The United States of America
Is it an exaggeration to say that Buster Keaton was the greatest silent clown? I think so. Looking back and comparing his work with the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, it becomes increasingly apparent that title shouldn’t belong to anyone. Each great clown had their own particular niche that they filled. Chaplin was the heartwarming, though occasionally naughty Tramp. Lloyd was the devoted everyman. And Buster…Well, he was Old Stoneface. He never asked us to feel for his characters the same way that Chaplin and Lloyd did, but that was part of his power. By not insisting on us caring, he became even more devoted to him.
Born into a vaudeville family, he gained the nickname “Buster” at a young age when he fell down a flight of stairs at eighteen months old. When he walked away unharmed, a bemused Harry Houdini said, “That was a real buster!” And so Buster’s fate was set. He would make a career out of being thrown, hit, beaten, smacked, slapped, shook, abused, and pulverized. When he was a child he would join his parents onstage where he would take part in the act. He had a suitcase handle sewn into his clothing so that his father could throw him all over the stage, into the audience, and even into the orchestra pit. And yet, Buster was never hurt. He learned how to fall in such a way that he could take great physical punishment without being hurt. No matter what happened to him, he would maintain a straight face, discovering that it would get a bigger laugh. As he grew older, his ability to maintain his serious look gave him the nickname “Old Stoneface.” When he finally began making films, he transferred this persona to the silver screen and created one of the cinema’s most enduring characters.
Named by many as one of the greatest actor/directors of all time, his list of films read like a collection of greatest hits: Our Hospitality (1923), Sherlock, Jr. (1924), Seven Chances (1925), The General (1927), and Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928). Each one of these films has gone down in history as a classic. Unfortunately, it is universally agreed that his work faltered when he signed on with MGM in 1928, a move that would strip all creative control from his future projects. But in 1934 he managed to make some truly decent two-reel comedies with Educational Pictures. But they are mostly overlooked. For film audiences everywhere, ol’ Buster was past his prime and stinking.
But what of Buster’s onscreen persona? Well, like Chaplin’s the Tramp, he played the same character in every film, just in different times and situations. Examining all of his work, patterns begin to appear. For example, how many people have realized that the girl that Buster goes for always treats him like dirt? Unlike the Tramp who had to struggle to get the dame’s attention, Buster was already acquainted with the girl. Most of the time she would hold him in contempt and Buster would spend the rest of the film trying to earn her love. Take The General where the woman won’t even speak to him unless he joins the Confederate Army in the Civil War. A sane person would forget about a girl who was so cruel, but not Buster. It was just another obstacle for him. But then, how many people have noticed that he has quite a cruel streak in his films, frequently attempting or threatening suicide if he fails his appointed tasks? The ending of Cops (1922) has him on the run from the police only to give himself up when the girl ignores him. That film ends with a still of a tombstone with the words “The End” written on them with one of Buster’s trademark pork pie hats propped up on it.
So instead of calling Buster a character that never gives up, I would classify him as a man who has an established goal and is willing to do anything to reach that end. That would explain his behavior in a rare gem of a movie entitled Grand Slam Opera, a talkie made in 1936 long past what most critics considered his prime. In it, we see Buster trying to become a radio star, even though he can’t sing and fully intends to do physical comedy. What results is a hysterical, but poignant look into the world of Buster Keaton and the aftermath of the Hollywood talkie takeover which killed the careers of so many silent film stars.
The film starts with Buster leaving on a train from his Arizona home to go to New York where he hopes to make it big in radio. The very first scene has him singing goodbye to the people who gathered to see him off. This scene has a surreal quality, if only because audiences are not accustomed to seeing a silent film star sing. But once the initial shock of hearing his voice wears off, the movie then truly begins for the audience. On the streets of New York, he bumps into a pretty girl, who like so many other pretty girls in Buster movies, insults him and brushes him off. She admonishes him only like a child. Buster sincerely replies, “How about a little dinner and a show?” In a joke that Buster had used several times before in his career, a trolley rolls past them, obstructing our view of the couple. When it passes, the girl has disappeared, supposedly on the train. Buster’s response is to shrug and move on. He has more important things to worry about. He needs to prepare for his radio audition tomorrow.
What follows is one of the film’s two great comedic sequences. Trapped in a tiny hotel room, he goes about trying to come up with an act for the radio show. He tries singing, but in a move that may be a passive aggressive sneer against the new talkie industry, he can only produce tortured yelps. So, he tries balancing a bowling ball on a pool cue. When that doesn’t work, he tries to come up with a dance number when he spies a picture of Fred Astaire on his bedside table. In a great show of acrobatic skill, he dances all over the room, on the bed, on the tables, and on top of the counters like Fred Astaire would. This is a poignant piece of comedy when you consider that he is impersonating the very men who put his generation of Hollywood actors out of work. When the noise gets too loud, it annoys the occupant of the room below Buster’s. Of course, she is the same girl as before. After telling him off, once again he asks the question, “How about a little dinner and a show?” When she once again refuses, he grabs some sand from a fire extinguisher in the hall, throws it all over the floor, and slips and slides to a new song. All of this is perfectly executed slapstick done with no dialogue. It is a testament to Buster’s skill that he could be such a great silent clown even when it was no longer popular.
If the first sequence was a tribute to his old career, the next one has him embracing the new use of sound in the movies. Waiting outside of the recording room, he hears a group of musicians auditioning for a spot on the show. They play a medley of world music. Not knowing this, Buster dances along with the music outside of the door. As the music changes, so does Buster’s dancing. It is an incredibly effective scene reminiscent of the famous gag from Sherlock Jr. where he “walks” into a movie screen. But instead of having the humor come from Buster’s reactions to the images, Grand Slam Opera has him reacting to sounds.
Of course there is a happy ending. As suspected, it ends with him holding the dame and asking for a third time, “How about a little dinner and a show?” Only this time she agrees. He is now a rich star despite his bungled audition. But what more can we expect from Buster? We want him to get the girl. After all, deep down inside we all know that he deserves it. He spent his entire career being the fall guy, taking all kinds of abuse only to ignore it. And when you consider his struggles with marriage, divorce, and alcoholism in real life, to see him return to such great work after such a great slump is truly a great joy. After all, he may have had a stone face, but he never had a stone heart.
Grand Slam Opera Part 1 of 2
Grand Slam Opera Part 2 of 2