Hat comedy: Buster Keaton

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In the history of physical comedy, there is a special place for the use of hats.  Hats are a very convenient costume prop to work with, as they are so available and easily located. During the heyday of silent films, it was common for people, both men and women, to put a much higher value on headwear than we do today.   Hats were an expensive part of the outfit, and having a fashionable hat meant you were a respectable member of society. Because of that value and symbolism, the hat became a target for comedians.  When an character’s hat was lost or damaged, the audience knew he would take it seriously. Wearing the hat wrong, or wearing the wrong hat, can simply make the actor look funny.  To demonstrate their skill, comedians could also perform simple tricks by manipulating their hats in entertaining ways.

Hats are underused in animation.  Character designers, as well as animators, may not understand the value of the hat.  In what might be the first in a series of posts about hats, I’ll begin with Buster Keaton.  Keaton’s signature look included what was known as a “pork-pie hat.”  He would sometimes throw in a short gag using it as a prop.  Below are a handful of examples.  Notice how Keaton almost never looks at it.  These are quick gags, and he doesn’t make a big deal over the “business” of it unless it’s part of a larger sequence built around the hat, or hats, as you’ll see later on.

In this scene, a bullet knocks off his hat. Where another comedian might pick it up, put his finger through the bullet hole, and pull a funny face, Buster hardly lets it affect him.

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Here is the same gag, but in a more mundane situation.

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He didn’t always catch his hat.  In The Navigator he lost several hats to gusts of wind.  It became a running gag.

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In comic strips, when a character is surprised, he can have a big reaction that includes his hat popping off his head.  This is known as a “hat take.”   Here, Keaton uses a gimmick to simulate that.  Since he limited his facial expression so much, it did provide a bigger effect.

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It was unusual for Keaton to use wacky effects like that.  He sometimes snuck in surreal effects, such as this moment where arrives at work, slaps his cane again the wall and somehow makes it stick. Then he simply hangs his hat on the handle.

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Most of the time, he preferred to display his skill, as in this simple gag.

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Keaton didn’t always wear a pork pie hat.  If the time period of the story called for it, he could go with a different fashion.  In Our Hospitality, set before the US Civil War, he wore a very large top hat.  So large, it caused problems in the little carriage he was riding in. He has just met a pretty girl, and doesn’t want to look foolish.  The hat isn’t cooperating.

When he gives up and goes to the pork-pie hat, it’s a nod to the audience that he can’t escape being Buster Keaton.  In Steamboat Bill Jr. the hat makes a brief appearance in an entire scene is built around Buster trying on all kinds of hats.  He is a stylish young man, and his father is a serious old steamboat captain.  They haven’t seen each other for years, and this scene serves the purpose of illustrating how they relate to each other.  They each have very different opinions about the function of a hat.  This is also an example of the “Keaton circle.”  He goes through a whole bunch of motion, and eventually winds up back where he started.

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