Image source. Buster Keaton tries not to get steamrolled in The General.
I know what you’re thinking. Silent films? Really? What’s the value in those? A lot, actually. Far from being outdated, unwatchable artifacts from the Stone Age, silent films actually take advantage of the visual nature of cinema better than 95 percent of the sound films that come later. Strip away dialogue and sound effects and you have film at its most primal yet elegant: the power of the moving image alone to stir us.
In his time, Buster Keaton was almost as famous as the silent film star everyone at least knows by name today, Charlie Chaplin. Unlike Chaplin, Keaton didn’t manage the transition from silent to sound well – he ended up being one of the ancient “waxworks” made fun of by the main character in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard. But not before he made a series of silent films that, if not as well-known as Chaplin’s Modern Times or City Lights, still stand out today for the sheer genius of their physical comedy. His most famous work, The General, tells the story of a Southern train engineer inadvertently thrust into the crosshairs of the Civil War when Union troops make off with his train and fiancée, the “two loves of his life.” In another, Sherlock Jr., he plays a movie theater projectionist who daydreams about being a detective to win the heart of a woman he loves. And in Steamboat Bill, Jr., he’s the awkward college kid forced to learn the art of operating a steamship.
Image source. Buster Keaton’s trademark stoic face.
The greatness of Keaton’s films, however, doesn’t lie in the plotlines. You have to watch Keaton, the actor on screen, to truly appreciate his artistry. Throughout all his films, he retains the same, emotionally flat, deadpanning facial expression. No matter what adversity he encounters – a roaring cyclone, a train about to tumble off a cliff, a band of angry soldiers hot on his heels – Keaton rides through it all without a single emote. Compared to the far more expressionistic films of Charlie Chaplin, Keaton’s subdued everyman may seem a bit of a letdown. But if you look carefully at Keaton’s physical comedy, which beats even Chaplin’s in its capacity to leave you agape wondering how he manages to get away with everything, you’ll see it’s subtlety rather than lack of brilliance fueling that aloof façade. These are stunts that are so clean in their timing and skill they seem almost too simple to be true, a mark of a true master of the form. They make Chaplin and all other wannabe physical comedians look like desperate amateurs.
It’s this cleanliness of comedy, combined the cleanliness of the plotline, that make Keaton’s films, and all good silent films, worth watching 90 years after most of them were made. There are no fancy subplots, crazy character developments, or deafening musical themes. In The General, as one example, it’s really just a story about a man trying to get his train back. But watch how complex physical comedy elegantly sprouts from the simplest of events. You watch Keaton chase after the captors of his train in The General, and without even knowing it, you find yourself silently, ardently rooting for him, praying that, in spite of his many clumsy maneuvers, he will get his train and leave the Union soldiers in the dust. You can’t break your eyes away from Keaton’s unflappable delivery of stunt after stunt after stunt – how, with all the world around him falling into chaos, he struts forth, miraculously entering and leaving battles and storms without a scratch, undisturbed in his aim. In his down-to-earth way, Keaton speaks directly to everyone’s inner little-engine-that-could. If only our world worked so smoothly, and had such great physical comedy too.
It takes a little chutzpah to sit down and watch a silent film. I know. Even after watching many of them, I still get this queasy feeling in my stomach every time I sit down to watch another colorless, noiseless, grainy piece of entertainment. Yet I always walk away each time grateful I did it. Silent films rely solely on the most intuitive, humanly understandable means of communication – an image. Where what people say matters less than how they look, gesture and move. It’s a form we creatures solidly dependent on our eyes in day-to-day life can easily identify with. Watch Keaton. Watch Chaplin. Watch more silents. And by the end, you’ll wonder how you could have possibly not wanted to have such a refreshing, lucid, instinctively beautiful experience.
Buster Keaton made many great silent films, most of which are available for free on YouTube. Some of his more notable ones include The General (https://goo.gl/KguJLL), Sherlock Jr. (https://goo.gl/Ar5NIF), Our Hospitality (https://goo.gl/64395Z), and Steamboat Bill, Jr. (https://goo.gl/AJ2Jpk).