Why Buster Keaton is the Isaac Newton of Movies

Part of the Series The Silent Artists


Buster Keaton bends gravity to his will in ‘Our Hospitality.’

Picking a side in the endless feud between Keatonians and Chaplinites seems like choosing between the Beatles and the Stones: You may have a stronger affinity for one or the other, but surely these days the battle lines are better drawn between partisans of silent comedy and those who write the medium off, usually sight unseen, as a relic of the past. (At this point, Harold Lloyd seems like the equivalent of The Who or Led Zeppelin: a formidable giant who falls just short of the zenith.) Can’t we all just get along?

Now that’s out of the way: Keaton rules! There’s no doubt that Chaplin is a master, a sublime performer and a great artist whose work touches on universal themes that resonate across cultural and temporal boundaries. But on a visceral level, there’s something more involving about Keaton’s films—or rather, I should say, they thrill me more deeply, since differentiating between the two means moving deep into the realm of taste, beyond the pretense of objectivity. At base, all criticism proceeds from personal preference, and a decision to throw in with one side or the other is to reveal oneself in ways as profound as the films themselves.

My leaning towards Keaton starts with a simple premise: gravity. Not the kind that involves weighty subjects or high-flung aspirations—lord knows Chaplin’s got it all over Keaton in that respect — but the simple matter of an object falling through space. I’m thinking of the locomotive plunging off a bridge in The General, of course, but also of Keaton himself, who drops as if it’s not only his face that’s made of stone. Chaplin doesn’t fall so much as he floats. There’s a sense in which his grace works against him, as does the Tramp’s iconic nature. He’s abstract, and therefore invincible, a weightless symbol who can’t be damaged any more than Mickey Mouse. We may tear up at the pathos of his acute hunger in The Gold Rush, or his broken heart in City Lights, but at root we don’t doubt that things will turn out for the best. Lloyd, of course, thrived on placing himself in peril, as much daredevil as he was comedian.

Keaton flings through the air in a clip from The Playhouse:

Keaton, so tiny and frail-looking, seems infinitely vulnerable, saved from destruction by a combination of wit and dumb luck. He’s less perfect a performer than Chaplin, but that only makes him more human. While we’re taking sides, the same goes for Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. The latter’s acute physicality is more exhilarating than the former’s frictionless grace.

Chaplin’s short films are models of economy and precision, but at feature length, he’s still a director of sequences: Otis Ferugson famously divided Modern Times into a quartet of two-reelers: “The Shop,” “The Jailbird,” “The Watchman” and “The Singing Waiter.”  Try doing the same with Steamboat Bill, Jr. and you’ll hit a wall—hard. Keaton understood the structure of features, building sequences that dovetail and overlap so that the whole film moves with the velocity of, say, a runaway locomotive. His performances are keyed to the camera rather than simply captured by it; often, he’s the oblivious punchline to a joke constructed by the world around him. In Sherlock, Jr., whose technical feats are still dazzling nearly a century later, he’s the static element around which filmic worlds shift, thrusting his uncomprehending body into a rapid-fire succession of unfamiliar environments.

Watch a breathtaking moment in Steamboat Bill Jr.:

Lloyd’s films take in more of the real word, positioning his character amid the familiar surroundings of everyday life, but Keaton’s directorial style is in perfect harmony with his onscreen persona. He stages events in the background or in long shot, the cinematic event of Keaton’s trademark deadpan; Keaton the subject remains oblivious as events unfold around him, while Keaton the director remains in complete control.

Sam Adams is regular contributor to the Los Angeles Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Time Out New York, Slate, the Onion A.V. Club, and the Philadelphia City Paper. Follow him on Twitter.

Did you like this article?
Give it a vote for a Golden Bowtie


Keyframe is always looking for contributors.

"Writer? Video Essayist? Movie Fan Extraordinaire?

Fandor is streaming on Amazon Prime

Love to discover new films? Browse our exceptional library of hand-picked cinema on the Fandor Amazon Prime Channel.