Friday, December 10, 2010


"As long back as I can remember I have considered myself a fabulously lucky man."

Leo Grin over at Big Hollywood has been writing about the genius of Buster Keaton in a series of posts that's up to part 3 so far. The latest post is about Keaton's youth in vaudeville and his parents as performers, which goes a long ways toward explaining how he ended up in comedy as he did.

Keaton's signatures were his somewhat sad expression (never, ever smiling) and his astounding physical comedy. Here are a few bits from various films, primarily Steamboat Bill jr:

My favorite move of his was one he used a lot, where he'd trip or be knocked over so hard he'd end up completely inverted standing on his head, rotate 90 degrees on his head, and fall over. It was astounding looking, and like a lot of people noted on YouTube and at Big Hollywood all real. That building that fell with the window right on top of him was not made of balsa or plastic, it was a real wall weighing hundreds of pounds.

There are a few guys doing this kind of work these days, all from Asia now. You can't even pay an actor to attempt this sort of stuff now, and they CGI most of it anyway. The insurance on someone like Jackie Chan is unthinkable, guys like him and Tony Jaa work without insurance in places that they don't have regulations preventing them from taking ridiculous risks.

Their antics have a long, old tradition. In the east it is more along the lines of Chinese acrobats, but in the west the trail leads back to a harlequin costume and bells on a silly hat. Jesters (or, more accurately, fools) were traveling performers who would use song, music, acrobatics, jokes, and physical humor of the sort vaudeville carried on to amuse others and make money. In most cases, a king would have a fool that he kept around to amuse guests and cheer him up. In some cases, they would even be advisors as Shakespeare wrote about in King Lear and Hamlet.

Fools would juggle, do pratfalls, and generally act silly so others could enjoy themselves in exchange for housing, food, and pay as well as perhaps some information. Alan Gordon writes a very interesting and entertaining series of mystery novels set in 13th century Europe involving a mythical fool's guild which acts as a sort of agency to promote good and fight evil. It sounds preposterous but the writing is rather good and it becomes not just plausible but you start wondering if it isn't real after all by the end of the book (especially given his false historical notes).

That physical comedy was carried to the silver screen (and back then it was really more silver; the silver nitrate film, while being incredibly combustible gave the screen a silvery glow, according to eyewitness accounts) by men like Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton, showing audiences the things they could only see in big city vaudeville acts. These actors went far beyond the vaudeville stage with stunts impossible in a building, like this bit from Safety Last by Harold Lloyd:

And yes, he really did do it in a full suit and those shoes.... and no ropes. And that's not a sound stage or back screen, that's the real street below him.

Their antics died with the age of sound in movies, which is sad because they really did bring something incredible to the screen. It wasn't until guys like Jackie Chan started risking his life in spectacular stunts like these that the old traditions were seen again:

Again, no ropes, all real, and some of them nearly killed Jackie (the Armor of God stunt with the tree early on just about did, he was in a coma for a while with a cracked skull). Their desire to entertain by doing the unbelievable gave us incredible entertainment and I'm glad to see guys like Buster Keaton being shown some respect today.

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