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

Arts and Entertainment
music

Arts and Entertainment
Creep show: Tim Cockerill in ‘Spider House’

TVEnough to make ardent arachnophobes think twice

Arts and Entertainment
Steven, Ella Jade and Sarah in the boardroom
tvThe Apprentice contestants take a battering from the business mogul
Arts and Entertainment
TV Presenters Ant McPartlin and Dec Donnelly. Winners of the 'Entertainment Programme' award for 'Ant and Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway'
musicAnt and Dec confirmed as hosts of next year's Brit Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Jewel in the crown: drawings from ‘The Letter for the King’, an adventure about a boy and his mission to save a medieval realm
books
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Juergen Wolf won the Young Masters Art Prize 2014 with his mixed media painting on wood, 'Untitled'
art
Arts and Entertainment
Iron Man and Captain America in a scene from
filmThe upcoming 'Black Panther' film will feature a solo black male lead, while a female superhero will take centre stage in 'Captain Marvel'
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The Imperial War Museum, pictured, has campaigned to display copyrighted works during the First World War centenary
art
Arts and Entertainment
American Horror Story veteran Sarah Paulson plays conjoined twins Dot and Bette Tattler
tvReview: Yes, it’s depraved for the most part but strangely enough it has heart to it
Arts and Entertainment
The mind behind Game of Thrones George R. R. Martin
books

Will explain back story to fictional kingdom Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Dorothy in Return to Oz

film Unintentionally terrifying children's movies to get you howling (in fear, tears or laughter)
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Robert James-Collier as under-butler Thomas

TVLady Edith and Thomas show sad signs of the time
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Dad's Army cast hit the big screen

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
JK Rowling is releasing a new Harry Potter story about Dolores Umbridge

books
Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor finds himself in a forest version of London in Doctor Who episode 'In the Forest of the Night'
TVReview: Is the Doctor ever going stop frowning?
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
music review
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

    A Syrian general speaks

    A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
    ‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

    ‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

    Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
    Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

    Fall of the Berlin Wall

    History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
    How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

    Turn your mobile phone into easy money

    There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes
    Independent writers remember their Saturday jobs:

    Independent writers remember their Saturday jobs

    "I have never regarded anything I have done in "the media" as a proper job"
    Lyricist Richard Thomas shares his 11-step recipe for creating a hit West End musical

    11-step recipe for creating a West End hit

    Richard Thomas, the lyricist behind the Jerry Springer and Anna Nicole Smith operas, explains how Bob Dylan, 'Breaking Bad' and even Noam Chomsky inspired his songbook for the new musical 'Made in Dagenham'
    Tonke Dragt's The Letter for the King has finally been translated into English ... 50 years on

    Buried treasure: The Letter for the King

    The coming-of-age tale about a boy and his mission to save a mythical kingdom has sold a million copies since it was written by an eccentric Dutchwoman in 1962. Yet until last year, no one had read it in English
    Can instilling a sense of entrepreneurship in pupils have a positive effect on their learning?

    The school that means business

    Richard Garner heads to Lancashire, where developing the 'dragons' of the future is also helping one community academy to achieve its educational goals
    10 best tablets

    The world in your pocket: 10 best tablets

    They’re thin, they’re light, you can use them for work on the move or keeping entertained
    Lutz Pfannenstiel: The goalkeeper who gave up Bayern Munich for the Crazy Gang, Bradford and a whirlwind trawl across continents

    Lutz Pfannenstiel interview

    The goalkeeper who gave up Bayern Munich for the Crazy Gang, Bradford and a whirlwind trawl across continents
    Pete Jenson: Popular Jürgen Klopp can reignite Borussia Dortmund’s season with visit to Bayern Munich

    Pete Jenson's a Different League

    Popular Klopp can reignite Dortmund’s season with visit to Bayern
    John Cantlie video proves that Isis expects victory in Kobani

    Cantlie video proves that Isis expects victory in Kobani

    The use of the British hostage demonstrates once again the militants' skill and originality in conducting a propaganda war, says Patrick Cockburn
    The killer instinct: The man who helps students spot potential murderers

    The killer instinct

    Phil Chalmers travels the US warning students how to spot possible future murderers, but can his contentious methods really stop the bloodshed?
    Clothing the gap: A new exhibition celebrates women who stood apart from the fashion herd

    Clothing the gap

    A new exhibition celebrates women who stood apart from the fashion herd
    Fall of the Berlin Wall: Goodbye to all that - the lost world beyond the Iron Curtain

    The Fall of the Berlin Wall

    Goodbye to all that - the lost world beyond the Iron Curtain