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Frame by Frame

Posts Tagged ‘Buster Keaton’

Frame by Frame Videos on Film History, Theory, and Criticism

Tuesday, June 24th, 2014

Here’s a carousel of more than sixty videos in my Frame by Frame series; click here, or above, to play!

Frame by Frame is a series of short videos I made with Curt Bright on film theory, history, and criticism — each is about 3 minutes long or so. Episodes of Frame by Frame cover The Hollywood Blacklist, Ridley Scott, Commercials in Movie Theaters, Inception, 3-D, Film Critics, War Movies, Film Composers, Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Subtitles vs. Dubbing, The Aura, John Ford, Remakes, Special Effects, John Huston, Ridley Scott, Fritz Lang, Howard Hawks, Alice Guy Blaché, Oscar Micheaux, Horror Movies, Deep Focus, Pan and Scan, Jean-Luc Godard, Camera Movement, Metropolis, Psycho, Movie Trailers, Laurel and Hardy, The Three Stooges, Minorities in American Film, The King’s Speech, Alfred Hitchcock, The Great Gatsby in 3-D, Digital Cinema, Special Effects, John Huston, Manoel de Oliveira, Orson Welles, Martin Scorsese, Westerns, Nicholas Ray, Busby Berkeley, Claire Denis, Woody Allen, Film Archives, George Cukor, Roger Corman, Billy Wilder, trailers, the Hollywood Ratings System, and many other topics.

Check it out! Useful for your classes; feel free to download as you see fit; use as you wish.

Frame by Frame Video: Buster Keaton

Friday, October 5th, 2012

Buster Keaton on the set of Samuel Beckett’s Film (1964).

I have a new Frame by Frame video out today, directed and edited by Curt Bright, on the great film comedian Buster Keaton, whose career stretched from the silent era into the 1960s, and who conquered myriad personal problems and professional setbacks to carve out a career as one of the unparalleled geniuses of the silent screen.

As PBS noted of Keaton’s long reign in film, “Buster Keaton is considered one of the greatest comic actors of all time. His influence on physical comedy is rivaled only by Charlie Chaplin. Like many of the great actors of the silent era, Keaton’s work was cast into near obscurity for many years. Only toward the end of his life was there a renewed interest in his films. An acrobatically skillful and psychologically insightful actor, Keaton made dozens of short films and fourteen major silent features, attesting to one of the most talented and innovative artists of his time.

Born in 1895 to Joe and Myra Keaton, Joseph Francis Keaton got his name when, at six months, he fell down a flight of stairs. Reaching the bottom unhurt and relatively undisturbed, he was picked up by Harry Houdini who said the kid could really take a ‘buster,’ or fall. From then on, his parents and the world knew him as Buster Keaton. By the age of three, Keaton joined the family’s vaudeville act, which was renamed The Three Keatons. For years he was knocked over, thrown through windows, dropped down stairs, and essentially used as a living prop. It was this training in vaudeville that prepared him for the fast-paced slapstick comedy of the silent movies.

When, in 1917, his father’s drinking broke up the act, Keaton moved to Hollywood, where a chance meeting brought him contact with another former vaudevillian. Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle, one of the most famous of the comic actors of the time, took Keaton on and showed him the ropes of the movie industry.

For the rest of his life, Keaton would acknowledge Arbuckle as one of his closest friends and his greatest influence. With his deadpan humor and exceptional acrobatic technique, the lanky Keaton was a perfect partner for Arbuckle’s clumsy antics. The audience agreed, and within a few years, Keaton had acquired the notoriety to move out on his own.

The bulk of Keaton’s major work was done during the 1920s. Writing, directing, and staring in these films, Keaton created a world unlike the other comic stars of the times. Where Harold Lloyd battled physical adversity trying to make it to the top, and Charlie Chaplin avoided catastrophe through luck and good will, Keaton was an observer, a traveler caught up in his surroundings. He often found himself in the same compromising circumstances as Chaplin and Lloyd (chased by an angry crowd, left behind by a train), but he maintained a sense of even composure throughout.

No matter how lost or downtrodden Keaton seemed to be, he was never one to be pitied. The New York Times said of him, ‘In a film world that exaggerated everything, and in which every emotion was dramatized and elaborated, he remained impassive and solemn, his poker-faced inscrutability suppressing all emotion.’ It was this ’stone face,’ however, that came to represent a sense of optimism and everlasting inquisitiveness.

In films such as The Navigator (1924), The General (1926), and The Cameraman (1928), Keaton portrayed characters whose physical abilities seemed completely contingent on their surroundings. Considered one of the greatest acrobatic actors, Keaton could step on or off a moving train with the smoothness of getting out of bed. Often at odds with the physical world, his ability to naively adapt brought a melancholy sweetness to the films. The subtlety of the work, however, left Keaton behind the more popular Chaplin and Lloyd.

By the 1930s, the studio felt it was in their best interest to take control of his films. No longer writing or directing, Keaton continued to work at a grueling pace. Not understanding the complexity of his genius, they wrote for him simple characters that only took advantage of the most basic of his skills. For Keaton, as for many of the silent movie stars, the final straw was the advent of the talkies.

Though he acted in a number of films in the ’30s (often alongside Jimmy Durante), Keaton no longer possessed the stoic charm many had grown to love. He worked as an uncredited writer for the Marx Brothers and Red Skelton, eking out a living at a fraction of his former salary. He began drinking and through the ’40s did very little work of serious interest. It was not until 1953, and his appearance in Chaplin’s Limelight that the public revival of Keaton’s work began.

More than simply a nostalgia for the old days, this new interest encouraged Keaton to revive his career with frequent appearances on television. The sheer ability of his acrobatics astounded audiences who had become used to less sophisticated physical comedy, and by the 1960s, his films were returning to the theaters and he was being hailed as the greatest actor of the silent era.

In 1966, after finishing work on Richard Lester’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to The Forum, Buster Keaton died at the age of sixty-nine. His career spanned six decades and touched the lives of millions of people. He had worked with everyone from Marlene Dietrich to Samuel Beckett, Cecil B. DeMille to Tony Randall, and had maintained a seemingly selfless composure throughout. For many, this deadpan style was a poignant reminder of the fragility of life in the age of complex and overwhelming machines. Today, more than [forty-five] years after his death, Buster Keaton’s films seem as funny, touching, and relevant as ever.”

Buster Keaton, one of the screen’s true immortals.

The General

Tuesday, August 30th, 2011

Buster Keaton (1895 – 1966) was one of the clown princes of the silent screen, and did his best work when he was in complete control of his projects; like Harry Langdon, Charlie Chaplin or Harold Lloyd, Keaton was most at home in silent films, and his classic civil war comedy The General (1926) is one of the masterpieces of the silent era, and an unexpectedly lavish production, as witness the battle sequences near the end of the film, as well as the rather spectacular bridge collapse — which you should see for yourself.

When sound came, Keaton found difficulty adapting, and wound up at MGM, his former distributors, as just another contract employee, teamed with Jimmy Durante for a series of comedies that he had little or no artistic control over, and which really had nothing to do with his actual skills as a performer.

Alcoholism compounded Keaton’s problems, and as the 1930s and 40s rolled past, Keaton was almost forgotten, relegated to bit parts in inconsequential films. In 1956, he stopped drinking; in the same year, he received a sizable check for the rights to his life story, which was produced in 1957 with Donald O’Connor as The Buster Keaton Story, directed by Sidney Sheldon. With the money from this project, Keaton bought a house, and settled down to what he imagined would be his retirement.

But in the 60s, his great silent films of the 1920s were revived for college audiences to universal acclaim, and he spent his last years working in commercials, experimental cinema (Samuel Beckett’s Film, directed by Alan Schneider, which Keaton apparently had little affection for), and his last major project, Richard Lester’s epic comedy A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966). He also appeared in numerous Beach Party films for American-International Pictures as a supporting character, mainly because director William Asher was such a fan of Keaton’s work. The General was a commercial and critical failure when first released; now it’s universally considered one of the greatest of Keaton’s films, and by many, one of the greatest films of all time.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of numerous books and more than 70 articles on film and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu.

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