Five Comedy Lessons from Five Buster Keaton Classics

By Martin Keady · May 30, 2018

Move over, May 4th (“Star Wars Day”) and out of the way, “Alien Day” (26 April) – henceforth, June 16 will be “Buster Keaton Day” in Los Angeles and consequently the coolest “movie day” of the year. The city recently announced that it will honor “The Great Stone Face” annually. To celebrate and provide some last-minute inspiration for entrants, this piece is brought to you by the 2018 ScreenCraft Comedy Screenplay Contest.

Enter the 2018 ScreenCraft Comedy Screenplay Contest by the final deadline on June 1st, by 11:59 PM PST.

Here are five comedy lessons from five Buster Keaton classics:

1. Be Wildly Imaginative (But Always Remain In Control) – Sherlock Jr. (1924)

Keaton may or may not be the greatest silent movie star of them all (Laurel and Hardy, Chaplin and Lloyd all have their many admirers), but it is surely undeniable that he was the greatest film-maker of all the great silent movie stars, as demonstrated to near perfection in arguably his finest film, Sherlock Jr. (1924).  It anticipates other, much later screen comedies about “going into the movies” (as opposed to just “going to” them), such as Rodney Dangerfield’s The Projectionist (1970) and Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), by nearly half a century. In the process, it shows both Keaton’s extraordinary imagination and his mastery of cinema. 

In Sherlock Jr., Keaton plays a movie projectionist who dreams of being a detective. When he is wrongly accused of stealing a watch that belongs to the father of his beloved (it has, in fact, been stolen by his rival for the girl’s affection), he is told never to see the girl again. Back in the cinema, as he tries to work out what had really happened, he falls asleep and then imagines that his own life has become a detective movie, in which he, Sherlock Jr., must establish the true identity of the thief. Naturally, the thief tries to deter him, by setting a succession of the kind of traps that Keaton was always falling into. Finally, though, Keaton manages to capture the thief, rescue the girl and prove once and for all that he has the mind of a true detective.

Keaton knew that wild flights of fantasy must always be balanced by rigorous logic, even control. It was the essence of his genius as a movie star: dodge the bullet (or the falling rock, or even the avalanche) but never register your fear or alarm, at least not facially. Similarly, any budding 21st century Busters should certainly employ some of the dazzling array of cinematic tricks and effects that are now available even on an iPhone, but they should root them in a beautifully constructed plot, which acts as the anchor to stop the dream-ship from floating away. 

2. Build Your Story Slowly (Until It Attains Unstoppable Momentum) – The General, 1926

Orson Welles was one of the first true masters of sound cinema, but he idolized the silent greats, especially Keaton and in particular The General, which he and many others regarded as perhaps the greatest film ever made, at least until Welles himself made Citizen Kane (1941). Welles clearly learned a lot from The General, even if it that education is not immediately apparent in Kane. However, there is one clear similarity between The General and Citizen Kane: the ability to build a story slowly until it attains unstoppable momentum.

It is, of course, appropriate to use the imagery of movement to describe The General as it is a film all about movement, and specifically the rush of the railway. Keaton plays Johnnie, a humble railway worker who is turned down by the Confederate Army when the Civil War begins because his day-to-day work is deemed to be too valuable. However, that is of little consolation when his rejection by the Army leads to his rejection by his beloved, Annabelle, who thinks he is merely a coward. Keaton/Johnnie is determined to prove otherwise, especially when Annabelle is captured by Union soldiers, who escape on board Johnnie’s other great love, his locomotive called “The General”. He consequently sets out to track down the stolen train, first on foot, then by handcar and bicycle, and finally by train (as he commandeers another train to catch the first one). 

In Sam Shepard’s play True West, a would-be screenwriter, Lee, outlines a movie that is all about movement: first a chase on foot; then on motorbike; and finally by car. As his brother, another supposedly more successful screenwriter, points out, it appears to be movement without purpose, but in The General, the movement is all about purpose, as Johnnie tries everything he can think of to find his beloved girl and beloved train. Unlike Lee, he does not begin with the chase (indeed, Lee’s story is little more than one extended chase sequence) but instead builds to it throughout the film until the unforgettable conclusion, in which, having freed Annabelle and stolen The General back, Keaton is chased by another train. Similarly, any comic writer should build slowly to their punchline by first meticulously constructing their joke.

3. Be Precise (or Die) – Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)

The General, for all its artistic brilliance, ultimately cost Keaton his artistic independence. It was one of the most expensive films ever made up to that point, but it failed to make its money back, let alone turn a profit. Consequently, Keaton was compelled to leave United Artists, where he had made all of his silent masterpieces of the 20s, to work for MGM, which slowly and foolishly reduced him to a shell of his former self (for example, by insisting on complete scripts before beginning filming even though Keaton was a genius at improvisation). Before he began his long and painful decline, however, Keaton made Steamboat Bill, Jr., his last true assertion of artistic independence. 

Steamboat Bill, Jr. does with steamboats what The General does with trains, making them incredible vehicles for adventure. Keaton plays the son of a steamboat owner who faces competition from a new rival, King, who owns a much more modern and luxurious vessel. When Keaton falls in love with King’s daughter, war breaks out between the two business rivals and Keaton’s father is eventually jailed. Worse follows, as a cyclone hits the town and Keaton’s father faces being drowned in his prison cell, until Keaton saves the steamboat from destruction and then uses it to rescue his beloved and free his father.

The single most extraordinary scene in Steamboat Bill, Jr. is perhaps the single most extraordinary scene in all of silent cinema, as the front of a house (wrenched free from the rest of the house by the cyclone) falls on Keaton and he is only saved from certain death by standing in the one spot where an open window, rather than the solid façade of the house, can pass over him. It was, of course, the perfect image for Keaton’s whole career. Nearly a century before the widespread development of CGI made almost any cinematic stunt (or any other cinematic sequence) possible, Keaton had to plan to the nearest millimeter his own stunts, or he would have been killed. In the same vein, any comic writer must carefully construct their plot, however farcical it may be, to ensure that they achieve the kind of extraordinary precision that Keaton did. 

4. Don’t Be Afraid To Mock Yourself (However Much It Hurts) – Sunset Boulevard (1950)

The thirties and forties were hard on Keaton, as he went from being one of the most famous men in the world to the kind of forgotten silent-age star who frequented Norma Desmond’s card parties. In the famous “waxworks” scene in Sunset Boulevard, Keaton plays himself, a silent great lost in the world of sound. The irony is, of course, that although he is supposedly “forgotten”, he is actually the most famous of the old movie stars who gather round Norma’s card table. Who now remembers H. B. Warner and Anna Q. Nilsson, whose use of initials alone places them in a bygone era?

For many modern viewers, this scene in Sunset Boulevard is their gateway (or even gateway drug) to Keaton. He says only one word – “Pass” – twice and does little more than remain poker-faced, except for exchanging glances with his fellow former stars when Norma and Joe (William Holden) argue. Nevertheless, that is enough to convey his increasing wariness about Norma’s flirtation with a much younger man. And the scene is also central to the plot, coinciding, as it does, with the towing-away of Joe’s car after it is found by two “repo” (repossession) men. As Joe watches it being towed away, he realizes that he, too, is trapped in Norma’s world, and is as much of a “waxwork” in her museum as any of the silent movie stars he had been so dismissive of. 

Billy Wilder cast Keaton as one of the card-players in this scene because he was a great admirer of Keaton and knew that there was no-one better to convey the sense of “lost grandeur”. Whereas Laurel and Hardy, and Charlie Chaplin, retained most of the money they had made in movies, Keaton had lost most of his. Nevertheless, whether out of desperation or a simple desire to be on the big screen again, Keaton was prepared to play himself – and not his former self (the great movie star) but his then current self (a former movie star who probably had to rent the tuxedo he wears to Norma’s house). And if “The Great Stone Face” is prepared to mock, or even belittle, himself in this way, so should any aspiring comedian.  

5. Don’t Be Afraid To Try Drama (Even If You Fail) – Film (1965)

As it turned out, the “waxworks” scene in Sunset Boulevard would be a late-career highlight for Keaton, who spent much of the last 15 years of his life doing any work he could find, including on television shows such as The Twilight Zone, in which he played a man who dons a “time helmet” to travel through time. And he was not even the first choice for the penultimate film he made, Samuel Beckett’s Film (Beckett’s sole foray into cinema). Typically, that had been Charlie Chaplin.

Few films divide opinion like Film, which is usually described as either a work of genius or, as David Thomson called it, “turgid”. It was certainly ahead of its time in depicting a world in which Keaton tries to avoid an all-seeing eye that seems to see his every movement, which obviously anticipates the kind of state surveillance that has become commonplace in the early 21st century. (To be fair to George Orwell, he, of course, foresaw this type of technological tyranny even earlier than Beckett did, making it the subject of his 1949 novel, 1984.) 

Whatever the merits (or otherwise) of Film, it showed that Keaton was not afraid to experiment, right up until the end of his life. (His final film was A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966), which he made just before he died.) Of course, the line between comedy and drama is often a thin one, and at times is non-existent, as Keaton had shown four decades earlier in Sherlock Jr. and The General. All writers should bear that in mind and include drama in their comedies and vice versa. Indeed, in a way, they should go further than that, and write comedies as if they are dramas and vice versa. At the very least, they will achieve some unexpected results.  

And a final lesson – Stay Stone-Faced To The End!

As Buster Keaton always knew, life was the most serious funny business there was. That was probably why he stopped smiling and instead adopted the stoical “Stone Face” that allowed him to face down any difficulty he encountered, from falling houses to his own failing career. Indeed, if he were alive today and being told that Los Angeles, the film capital of the world, had designated a whole day to him, the most he would do would be to crack a grimace. Similarly, all artists should stay true to themselves and their work, whether they are being celebrated or condemned. Or, as Keaton might have put it, “Stay Stone-Faced To The End”. 

Martin Keady is an award-winning scriptwriter whose work has been produced for film, television, stage and radio. His major credits include: The Final, a short film about the famous ending of the 1979 FA Cup Final, which was shown on Channel Four; Moon the Loon, a play about the legendary Who drummer, Keith Moon, which was premiered at The Edinburgh Festival; and a collection of love poetry, Shards, extracts from which have been broadcast on Radio Four.”

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