A selection of 30 Buster Keaton feature films and shorts, accompanying talks and introductions is to run at the BFI Southbank for the next few weeks, 119 years after the actor’s birth and 14 years after the institute’s last major season.
Why now? “We don’t need an excuse,” says curator Geoff Andrew. “He is one of the great masters of cinema. Not just as an entertainer but as a film-maker, and his work remains modern in a way that so many films of that period do not.”
It is an opinion many share. Of all the silent stars, Keaton is the one people feel most tender and protective towards. I have a mesmeric original 1925 poster of him fiddling with a flower, his eyes lowered with the modesty of an Advent-card Madonna. When I asked his admirers what they think of him, the word “pure” came up a lot. “He made comedy beautiful,” sighs the comedian Terry Jones, a devoted fan. “Keaton was the great poet,” says director Richard Eyre.
Keaton first appeared in movies in 1917, aged 22, and went on to act in 127 films, direct 29 and write the majority of those. “The level of invention is just mind-blowing,” says Andrew. “In a film like The Navigator (1924) there’s a gag every 10 seconds, but they all make dramatic sense. That’s really what sets him apart from so many of the other great comedy directors – he wasn’t just going for the gag for its own sake.”
This commitment to making his films more than just about an “act”, to keeping a story ever-moving, makes Keaton’s work wonderfully fluid – it whips by, with a confidence and springing rhythm, joke tumbling to stunt, the photography intensely creative, repeatedly using unusually long shots. As a director he was keener than his contemporaries on holding a shot, not to preen, but because he wanted to show that whatever you were looking at (however outlandish) was actually happening. In Seven Chances (1925), when he’s fleeing the hordes of women who have come to marry him, he doggedly runs, dodging enormous boulders also flying at him, for chunks as long as 25 seconds before cutting away, a hair-raising sequence that culminates in him sidestepping a moving train, and dragging a fence into a house. “God, he was brave!” says Clive James. “That bit in The General where he sits on the driving gear of the locomotive could easily have killed him.”
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