The inimitable Buster Keaton has been acknowledged by some cinema historians as the master of silent-film comedy — surpassing Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd. When examining his creativity throughout the 1920s, Keaton was a groundbreaking filmmaker whose somber but determined vision produced an enduring body of work.
Keaton’s stoic persona defied mainstream cinema as he transcended silent comedy by venturing into more dramatic territory. This progression is evident when viewing three Keaton-directed features in chronological order: Seven Chances (1925), Battling Butler (1926) and The General (1926). Each film is distinctive in its comedic tone and cinematic style, while showcasing Keaton’s evolution as an artist.
Seven Chances is an example of Keaton placing his own personal and stylistic imprint on material not specifically tailored for him. In fact, the premise seems ideal for Harold Lloyd: on a certain day, a stockbroker belatedly discovers he will inherit $7 million if he marries by 7 p.m. that evening, yet only has a few hours remaining. Under Keaton’s direction, what could have been a traditional thrill comedy emerges as a surrealistic nightmare brought to life. It also reveals the epic scope of his filmmaking.
Like many of his features, Seven Chances maintains a natural tempo that enhances the humor of its individual scenes, particularly during the various proposals and rejections that Keaton encounters on his way to the altar. In the words of Keaton biographer Rudi Blesh, the film begins “slower than other comedians and ends twice as fast.”
This deliberate, methodic pacing builds to one of the great climaxes in movie history, with hundreds of potential brides — and an avalanche of boulders — chasing Buster through the Southern California landscape. Filmed entirely on location and utilizing expansive long shots, this 20-minute sequence is propelled by Keaton’s stunning athleticism and remarkable editing precision.
In a 1965 interview with British film critic John Gillett, Keaton described how he shot the spectacular chase: “When I’ve got a gag that spreads out, I hate to jump a camera into close-ups. So I do everything in the world I can to hold it in that long-shot and keep the action rolling. . . . Close-ups are too jarring on the screen and can stop an audience from laughing.”
Keaton seamlessly fuses his deadpan expressiveness with an expert command of the film medium. In Seven Chances, he transforms a stage farce into a thought-provoking examination of ruthless romance in which deadly boulders are preferable to devouring women. The film equates pain with redemption and reveals the seriousness of Keaton’s comic art.
The same can be said of Battling Butler, which was the closest Keaton ever came to making a dramatic film. Though regarded by contemporary critics as one of his weaker efforts, Battling Butler was among Keaton’s personal favorites and made more money than any of his silent features. The film also broke new ground in its directorial style and depth, thus paving the way for his masterpiece, The General.
Though a traditional Keaton comedy on the surface, Battling Butler has a subdued, gentle tone that eventually erupts into violent rage. Buster plays foppish and pampered Alfred Butler, a millionaire’s son who falls in love with a country girl while camping in the mountains. To gain acceptance from the girl’s family, he is willing to be mistaken for heavyweight boxer Battling Butler, who is training nearby. The sadistic champ soon learns about the ruse and schemes to annihilate Alfred.
Rather than stage a humorous fight, director Keaton plays it straight with effective results. Alfred receives a brutal beating in the champ’s dressing room as the girl watches. The blows are painful. Bloodied and humiliated, Alfred looks into the girl’s terrified eyes. What follows is perhaps the most chilling of all Keaton transformations, as the weakling Alfred lashes out at the champ — knocking the boxer to the floor several times. Alfred wins a personal victory and the girl’s love as he walks down the streets of New York wearing his top hat and boxing trunks.
Despite the upbeat finish, Alfred’s abrupt change in personality lingers in the mind. For the first time, Keaton “permitted comedy to give way to a greater urgency,” Walter Kerr observed in his 1975 critical study The Silent Clowns. ”We have seen him be extraordinarily funny in a boxing ring earlier. Now, in the film’s closing reel, he suddenly seems no comedian at all.”
Keaton had the ability to step out of genre as an actor and filmmaker. Battling Butler confirms this rare dramatic quality with its realistic fight sequence, which influenced Martin Scorsese when he directed Raging Bull (1980). Like Keaton, Scorsese made certain his camera stayed in the ring. “The only person who had the right attitude about boxing in the movies was Buster Keaton,” he told biographer Marion Meade in 1995.
Clyde Bruckman, one of Keaton’s co-writers, was so impressed by Battling Butler that he gave Keaton a copy of William Pittenger’s 1863 book The Great Locomotive Chase. It became the inspiration for The General — Keaton’s greatest feature (with Bruckman credited as co-director) and a cinematic masterpiece. More than 93 years since its initial release, the film endures as a truly unique work that continues to resonate through generations.
Historians and critics often overlook Keaton’s ambition as a filmmaker. Though Chaplin shot most of The Gold Rush (1925) in the studio, 90 percent of The General was filmed on location in Oregon. In his quest for perfection, Keaton told his crew, “It’s got to be so authentic it hurts.” The result, in many respects, is the definitive Civil War epic, with Dev Jennings and Bert Haines’ superb cinematography evoking the photographic naturalism of Mathew Brady.
An independent filmmaker during most of the 1920s, Keaton had all the Hollywood resources at his disposal to create a very personal work not unlike Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941) — commercial considerations be damned. In retrospect, The General reveals as much about Keaton as it does the historic subject matter.
Welles was a great admirer of Keaton and praised The General on the 1971 PBS series The Silent Years: “I think it’s the Civil War movie. Nothing ever came near it, not only for beauty but for a feeling of authenticity. Yet this is a farce — a farce without Chaplinesque sentiment, but imbued with a real and very curious sort of dignity. . . . It’s a hundred times more stunning visually than Gone With the Wind.”
The General represents the ultimate fusion of man and machine, with the Civil War serving as a seriocomic backdrop in this larger-than-life escapade. The film is an inventive chase through history while showcasing Keaton’s mastery of props and characterization. “Think slow, act fast” was his modus operandi.
A recurring Keaton theme is the triumph of the outsider who relies on his own devices. As engineer Johnnie Gray, Keaton overcomes elaborate obstacles in a world where the illogical appears logical. He has the determination to fight terrible battles and prove his mettle to a society that initially rejects him. Unlike Chaplin and Lloyd, the emotionally detached Keaton has no time to feel sorry for himself — he must keep going. Life has become an endless chase.
Inevitably, the chase must end. The final scenes in The General represent those few opportunities where the Keaton persona stands still and reflects upon his accomplishments. Johnnie Gray finds love, redemption and a military rank, but only after a grueling journey. It seems that all Keaton characters must pay an emotional and physical price before they achieve success.
To realize his cinematic vision, Buster Keaton created an enigmatic and inventive universe that knew no bounds. Through the tragicomic wisdom of Seven Chances, Battling Butler and The General, viewers may envision themselves in these surrealistic battles — running and fighting for their lives. Such is the timeless poetry of Keaton, whose films move beyond the realm of slapstick comedy to reveal an expansive, darker portrait of American individualism.