The best of the best: Buster Keaton

by Martin Hafer

I recently wrote an article about my favorite silent comedian, Harold Lloyd. While Lloyd is mostly forgotten today, an equally talented contemporary of his, Buster Keaton, is a bit more famous.  Much of this is because Harold Lloyd owned most of his films and kept them locked up for decades–whereas Keaton’s films have been more widely available.  Perhaps you’ve seen one of his more famous films, such as The General.  Regardless, his films are magnificent–with a wonderful physicality no one else could match (no one could take a fall like Keaton) as well as a wonderful bizarreness that make the films timeless.  If you are willing to watch a silent film with an open mind, here is a short list of his best movies–ones you should seek out first so you can see just how good he was.

The General:  This is by far Keaton’s most famous film.  Though it’s not my favorite, it is still exceptional and is a delightful blend of great stunt work as well as a nice story about the Civil War.  In the film, Keaton is a Confederate soldier who learns that Yankee spies are coming–and he’s determined to stop them.

Why I love this film:  A truly spectacular film with great effects, the real star of the film is a vintage railroad engine, The General.  It also is delightfully clever and timeless.

Our Hospitality: This is my favorite film, not his most famous.  It’s set in the wild west of about 1840…which at the time was the American Midwest.  Buster is in love with a neighbor…which is a bit of a problem, since her family has vowed to kill him and the rest of his clan.

Why I love this film:  I love the details, most likely because I am a retired history teacher.  The wonderful old train, the costumes and the sets all help to make this delightful romantic comedy a visual delight.

Cops:  A Keaton short, Buster manages to tick off EVERY policeman in town and they all want to capture him.

Why I love this film:  If you love gags, this one has more than any of Keaton’s full-length films!  It’s also very high energy and the closest Keaton came to a slapstick film during the 1920s.

Steamboat Bill, Jr.:  Buster goes off to see his long-lost father and help him with his steamship business.  However, his rival company seems willing to do anything and it’s up to Buster to prove to his old man that he’s tough enough to run the company.

Why I love this film:  The final portion of the film is where the film really gets into the swing.  A huge storm hits the town and Buster is caught up in the middle of it.  The gag involving the building collapsing down around him was incredibly dangerous and one you won’t soon forget.
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Seven Chances:  This short has been copied many times, but never as well as in this original film.  Buster needs to get married FAST or he won’t inherit a fortune.  When he asks his girlfriend, she’s offended that this seemed to be the only reason he wanted to marry her…so she refuses.  Soon word gets out that he’s interested in marrying…and HUNDREDS of women come out of nowhere and chase poor Buster all over town.

Why I love this film:  Like Cops, this one is one very fast-paced gag after another.  Also, I laugh every time I see the film at the sorts of women who come looking for a rich husband!

The Playhouse:  While this is not Keaton’s funniest short film, it is his most interesting.  After awakening from a wild dream, Buster manages to screw up everything—even allowing a trained orangutan go by mistake, so HE has to pretend to be the primate in the act!

Why I love this film:  The dream is a total delight!!  In it, Keaton plays every character…all of them.  You’ll see Keaton as old ladies in the audience, as actors on stage and even playing an entire band…and all of them are Keaton!

The Goat:  Through some crazy mix-up, Keaton is mistaken for a wanted man, Dead Eye Dan!  Through the course of the film, Keaton is chased by practically everyone and he needs to use his wits to elude them.

Why I love this film:  Again, like his other shorts, there’s one gag after another after another.  In addition, it’s hilarious to see him searching for his new girlfriend so she can help him…though he doesn’t realize that she’s the police chief’s daughter!

So there you have a nice selection of some of Buster Keaton’s best films.  There are many other films I could also suggest, but try these first and then write to me if you’d like a few more suggestions.  I hope you enjoy them and if you do, you might consider investing in the Buster Keaton mega-set, The Art of Buster Keaton–which includes over 30 of his best films.  However, since these films are in the public domain, you also could look for the Chinese version of this set–which is significantly cheaper and has the same English language subtitles.