Buster Keaton vs The History of Comedy

The following is in honor of the upcoming birthday of Buster Keaton, on October 4th.  It is the story of a custard pie, a movie camera, and the very origins of American slapstick.

There he is, Buster Keaton wielding a pie, ready to take center stage in our story–but we have to keep him abeyance for a moment while I set the stage:

In the 1940s and 50s, American popular culture took to nostalgic reflection on the bygone age of silent comedy, much like modern pop culture pines for the 1980s. If there’d been a VH1 in 1945, it would have feasted on the likes of I Love the 20s!

And, like the 80s nostalgia of today, the simplest and cheapest way to look back was with a compilation of clips. Eventually the most sophisticated of clip jobs would come along in the form of Robert Youngson and Paul Killiam’s movie collages, but many years before they came along, the industry was already leaning in that direction. Here’s an excerpt from one such compilation (yes, it’s a clip from a clip show!):

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Another way to indulge nostalgic reveries was to bring back the superstars of the lost form to strut their stuff in cameos intended to pay homage to their art. Arguably the most prominent example of this approach was 1939′s Hollywood Cavalcade, directed by Irving Cummings.

Mack Sennett

Made the year after Mack Sennett received his honorary Oscar, Cavalcade is essentially a fictionalized version of Mack’s life story. Set aside the fact that Mack Sennett actually appears in the film, as himself–that is but a weirdly recursive moment of meta-textual loopiness in what is otherwise a sort of bio-pic with Don Ameche playing Mack. The film takes us through the broad strokes of Mack’s life, hitting all of the beats and in the right order.

With one important exception–the moment when Don Ameche becomes the King of Comedy and anoints his girlfriend Alice Faye (the Mabel Normand figure of the film) as the queen of slapstick. It involves Buster Keaton and it goes like this:

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That is one of the most potent scenes in all of film history, in my opinion. I could spend months unpacking what’s in that brief scene, but I’ve only got this one blog to spend on it so I’m going to try to be efficient.

First, let’s look at the pie itself. It’s always hard to pinpoint when the first of anything was–and the spotty survival of silent films makes exhaustive research impossible. So, with that caveat, I can report that I have in my notes that the earliest recorded pie thrown in a screen comedy was in 1913, in a Mabel Normand, Roscoe Arbuckle short called Noise From the Deep. I invite anyone who disputes this to correct me–please, if you know of an earlier pie, I wanna see it.

1913 seems late to me. In my earlier Mack Sennett post, I identified 1909′s The Curtain Pole as a seminal work in the genre; Mack was directing Mabel Normand regularly by 1911. He was head of his own studio, Keystone, by 1913. That it would take that long for someone to fling a pie at someone else in the name of comedy seems to belie the importance of pies in the subsequent iconography of slapstick.

In the pitch of slapstick nostalgia in the 40s and 50s, certain aspects of silent comedy would be exaggerated as defining characteristics–shorthand signifiers of the genre. Actual silent comedies were never as flickery as their mid-century copycats, nor were they ever as fixated on pies.

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Some comedians took to snooty objections that they had never thrown a pie. (How insulting, to be thought of as a lowly pie-throwing clown, said people who spent their screen careers throwing bricks instead). But not Buster Keaton. He happily threw pies throughout these mid-century throwbacks, and set himself up as an expert on the art of pie slinging.

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The most significant thing about Buster’s scene in Hollywood Cavalcade is not that he throws a pie, but that his comic slapstick is an accident. Buster took to the role of the accidental comedian and made it his own.

Consider the made-for-television The Silent Partner from 1955, produced by Hal Roach. In it, Keaton plays a comedy has-been, beloved by die-hard fans but forgotten by the masses–a vaguely biographical sketch of Keaton himself (and made two years prior to the equally vaguely biographical sketch of Keaton that purported to be The Buster Keaton Story). If anything, The Silent Partner is the bio-pic not of the real Keaton but of the character he played in Hollywood Cavalcade–the bumbler whose accidental slapstick unwittingly created screen comedy.

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This idea turned out to be a stubborn meme.

That same year, 1955, found Mack Sennett making another cameo as himself in Abbot and Costello Meet the Keystone Kops (asked to identify himself, he throws a pie).

Mack Sennett

The film involves Bud and Lou scammed into buying a bogus movie studio. This leads, inevitably, to that same idea that bumbling fools stumble unwittingly onto a movie set and accidentally crate comic art.  In the clip below, the boys have fallen into the middle of a B-Western, and as a reward for ruining the shoot are given a contract as comedy stars.

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There is something almost perverse at work here. Mack Sennett was a natural born anarchist who was drawn to the slapstick form through his own sense of the ridiculous; Buster Keaton was a gifted acrobat and vaudeville veteran who cultivated keenly developed philosophies of comedy. These two men worked hard at the business of comedy–yet time and again allowed their hard work to be lampooned on screen as the by-product of simple ineptitude.

It could be argued that Sennett and Keaton and their contemporaries were indeed uneducated, and that their comedy was unsophisticated stuff as compared to the screwball comedies that had by that point taken over Hollywood, and the depiction of slapstick pioneers as accidental artists merely reflects this state of affairs.

But the prevalence of the accidental comedian archetype throughout silent comedy begs for some more coherent explanation.

And so we dial back to 1909, and find Mack Sennett as an actor in Those Awful Hats,a Biography comedy directed by DW Griffith. The comedy arises from within a movie theater, a scenario that might be familiar to anyone in the actual audience of that film.

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But it creates a recursive loop–a movie comedy about the movies can’t but help folding real-life into the screen. What happens if, while watching this movie, there happens to be someone in front of you wearing a giant hat? Which part is funnier–the thing happening to you, or the simulacrum of it on the screen?

Mack must have gotten this stuck in his head, because the same scenario starts to show up in his own films. The 1913 short Mabel’s Dramatic Career is a variation on the theme, with Sennett again in the audience of a film, this time becoming way too involved in the events of the Mabel Normand movie he’s come to see.

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This was a crucial development–now the joke wasn’t just about disruptive patrons at a movie, but about rubes who had trouble distinguishing fact from fiction.

In A Film Johnnie, Chaplin duplicates the set-up of Mabel’s Dramatic Career, this time taking Mack Sennett’s role as the fool in the audience who can’t tell the onscreen action is fictional.

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Later in the same film, he bumbles onto the Keystone set and interrupts the filming of another comedy, mistaking staged action for a real damsel in distress.

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By 1916, the recursive loop closed tighter, with Mack Swain attending his own film in A Movie Star, triggering the same fact vs fiction confusions.

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Slapstick violence is always accidental. The havoc in The Curtain Pole isn’t the result of a maniac maliciously smacking everyone in the head, it’s the consequence of a clumsy person who isn’t paying attention. It follows quite naturally that comedians who had built their careers on that kind of thoughtless chaos would continue the notion in all settings. Put them on a movie set and they will cause disaster, because that’s what they do, and since audiences do indeed pay to watch that kind of disaster, the characters in those movies recognize the results of this havoc as commercially viable comedy.

And in the case of Buster Keaton, what we are talking about is a comic whose professional career was rooted in an audience’s enjoyment of unintentional havoc.

 Family act

Dial your Way-Back Machines for the turn of the century vaudeville days of Joe and Myra Keaton, shuffling from one ramshackle theater to another, putting on their show.  They’ve got a little kid, a tyke named Joseph, and called “Buster” in honor of his rough-and-tumble ways.  Other families divided childcare responsibilities such that Mama would tend to the little ones while Papa went off to work.  But Papa Keaton’s “job” was entertaining people on a stage, and it required Mama Keaton to be along his side.  There was nowhere else for little Buster to go, so ended up in the act, where his natural childish curiosity and immature misunderstandings caused problems.  These problems were incorporated into the act, treated as jokes, and made into the centerpiece of the act.

family act

In 1956, Buster told an interviewer that his family’s act consisted of a simple fact: “I’d simply get in my father’s way all the time and get kicked all over the stage.”

Which meant that from Buster’s very earliest memories were about creating accidental comedy–and he never let go of the idea.

Here are just a few of the many instances in Keaton’s ouvre where he played a character whose mere presence on a stage or in front of a camera resulted in accidental comedy: The Garage, The Playhouse, The Cameraman, Free and Easy, Speak Easily, The King of the Champs Elysees, Mixed Magic, War Italian Style.  That’s an awful lot of “accidental” jokes, from a man who obvsiouly knew exactly what he was doing.

22 Responses Buster Keaton vs The History of Comedy
Posted By Tom S : October 1, 2011 10:00 am

I always had the impression that the general idea in the 40s and 50s about the silent comics was that they were unsophisticated, low art- though obviously everyone made an exception for Chaplin. Reading James Agee, though, it’s clear that at least some people obviously recognized their unique genius that early- but was that just the special connoisseurs, the people who really knew what they were talking about, or would the audience of a movie like Cavalcade have known how brilliant men like Keaton really were?

Posted By Tom S : October 1, 2011 10:00 am

I always had the impression that the general idea in the 40s and 50s about the silent comics was that they were unsophisticated, low art- though obviously everyone made an exception for Chaplin. Reading James Agee, though, it’s clear that at least some people obviously recognized their unique genius that early- but was that just the special connoisseurs, the people who really knew what they were talking about, or would the audience of a movie like Cavalcade have known how brilliant men like Keaton really were?

Posted By dukeroberts : October 1, 2011 11:19 am

In the context of today, with history now telling us that Keaton was a genius, it’s hard to believe that people did not see him as that so many years ago. I see some of the inspired things he did onscreen and I’m blown away, just as I am by Chaplin and Lloyd. How could anyone have ever thought otherwise?

Posted By dukeroberts : October 1, 2011 11:19 am

In the context of today, with history now telling us that Keaton was a genius, it’s hard to believe that people did not see him as that so many years ago. I see some of the inspired things he did onscreen and I’m blown away, just as I am by Chaplin and Lloyd. How could anyone have ever thought otherwise?

Posted By JeffH : October 1, 2011 1:14 pm

Keaton once said that no one can be considered a genius who wears funny shoes and a flat hat-he was so wrong.

I consider Keaton to be the greatest comedy director ever, followed by Del Lord (who did the best Stooges shorts), Leo McCarey, Chaplin, Wilder, Charley Chase, Sturges, Allen, Eddie Cline and if we can include animation directors, Tex Avery and Chuck Jones, both of whom I would rank in the top 5.

Another great example of Keaton/accidental comedy is SPITE MARRIAGE, which also has a show business background to the plot.

Posted By JeffH : October 1, 2011 1:14 pm

Keaton once said that no one can be considered a genius who wears funny shoes and a flat hat-he was so wrong.

I consider Keaton to be the greatest comedy director ever, followed by Del Lord (who did the best Stooges shorts), Leo McCarey, Chaplin, Wilder, Charley Chase, Sturges, Allen, Eddie Cline and if we can include animation directors, Tex Avery and Chuck Jones, both of whom I would rank in the top 5.

Another great example of Keaton/accidental comedy is SPITE MARRIAGE, which also has a show business background to the plot.

Posted By Tom S : October 1, 2011 3:15 pm

I think some of the Ealing directors deserve to be on that list, Chrichton and MacKendrick in particular- the house style there led to really remarkable, elegantly directed comedies, something that most funny movies aren’t interested in being.

Posted By Tom S : October 1, 2011 3:15 pm

I think some of the Ealing directors deserve to be on that list, Chrichton and MacKendrick in particular- the house style there led to really remarkable, elegantly directed comedies, something that most funny movies aren’t interested in being.

Posted By Emgee : October 1, 2011 5:09 pm

How could silent comedy ever be as sophisticated as Abbott and Costello?

Posted By Emgee : October 1, 2011 5:09 pm

How could silent comedy ever be as sophisticated as Abbott and Costello?

Posted By JeffH : October 1, 2011 7:28 pm

Watch one of the surviving Raymond Griffith comedies, any of Charley Chase’s or Laurel & Hardy’s late silents or any of Chaplin, Keaton or Lloyd’s features. There are some sight gags in those films that put A&C to shame, IMHO. All many of these comics had to do to get a roar of laughter was to raise an eyebrow or do a quiet double-take. A&C are funny, and Costello was able to take the comedy of frustration that Chase and especially Curly Howard had down to a science and run with it, but there was a certain disconnect between A&C in some of their films that kind of rubbed me the wrong way at times, and even with the Stooges I never felt that.

Posted By JeffH : October 1, 2011 7:28 pm

Watch one of the surviving Raymond Griffith comedies, any of Charley Chase’s or Laurel & Hardy’s late silents or any of Chaplin, Keaton or Lloyd’s features. There are some sight gags in those films that put A&C to shame, IMHO. All many of these comics had to do to get a roar of laughter was to raise an eyebrow or do a quiet double-take. A&C are funny, and Costello was able to take the comedy of frustration that Chase and especially Curly Howard had down to a science and run with it, but there was a certain disconnect between A&C in some of their films that kind of rubbed me the wrong way at times, and even with the Stooges I never felt that.

Posted By CherieP : October 2, 2011 1:10 am

Hi david
I just love this post as a burgeoning enthusiast of silent comedies. I know this is on a tangent if you’d bear with me:

I’d love to make a case for Mable Normand being a great director of silent comedies, but since I haven’t seen the movies, I could be accused of being overly zealous.

People seem to concentrate on the scandals of the silent era that Normand was directly or indirectly involved in, and thus her contributions, to the Sennett comedies do not get the credit they deserve. To have been the partner of Arbuckle is proof enough, that Mable Normand is the equal to any guy who ever had sense enough to know how to throw a pie properly in the right direction. And get paid for it.

Posted By CherieP : October 2, 2011 1:10 am

Hi david
I just love this post as a burgeoning enthusiast of silent comedies. I know this is on a tangent if you’d bear with me:

I’d love to make a case for Mable Normand being a great director of silent comedies, but since I haven’t seen the movies, I could be accused of being overly zealous.

People seem to concentrate on the scandals of the silent era that Normand was directly or indirectly involved in, and thus her contributions, to the Sennett comedies do not get the credit they deserve. To have been the partner of Arbuckle is proof enough, that Mable Normand is the equal to any guy who ever had sense enough to know how to throw a pie properly in the right direction. And get paid for it.

Posted By DBenson : October 3, 2011 2:48 pm

Politely differ with the idea of slapstick being mostly “accidental” or centered on creating havoc. A lot of the best visual gags come from the opposite impulse.

Keaton was often responding to (or escaping from) havoc, often with a hilariously inspired application of physics. Think of the railroad ties in “The General.” Or the insanely efficient household in “The Scarecrow.” He’s intelligent in his faintly alien way, not understanding women but very clear about large moving objects. In “The Silent Partner,” Keaton sort of gives the game away by being TOO comically clumsy — nobody could accidentally get in that much trouble with a ladder.

Lloyd was all about bringing over-the-top Yankee Ingenuity to bear on a problem, whether it was rescuing the girl or turning around a business. The comic finale of “Why Worry” has him repelling a band of revolutionaries with an instant fake army — a triumph of quick thinking over popular symbols of havoc.

Chaplin, of course, was constantly improvising his way towards a meal and/or away from hostile pursuers — and, in later films, trying to at least look worthy of a fair damsel. In his world, brilliance was a survival skill.

Laurel and Hardy would appear to be the lead producers of unintended havoc. But you’ll note they’re very patient and orderly about it, thoughtfully focused on some simple task that’s going to slip out of their control.

Posted By DBenson : October 3, 2011 2:48 pm

Politely differ with the idea of slapstick being mostly “accidental” or centered on creating havoc. A lot of the best visual gags come from the opposite impulse.

Keaton was often responding to (or escaping from) havoc, often with a hilariously inspired application of physics. Think of the railroad ties in “The General.” Or the insanely efficient household in “The Scarecrow.” He’s intelligent in his faintly alien way, not understanding women but very clear about large moving objects. In “The Silent Partner,” Keaton sort of gives the game away by being TOO comically clumsy — nobody could accidentally get in that much trouble with a ladder.

Lloyd was all about bringing over-the-top Yankee Ingenuity to bear on a problem, whether it was rescuing the girl or turning around a business. The comic finale of “Why Worry” has him repelling a band of revolutionaries with an instant fake army — a triumph of quick thinking over popular symbols of havoc.

Chaplin, of course, was constantly improvising his way towards a meal and/or away from hostile pursuers — and, in later films, trying to at least look worthy of a fair damsel. In his world, brilliance was a survival skill.

Laurel and Hardy would appear to be the lead producers of unintended havoc. But you’ll note they’re very patient and orderly about it, thoughtfully focused on some simple task that’s going to slip out of their control.

Posted By Emgee : October 3, 2011 3:12 pm

JeffH,, thanks for your informed reply; now i must confess i was being ironic. I find A & C about as funny as getting a pie in the face; again, i’m being ironic, cause that wouldn’t appeal to me much. I love those comics you mention, and duos like A& C and later on Lewis and Martin (…….) are to me proof that comedy had IMHO regressed in the late forties after the great Golden Age of twenties comedy. Therefore i find it especially grating to see them treat silent comedy as just a series of car chases and pie gags. Now Bud Abbott being chased by Dracula, that’s sheer comic genius! ( Again,…. see above)

Posted By Emgee : October 3, 2011 3:12 pm

JeffH,, thanks for your informed reply; now i must confess i was being ironic. I find A & C about as funny as getting a pie in the face; again, i’m being ironic, cause that wouldn’t appeal to me much. I love those comics you mention, and duos like A& C and later on Lewis and Martin (…….) are to me proof that comedy had IMHO regressed in the late forties after the great Golden Age of twenties comedy. Therefore i find it especially grating to see them treat silent comedy as just a series of car chases and pie gags. Now Bud Abbott being chased by Dracula, that’s sheer comic genius! ( Again,…. see above)

Posted By JeffH : October 3, 2011 3:25 pm

Emgee-I certainly understand the use of irony. I have a fondness for A&C and Martin and Lewis, the latter if only because Dean diluted the overbearing Jerry, who has gotten even more so since they split up. I consider Jerry Lewis to be the equivalent of getting hit in the face with a pie with a few ball bearings thrown in for weight.

Posted By JeffH : October 3, 2011 3:25 pm

Emgee-I certainly understand the use of irony. I have a fondness for A&C and Martin and Lewis, the latter if only because Dean diluted the overbearing Jerry, who has gotten even more so since they split up. I consider Jerry Lewis to be the equivalent of getting hit in the face with a pie with a few ball bearings thrown in for weight.

Posted By DBenson : October 3, 2011 5:07 pm

Sometimes I worry that modern comedy is either pure mechanics (actor-proof sitcom scripts packed with generic wisecracks) or pure performer (a good standup comic or comedic actor being left to fend for his/herself, usually “do funny reaction here”). And somewhere below that is mock slapstick that holds any form of damage, injury or indignity is intrinsically risible (see Herman and Katnip).

While loose, improv-style can be hilarious, it’s only one note on the scale (and are there enough guys who do it that well?). I’m actually nostalgic for “Frasier,” which at its best blended skilled construction, wit and slapstick — and had people who could carry all three.

Posted By DBenson : October 3, 2011 5:07 pm

Sometimes I worry that modern comedy is either pure mechanics (actor-proof sitcom scripts packed with generic wisecracks) or pure performer (a good standup comic or comedic actor being left to fend for his/herself, usually “do funny reaction here”). And somewhere below that is mock slapstick that holds any form of damage, injury or indignity is intrinsically risible (see Herman and Katnip).

While loose, improv-style can be hilarious, it’s only one note on the scale (and are there enough guys who do it that well?). I’m actually nostalgic for “Frasier,” which at its best blended skilled construction, wit and slapstick — and had people who could carry all three.

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