Due to the overwhelming nature of Buster Keaton’s genius, any evaluation of his works leads to a lot of superlatives getting launched his way. So, this article can’t help but double as Mad Man McKinnon’s Marvelous Menagerie of Magnificently Manly Men.
Holy crap do I love Buster Keaton. When it comes to reckless ambition in the history of film, he has few peers. No one I can think of displayed such an unchained cinematic creativity, and when you combine his eagerness to put his body on the line in set-pieces so dangerous they make me cover my eyes to this day, you end up with a totally unique film making force worthy of deification. Why I waited so long to finally see Sherlock Jr and One Week, I can’t say. Needless to say, my affection for the great Stone Face has expanded.
Keaton knows the limitations of silent film, and he keeps his plots straight forward. One Week concerns a couple trying to assemble their first house, and the utter disaster that ensues when a rival mislabels the boxes of hardware. The result is a madhouse of a home, with doors, walls, and windows totally out of place. There’s a sweetness to the persistence with which Keaton and his new bride try (and fail) to build a life together, and Sherlock Jr continues that big hearted tradition. Keaton plays an aspiring detective/projector operator at a local movie theater, wrongfully accused of stealing from his beloved’s father. In a nice little bit of irony, it’s Keaton’s girlfriend that proves the talented detective by following a trail of evidence that exonerates Keaton. Both Sherlock Jr and One Week feature lovable losers fighting indefatigably for their love, but it’s on the skeletons of these simple, threadbare plots that Keaton really works his magic.
Physically, there aren’t many like Keaton. Spectacularly agile as well as utterly fearless, Keaton’s unique abilities leap off the screen to this day, and when coupled with his extremely cinematic imagination, we all get treated to some pretty special setpieces. One Week has some amazing bits, such as a scene in which a tornado turns Keaton’s house into a tilt-a-whirl, and Keaton desperately tries to reenter it, repeatedly sprinting and leaping over and across his balcony. Sherlock Jr, however, tops One Week pretty easily. In a heartstopping sequence late in the film, Keaton races through a city while sitting on the front of a motorcycle, barely dodging cars, driving over the roofs of trucks, and racing across collapsing scaffolding. In the finale, he crashes into the side of a house, flies through a window, and dropkicks a villainous rival. I fancy myself a dropkick connoisseur, and that one is easily the finest I’ve seen. Seriously, I bet it’s the reason Jackie Chan gets out of bed every morning.
It’s not just the daring that makes Keaton’s movies a wonder to behold. There’s an enormous ambition and a wonderfully imaginative mind at work in his films. One Week has tons of funky moments, all centered around the aforementioned madhouse. Doors lead to nowhere, floors sink, and walls spin. You wouldn’t want to live there, but it looks like it’d be fun to visit. Sherlock Jr, meanwhile, is a bit more magical. In a dream sequence, Keaton imagines the film he’s playing to a packed house as acted out by his beloved and a rival suitor. With some nice disguised cuts, Keaton climbs into the screen, but the editing of the film does him no favors, arbitrarily transposing him to new locales and constantly robbing him of props he intends to use. It’s a brilliant bit of comedy on the insanity of film making and the editing process, and it couldn’t exist in any other medium. There’s a reason Keaton is held in such regard not only as an actor and clown, but as a genuine force of a director as well.
Despite all Keaton’s physical talent and cerebral versatility, neither One Week or Sherlock Jr would be so endearing if they weren’t so darn adorable. In One Week, Keaton and his wife simply refuse to let themselves get down, no matter the countless disasters they encounter. They’re madly in love, and they’re building a life. Their optimism and cheerfulness is infectious. Sherlock Jr is no different. There’s a lovely scene where Keaton sits with his beloved on a couch, and each attempts to summon the courage to reach for each other’s hand. Their fingers cross, and they both pull away, shy. Finally, aggressively and assertively, Keaton’s beloved slams her hand down, and Keaton follows suit. Their fingers entwine, but they’re interrupted. Tender moments like these are the sorts of scenes that make you fall in love with a movie.
One Week and Sherlock Jr delight on so many levels. Their creativity excites the mind, their physicality get your heart pounding, and their love stories make you smile. They have the feel of works of a true genius, one with enormous ambitions yet zero prententions. Buster Keaton was physically amazing, technically brilliant, and emotionally pure, yet his sole desire was to entertain. We should all be grateful.