Dr. Rich Edwards

Breakdown of a Gag, Episode 2: Keaton's Dangerous Stunts

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While showcasing Keaton's incredible performances was the main point of the piece, I believe some mention should be given to the co-stars, especially those whose performances had an equal amount of risk, but were sadly eclipsed or overlooked.  In One Week, for example, the little lady on the other end of Keaton's wall was Sybil Seely, who appeared in several of Keaton's films (The Frozen North, The Boat and The Scarecrow).  IMDb has a full biography here:

 

http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0781623/bio?ref_=nm_ql_1

 

 

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The film clips on Buster Keaton were innovative and creative to say the least. In the first clip as he builds the house you can tell he believes in the set, and really is a remarkable actor. These silent films he acted in show his intelligence, as well as craftsmanship. He is one of the best just within the fact he took part in any stunt, regardless of danger level. 

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I can definitely see why these clips of Buster Keaton and his stunts are some to the best in cinematic history. Clearly there is a great risk in him doing these dangerous stunts but it makes it that much better for the viewing audience. I surely am looking forward to seeing these to films this month. If anyone wants to enjoy more of Buster Keaton and his influence in other movies and on other actors I suggest you check out Benny and Joon starring Johnny Depp. Johnny Depp performs a scene imitating Buster Keaton that I am fairly sure would make Buster Keaton very proud.

I am amazed at the risk level he took in these films. Yes, I agree when watching it definitely makes you pay attention to details that one might not in todays films.

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By the time we get to “One Week” the idea of retribution we had in “The Waterer Watered” has gone and the couple who was snookered by Handy Hank are left with nothing while he gets away with it all. So now we have the idea of the loser, partly having been introduced by Chaplin with The Tramp, only some of the pathos has been lost. And we see this again in “Number, Please,” again with an absence of pathos as, perhaps, the class status of the main character increases.

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It is amazing to see such 'mastery' in early comedy. To see Keaton pinpoint the exact point of impact as to to have the buildings fall and have the window cutouts pass over him is truly amazing. The chances and nerve to perfom these 'tricks' and still keep the straight face makles it that more entertaining. 

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Buster Keaton was a genius. It is these images we see a perfect construction of the space, the trick was placed at the spot where was to be the window!  This obviously shows a great preparation.

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While showcasing Keaton's incredible performances was the main point of the piece, I believe some mention should be given to the co-stars, especially those whose performances had an equal amount of risk, but were sadly eclipsed or overlooked.  In One Week, for example, the little lady on the other end of Keaton's wall was Sybil Seely, who appeared in several of Keaton's films (The Frozen North, The Boat and The Scarecrow).  IMDb has a full biography here:

 

http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0781623/bio?ref_=nm_ql_1

Keaton was a genius and I agree with you!  Sybil was an amazing actress to go through everything she did within those scenes.  Did she do her own stunts as well?

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Keaton was a genius and I agree with you!  Sybil was an amazing actress to go through everything she did within those scenes.  Did she do her own stunts as well?

It would seem so--I must admit I've still much to learn

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Actually, the stunt was not rehearsed per se. The set weighed over 2 tons and was a one-shot deal. The cameraman refused to watch, he closed his eyes but kept the camera going the whole time. It's a testimony to Buster's attention to detail and his confidence in the structure of his gag as well as the abilities of his crew in constructing the house front. It had to be the "real thing" in order to fall completely flat and not warp.

 

And contrary to the instructor's comment about there being a foot of clearance, there were only 2" on either side of Buster's shoulders according to Keaton himself. There was a nail in the ground at the precise spot he needed to stand.

 

This makes it all the more impressive. I thought that maybe there must have been some sort of rehearsal with a lighter, cardboard wall or something, just to set things up, but like you said, it had to be the "real thing" for it to fall the way it does.

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I have watched more Chaplin and Stanley and Laurel...not so much Buster Keaton.

I have to say, watching Dr. Edwards' presentation... I'm getting goosebumps now.

These people during those times, were working hard to earn their life pension. How could they risk that much??? hard to imagine that these days.

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One of the bios I read said on how he got his name was from Harry Houdini but it was when Buster took a spill down the stairs. Either way the story does match up of Harry Houdini.

 

Buster was the first silent comedian I watched when I was younger. Chaplin and Lloyd were some time after. Steamboat Bill, Jr was the first movie of Buster's I saw and was in awe of the house falling around him. I always loved Buster's comedic timing. I did gasp many, many times. I read he pretty much broke every bone in his body doing his stunts. It's amazing what he did and wasn't killed with some of them.

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Keaton is, indeed, an athlete and an acrobat. His comedic work is amazing. I notice in the two clips that are part of Episode 2 that the camera is still basically stationary, but editing makes both films seem much less static.

 

And did Vince Cellini realize that he made such a great pun? When Cellini starts talking about Steamboat Bill, Jr., he says of Keaton’s iconic stunt, “The danger level is through the roof.”

 

I am familiar with the movie Steamboat Bill, Jr., having seen it in an old-time movie theater with a musician playing an organ. It really is an amazing experience, by the way, to see silent-era films the way that they were meant to be seen: in a theater with live musical accompaniment. It feels more like audience participation is encouraged in this format: No one needs to be quiet because everything is on screen. Viewers laugh, talk, applaud when they feel like it. I try to see the comedies especially in this kind of format.

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As with several others who have already posted here, I find it difficult to be objective about Buster (though my favorite among Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd tends to be whoever I've just seen).

 

One thing I find interesting in looking closely at this sequence is how one has a sense that Buster gets up off the ground, finds his mark for the window, has the building facade crash around him, reacts and then runs off, all in one shot (Dr. Edwards almost says as much in his analysis). It always amazes me that not only does he stand on the exact spot he needs to, after this two ton wall comes crashing around him he can remain in character to react and run off (imagine if he'd broken character - this is something you don't want to have to do twice).

 

In fact, there are actually threes separate shots: Buster gets up and wanders a little dazedly, then in a second shot is seen standing perfectly positioned (how long did it take to set that?) for the fall, and finally we see him after the fact (and possibly after some recovery from the excitement and adrenaline of that second shot) giving his big reaction and running off. The editing is practically invisible here, so that we seem to experience it as one unbroken take.

 

That said, if you look at the end of the second shot, you do see Buster start his reaction. What an incredible performer to have the presence not to break after having a two-ton wall dropped around him.

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Looking at the clips of Keaton in One Week and Steamboat Bill Jr., it's amazing how much accuracy there really was to his gags. As dangerous his stunts were, you have to give him immense credit. His dedication, just like Chaplin's, was nothing short of incredible. The precision behind each gag/stunt was enough to make lesser men tremble. 

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As a former vaudevillian Keaton understood completely what to do to elicit a laugh from the audience. These clips demonstrate that he wasn't merely a performer, but an artist eager to try a new medium, one that afforded possibilities for gags and stunts that could not be carried out on stage. His vision, along with his calculated planning and fearless execution gave us many thrilling and timeless moments on film.

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I was amazed in both clips of Keaton’s innovative and daring used sets as an intricate part of the gag. Of course today it would all be done with CGI and would definitely not have the same effect.

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Major respect goes to Buster Keaton.  It made me nervous just watching that.  It did make me laugh after I found out he was ok.  To me, he is kind of like Houdini.  He wanted to make each one bigger and better more dangerous in order to get the audience applause or in Keaton's case, the laugh.  

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These were incredibly dangerous and meticulously planned stunts.  Keaton had a great skill to pull these off, and take the viewer from the dread of the impending doom as the wall begins to fall to laughing that he survived only by standing in the exact right spot to pass through the window frame.

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I waited to post this evening until after I finished watching all of Steamboat Bill, Jr.  I watched One Week earlier this weekend.  

 

As found in the clips, the precision and daring of Keaton over the eight year span is impressive! But what I found eye opening in watching both of these Keaton movies IN FULL is an appreciation for character development.   Bill Jr. is a much deeper character than the new house-building/bungling husband in One Week.  There is more nuance in Keaton in the later character he plays, even though the athletic endeavors become more grandiose, challenging and precise.  

 

I find interesting the evolution from pie in the face to exquisite timing in slapstick and greater integration into the film itself - not just a punch in the face for its sake alone!

 

I remember seeing Buster Keaton on television as a child in the late 50s and early 60s, but did not have a true appreciation of what a talent he was until taking this course, seeing the clips, and then watching his movies.  Thanks TCM and Dr. Edwards for my introduction!

 

Now, once the course is over, I intend to watch: The Real Buster Keaton.  It will definitely be on my watch list, along with his other films. 

 

The Real Buster Keaton -

 

Finally, will also be watching the March 1957 "This is Your Life" episode on Buster Keaton - hosted by Ralph Edwards:

 

 

 

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SORRY EVERYONE THAT I POSTED TWICE. Is there some way to delete a post?  At least I was able to delete the repeat.  

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I have say I am in awe with Buster Keaton after that wonderful lecture with Dr. Edwards and Cellini! It’s amazing how ahead of his time he was, how bold and daring, the man behind the comedian was, because while he had so much to gain, he had so much to lose as well. It’s admirable honestly, the lengths he went through, how dedicated he was to his work. It is what makes him timeless along with the other legends in comedy. I admit, I am not that familiar with Keaton like I am with Chaplin and Lloyd, so this episode was truly intriguing to me. 

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My Dad did a film minor in college and he always used to talk about early silent comedians fitting into two main categories...the crazy man in a normal world and the normal man in a crazy world. He says that Keaton belongs squarely to the second category. And seeing these clips here I think I see what he means. I don't know that either of the two clips we saw would've been half as effective if he hadn't been "stone face" as the video dubs him. There is also a sense of a repeated gag with both of the movies..as if the falling house is his trademark...which really goes back, in my mind anyway, to commedia dell'arte and the Lazzi. A lazzi was used in much the same way that slapstick was according to the lecture notes...it broke the flow of the action in favor of a bit of comic business...but a lazzi could be dialogue or physical comedy so it isn't quite the same thing but the point is that we can look at slapstick performers as being part of a larger narrative, not just of the contributions on posterity but as descendants of what came before. If the story of Houdini giving Keaton his stage name can be taken at face value we can understand that the dangerous stunts performed in Buster Keaton's films can be taken as something he was influenced by from an early age. Houdini used the idea of danger and manipulated it and it was this ability to conquer deadly situations which made him so famous. Doubtless, Keaton saw that the element of danger gave something critical to the power of Houdini's performance and was able to adapt dangerous stunts to give his own performances as a comedic actor something unique and memorable. Of course, it's all supposition but it does make you think which is, after all, the purpose of any class :)

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My Dad did a film minor in college and he always used to talk about early silent comedians fitting into two main categories...the crazy man in a normal world and the normal man in a crazy world. He says that Keaton belongs squarely to the second category.

Katrina, I love this quote by your dad.   I can almost see this extended to verbal comedy (stand up comics).   I also love David Sedaris's short humor stories.   He has the skill to discuss every day life to a level where you think it is crazy.  He'll pick out something like Santa Claus and discuss the practicalities and you just find yourself realizing how something very accepted is so absurd.

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