Film studies: Buster was stoked by genius - but he hit the buffers hard

Near the end of his glum life, Joseph Francis Keaton was invited to appear in a short Canadian film, called Film, written by no less than Samuel Beckett.

An enthusiastic movie-goer, Beckett had always been drawn to the antics of Chaplin, Harold Lloyd and Laurel and Hardy (Waiting for Godot grows out of their marriage). And now, for Film, Beckett wanted the spirit of silent comedy.

Letters were sent to Chaplin's home in Switzerland, but not a note of reply came back. Perhaps Chaplin was busy writing My Autobiography (published in 1964).

Anyway, at last Beckett and the people making Film cast around and heard that Buster Keaton was broke and ready to do anything. So it was arranged. And so Film played a part in the tribute to Keaton at the Venice Film Festival of 1965 at which the poker-faced clown received an immense ovation. He died a few months later, looking ancient but only 71. No one knows now whether he ever read My Autobiography and discovered that he was not mentioned in that long and garrulous book.

Of course, such things do not matter much any more. There's no reason to blame Chaplin or Keaton for not being the other one; and there is no reason to enter into any close comparison of them as artists of film.

Chaplin was the clown of the century. Through his grotesque success and celebrity, he was the personality of the early movies - no matter that the Tramp was humble and Charlie was not. Chaplin was a phenomenon whose appetite for fame, glory, money and its manifestations made him bigger than his films or his medium.

In that process, he became something other than the most likeable man in the world - though he was desperate to hold that title, too. Keaton was tragic, shattered, a survivor in name only and a genius - he was company for Bresson, Ophuls, and Renoir (with whom he now shares the National Film Theatre).

He was born in Piqua, Kansas, on October 4 1895, a Libran trying to ignore the immense mayhem of his family's life and work. In fact, he was born on the road as his parents travelled in vaudeville, specialising in fairly violent slapstick. Thus, literally, as an infant - this is where "Buster" came from, for it was generally assumed that he must be broken - he was thrown around the stage, like the ball in a crazy game. This was part of a lifetime of minor injuries (some motive for his resorting to drink), and for the personal response that is still lovely, mysterious and heartbreaking - the very straight face that prefers to overlook the terrible indignities and disasters with which he is beset.

His brilliance, as a tumbler and in timing, was oddly accompanied by the frozen look of a Pierrot - and as a young man, before the booze hit him, Keaton was authentically beautiful. He worked with Fatty Arbuckle and it was in 1919 that Arbuckle's producer, Joseph Schenck, proposed a series of comedy shorts starring Keaton. For a while there was no stopping him, and Keaton's company actually bought one of Chaplin's old studios, which was then discarded as he grew bigger and bigger. But by 1921, Keaton was very famous and much beloved: he married the young actress Natalie Talmadge (Schenck's sister-in-law) and he began to dream of feature-length films. Not only was he the star and co-producer on these ventures - he was the director and the organiser of the elaborate and dangerous stunts.

So it was, in the Twenties, releasing through Metro and First National, that Keaton hit his great purple passage: The Three Ages; Our Hospitality; Sherlock Jr; The Navigator; Seven Chances; Battling Butler; The General; College; Steamboat Bill Jr; The Cameraman. In those years, Chaplin made The Gold Rush and The Circus, two fabulous hits. All I am trying to make clear is that Keaton worked at a more rapid pace, and he made one thing - masterpieces. These are the films that any newcomer needs to see. And in that process he or she should realise that the experience is not only comic - it has to do with space, light, movement, duration, time. It is great theatre, but it is music and form, too. These are among the most beautiful films ever made in the silent era.

They did well, too, though not as well as Chaplin's films because Buster could not be bothered to take care of business. He let Joe Schenck and MGM handle him. His marriage faltered as he drank more. And as sound came along, anyone could notice that Buster had a deep, rough, depressive voice - it simply didn't go with the angel face. Chaplin resisted sound, too, and he beat it in his own way. He was so important that he could tell the world that he was carrying on in the old way - Chaplinesque and silent. Keaton never had the power or the wit to take charge and in the Thirties he was increasingly humiliated by people telling him how to make a Buster Keaton film.

Divorce and drink took over. In the late Thirties, he was institutionalised. It was not until the 1950s, when Donald O'Connor played him in a dreadful biopic, that Buster had any money. He had also made a return in a film called Limelight, directed by Charles Chaplin, in which the two silent comics do a touching routine together. It was a rescue act of a sort, but still Charlie was too fierce a competitor to mention Keaton in his book. I suppose we could ask for a proper movie about Keaton today, and it is the part Johnny Depp was made to play. But it is enough to be able to go to the NFT and discover all those films. Masterpieces.

d.thomson@independent.co.uk

Buster Keaton season: NFT, London SE1 (020 7928 3232) from Thursday to 29 March

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