Deadpan but alive to the future: Buster Keaton the revolutionary

Buster Keaton wasn’t just a born star – he was a revolutionary film-maker

Joseph “Buster” Keaton was a born performer – almost literally. His parents were in a touring vaudeville show with Harry Houdini when he came into the world in 1895, and he joined the family’s act at the age of three. When he made the leap to the movies as a 21-year-old veteran, he could have stuck with the acrobatic pratfalls and deadpan glances he’d already mastered, and would still have been remembered as one of silent cinema’s supreme talents.

But what marks him out from his two great rivals, Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, is what he did instead. Refusing to rely on his rubber body and stony face to conquer Hollywood, Keaton pushed back the boundaries of film-making itself. As Kevin Brownlow writes in his history of the silent era, The Parade’s Gone By, “Buster Keaton was probably the best comedy director in the business. Chaplin’s use of film was pedestrian by comparison.”

Go along to the BFI’s Keaton season, running for the next two months, and you’ll see what Brownlow means. In 1924’s Sherlock Jr., for instance, Keaton stars as a cinema projectionist who dreams that he’s stepping into the action on screen. The scene keeps changing, from a garden to a city street to a cliff-edge to a jungle, but the bemused Buster is always in the middle of it – and all without recourse to a green screen or CGI. Keaton shot each snippet on location, using surveyors’ instruments to ensure that he was precisely the same distance from the camera each time, before editing the snippets into one seamless set-piece. He may have been a peerless stage entertainer, but his most brilliant and experimental work was pure cinema, and could only have been achieved on celluloid.

Keaton was brought into the film industry by Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, a star comedian he met on moving to New York in 1917. His job description was co-star and joke-writer, but Keaton wasn’t going to stop there. “First thing I did was ask a thousand questions about the camera, then I went into the projection room to see things cut. It just fascinated me,” he recalled. As a boy, Keaton had hoped to become a civil engineer. As a middle-aged man, he had a toy train set deliver sandwiches to picnicking guests at his California home. And a film studio, as Orson Welles observed, was the biggest electric train set a boy could ever hope to play with.

When Keaton moved on to making his own films, they fizzed with ambition and a cartoonish surrealism that contrasted with the more naturalistic antics of Chaplin and Lloyd. Consider, for example, the house that spins on its axis in One Week (1920), the stop-motion dinosaur in Three Ages (1923), and the sword-fight with a swordfish in The Navigator (1924). Incidentally, Keaton himself wore the deep-sea diver’s outfit during this astounding underwater sequence, even though, with his face obscured by the helmet, he could easily have hired someone else to take the plunge.

You can find more evidence of his cinematic thinking in the sheer scale of his films. In the climax of Seven Chances (1925), Buster is chased through the streets of Los Angeles by 500 would-be brides, then down a hillside by 1,500 rocks and boulders. In The General, in 1926, he topples a real steam train from a burning bridge into a river – the most expensive shot of the entire silent era.

Disastrously, Keaton signed to MGM the following year, surrendering his independence at a stroke. Suddenly, he was being told what to do by the studio’s producers, directors and writers. What’s more, he was no longer allowed to perform his own stunts.  Aged 32, his days as a groundbreaking director were over.

Depression and alcoholism followed, and at 37, Keaton was fired by MGM, only to be rehired on a meagre salary to devise gags for the Marx Brothers and Abbott and Costello – stars indifferent to anything in their films beyond their own performance. “That used to get my goat,” Keaton grumbled later, “because, by God, when we made pictures, we ate, slept and dreamt ’em”.

Eventually, his oeuvre was re-evaluated. Orson Welles called The General “perhaps the greatest film ever made”, and in 1958 Keaton was awarded an honorary Oscar. He also enjoyed a long and happy third marriage, and a semi-retirement made comfortable by television adverts and variety-show appearances. All the same, it’s hard not to wince at the thought of what else this astonishing innovator might have achieved had he been permitted. As well as featuring Keaton’s films, the BFI season includes a number of later cinema classics that reflect his sensibility, from Woody Allen’s Zelig to Aki Kaurismaki’s Take Care of Your Scarf, Tatiana. Maybe in these we can glimpse a few faint reflections of the masterpieces that could and should have been.

‘Buster Keaton and the Cinema of Today’ runs at the BFI Southbank until 26 Feb. ‘The General’ is re-issued nationwide on 24 Jan

Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to American media group
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidate on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
Arts and Entertainment
Kate Bush: 'I'm going to miss everyone so much'
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’


Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'


Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from


Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
    Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

    'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

    The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
    Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

    Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

    A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
    The 10 best smartphone accessories

    Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

    Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

    Liverpool v Real Madrid

    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
    West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?