Monday, September 21, 2009

The Flicks

Or a flick. Most of a flick --One of the cable channels was, for a wonder, showing Buster Keaton's* Steamboat Bill, Jr., one of the last films over which he had creative control. I tuned in just in time for the last two-thirds, which is better than ot at all.

The film wasn't a big success -- it didn't even get good reviews. Yet you've seen part of it: this film has the iconic, full-on version of the front of a house falling on Keaton; he escapes what seems certain squashing by just "happening" to stand in the part of an open attic window. It's a bit of a shock to discover this bit is nearly lost in a long, stunt-filled (and hilarious, IMO) windstorm sequence. You might ask, "how'd he do that?" and the answer is, the hard way: that's a pretty heavily-built (two tons, by some accounts) wall falling around him in one piece and he's standing in the (only!) right spot. It was (probably) hinged but there's no sign of a cable and it was shot at normal speed, which means if he misses his mark, no more Buster. It is not just that gag: the entire sequence works that way, with very few cuts to set up the stunts.

Keaton did (nearly) all his own stunts throughout his career; his last film appearance was in A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum in which we last see him bouncing off trees like a pinball, very much the unbreakable Buster Keaton, in a Latinate version of his signature porkpie hat. He was terminally ill at the time.

...But the very much younger Buster of Steamboat Bill, Jr. is more than a clown; seeing him climb a steamboat in a vertical dead run, deck to deck to the wheelhouse and use nary a ladderway, or swing through the windstorm sets clutching onto a crane-swung tree, or any one of a zillion dangerous, physical, funny stunts makes it transparently clear that this funnyman is more of a man than any present-day film hero. --Except for Jackie Chan, who looks to Keaton as a godfather of his art.

Another Keaton gift -- and related! -- is the ability to "sell" an action. At one point in the film, he is hand-miming a jailbreak: an upraised thumb stands in for a prison bar, the other hand a file. Sure enough, the thumb vanishes as it is sawn through, quick as wink. It's a simple trick, a child's trick -- but so well-executed that, just for a moment, you're wondering how he did it. On a far larger scale, to see him appear to stop or start a train car by pushing or pulling it is to have one's disbelief not merely suspended but grabbed unawares and reeled in hook, line and sinker.

Keaton was a gem but, sadly, had a chaotic personal life and a weakness for alcohol; after 1928, he was pretty well locked into the studio system and often miscast. I enjoy his silents when I can find them and one of these days, I'll have a chance to see his very last silent The Railrodder and companion documentary, Buster Keaton Rides Again.

...As happens, you can see the first of those films right here!

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* Wikipedia bio


Turk Turon said...

My favorite Buster Keaton movie is Sherlock, Jr., where he plays a movie projectionist who dreams that he can jump into the movie and interact with it, which he does, in a series of in-camera effects that are just dazzling.

BobG said...

One of my favorites of his would have to be The General.