Gerald Mast on Buster Keaton

I’ve done quite a few posts about Chaplin, and it’s time I start giving Buster Keaton more time.   While I find the Chaplin life story absolutely fascinating, I am much more likely to spend my movie viewing time with Keaton.    Here are some selected quotes from Gerald Masts’  The Comic Mind.

Whereas Chaplin’s comic technique centered about his face, hands, and legs, each of which operated as separate entities, with individual limberness and subtlety, the Keaton comic technique centered about the body as a whole, single physical object  that could comport it’s self in space the way no physical object ought to have the right or power to do.  When Keaton takes a fall, his body doesn’t merely fall.  It lifts itself several feet into the air and then hurls itself down to the ground.  When he does a flip, his body doesn’t merely flip.   It leaps into the air tautens itself into planklike stiffness, then tucks in it’s knees and tumbles over itself in mid air.  The body is alternately, indeed simultaneously, both elastic and bone, the most malleable and the most tensile of physical substances.

Unlike Chaplin he consistently caught the perfect performance of a gag in a single take.  He would have to. Such stunts did not bear frequent repetition.

Keaton is not a little guy set against malignant social forces, like Chaplin; he is a little guy set against elemental forces. …

Nature has no will.  Only man has will.  And Keaton’s films consistently reveal the triumph of human will and spirit over natural opponents.  The Keaton comedies are more epic than Chaplin’s because they show man in conflict with traditional epic forces rather than individual men and social attitudes.

Keaton films were outdoor films; Chaplin films were not.  (Even outdoor films such as Sunnyside, The Pilgrim, and The Gold Rush seem claustrophobic – intentionally)  The outdoors gave Keaton space to move  and vast panoramas to contrast with his moving body, that small piece of elastic granite.  Chaplin could generate a world of excitement from a single room ( for example One A.M. ); Keaton needed the world.

Film gave Keaton the freedom the stage never could, which is why his work is the more cinematic of the two.  Film did offer Chaplin the opportunity for close ups.

Little man juxtaposed with big universe – this was the Keaton theme, cinematic principle of  composition, and basis of story construction.  It also influenced the kinds of objects that Keaton chose to play against.  Huge inanimate objects and living opponents were merely a manifestation of the hugeness of nature.  Keaton played against a dinosaur, a waterfall, an ocean liner, a landslide, a herd of cattle, a locomotive, the entire Union  and Confederate armies, a steamboat, a Tong war, a gang of bootleggers, a storm at sea, a tribe of indians, and the entire New York police force.  In most of the films, Keaton began playing against the enormous object and ended up playing with it.  The object that dwarfed him at the film’s beginning became equally an ally that he used to defeat others by the end.

The consistent Keaton motif is the ridiculing of all inhuman definitions of human worth.  To define a man by his uniform, wallet, muscles, or family name is not to define him as a person.  In his denigration of the value of clothes (despite his elegance in wearing them) and surface characteristics as a means of defining a man, Keaton is the opposite of Brecht ( A Man’s a Man ) and, therefore, of Chaplin ( Who’s tramp’s clothes are the tramp).  What Buster accomplishes often has little to do with social and literary cliches about what types of men can accomplish.  The Keaton character consistently shows how much a little, unheroic, unromantic man can do simply by going about his business in his own way, exercising his individual human abilities and will.


2 thoughts on “Gerald Mast on Buster Keaton”

  1. Several huge sets of points you and Mast are making. Let me try addressing one or two.

    Both Chaplin and Keaton found humor in the consistency of the inner man vs the values of the man’s clothes and his roles in society. Chaplin’s “Easy Street” is hilarious precisely because the tramp is still the weak and impulsive tramp, police uniform or not. Keaton’s Steamboat Bill, Jr. features the same non-practical, individualist son whether in “dude” clothes, ridiculous pajamas, or boat gear.

    I love Keaton, but I study him for great gags, timing, and movement – and the epic settings and huge arcs from failure to success. Keaton’s drawback (for me) is that his other characters are often props. Despite the infamous accusations of Chaplin’s pathos, Charlie more often than Keaton loves characters with real personalities: Jackie Coogan in The Kid, Pauline Goddard in Modern Times. Even the dog in A Dog’s Life has more individuality that Buster’s cow in Go West.

    By bringing this up, I simply mean: Keaton and Chaplin teach me very different things about storytelling.

    Sorry to blather on like this. I’m stopping now.

    • You are right about Chaplin including other actors with strong personalities. I had always thought of Chaplin as a camera hog, but he did bring in talent to work with, didn’t he? Thanks!


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