A Supercut of Buster Keaton’s Most Amazing Stunts

Joseph Frank Keaton was born into show­biz. His father was a come­di­an. His moth­er, a soubrette. He emerged into the world dur­ing a one night engage­ment in Kansas City. His father’s busi­ness part­ner, escape artist Har­ry Hou­di­ni, inad­ver­tent­ly renamed him Buster, approv­ing of the way the rub­bery lit­tle Keaton weath­ered an acci­den­tal tum­ble down a flight of stairs.

As Keaton recalls in the inter­view accom­pa­ny­ing silent movie fan Don McHoull’s edit of some of his most amaz­ing stunts, above:

My old man was an eccen­tric com­ic and as soon as I could take care of myself at all on my feet, he had slapped shoes on me and big bag­gy pants. And he’d just start doing gags with me and espe­cial­ly kickin’ me clean across the stage or tak­ing me by the back of the neck and throw­ing me. By the time I got up to around sev­en or eight years old, we were called The Rough­est Act That Was Ever in the His­to­ry of the Stage. 

By the time of his first film role in the 1917 Roscoe “Fat­ty” Arbuck­le vehi­cle, The Butch­er Boy, Keaton was a sea­soned clown, with plen­ty of expe­ri­ence string­ing phys­i­cal gags into an enter­tain­ing nar­ra­tive whole.

Like his silent peers, Harold Lloyd and Char­lie Chap­lin, Keaton was an idea man, who saw no need for a script. Armed with a firm con­cept of how the film should begin and end, he rolled cam­eras with­out much idea of how the mid­dle would turn out, fine tun­ing his phys­i­cal set pieces on the fly, scrap­ping the ones that didn’t work and embrac­ing the hap­py acci­dents.

Could such an approach work for today’s come­di­ans? In lat­er inter­views, Keaton was gen­er­ous toward oth­er com­e­dy pro­fes­sion­als who got their laughs via meth­ods he steered clear of, from Bob Hope’s wordi­ness to direc­tor Bil­ly Wilder’s deft han­dling of Some Like It Hot’s far­ci­cal cross-dress­ing. His was nev­er a one-size-fits-all phi­los­o­phy.

Per­haps it’s more help­ful to think of his approach as an anti­dote to cre­ative block and timid­i­ty. We’ve cob­bled togeth­er some of his advice, below, in the hope that it might prove use­ful to sto­ry­tellers of all stripes.

Buster Keaton’s 5 Rules of Com­ic Sto­ry­telling

Make a strong start - grab the audi­ence with a dynam­ic, easy to grasp premise, like the one in 1920’s One Week, which finds a new­ly­wed Buster strug­gling to assem­ble a house from a do-it-your­self kit.

Decide how you want things to fin­ish up - for Keaton, this usu­al­ly involved get­ting the girl, though he learned to keep a pok­er face after a pre­view audi­ence booed the broad grin he tried out in one of Arbuckle’s shorts. Once you know where your story’s going, trust that the mid­dle will take care of itself.

If it’s not work­ing, cut it — Keaton may not have had a script, but he invest­ed a lot of thought into the phys­i­cal set pieces of his films. If it didn’t work as well as he hoped in exe­cu­tion, he cut it loose. If some serendip­i­tous sna­fu turned out to be fun­nier than the intend­ed gag, he put that in instead.

Play it like it mat­ters to you. As many a begin­ning improv stu­dent finds out, if you let your own mate­r­i­al crack you up, the audi­ence is rarely inclined to laugh along. Why set­tle for low stakes and dif­fi­dence, when high stakes and com­mit­ment are so much fun­nier?

Action over words Whether deal­ing with dia­logue or expo­si­tion, Keaton strove to min­i­mize the inter­ti­tles in his silent work. Show, don’t tell.

Films excerpt­ed at top:

Three Ages
Day Dreams
Sher­lock Jr.
One Week
Hard Luck
The Gen­er­al
Steam­boat Bill, Jr.
Sev­en Chances
Our Hos­pi­tal­i­ty
The Bell

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Buster Keaton: The Won­der­ful Gags of the Found­ing Father of Visu­al Com­e­dy

Some of Buster Keaton’s Great, Death-Defy­ing Stunts Cap­tured in Ani­mat­ed Gifs

The Pow­er of Silent Movies, with The Artist Direc­tor Michel Haz­anavi­cius

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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  • Acme Rocketsled says:

    I hope film­mak­ers today take the oppor­tu­ni­ty to appre­ci­ate the craft that went into these won­der­ful cen­tu­ry-old pieces of his­to­ry. The men who made these first gen­er­a­tion “motion pic­tures” were real genius­es.

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