reDiscover Buster Keaton | Programme Notes

Go behind the scenes of the best from silent comedy's stone-faced superstar

Hope Hopkinson

17 Jan 24

The year is 1920. Silent picture bigwig Roscoe Arbuckle pens a letter to a proto-mailing list of 25,000 film fans: "I am sending you a photograph of 'Buster Keaton,' the sad-faced little fellow who used to star in my pictures." Arbuckle, largely credited with plucking the rambunctious young vaudevillian from the stage to star in his two-reeler comedies, had indeed attached an in-profile shot of a wide-eyed, plaintive looking man with a pork-pie hat atop his head — all features soon to become synonymous with one Joseph Frank Keaton. Owing to a prophetic tumble down the stairs at six months old, Joseph would become known as Buster, who'd go on to become a true auteur of physical comedy, and one of the most recognisable faces in film history, whose schtick stands up to scrutiny just as much today as it did a hundred years ago.

Off the back of the audience he accrued from his work with Arbuckle in the burgeoning silent comedy scene of the late 1910s, Keaton found the means to start the eponymous Buster Keaton Productions: a studio dedicated to bringing his expansive visions and slapstick gags to life on a scale he'd only previously dreamed of, without any creative compromise. Between the years of 1920 & 1928, Keaton directed and starred in 19 two-reeler shorts and 10 feature films under his own production unit, largely positioned as the loveable underdog up against more and more insurmountable odds (with capers aplenty along the way). This impressive filmography more than cemented his endearingly stone-faced character firmly in the cinematic canon, despite how the big studios would treat him as the age of the talkies would dawn.

Arbuckle signed his letter off with: "If you want to see them, ask the manager of your local moving picture theatre when he is next going to play 'Buster' Keaton's comedies and he will give you the exact date," and that we will! From 19 January, see a hand-picked selection of Buster's best from his legendary tenure at Buster Keaton Productions on weekly rotation at Picturehouses nationwide.


Go West (1925)
From 19 Jan   |   Book Now

"Go west, young man, go west," declares a statue of Horace Greeley, a spectre that gently haunts Buster on his great journey through (and indeed, riff on) the burgeoning Western genre. We meet his hapless, 'friendless' hero at his wit's end, trading in all his worldly possessions in pursuit of a new beginning. Hopping aboard a freight train going anywhere, he stumbles upon a remote ranch where he dons a pair of chaps and asks the cattle hand if they require a new cowboy. This would give way to a nuanced turn on the unflinching machismo audiences at the time would typically expect from the leading man of a Western picture — stripping him of all the bravado and costume, guided by a want to belong rather than a need to conquer.

It's here that Buster meets his greatest on-screen match in the form of Brown Eyes, a distinctively beautiful cow. The intuitive bond they immediately share marks a turning point from the film's lonely beginnings, as they take turns protecting one another and find a shared solace amid their harsh surroundings. It's perhaps the closest any of his scene partners have come to truly understanding Buster's on-screen persona for all his quirks and sensibilities, and certainly, the most unconditionally we ever see him loved – they quite literally drive off into the sunset together.

Culminating in a stampede of cattle chasing a red devil costume-clad Keaton through the streets (which they had to be coaxed to do, as the herd would outright refuse to turn on their fearless leader), Go West is a total reinvention of a genre that wasn't even yet sure of itself, and a compelling argument for cow as man's best friend.

Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)
From 26 Jan   |   Book Now

Even if this is a first-time viewing, there's a good chance that you're more familiar with Steamboat Bill Jr. than you might think. This story of two rival steamer families sees Keaton pull off perhaps the most iconic on-screen stunt of all time, referenced by the likes of Jackie Chan, Arrested Development, Steve McQueen, and Jackass Number Two. Already battered by a great storm, a weary Buster stands at the foot of a house, whose front comes away and lands on top of him. A stunt that should've crushed him under pounds of brick and mortar leaves him at most mildly confused, and crucially still standing, in exactly the spot where the house's open upstairs window lands.

Speaking on the notorious stunt that could've been his demise (as the house that fell was no mere facade, and on one misstep would've packed the full impact of a real building), he said: "I was mad at the time, or I would never have done the thing." Placing Steamboat's filming at the point where Buster's studio was about to be auctioned off to MGM and his struggles with substances and relationships were on the up, it's not hard to understand the reckless abandon that led to it being pulled off. 

Nevertheless, it's a picture where Keaton was said to have found great levity, evident in how emblematic it is of his spirit and charm as a performer. With a romantic subplot too earnest for its own good, a healthy serving of whip-smart practical jokes, and the best one-take scene involving a plethora of hats ever put to film to name just a few, Steamboat Bill Jr. is maybe the finest showcase of both the sheer range of Buster Keaton the performer, and the undeniable tenacity of Buster Keaton the man.

Sherlock, Jr. (1924)
100th Anniversary  |  From 02 Feb   |   Book Now

"This is the story of a boy who tried it," professes the film's first intertitle, and try it our boy did. Keaton this time stars as a plucky young projectionist with a burgeoning interest in the investigative arts – we see as the film introduces us to him sitting in an empty screen, reading a book simply titled 'How to be a Detective.' What begins as a classic Keatonian game of cat and mouse for the hand of a bachelorette culminates in an extended surrealist dream sequence, whose technical accomplishments would be impressive even a century on, but in 1924 were nothing short of a celluloid miracle.

Whilst closer to a contained dramedy than many of his more elaborately staged films, Sherlock Jr. certainly doesn't shy away from the telltale stunts and trickery of a Buster Keaton picture. From maybe the most nail-biting game of billiards ever played on-screen, to Keaton quite literally breaking his neck (and not realising for thirty years) during an elaborate gag involving a water tank, it's a well-oiled machine, the ethos of which remains lovingly evident in the action films of today. Buster did all his own stunts first, folks!

Maybe more than anything, Sherlock Jr. is a loving homage to movie magic and the boundless powers of film to transform and inspire — something we're jointly passionate about. Whilst we can't promise a hallucinating projectionist or ten-piece live orchestra at your screening, we can guarantee that seeing Buster's big screen dreams come true on our big screens will be made all the more resonant with age.

The General (1926)
From 09 Feb   |   Book Now

Professed to be his proudest cinematic achievement, The General sees Buster take to the tracks in the name of love. Set within the throes of the American Civil War, Keaton's eager-to-please Johnnie Gray attempts to enlist in the Southern Army to win the favour of one of the great loves of his life, Annabelle Lee. It's the other half of his heart that stands in his way, as he's rejected on the grounds of his time being better spent as a train engineer, proven by his unwavering dedication to his engine, The General. When Annabelle is taken captive by Union soldiers, (on his beloved locomotive, no less!) Johnnie's mission becomes simple: save his world, and get the girl.

Putting all reasonable moral quandaries about the depiction of the Confederacy to one side, The General is a moving picture in every sense of the word. Every second of its 79-minute runtime counts, with the bulk of the film being an elaborately choreographed sequence on the railways, barely coming up for breath where its action is concerned.

The town of Cottage Grove declared a national holiday on the day where the climactic train wreck scene was staged (the most expensive scene in silent film history), so its residents could head down to the neighbouring forest where it was filmed and see the spectacle for themselves. To see The General is to believe it — a through-and-through unrelenting masterpiece, and Keaton at the top of his game.

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