30 Buster Keaton Films: “The Greatest of All Comic Actors,” “One of the Greatest Filmmakers of All Time”

The great­est of the silent clowns is Buster Keaton, not only because of what he did, but because of how he did it. —Roger Ebert

In 1987, Video mag­a­zine pub­lished a sto­ry titled “Where’s Buster?” lament­ing the lack of Buster Keaton films avail­able on video­tape, “despite renewed inter­est” in a leg­end who was “about to regain his right­ful place next to Chap­lin in silent comedy’s pan­theon.” How things have changed for Keaton fans and admir­ers. Not only are most of the stone-faced com­ic genius’ films avail­able online, but he has maybe eclipsed Chap­lin as the most pop­u­lar­ly revered silent film star of the 1920s.

Keaton has always been held in the high­est esteem by his fel­low artists. He was dubbed “the great­est of all the clowns in the his­to­ry of the cin­e­ma” by Orson Welles, and served as a sig­nif­i­cant inspi­ra­tion for Samuel Beck­ett. (He was the playwright’s first choice to play Wait­ing for Godot’s Lucky, though he was too per­plexed by the script to take the role). In Peter Bogdanovich’s new doc­u­men­tary, The Great Buster: A Cel­e­bra­tion, Mel Brooks and Carl Rein­er dis­cuss his foun­da­tion­al influ­ence on their com­e­dy, and Wern­er Her­zog calls him “the essence of movies.”

For many years, how­ev­er, the state of Keaton’s fil­mog­ra­phy made it hard for the gen­er­al pub­lic to ful­ly appraise his work. “The Gen­er­al, with Buster as a train engi­neer in the Civ­il War, has always been avail­able,” Roger Ebert wrote in 2002, and has been “hailed as one of the supreme mas­ter­pieces of silent film­mak­ing. But oth­er fea­tures and shorts exist­ed in shab­by, incom­plete prints, if at all, and it was only in the 1960s that film his­to­ri­ans began to assem­ble and restore Keaton’s life­work. Now almost every­thing has been recov­ered, restored, and is avail­able on DVDs and tapes that range from watch­able to sparkling.”

Access to Keaton’s films has fur­ther expand­ed as a dozen or so entered the pub­lic domain in recent years, includ­ing two fea­tures, Sher­lock, Jr. and The Nav­i­ga­tor, this year and three more to come in 2021. You can watch thir­ty-one of Keaton’s restored, recov­ered films on YouTube, at the links below, shared by MetaFil­ter user Going to Maine, who writes, “where, oh where, in this mod­ern world, can we find the gems of his gold­en era? The obvi­ous place.”

Keaton starred in his first fea­ture-length film, The Sap­head, in 1920. For the next decade, until the end of the silent era, he dom­i­nat­ed the box office, along­side Chap­lin and Harold Lloyd, with his can­ny blend of dare­dev­il slap­stick and every­man pathos. After the twen­ties, his career floun­dered, then rebound­ed. His last pic­ture was a return to silent film in Beckett’s 1966 short, “Film,” made the year of his death. Since then, Keaton appre­ci­a­tion has become almost a form of wor­ship.

In 2018, The Gen­er­al came in at num­ber 34 on Sight & Sound’s Great­est Films of All Time list. But the BFI’s Geoff Andrew argued that it deserved the top spot, and Keaton deserves recog­ni­tion as “not mere­ly the great­est of the silent come­di­ans,” but “the great­est of all com­ic actors to have appeared on the sil­ver screen… not only a great Amer­i­can film­mak­er of the silent era,” but “one of the great­est film­mak­ers of all time, any­where.” Andrew likens him to a god, but “unlike gods… Buster has the advan­tage of being able to make us laugh. And laugh. And laugh.”

Don’t we all need a steady sup­ply of that med­i­cine these days? See Keaton’s clas­sic silent com­e­dy The Gen­er­al fur­ther up and watch 29 more Keaton films at the links below. Many will be added to our col­lec­tion, 4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Clas­sics, Indies, Noir, West­erns, Doc­u­men­taries & More.

Short Films

One Week (Sep­tem­ber 1, 1920)
Con­vict 13 (Octo­ber 27, 1920)
Neigh­bors (Decem­ber 22, 1920)
The Scare­crow (Decem­ber 22, 1920)
The Haunt­ed House (Feb­ru­ary 10, 1921)
Hard Luck (March 14, 1921)
The High Sign (April 12, 1921)
The Goat (May 18, 1921)
The Play­house (Octo­ber 6, 1921) (This con­tains a faux min­strel show seg­ment with black­face.)
The Boat (Novem­ber 10, 1921)
The Pale­face (Jan­u­ary, 1922) (Racist depic­tions of Native Amer­i­cans)
Cops (March, 1922)
My Wife’s Rela­tions (May, 1922)
The Black­smith (July 21, 1922)
The Frozen North (August 28, 1922)
The Elec­tric House (Octo­ber, 1922)
Day Dreams (Novem­ber, 1922)
The Bal­loonat­ic (Jan­u­ary 22, 1923)
The Love Nest (March, 1923)


Three Ages (Sep­tem­ber 24, 1923)
Our Hos­pi­tal­i­ty (Novem­ber 19, 1923)
Sher­lock Jr. (May 11, 1924)
The Nav­i­ga­tor (Octo­ber 13, 1924)
Sev­en Chances (March 15, 1925)
Go West (Novem­ber 1, 1925)
Bat­tling But­ler (Sep­tem­ber 19, 1926)
The Gen­er­al (Decem­ber 31, 1926)
Col­lege (Novem­ber 1927)
Steam­boat Bill, Jr. (May 20, 1928)

Bonus! Two of Keaton’s Last Films

The Rail­rod­der, for the Nation­al Film Board of Cana­da (Octo­ber 2, 1965)
Film, direct­ed by Samuel Beck­ett (Jan­u­ary 8, 1965)

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

A Super­cut of Buster Keaton’s Most Amaz­ing Stunts

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

List of Great Pub­lic Domain Films 

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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