I’ve already introduced my younger sons to Laurel and Hardy, W.C. Fields and the Marx Brothers, and thought it was time for Buster Keaton. He’s funnier than Chaplin and Lloyd, less sentimental, more athletic and always a pleasure to watch in motion, like a thoroughbred or Fred Astaire. I was concerned about the slower pacing compared to recent films and the absence of speech -- not “silence” because there’s always a piano soundtrack. They’re not ready for The General so from the library I borrowed a DVD of Keaton Plus, a delightful mishmash of shorts, excerpts, television appearances, home movies and commercials. The prize is Hard Luck, a short from 1921. The Keaton character tries to commit suicide by hanging, drinking poison and lying on a trolley track. In the best scene it’s night, headlights approach and Keaton sits on the road in their path. The headlights turn out to be not one automobile but two motorcycles. No wonder Beckett loved him.
Unprompted, my 5-year-old said he thought Keaton was funny because “he has no mind.” I asked what he meant and it seemed to boil down to this: When Keaton jumps from a roof or tumbles down stairs he doesn’t flop about or try obviously to protect himself. He moves gracefully and without emotion, like a well-oiled machine. I think David has been reading Bergson again.
For an adult of my temperament there’s another layer of appreciation when I watch silent films. Hard Luck was made the year my father was born. We’re watching a vanished, unimaginable world. Joyce and Eliot are readying masterpieces for publication the following year and Louis Armstrong will soon perform his first recorded solo on “Chimes Blues.” Wilson or Harding is president and all the people we see on the screen are long dead. Even the funniest silent film gives off a halo of sadness. Imagine seeing film of the Civil War. Michael McFee, a poet from North Carolina, captures this sense of evanescence and the great comedian’s nobility in “Buster Keaton”:
“Into the frenzy of falling bodies
and chaos of pastry, apollonian
and sober even as an infant,
he came, just as decades later
he would calmly step into a frame
and never leave. In the curious
oracle of his face, distant and mute
and abstracted perfect as statuary,
the lesson of his life could be seen:
“Patience. Be humble. Believe in grace
And miracles of our own foolish making.
Words are mostly waste. Laughter,
Like love, is a rigorous discipline.
Think slow. Act fast. Persevere.
“After the sacred grove of Hollywood
has babbled, flushed, and scattered,
his image quietly endures, surviving
even when the small boat of his career
launches bottomward sudden as an anchor,
his body stubborn as a buoy or pile
fixed on the horizon, until he sinks
(soon to return, grave-faced) beneath
His hat floating on the water.
“Or angled over some final tombstone:
The god of light, poetry, and movies
Still laughs at that one, Buster.”
I supplemented the DVD with a superb children’s book, Keep Your Eyes on the Kid (2008) by the English writer-illustrator Catherine Brighton. She follows Keaton through his vaudeville years, meeting Fatty Arbuckle and arriving in Hollywood. I also recommend Silent Echoes by John Bengston, who painstakingly tracked down locations in Keaton’s films and juxtaposes movie stills with recent photographs of the same scenes – contemporary Los Angeles as a ghost town. Beautiful, impressive and sad. Brighton cleverly uses a line from Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels as her epigraph (the bracketed word is hers):
“To the memory of those who made us laugh: the motley mountebanks, the clowns, the buffoons, in all times and in all nations, whose efforts have lightened our burden a little, this picture [book] is affectionately dedicated.”