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.

The Problem with Evaluating Comedy

Elimination

Currently I am reading Steve Seidman’s book, Comedian Comedy: A Tradition in Hollywood Film.  For my purposes, the book is invaluable.  In all my reading, I was continually on the lookout for small pieces of information that could be instructive.  Tips on how things are done.  Each tip was a clue.  Any of them might spark and idea or a direction, or solve a problem.  It’s about collecting tools and materials for artists to work with.  I have read a great many books on the topic of comedy, and it is interesting how many different approaches are taken. In the introduction to his book, Seidman makes some observations about how other writers treat comedy, and I find those observations to be thought provoking.  Here is a quote to get the discussion started:

This study intends to avoid the tendencies of this literature; it is not based on a validation of my personal tastes or my subjective conception of morality.  If the reader is looking for a list of the “best” comedies, the “funniest” comedians, or praise for the most “human” the most “meaningful,” most “significant” “statements” about society and human values to be found in certain films, then he or she will be disappointed.

The idea here is to take an objective look at the art of comedy.  Rather than try to explain why something is funny (an effort that is often unsatisfactory), Seidman’s book makes an effort to create meaningful terms to describe the sub-genre he calls “comedian comedy.”  (I will probably go into more detail about that in another post.)  By creating these terms, he is able to explain how different comedians are similar.  By understanding their similarities, it is then possible to open up new ways to discuss comedy, and, for us, to create new comedic characters.

In one well known book about animation, the author dismissed Buster Keaton as inferior to Charlie Chaplin because Chaplin’s work had more emotion.  I wonder if a young reader would take that statement, and avoid Keaton in favor of the “superior” Chaplin.  What a loss that would be!  As a fan of Keaton, I did not support that concept.   I am constantly on the look out for new physical comedians to observe. Other authors dismiss Chaplin because his work can be overly sentimental, so it’s all opinion anyway.  In my book, Comedy for Animators, I tried to focus simply on them as individuals, and avoided qualifying either as “better.”  Traveling down the road of judging which comedian is funnier could lead to a sort of tournament bracketology.  You start with a whole field of competitors, and narrow them down by pairs until you have a “champion.”  And what is to be gained by that?  How does that help animators to understand the vast potential of comedy.  Continuing with the sports metaphor, a newspaper sports writer has unlimited opinions and judgements about a team’s performance, but they probably would make a bad coach.

Buster Keaton: Symmetry of Laughter

Writer and filmmaker Vince Di Meglio edited together this instructive selection of clips from Buster Keaton films to show how he used symmetrical composition. In his description, he writes:

After watching twenty-nine Buster Keaton films, I was struck by his use of symmetry and center framing. This is an attempt to capture that. Before Stanley Kubrick and Wes Anderson made it famous for modern audiences, there was Buster Keaton.

A note about “Gravity”

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Here is an interesting quote about the new film “Gravity” In an interview with Rene Rodriquez of the Miami Herald, director Alphonso Cuaron referred to a silent film comedian.

I was channeling Buster Keaton when we made Gravity — the single through-line story in which there is a lot of humanity and emotion, but everything is conveyed through physical action. We just wanted to put on a really good show.

I haven’t seen Gravity yet, but the more I hear about it the more interesting it becomes. I’m always glad to know film makers are still learning from Buster and the other greats of early cinema.

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.

 

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