Matinee Monday: Buster Keaton


The Great Stone Face.

I know that Charlie Chaplin is regarded as the greatest of the silent era stars, but I think that true film aficionados recognize that Buster Keaton, as both actor and director, matched Chaplin, film for film, during the 20’s. Chaplin was great on the pathos; Keaton was great with the action.

And, unlike Chaplin, he never allowed himself to have the full range emotion on screen. His stoic, unsmiling expression never changed, never showing joy, delight or happiness. Chaplin was a master at conveying all these emotions, but Keaton learned, in his vaudeville days, that he was more expressive with his dead-pan face and eyes. From the Buster Keaton Wikipedia article:

Gilberto Perez commented on “Keaton’s genius as an actor to keep a face so nearly deadpan and yet render it, by subtle inflections, so vividly expressive of inner life. His large deep eyes are the most eloquent feature; with merely a stare he can convey a wide range of emotions, from longing to mistrust, from puzzlement to sorrow.”

During the 20’s Keaton wrote and directed all of his films; in fact, he has been recognized as one of the top actor-directors ever. But it was Keaton’s physical stunts that set him apart. Coordinating and performing his own stunts, he took some very dangerous risks. One stunt actually broke his neck, even though, at the time, he didn’t realize it. His most iconic stunt was from the movie Steamboat Bill Jr. In one scene, during a hurricane, Buster Keaton stand perfectly still while a house facade is blown down on him. As you watch this clip, think how carefully it had to be calculated, and how much courage it took to stand perfectly still while two tons of building supplies was pushed over you.

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