself as fictional. At one point a character criticises the plot and characterisation. Arbuckle's response: "Our film is only a two-reel short; no time for preliminary love scenes!"
'Good Night, Nurse!' (July 1918) - Arbuckle and that cigarette.
'The Cook' (September 1918) - Arbuckle and Keaton's physical work together is amazing. Natsuki loved the throwing and catching of the knives, food, etc. There's a chase scene with a dog, which I suspect was always the same very busy dog in all these silent comedy shorts. I've seen that animal in a Keystone Kops sequence too. The stunts here are incredible.
'Back Stage' (September 1919) - there's something timeless about ego-crazed stars backstage at a theatre. The star-on-a-rope above the dressing rooms is a nifty idea.
'The Hayseed' (October 1919) - "Don't go to the city to be cheated! Buy here!"
'The Garage' (January 1920) - this film made me want to see Arbuckle and Keaton as Laurel and Hardy. They're a double act. It's almost sad to think that this is their last film together. It's also an interesting glimpse of a time when garages rented out cars, while the mechanics would also be firemen.
KEATON-ONLY SHORT SILENTS (1920-1923)
'One Week' (September 1920) - stunning. How much did this cost to make? Keaton and his new wife receive an unusual wedding present. It's a house... in kit form. This might be Natsuki's favourite, at least judging by how often he's asked to watch it.
'Convict 13' (October 1920) - pretty violent. People get shot and Keaton gets hanged for comedy, although that doesn't go as expected. (Natsuki doesn't have a clue what's happening there but still loves that scene, because it's so wild to look at.)
'Neighbors' (December 1920) - amazing physical gags. This one's pretty violent too, but wow. Edward F. Cline tipping over a car is a particularly good sight gag. (Cline is huge and Keaton made him a regular co-star, just for visual contrast with himself.) Natsuki's favourite bit is Keaton walking across a river on his hands. Natsuki particularly enjoys any comedy with water.
'The Scarecrow' (December 1920) - the Rube Goldberg house is amazing, even if I wouldn't really call it funny.
'The Haunted House' (February 1921) - I'm not wild about the glue sequence, while the haunted house itself is just odd.
'Hard Luck' (March 1921) - "Broke but will work for food!" This is the one where Keaton's character keeps trying to commit suicide. This one isn't for Natsuki just yet. I've seen this film called Keaton's subversion of Chaplin, which is an interesting idea.
'The High Sign' (April 1921) - Keaton ends up having to kill someone and also be their bodyguard. I've never, ever seen a chase scene like the one here.
'The Goat' (May 1921) - staring as unblinkingly at poverty as 'Hard Luck', although of course always for comedy. Keaton gets mistaken for a murderer and looks as if he kills Cline twice.
'The Playhouse' (October 1921) - the theatre sequence is amazing just as a technical tour-de-force, even if it isn't really funny. Keaton plays everyone, both on stage and in the audience. (That's a dream sequence.)
'The Boat' (November 1921) - surreal. Also dark.
'The Paleface' (January 1922) - white men are trying to rip off Native Americans and steal their land. Buster Keaton is a butterfly collector. I love the anti-chase, although later this has some wild stunts even for Keaton. Happily, this film doesn't violate any modern sensibilities.
'Cops' (March 1922) - now that's what I call a cop chase. Natsuki's mind melted.
'My Wife's Relations' (May 1922) - Natsuki didn't like the puzzling bed-hitting scene. This one's dark too. More casual violence, a letter that's never delivered to its rightful owner and Keaton's in-laws trying to kill him. The film also ends so suddenly that one wonders if there's some footage missing.
'The Blacksmith' (July 1922) - my Blu-ray set has both pre-release and release versions of this. They're very different. The release version is definitely the one for Natsuki, since he likes chases and this is a good, inventive one. The careless vandalism of the pre-release version eventually started making me edgy.
'The Frozen North' (August 1922) - another parody Western. At one point Keaton goes into the wrong house and shoots a man for hugging a woman who in fact isn't Keaton's wife. Whoops.
'The Electric House' (October 1922) - another example of Keaton's love of elaborate gadgets.
'Daydreams' (November 1922) - another mega-cop chase, so Natsuki liked that. Keaton's character's fiancee actually acts when he's apparently going to commit suicide.
'The Balloonatic' (January 1923) - Natsuki loves this one for all the river comedy. I like the comic timing of the actress acting opposite Keaton here.
'The Love Nest' (March 1923) - another water-based one for Natsuki. Keaton joins a ship whose captain punishes even minor offences with execution, although fortunately this is realised simply by throwing them overboard. (If you weren't paying attention, it would just look like light-hearted slapstick.) Nonetheless this is another jet black comedy, with at one point Keaton effectively killing anyone on the ship in order to launch a lifeboat. I think there might have been only one man left by that point, though.
In short, these films are remarkable. Not all of Keaton's gags are funny (e.g. some of his super-ambitious Big Set movies), but it's always interesting to see where he's going next. I admire him as a writer/director, as an actor and as a movement-magician. (It's also interesting to read his comments on Hollywood, which are so sharp that they could have been written last week rather than a century ago.) I'm nearly as impressed by him as Natsuki is, actually, and there we're talking about a boy who gets excited to the point of bouncing off the walls, flipping upside-down on the sofa and waving dangerous objects. What next? Well, I'm planning to watch Keaton's most famous feature film soon ('The General'), but I'm thinking of showing Natsuki some other silent comedians too. I think he might like Harold Lloyd...