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Keaton at Educational

The sixteen two-reelers that Buster Keaton made for Educational Pictures between 1934 and 1937 represent a tremendous comedown from his creative peak in the 1920s, but approached with a spirit of low expectations, they can yield some remarkable moments. The most personal of the lot — the one film that seems to consistently reflect Keaton’s bleak existentialism and minimalist mise-en-scene — is probably the 1935 “One Run Elmer,” but there are fleeting glimpses of his brilliance in “The Gold Ghost,” “The E-Flat Man” and “Ditto.” And “The Palooka from Paducah” and “Love Nest on Wheels” both offer fascinating perspectives on Buster en famille, with appearances by his father, mother and sister in supporting roles.

These films have been knocking around the collectors market for years, but now Kino has gathered all sixteen shorts, taken from prints (of variable quality) in the Rohauer Collection, for a definitive two-disc DVD edition. The company has also issued a recently discovered, alternative version of “Steamboat Bill, Jr.,” Keaton’s final independent feature (1928), that uses takes sometimes strikingly different (as in the famous trying-on-hats scene) from the standard print. It’s also of much higher image quality — good enough, apparently, to support a Blu-ray release, though I didn’t receive a copy in time for this week’s column.

My New York Times review of the standard definition disc, as well as the Education collection (titled, with forgivable exaggeration, “Lost Keaton”) is here.

87 comments to Keaton at Educational

  • jean-pierre coursodon

    I remember THE GOLD GHOST, Keaton’s first Educational short, as perhaps his best sound short, although it’s far from being on a par with even the lesser silents. Alone (as he was so often in his best silents) in a definitely ghostly town abandonned by prospectors, he manages to find the elusive gold and brings a new life to the town. The brief scene in which he walks precariously on a wooden sidewalk, tripping over loose, rotten planks is worthy of his best moments of visual, physical comedy.

    The second Educational short, ALLEZ OOP, is much less successful in spite of a very Keatonian closing gag that reminds one of NEIGHBORS. The second reel is full of impressive but not very funny pratfalls by Keaton trying to become a trapeze artist (to please his girl, of course — it’s Dorothy Sebastian from SPITE MARRIAGE). After these first two shorts (ALLEZ OOP was released in May 1934) Keaton went to Europe where he starred in two features and he didn’t return to Educational until early 1935.

    I didn’t see all the Educational shorts and I haven’t seen the ones that I did see since the early seventies. Aside from the first two, I found them all pretty awful, with sometimes a fleeting flash of the old genius. GRAND SLAM OPERA has its fans — notably Blesh and Maltin, but the latter is notoriously over-generous toward Keaton’s sound films. DITTO didn’t work for me at the time, although (or maybe because)THE PLAYHOUSE is the obvious inspiration. The two-DVD set sounds like a good opportunity to look at those shorts again (on the whole they’re better, or not as bad as, the Columbia shorts).

  • jean-pierre coursodon

    The alternate print of STEAMBOAT BILL Jr. (my favorite Keaton feature) is great news. And B.K. deserves no less than blu-ray!

  • Gregg Rickman

    Fine piece, Dave, thank you. What a holiday treat. I agree with you about the merits of STEAMBOAT BILL, and the superiority the Educationals have over both Keaton’s previous MGM sound features and upcoming Columbia Studios shorts. They’re a creative rebirth amid a literal desert of poor production values, and it’s appropriate that both THE GOLD GHOST was first in the series, and singled out by you. You were particularly astute to pick up the themes of “failure and shame” that animate these films, demonstrating both Keaton’s imput into these works and the deep mark his MGM studio experience had left on him. TARS AND STRIPES really drove this home to me when I saw it some years ago.

    I might add JAIL BAIT to your list of interesting films in the Educational collection if only for its very Keatonesque theme of the heavy hand of fate… something Keaton has in common with another great silent director whose career was overtaken by events in 1933, Fritz Lang. The fact that BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT can be seen as Lang’s remake of the Keaton short helps drive this home!

    Traditionally, only GRAND SLAM OPERA has won any respect from Keaton’s earlier commentators, and I do like it a lot as well; it’s timely in as much it parodies the 1930s version of “American Idol,” “Major Bowes’ Amateur Hour.”

  • Tom Brueggemann

    Sorry for the intrusion, but for those interested on Encore Western this week –

    — tomorrow (Monday) 4:30 pm PDT (I believe also EDT) a Virginian episode directed by Ida Lupino

    — then Tues, Weds, Thurs at 8 am PDT/EDT the first three episodes of Maverick, all directed by Budd Boetticher

    — and Thurs 7:05 pm, Gunsmoke: Thursday’s Child, Joseph H. Lewis

    There’s a Lew Landers episode of Cheyenne on Wednesday late afternoon as well

  • Dave Kehr,

    Thank you for the wonderful article on Buster Keaton. Keaton is my favorite comedy director. Can’t wait to see all the films you describe.

    The only Educational seen here is GRAND SLAM OPERA. Saw it with my mother. She reminisced about how a kid from her neighborhood made it to “Major Bowes’ Amateur Hour.” It was a huge big deal for everyone in the neighborhood.

  • david hare

    Jean-Pierre, it’s been mentioned before but Kino kicked off their Blu Ray catalogue (more or less) last year with The General. The image is so beautiful it brings tears to the eyes. These new prints/restorations look even better than the lovely MK2 DVDs which themselves were a big step up from the older Kino DVDs.

    Sherlock Jnr is in the lineup for next BK Blu!

  • J.R. Jones

    I think by “Lost Keaton” they probably mean him, not the movies. Wasn’t this around the time he woke up from a bender married to some woman he didn’t recognize?

    I’m eager to see these shorts, though what I really wish Kino would do is collect his 1920-’22 shorts on a two-disc set. They’re so different from the features that they deserve to be watched and appreciated on their own merits, not as extras. They should have reconfigured their whole Keaton set when they issued it on DVD.

    Does anyone know why Kevin Brownlow’s Keaton documentary has never come out on DVD? I found it once on a bulky set of three VHS tapes, remaindered at a Coconuts Records, but those are starting to crap out on me. It can’t be a rights problem, because 99 percent of the clips are from the Rohauer collection. (On the other hand, it’s always the other 1 percent that gums things up.)

  • jean-pierre coursodon

    J.R.: Keaton’s nineteen 1920-1922 silent shorts have been issued separately a number of times, most recently, I think, in a “Masters of Cinema” four disc set (2006) that also includes the thirteen Arbuckle-Keaton shorts of 1917-1919. The set comes with a 183 page booklet that includes a roundtable about Keaton by Dan Sallitt, Brad Stevens and yours truly.

  • jean-pierre coursodon

    david, I am aware of the Kino blu-ray of THE GENERAL but I still haven’t watched it.Somehow I have always been reluctant to watch Keaton’s films on a TV screen and I’m glad I was able to see them all in theaters back in the sixties and seventies. But of course the blu-ray is a must.I’ll get around to it for sure. And SHERLOCK JR in blu-ray is good news indeed.

  • Gabe Klinger

    J.R.: Brownlow’s “A Hard Act to Follow” was released on DVD in Italy by the Cineteca di Bologna:

    It appears to be out of print, though I saw it for sale last week at Il Cinema Ritrovato. Perhaps you can find a copy on an Italian DVD site or eBay…

    Brownlow’s thirteen part “Hollywood” was listed on Amazon UK at one point but doesn’t seem to have ever been released. The case with this one is that he is probably waiting to do a complete overhaul. For example, using clips of films which have now been found in supremely better versions.

  • Alex

    “But Keaton, back to his old imperturbable self, somehow senses that a shower is coming, and calmly reaches into his lair to produce an umbrella. There’s the Buster we know and love: not the passive victim of the hostile environment in which he finds himself, but its secret master.”

    Great stuff!

    (For all his “mastery,” the calm may be a little deceptive, the stout fellow, like many a hero, a bit beleaguered. No surprise that Samuel Becket (“… must go on. I can’t go on, I’ll go on”) cast Keaton in his film.

  • What interesting news! These “new” films seem to be a fascinating addition to Sony’s Buster Keaton Collection (2006) and Industrial Strength Keaton (Mackinac Media 2005). I don’t know if any decent, official releases of Doughboys, The Passionate Plumber, Free and Easy and Sidewalks of New York, are out yet? I happened to get a glimpse of these via the friendliness of an American film expert…

    Here in Europe Brownlow and Gill’s BK – A Hard Act to Follow seems to be readily available at least on Amazon France and UK. I’m one happy owner!

    Last month at The Midnight Sun Film Festival in Sodankylä, Finland, there were 800 happy people who got into an old circus tent to watch Keaton’s The General accompanied by a Finnish Jazz Group. Having first seen the film in the seventies on tv, I had gotten my hands on a copy of the film first on Super-8, then on VHS (perhaps even on Beta!) and finally on DVD. Of course, when I get my system updated into Blu-ray, The General will be my first purchase!

    But what I was trying to say: as I had never seen The General in a theatre with an audience, how wonderful it was to see with people (mostly young) many of whom probably had never seen a Keaton film before. Also David Robinson was there and commented happily on people getting all the visual jokes.

    By the way, Mr. Robinson told me (I did an interview for Keskipohjanmaan newspaper that he had written an update version of his 1969 book Buster Keaton, intending it to be a “gagography” of the Keaton oeuvre. And now he is looking for the right publisher. Of course, having at hand a person who is an authority on both Keaton and Chaplin, I brought up the old (and childish, I admit) quarrel of who’s the best film artist, Chaplin or Keaton…

  • Thoroughly lovely piece, Dave. And let me heartily add my recommendation of the Blu-ray of this; the Keaton estate cut in particular is just beautiful on it.

    Kino’s video division always had its heart in the right place but didn’t always have its tech sorted. Blu-ray seems to be changing this. The concern has not, to my mind/eye, put a foot wrong in its BR disc releases; “Potemkin,” the Wong Kar-Wai stuff, “The General,” this title, and the recent Koch/Lorber BR of “Home,” all look spectacular.

  • D. K. Holm

    I appreciate Dave pointing out that Keaton is the great problem solver of comedians not a sad sack. I’ve lamented that Jim Carrey in Ace Ventura followed this tradition (in my view, brilliantly) only to undermine that tone in the sequel by reverting to “buffoon” mode.

  • James L. Neibaur

    I have a book on the Keaton talkies, THE FALL OF BUSTER KEATON, being released later this month by Scarecrow Press. I found the Educationals to often be very impressive, but sometimes quite weak. The ones that stand out include The Gold Ghost, Allez Oop, Jail Bait, and One Run Elmer. Allez Oop might be the best of this lot. I was a bit underwhelmed by Grand Slam Opera, actually. Perhaps the most disappointing of the Educational efforts is The Timid Young Man, where Keaton is directed by Mack Sennett. Neither man appeared to be inspired by the other in the making of this rather dull comedy, leading me to believe that both were simply at the point of going through the motions by this time.

    I thought the more aggressive Columbia two-reelers were uniformly interesting, even if only for presenting Keaton’s comic ingenuity allowing him to confront offbeat material with surprising success on some films. Pest From The West and Pardon My Berth Marks have a lot of interesting ideas that are certainly of Keaton’s contribution.

    But while investigating the talkies, I did discover that there are many gems hidden among the dross, and the uninitiated will do well to pick up Kino’s collection of Educational shorts.

  • Barry Putterman

    D.K., I have only a vague memory of Jim Carrey as Ace Ventura and would be interested in hearing how you see him functioning as a problem solver.

    It is indeed rare for competence to be at the center of a comic personality. It might be worthwhile to think about what qualities within a comic persona allow for the acceptence of competence by the general audience.

  • Gregg Rickman

    As an admirer of James Neibaur’s book on the Arbuckle-Keaton shorts I am very much looking forward to his book on Keaton in the 1930s. I was already aware from his posts on that he prefers the Columbias to the Educationals; I find the Educationals (even the weak ones) to be generally pleasant, but the Columbias suffer from the heavy hand of Jules White, their producer and usual director. We can apply the auteur theory here if we wish: Charles Lamont, who directed most of the Educationals, was a weak director and as such an ideal conduit for Buster’s ideas. White had his own notions about what was funny, and Keaton had to visibly struggle to insert his character bits in the White-directed Columbias: Whites like THE SPOOK SPEAKS and HIS EX MARKS THE SPOT are excruciating, as Buster is tortured by his loud wife and brother in law (or whatever Matt McHugh is) for twenty minutes. By contrast, Del Lord-directed Columbias like PEST FROM THE WEST are rather better. Just my opinion; I look forward eagerly to reading Neibaur’s take.

  • Johan Andreasson

    One example of competence as the essence of a comic personality would be the character Fabian Bom played in a series of films from the 40s and 50s by Swedish comedian Nils Poppe. Bom is the perfect soldier (sometimes also civil servant – his main trait is an incredible sense of duty) who drives his officers crazy by carrying out to the letter the most impossible and demeaning orders, always with a smile. It’s perhaps no big surprise that Fabian Bom was also popular in Germany.

    To most people outside Sweden Poppe these days is probably only familiar as the jester Jof in Bergman’s THE SEVENTH SEAL.

  • Jim Carrey I’ll have to watch Ace Ventura again today in search of details and evidence, but as I recall he is generally smarter than his opponents and various officials, he catches flying bullets (if I remember right – and of course it is an act that is not realistic, like Keaton’s clever problem solving, such as being perched on a cattle scoop and using one piece of lumber to knock aside an upcoming piece of lumber on the train track), and in the end the character does solve the case.

  • Barry Putterman

    Johan, like practically everybody else on this side of the Atlantic, I am unfamiliar with Nils Poppe. From your description, it sounds as though he retains audience sympathy by remaining the innocent underling who shows up his pompous superiors without consciously trying to do so. Hopefully, we will some day have the opportunity to see his films.

    I was thinking of somebody like Raymond Griffith, who is all but consumed with his own ingenuity and still manages to retain audience identification. Maybe Gregg Rickman has some thoughts here. The only one I can think of who modeled a character on Griffith, almost literally, was Jackie Gleason with Reginald Van Gleason III. Maybe Jim Carrey as Ace Ventura will also fall into that category on further review.

  • My mother and I thought Gleason’s character “Reginald Van Gleason III” was based on the real life archetypal wastrel millionaire Reginald Claypoole Vanderbilt. Reginald Vanderbilt squandered nearly 12 million in trust funds by the time he died of alcohol abuse at age 42. He had the same idiotic Society mustache sported by Reginald Van Gleason, and his photos really look like The Great One. We never read anything official; we just noticed the resemblance. A favorite Gleason sketch: Reggie swears off drinking, and empties all his secret caches of booze around the house. They are in every piece of furniture…

    As a kid, saw the “The Jackie Gleason Show” episode The Honeymooners: Life Upon the Wicked Stage (1967). The crew take part in an Amateur Hour contest. Robert Goulet, then at the height of his fame, played one of the contestants. He is just getting going with his song when a big hook comes out from the wings and pulls him off the stage 🙂

  • Barry Putterman

    Mike, I knew nothing of Reginald Vanderbilt, but I’m sure that you and your mom are right in thinking that he played a big part in Gleason’s character conception.

  • Barry,
    You could well be right too, about Reginald Van Gleason III having roots in Raymond Griffith. The two really do dress alike.
    I wonder what Gleason said about the character, if anything.

  • Is there a more brilliant film than SHERLOCK JR.? It’s a great shame that I’ve seen so few of Keaton’s shorts. There was a retrospective in Stockholm many years ago, and I saw a selected few, but it’s mainly the long features I’ve seen. But usually in crap versions.

    Johan, isn’t Bom related to The Good Soldier Švejk, the “hero” in the novel with the same name by Jaroslav Hašek? (Incidentally, Poppe did play Švejk on stage, later in his career.) Here’s a clip from SOLDAT BOM (Private Bom 1948), with Poppe and Gunnar Björnstrand.

    It’s directed by Lars-Erik Kjellgren. He began his career doing satirical comedies, and then in the 50s alternated between such films and tough films about the harsh life in the big city. Some are remarkably good, including the one he did with Bergman, NATTENS LJUS (Night Light 1957), but they are sadly neglected. Johan, have you seen any of them?

  • Barry Putterman

    Mike, I agree that we are both right since many ideas go into the creation of a comedy character. I don’t know what, if anything, Gleason said about the creation of any of his characters. However, it is rather appearant to me from watching him that he was a close student of silent era comedy. You can see Laurel & Hardy all over the Ralph Kramden/Ed Norton relationship and much of his pantomime work was influenced by the silent era as well. Further, the man did not continually refer to “the ever popular Mae Busch” for nothing.

  • Johan Andreasson

    Fredrik, there is indeed elements of The Good Soldier Svejk in Bom, in that he’s the cheerful underdog who never loses his composure and always does his best (… “the innocent underling who shows up his pompous superiors without consciously trying to do so”, to quote Barry) – but it’s hard imagining Svejk as a pedantic bureaucrat meticulously going by the book, always doing his duty. Perhaps you’ve visited Soldaten Svejk, one of the oldest and best pubs in Stockholm with a fine selection of Czech beer on tap. You can’t really picture a pub named after Soldier Bom.

    I’ve only seen older movies by Lars-Erik Kjellgren, like the Bom movies and “Greven från gränden” (“The Lord from the Lane”, also with Poppe), none of the big city stuff – I’ll look out for them though.

    All I can say about the Keaton shorts is that you’re in for a treat once you get to them – I don’t laugh as hard at Keaton’s shorts as Laurel and Hardy’s, but the Keatons are brilliantly inventive, moving in every direction at a breathtaking speed – not unlike Dutch forward Arjen Robben in the World Cup semifinal earlier tonight.

    Speaking about actors emulating a silent comedians style: This may be a long shot, but isn’t there a lot of Keaton in Jean-Pierre Léaud’s performance in Truffaut’s “Two English Girls”?

  • J.R. Jones

    The Keaton two-reelers you’ve gotta see are ONE WEEK, THE BOAT, THE PLAYHOUSE, and COPS. Also there’s this short where he and his roommate have a house with all sorts of crazy labor-saving devices (a dinner table with the dishes glued on, so they can hoist the tabletop parallel to the wall and spray the dishes down with a hose). I think it’s THE SCARECROW, but I’m sure one of these aces can fill in the title if I’m wrong.

    Keaton wouldn’t have nearly the reputation he does now without those shorts.

  • Isn’t one of Švejk’s characteristics that he merrily follow any order, no matter how absurd?

    The pub is indeed great, I try to go there every time I’m in Stockholm. The only problem is that it’s always a long waiting list if you want to eat the good food! I studied Czech (the language) for a year, and I’ve tried to keep the connection ever since, mostly through film, books and food, with the odd trip to Prague.

    I’ve seen some Keaton shorts. One I remember is THE ELECTRIC HOUSE, which was quite something. And then there’s of course FILM, that he made with Beckett in the 60s.

  • I am reeling with excitement over this release, thank you so much for the review. I was only recently made aware of the existence of Educational Pictures thanks to a research project and was intrigued to learn of Keaton’s shorts for them— never once considering the films might actually be made available on disc. (O’ me of little faith! All things are possible with Kino!) Equally exciting is the chance to see an alternate cut of STEAMBOAT BILL JR., especially since you mentioned a variation in the ‘hat shop’ sequence—one of my absolute * favorite * sequences in any comedy feature, silent or sound.

  • Gregg Rickman

    J. R. Jones is correct about THE SCARECROW being the Keaton short with the labor saving devices. Thirty years later the routine was repurposed for the opening scene of
    AN AMERICAN IN PARIS. (Not one of his official credits, but Keaton often wrote gags for MGM films.)

    Barry is correct about Raymond Griffith’s endless ingenuity. Audiences loved this in 1925-7 as a break with silent comedy format, just as they loved Harry Langdon’s similar break with routine; Walter Kerr wrote about Langdon’s playing with the conventions in his book on silent comedy. Regarding Jackie Gleason, he apparently modeled his “Poor Soul” character after another silent comic, Lloyd Hamilton (this according to Hamilton’s biographer, Anthony Balducci). Gleason was before my time, so can’t say more about any other similarities between his work and Griffith’s.

  • Barry Putterman

    Gregg, I understand that some of that ancient Gleason material is still floating around in the home video market. My personal feeling is that you might find it quite enjoyable. But even if you don’t, at the very least it provides a wider context of understanding of how the silent comedians we both revere impacted the history of the art. So why not give it a look see? Really, it’s alright. Lloyd Hamilton would have approved.

  • Gregg Rickman

    Barry, oddly enough I’m more interested in the 1920s than the 1950s (or the 2010s)… while I do like some comics of the fifties or currently, I’ve never responded to Gleason. He was still on tv in the later 1960s, when I was a boy, every Saturday (?) night in his color show from Miami, and it wasn’t for me. There always seemed to be a harsh edge to him and his humor. I am however sympathetic to the Gleason project your propose in that as I’ve learned from this thread that he was variously inspired by Griffith, Hamilton and Laurel & Hardy… and Chaplin, if anyone here saw his feature GIGOT (directed by Gene Kelly, no less).

    Speaking of which, it’s hardly an original theory with me that musical stars like Astaire and Kelly (together with animated cartoons) took the place of the great silent comedians (for audiences, who missed them) in their command of both the medium and in their magical physical abilities. To that end, check out Buster’s parody of Fred Astaire’s sand dance in TOP HAT in his Educational short GRAND SLAM OPERA.

  • Barry Putterman

    Gregg, I’m cool with being more into the 20s than the 50s. After all, I’m the guy who keeps waving the flag for swing era jazz. I’ll just say that starting with Gleason in the 60s is a bit like starting with Keaton in the 30s (or Bob Hope in the 50s–minus SON OF PALEFACE). That said, I think you correctly identify a barely controlled rage within Gleason which can be very off-putting. I wish I could remember which former Gleason writer it was I heard say this, but his take was that there was such a huge division between Gleason’s characters: Reginald Van Gleason III, Rudy the Repairman, Charlie the loudmouth on the one hand and The Poor Soul et. al. on the other, because it confirmed Gleason’s core believe that nice people are born to get stepped on and only louts succeed in life.

    As for the theory that the spirit of silent comedy was carried on later in other genres; I have two words, Jackie Chan.

  • I am not too sure where this stands within the evaluation of Buster Keaton’s career. But my introduction to him was in Gerald Potterton’s National Film Board short-feature THE RAILROADER (1965). In it he travels on rail tracks across Canada from East to West. I remembered it being enjoyable not only for his presence and physical comedic gags but also the historical of footage. I really liked the view of the Parliament buildings when he comes in to Ottawa. I saw the film at a local repertory in a double bill with THE GENERAL (1926). Afterwards I jested to friends: So that’s what happens to silent film stars, they retreat to the Canadian North!

    You can watch the film here: The NFB has a terrific online database of their older films. You can do a search by director and I would personally recommend the ones by Gilles Carles, Arthur Lipsett and Guy Maddin.

  • J.R. Jones

    Forget about Gleason–if you want to see a 50s TV comedian who explored his young medium the way Keaton did his, track down the old Ernie Kovacs kinescopes.

  • nicolas saada will be pleased to see more plugs for Kovacs – he’s been singing the praises of his TV & film work round these parts for a while.

    David – forgive the nitpicky/minor correction, but it’s THE RAILRODDER. As a fellow Canadian that was also my introduction to Keaton. Not the best gateway, but effective nonetheless.

  • J.R. Jones

    When I was a kid, PBS ran a multipart series of the Ernie Kovacs stuff, and it’s genius. The Nairobi Trio segments remind me a lot of THE PLAYHOUSE–funny, but also deeply weird.

  • Gregg Rickman

    J.R., I take your point and I love Ernie Kovacs, but to me Kovacs has more in common with the experimental silent comedian Charley Bowers (flourished circa 1927)… or a video artist like William Wegman… than with the classicist filmmaker Buster Keaton. Granting that THE PLAYHOUSE and SHERLOCK JR are formally inventive (even, if you like, radically experimental) works, most of the rest of his major work in the 1920-28 period can be used to define classical narrative filmmaking at its early peak. A key difference that hasn’t come up yet between silent and sound Keaton (oddly, for an auteurist site) is the fact that Keaton was the credited or de facto director of that major work. From ONE WEEK to STEAMBOAT BILL JR flows a stream of narratively complex, purely visual storytelling on the level of cinema’s greatest artists at their own peaks: Renoir, Ozu, Ford, Mizoguchi, Dreyer… there are perhaps a few others. (Sternberg, for example, seems more interested in creating a mood than in relating a story, which makes him the greatest avant garde artist ever to crash Hollywood. The titanic achievements of Welles and post-classical greats like Godard are inseparable from their soundtracks, which is not the case of the aforementioned masters of silence.) ALLEZ OOP may have Keatonian creativity behind its conception, characterization and gags, but it has Charles Lamont’s completely inadequate staging of its action sequences as well to weigh it down (and/or Keaton and Lamont couldn’t finesse their film’s tiny budget).

    (I’ll grant that a counterargument could be made valorizing Keaton’s experimental work as his finest, and there’s some of that going on in Andrew Horton’s 1997 anthology “Buster Keaton’s SHERLOCK JR,” particularly in Henry Jenkins’ opening essay. I’m not at all unsympathetic with this argument but don’t feel the need to prefer either Keaton’s classical or experimental sides; it’s all from the same wellspring.)

    Barry, I fell in love with Keaton at around the same time (age 16) I encountered two other loves, early jazz and baroque music. Keaton, Morton and Bach all swing within strictly prescribed limits; the tension between the form that constrains them and the freedom with which they play with that form is at the heart of their genius.
    Jackie Chan at his best was a physical genius on the level of Keaton at his peak, but his Hong Kong work is merely a sketchy setting for that mastery. (As for his Hollywood work, let’s hear it for Jules White.)

    THE RAILRODDER (and its accompanying “making of” short film BUSTER KEATON RIDES AGAIN) is a charming late coda to Keaton’s two-thirds of a century of creativity (from when he started performing on stage at age five, until his death at age 70, 1900-1966).

  • Thanks to Gregg Rickman for bringing up also The Railrodder’s accompanying 55 minute documentary by John Spotton (available on Image Entertainment’s DVD). Made in 1965 it clearly shows that despite “the fall of BK”, Keaton was a contented and happy man at work and at leisure in his last years.

    I saw his features (“the Keaton dozen” if you count Spite Marriage) on Finnish television in the early 70s and was hooked. It could be said that my “serious” film interest really began with his films and finding Rudi Blesh’s Keaton-book at the Kokkola city library (my firs film book in English!). Keaton’s short films are great and his features of such even quality, that it is really amazing that the great features were all made within five years!

    Because Keaton worked all his life also afterwards, this begs the question, into what direction he would have moved if he had followed Chaplin’s advice and stayed independent and not gone to MGM. But since his last and great and funny films apparently were not successes, maybe he didn’t have a choice? And the independent days were over also because his team had broken up also because these craftsmen were sought after for other film projects in the burgeoning industry.

    There is at least one book on Keaton which supposes that since all the Keaton films were chases (or “swinging within strictly prescribed limits” like Mr. Rickman says), how long would Keaton have been able to carry that “formula”. Or if he had stayed independent, would he have flourished into as many sided artist as Chaplin (a Verdoux, perhaps, but avoiding making Chaplin’s bad later films…)

    “…Buster Keaton who was so far ahead of his time that we are still running to catch up with him.” Beautifully put by Mr. Kehr! As a Keaton fanatic I got a long lasting trauma when in the 80s I read Dwight Macdonald’s foreword to Keaton’s My Wonderful World of Slapstick: “(Chaplin)…was a pantomimic genius to whom Buster in single combat, mano a mano, is not just inferior – he isn’t even in the same league.” But isn’t Keaton’s remarkably graceful stillness sometimes more poetic than Chaplin’s graceful dance? Fortunately Macdonald also wrote that even the slightest of Keaton’s features is better film than Chaplin’s The Gold Rush…

    After reading about the French master Eric Rohmer’s passing, I started to read his thoughts in the book The Taste for Beauty (Cambridge University Press 1989). I found this about Keaton: “Buster Keaton is not only one of the greatest comics of the screen but also one of the most authentic geniuses of film.” Rohmer argues that Chaplin’s visual jokes make us laugh even when they are described verbally to us. But Keaton’s comedy makes sense only when seen: “The impossibility of describing the humor… guarantees the authenticity of its cinematic value.”

    Beckett’s name has already been brought up. Rohmer also thinks that Keaton, much more than Chaplin or even Langdon approaches, “…the inhuman world of Kafka”.

  • Brad Stevens

    “J. R. Jones is correct about THE SCARECROW being the Keaton short with the labor saving devices. Thirty years later the routine was repurposed for the opening scene of
    AN AMERICAN IN PARIS. (Not one of his official credits, but Keaton often wrote gags for MGM films.) ”

    AN AMERICAN IN PARIS also includes an extended tribute to THE PLAYHOUSE.

  • Gregg Rickman

    Thanks, Hannu, for the good comments. There seems to be quite a Scandinavian fan club for Buster on this site! (Is Finland considered Scandinavia? Sorry if I’ve offended!)

    Dwight MacDonald and Eric Rohmer are just two of several commentators who have written well on Keaton; he seems to inspire people. It’s interesting to speculate how he would have developed after 1928. The cost overruns of THE GENERAL began to curtail his freedom after the end of 1926, but he had already taken the nostalgic turn we find in THE GENERAL and later, in STEAMBOAT BILL. I’ve been doing my own researches into hitherto unresearched realms of Keatonia, and he had planned to do a film called THE GAY 90S after THE GENERAL (it’s announced in the trades in early 1927). It got cancelled in favor of the run-for-cover project COLLEGE. (Yes, I do like COLLEGE.) Later on, at Metro, he proposed a western in which Marie Dressler would have played his mom; it’s long been my theory that it would have been a film about his relationship with his mom the same way “Steamboat Bill Sr.” is his dad (Ernest Torrance even looks like Joe Keaton). The key point is that by 1926-8 Keaton was slipping out of sympathy with his contemporary era – surprising for an artist only in his early 30s. While in 1920-25 he’s on the cutting edge of the developing classical cinema, his cinematic style was unaffected by the impact of Germanic style in 1926-8 unlike his contemporaries John Ford, Howard Hawks et al. He did evidently relish the challenge of sound, envisioning a dialogue-light, sound effects-heavy use of the new medium that he wasn’t allowed to develop at MGM in the sad films of 1930-32. There are occasional moments when Keaton and his director, Ed Sedgwick, do create a nice pantomimic scene with a creative use of sound, notably in the hotel check-in scene of PARLOR BEDROOM AND BATH: an audible riot of muttering, squeaky floors and dripping water. As Dave indicates, films like THE GOLD GHOST allowed Keaton to continue his experiments, albeit in a less than pristine laboratory! The noise level of the Jules White Columbias, unfortunately, is permanently set to a loud angry squawk.

    I never put down Chaplin, a great mime and a great film artist in his own right. Sure, I prefer Keaton to Chaplin, but as I prefer him to all other comedians and most other filmmakers that’s hardly a surprise. Keaton was a great mime – see his scene in the jail with his dad in STEAMBOAT BILL for proof – and Chaplin’s presentational filmmaking style was perfect for what he wanted to accomplish. And, he was able to perfect some of the ideas about sound Keaton had had himself. Chaplin’s mix of music and sound effects in CITY LIGHTS and MODERN TIMES are perfect, and his gibberish speeches in THE GREAT DICTATOR are brilliant. I actually like all of Chaplin’s late films, too, even including A COUNTESS FROM HONG KONG, which is a screwball comedy he should have made with Paulette Goddard in 1937 instead of thirty years later. It has the same out-of-time quality of the late films of Ford (7 WOMEN) and other auteurs well liked on this site.

  • Gregg Rickman

    Brad notes “AN AMERICAN IN PARIS also includes an extended tribute to THE PLAYHOUSE.” Quite so, which points out how deeply Keaton’s cinema is rooted in the pre-classical cinema of the 1900s, which played on the same vaudeville bills The Three Keatons trod the boards with. Kevin Brownlow’s documentary on European silent cinema includes a clip from a Melies short in which Georges plays all the instruments in an orchestra, just as Keaton would in THE PLAYHOUSE and Oscar Levant would in AN AMERICAN IN PARIS. Did young Buster see that short? He may well have, or something like it.

  • Barry Putterman

    Gregg. I’m not quite sure what you mean when you call Jackie Chan’s elaborate and precise set pieces “sketchy.” Maybe you could fill out that idea at some point.

    Personally, I’m not all that surprised that Keaton’s run of public favor run only about ten years. That is the usual run for a comedian. And the exceptions such as Hope or Skelton usually have to do with their ability to make successful transitions to new mediums; radio, television, etc. And while we can talk speculatively about experimental ideas Keaton had for sound films, who besides Laurel & Hardy actually made the transition? Nobody else had the control of his own fate to continue making silent films with music tracks the way Chaplin did. And while Lloyd’s work in the 30s may not be as sad a case as Keaton’s, it still remains quite a comedown.

    By the way, I love your precise and accurate description of the tension between the constricted and inventive elements in art. And that Morton and Bach are right fair to middlin’ practitioners.

  • jean-pierre coursodon

    The best writings about Keaton I’ve read are Walter Kerr’s in is superb “The Silent Clowns” and Petr Kral’s in “Les Burlesques ou Parade des Somnanbules” — the latter I have already praised on this blog some time ago. Also important, indeed fascinating is Robert Benayoun’s compilation of several articles into a book called “Le Regard de Buster Keaton” (which was unfortunately translated in English as “The Look of Buster Keaton.”)And of course, going back in time, there was Judith Erebe’s famous (in France)1927 “Crapouillot” article; and let’s not forget Bunuel’s review od COLLEGE calling the film “beautiful like a bathroom.”

    An excellent and comparatively little known Keaton book was Daniel Moews’ s 1977 “Keaton, The Silent Features Close Up.” I’m going to shamelessly blow my own horn here by quoting Moews, who was one of the very few American critics who ever mentioned my own Keaton book: “… the closest to an indispensable book on Keaton is Jean-Pierre Coursodon’s “Buster Keaton” (Paris 1973)” (my note: a completely rehauled new edition was published in 1987). In a nearly two-page discussion of the book Moews wrote: “The most interesting sections, for one American reader, are those who seem more characteristically French, like a discussion of “La mise-en-scene Keatonienne” (a proclamation of style as content in which Keaton’s handling of the camera, of film space, of characters in space, are all analyzed, synthesized, and eulogized into a profound world view.”) Even when Moews made fun of what he considered some “cranky” analyses (such as “Ejection et nostalgie matricielle”) he noted that “that is rarely Coursodon’s fault but instead reflects the crazy critical world in which he is immersed.” Now I’ll put away the horn, but thanks again Mr. Moews wherever you are…

    Of course a lot of good stuff has been written about keaton in the past twenty years or so. Although I don’t agree with the efforts of some who bend over backword to discover flashes of genius in the talking features and shorts (I absolutely hate all the features) I’d be the first to admit that my discussion of the thirties shorts in my book was rather superficial. So, like Gregg I’ll be looking forward to Mr. Neibaur’s book.

  • I remember reading James Agee’s “Comedy’s Greatest Era” and desiring to have been born in an earlier time to have been able to experienced cinematic physical humor as it was being created. I look forward to acquiring this DVD collection.

    The Agee piece can be found online here:

  • Gregg Rickman

    Barry, thanks for the good words. The direction we find in Chan’s Chinese films is sketchy (competent, average), no worse than the direction of, say, Laurel & Hardy’s sound films. Chan deserved a director who directed (to paraphrase M. Coursodon) “the camera, film space, and characters in space… into a profound world view;” in other words, a directing genius comparable to Chan’s physical genius. Sammo Hung and Chan himself are his best directors, so near as I can tell, but only in one film of the dozen or so Chan films I’ve seen have I spied a scene where the filmmaker used cinematic space inventively. Can’t say what film it was, but a series of blue doors kept opening up as Chan advanced through them, and for a brief few minutes the film was worthy of what it was showcasing.

    Jean-Pierre, I’m aware of your book looming over the Parisian horizon, and would love to read it. My French is merely guidebook quality, but I was able to work my way through Herve Dumont’s book on Frank Borzage (which I picked up in Paris in 1998) before its recent English translation. Unfortunately your book was not on sale when I was in that Left Bank bookstore. I’ve also read Kral’s essay on Larry Semon, Englished in Paul Hammond’s surrealist film crit reader “The Shadow and Its Shadow,” but have never seen his “Les Burlesques ou Parade des Somnanbules” (great title). Agee’s essay, Kerr’s book, Moews’ book are all very good as are a number of other studies I’ve seen; as I say, if you love Keaton, chances are you’re a good writer. I look forward to seeing David Robinson’s expansion of his classic 1968 book on Keaton, the first book on him I ever read.

    Keaton scholars tend to fall into two groups, those interested in his post-1927 work, and those who (perhaps correctly) disdain it as unworthy of his masterpieces of the silent era. The most extreme of these was Gerald Mast, whose description of the Educationals in his “The Comic Mind” (1973) refer to Keaton and Langdon in them as “comic corpses… living dead” (p. 196). If I’m not mistaken Jean-Pierre more or less falls into this group, correctly pointing out the impoverishment of Keaton the screen presence, minus Keaton the director. By contrast, the last two decades have seen the rise of a comic scholarship that flattens out the difference between the different eras, seeing the Arbuckle-Keaton, solo Keaton, and sound-Keaton work as exactly comparable. This can be found in both academic works such as Andrew Horton’s 1997 anthology “Buster Keaton’s SHERLOCK JR” (which I mentioned above), particularly in Henry Jenkins’ opening essay, and in fan websites like, and that of the Silent Comedy Mafia. Dave’s essay which started all this seems to have the right balance, recognizing as it does the superiority of a film like STEAMBOAT BILL JR, while also not denying the “flashes of genius” in the better Educationals. In my opinion Buster Keaton the artist did not die with the loss of his studio, but continued working when and how he could for the remaining decades of his life.

  • Jean-Pierre Coursodon,

    What books have you written?
    Your Buster Keaton book sounds great from that Daniel Moew’s quote. I will look out for it when I go to Paris later on in the year.

    I remembered you mentioned your first article for Positif was a review of THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST (1988). I was able to find it at my university library. I liked how you put the film within the larger context of representations of Christ that goes back to 16th century Renaissance paintings. I especially liked the conclusion where you debunked the New Yorker film critic claim that the movie was not relevant because he could not feel empathy for the Christ character (Willem Dafoe). You write that this is not the intention of the film and it would be strange to be able to empathize with him or other Scorsese film’s protagonist like Jake La Motta and Travis Bickle. It is a really good analysis and made me better appreciate the film.

  • Barry Putterman

    Gregg, methinks you might be setting the bar a bit too high for Jackie. I don’t now that I characterize the direction as merely competent. But granting that it falls somewhat below genius level, I would first distinguish the direction of the action set pieces from the surrounding plot sequences just as one might distinguish the musical numbers from the plot sequences in a Norman Taurog musical. Then, staying with Taurog, if we grant that his direction falls somewhere short of genius, do we not still give serious study to Larry Semon? Maybe even read about him in French?

    I’d like to add more kind words, but I leave within the hour for London town and environs. However, despite my best efforts, i was not able to get Casey the cat off of the No Fly List and must leave him here in sweltering New York. My guilt is a bottomless pit.

    I’ll catch up with the conversation in the middle of next week.

  • jean-pierre coursodon

    Gregg, considering “sound Keaton” (the features and the shorts)has “exactly comparable” to silent Keaton seems to me a dismal aberration, assuming that “exactly comparable” means or implies “just as good” (or “just as interesting.”)If it’s “scholarship” it has to be scholarship of the sorriest kind, the scholarship that staunchly refuses to “evaluate” works as good or bad, great or mediocre, and contents itself with smugly superior “objective” dissection.

    The interest of a new generation in Keaton’s sound period (I don’t agree with the concept of “post-1927” because THE CAMERAMAN and SPITE MARRIAGE are still first-rate movies, the latter woefully underated)is easily explained by the fact that an enormous amount of stuff had been written about silent Keaton when those younger critics appeared on the scene while the talkies had been either ignored or cursorily rejected as immensely inferior — as I continue to believe they are. So the newcomers had little-known and unappreciated material to work on.

    Also, of course, new generations are always eager to contradict the older ones, so,inevitably, praise for, or at least an intense interest in the Keaton talkies, became fashionable.This fits into a more general trend that has seen younger critics discovering, or rediscovering obscure, neglected Hollywood directors, as well as a hip attitude consisting in singling out as masterpieces some of the most minor efforts of major directors.

    I sincerely think that anyone who claims that silent Keaton and sound Keaton are “exactly comparable” cannot really appreciate Keaton.Watching the sound features for the first time when I was working on my Keaton book drove me into a state close to depression. I still don’t want to have anything to do with them. But I wouldn’t be too surprised if some smart-aleck some day insisted that WHAT! NO BEER? is just as good as THE GENERAL…

    David D. and Gregg: My Keaton book (the 1986 edition) has been out of print for a long time. It was an expensive volume, an attempt to bring together a huge scholarly effort and a coffee-table-style production with lots of stills and photos on glossy paper. Apparently it didn’t sell as well as expected and the publisher (who had also supervised the 1973 edition for the Seghers “Cinema Club” series) went out of business — I’m afraid my book was partly responsible. At one time in the nineties I saw it remaindered at Gibert Jeune in Paris — should have bought a few copies, I have only one left. It was a really good-looking book…

    David, thanks for the compliments. I’m afraid most if not all of my books are out of print and have been for a long time. I suppose the exception is CINQUANTE ANS DE CINEMA AMERICAIN, the 1995 edition — we still get some royalties for this one but I suspect it’s close to running out of print. It was a huge critical success and I don’t really understand why it’s not reprinted. We have a vague project to buy back the rights and do an updated version yet again but it seems more like a dream than anything serious.

  • Junko Yasutani

    ‘I sincerely think that anyone who claims that silent Keaton and sound Keaton are “exactly comparable” cannot really appreciate Keaton.’

    It is true for non-English speaking person, because watching Keaton sound movie (I have only seen Columbia series)it is evident that movie is much different, much poorer movie not paying attention to dialog but paying attention to action. People with complete understanding of English agree about this, so I think it must be true.