Saturday, June 2, 2007

The Great Stone Face

So nicknamed for a 'stone-like' expression seen on his face in movies and promotional head shots, Buster Keaton has a lot to teach animators such as myself. When animators talk about learning from silent era film stars they invariably mention Charlie Chaplain, and for good reason. It just seems to me that Keaton gets passed over with little consideration.

Originally a vaudeville performer of tremendous physical skill, Joseph Frank Keaton was supposedly given the handle 'Buster' by a fellow vaudeville performer named Harry Houdini, after said illusionist witnessed Keaton take a particularly spectacular tumble down a flight of stairs between two rows of seats without touching anyone in the audience. As the story goes Keaton injured himself but managed to immediately get up and continue his performance. After witnessing this Houdini was claimed to have said, "quite the little buster." Keaton was only a child at the time. This apocryphal story is most likely fiction, at least regarding Houdini's contribution, although the basis for it isn't.

Harry Houdini knew Keaton when he was a child performer taking fantastic spills in front of audiences. Another, now forgotten, vaudeville performer is probably responsible for giving Keaton this handle based on his physical talents. This being said, another apocryphal story regarding Keaton persists. As a result of his vaudeville experience, Keaton apparently knew a thing or two about acting as well. The fact that he used facial expressions in performances gets glossed over by historians, or worse, gets twisted into the falsehood of happening once in his entire career.

The name of this blog is pushing poses, and so I will forgo making arguments about how well Buster Keaton used facial expressions in acting for perhaps some another time. Instead, I want to talk about character posing and audience perception. Check out the image below:

That is the image created by someone who knows clarity of staging and posing for an audience. That is the image of someone who grew up performing successfully for vaudeville audiences. Look at that line-of-action. Check out the flow line of his left arm as it directs the audiences attention up through the face and down in the direction of the camera tripod. Notice how the the camera and tripod reinforces the eye line. This is great stuff! Did he look through the camera while developing this kind of pose? With the help of others posing, perhaps. Below is another example of good staging and good posing. Not only are the lines between characters working in this shot but so is the eye line. Notice how Keaton who is mostly in profile has his head turned to a 3/4 view so that we can read his face.

Buster Keaton understood audiences. Not long after arriving in Hollywood, he quickly moved from performer in keystone cop films with Fatty Arbuckle to independent silent film director. That shift was no accident. As a film director Buster Keaton was a lot more than a stage performer turned silent film actor and stunt man. Probably because he was an outsider to film, and stepping into a relatively new and yet to be defined medium, Keaton pushed the boundaries of film making of his time before control of his own work was taken away from him.

None-the-less his acting and physical stunts are also available for you to watch in this partial archive of his work. If you are into this you will want to purchase The Art of Buster Keaton DVD Box Set.

Keaton was famous for performing all of his own stunts for which he ended up in the hospital many times as a result. Later performers such as Jackie Chan would become known for this kind of risky business inspired largely by Keaton. BBC Channel 4 has a web page devoted to famous dare devils where both Buster Keaton and Harry Houdini are listed amongst others deserving... and less so. Probably the most famous of Buster Keaton's stunts was in his 1928 film Steamboat Bill Jr. when the front of a house falls around him and misses crushing him to death by mere inches. Talk about the power of a good hold. Sheesh!

This was later borrowed for a Walmart ad animated by all too groovy Kyle Dunlevy when he was still working a Red Rover. There are some nice notes on posing and process written by Dunlevy about these ads so check them out if you haven't already.

(click to jump to clip)

Regardless of your methods, as the sequence above demonstrates, if you are gonna steal you may as well steal from the best. Lots of great gags and some truly amazing stunts can be found in the prolific career of Buster Keaton. His awareness of the audience informed his performances and allowed him to create some genuinely unique ways to tell stories in film. He took full advantage of the medium in which he was working. The confinement of his talents by industry producers later in his life was tragic. Who knows what additional great things he may have done if the greed of a few had not run amok.

For those who are interested, there is a ridiculous assortment of links to articles about Buster Keaton that can be found at Juha's Buster Keaton page. There is also an American Master's episode by PBS about Keaton. I'm not saying that Charlie Chaplain (or other greats such as Harold Lloyd for that matter) aren't worth knowing about, I just want to spend a little time on Buster Keaton, one of my inspirations and sources of knowledge as an animator.



Ben Griffin said...

Thank you for posting this! Until the part about the stunt where the house falls around him, I had only heard the name in a history class somewhere down the road. I never knew that was him that did that. This is all very interesting!

Erik Westlund said...

Hi Ben,

I'm very glad to know that you have found this post about Buster Keaton. Amazing performer and someone who got film in a way that many of his contemporaries didn't. I just came across a site that has a huge number of Buster Keaton links just minutes ago:

Maybe we can both uncover some great new facts about The Great Stone Face.

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