Dr. Rich Edwards

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

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Yow!   Seriously!  What stunts!  I remember reading a book by the stunt guy for Indiana Jones and it was about the people he met and the life he had and interesting stories.  He talked about a big fall off a dam but he had a device with him to lower him and I never saw the stunt done (I can't recall the movie).  However, to SEE thing fall on Buster Keaton.  If those homes were on hinges that's one thing but these sure didn't look like it (certainly not the first one in any case).   Eeek.   It's nice to see a little engineering and bravado in slapstick.  Certainly not my cup of tea - but certainly more than banana peels!

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In watching the biography and This Is Your Life about Buster, I felt so many emotions. There was so much I didn't know. Buster was an amazing human being. In the end he overcame so many hurdles and changes in film making. Hands down he will never be duplicated. Such an amazing man. His film The General was finally made one of the top 50 movies of all time when the world finally caught up to his brilliance. In our world today, is it even possible viewers aren't able to comprehend this century films?

 

I will never see slapstick the same after this course. It's always been just wonderful stuff to watch and now I found deeper meaning and feel part of a time and place never forgotten. Thank you TCM and Ball University.

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I've always been interested in learning more about how Keaton graduated from the laughable clown and fall-guy of his earlier years in shorts, especially with Arbuckle--where he did not have his "stoneface" image at all--and managed to gain his independence, especially at a big studio like MGM. (I guess I've been too lazy to read up.) The difference in character between "Coney Island" and longer films like "The General" is astounding, even more so than with Chaplin's development between "Tillie" and The Tramp.

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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.

Agreed. The stunt was planned over 8 years so you can bet he rehearsed it in as close a conditions to the real deal once set-up and the enginuity came down to materials, measurement, placement, timing, weight, speed, and physics, and any other variables not mentioned.

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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.

Someone previously posted about a friend's everyday slapstick occurrence with a bowl of cereal. We all have slapstick moments. I was sweeping the deck this AM, set the broom aside, walked away for a moment, came back to another spot and couldn't find the broom, did a triple-take, etc. I think we can all find these moments in our everyday lives and, if we did, we could build a slapstick routine out of them, even a short one.
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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.

Depp homages Charlie Chaplin too in Benny and Joon

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I've always been interested in learning more about how Keaton graduated from the laughable clown and fall-guy of his earlier years in shorts, especially with Arbuckle--where he did not have his "stoneface" image at all--and managed to gain his independence, especially at a big studio like MGM. (I guess I've been too lazy to read up.) The difference in character between "Coney Island" and longer films like "The General" is astounding, even more so than with Chaplin's development between "Tillie" and The Tramp.

 

I am not as familiar with Keaton's early films, but it sounds from your observation as though Keaton developed his own "personality," much like Charlie Chaplin did, and then went on to great success. I am looking forward to seeing the early clips.

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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:

 

 

 

Wow! Thank you for posting this! Buster is just such a nice guy! This Is Your Life was so moving! Speechless...

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What impresses me about the house scene in both of these two films is that even when the action is stopped, scruitnized and rerun you realize that at no point did Keaton look down FOR that oh-so-important mark!

What a pro!!!  

No matter how many times I'd have practiced it, you can bet I'd have been looking for it!
 

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I've been a Buster Keaton fan for years. He was a unique genius, a master of tricks and dangerous acts. He perfectly knew how to distinguish from Chaplin and other artists of the era and offered a very clever kind show of slapstick comedy where ordinary things were kind of "alive"and elicited hilarious gags. 

The two Buster Keaton films we saw, One Week (1920) and Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928) are timeless masterpieces, they're both hilarious, highly creative and entertaining, both tell good stories, simple in arguments but included really complex gags that needed perfect planning and calculation to be filmed without harming anyone. Both have very dangerous stunts played by Keaton himself. In my opinion, Chaplin's stunts were not as dangerous as Keaton's. 

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I remember hearing or reading somewhere that Keaton would tell his cameraman to "keep the camera rolling until I'm killed or until the end of the scene". He had a pretty good idea how dangerous his stunts were and always performed flawlessly.

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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.

I think that's well put. There was something almost sacrificial about Keaton's style of slapstick. Sometimes we gasp between laughs because of how he seemingly barely survived what we just saw. As someone else pointed out, in neither of these clips do we see Keaton even looking for his mark. He is involved in the drama of the moment and just "happens" to survive.

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I've always been interested in learning more about how Keaton graduated from the laughable clown and fall-guy of his earlier years in shorts, especially with Arbuckle--where he did not have his "stoneface" image at all--and managed to gain his independence, especially at a big studio like MGM. (I guess I've been too lazy to read up.) The difference in character between "Coney Island" and longer films like "The General" is astounding, even more so than with Chaplin's development between "Tillie" and The Tramp.

Keaton LOST his creative independence at MGM.

 

These big studios were factories, churning out product (films) in assembly-line fashion via a complex system, involving committees of writers and other contributors, and everything had to be tested and approved. Slapstick requires some planning, and a lot of freedom to improvise. The big studios' assembly-line system, with its layers of bureaucracy, had no room for the uncertainty of improvisation, so they imposed what they *believed* was funny, onto the "old-timers", who had no choice but to do what the bureaucrats told them to...and stick to the budgets imposed by the studio's bean-counters.

 

MGM imposed wordplay and other gags completely unsuited to Buster's character. They demeaned him with gags putting him down. Meanwhile, he was trapped in a terrible marriage to Natalie Talmadge, and at the mercy of her and her domineering family, including his brother-in-law and producer, Joe Schenck, who sold Buster's contract to MGM. It's no wonder Buster started hitting the bottle. When his marriage broke up, his monster of a wife sought to erase his name by changing the surnames of their children from "Keaton" to "Talmadge", and refusing to allow them to see their father, or even mention his name. (Kids being kids, they'd use the K-word purely to annoy her.)

 

Keaton wasn't the only one destroyed by a big studio.

 

At Fox, Laurel & Hardy suddenly aged 30 years, because Fox insisted they wear more "natural" make-up, instead of the lighter-toned make-up they'd always worn. The lighter make-up hid the signs of age, and kept them looking young. The "natural" make-up revealed all the wrinkles and blemishes on their faces, and the effect was not only disturbing, but also changed the dynamic of their comedy. As we've seen with Jerry Lewis, a young comic being goofy is funny; an old comic doing the same schtick is pathetic. It's as though the old comic is either an idiot or senile. And that's how Fox treated Laurel & Hardy. Scripts referred to them in demeaning terms, referring to stupidity, and were filled with gags completely unsuited to the characters people had known and loved for so long. This infuriated Stan Laurel, who had been considered the best comedy-writer in Hollywood.

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I love the crazy dangerous stunts that both Chaplin and Keaton do. Guess there was no such thing as workman's comp. ..lol Can't wait to see what they ahow for Lloyd. He is my all time favorite. I don't think any of today's comedic actors would ever even come close to attempting any of these stunts. They would for sure ask for stunt doubles or if it can be done with cgi.

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I, too, have only seen limited films by Buster Keaton so I am looking forward to this new adventure!  I went to a film series at my Student Union in college about Chaplin and loved it so much I nearly flunked a class I was taking because I cut it so much to go to the films! Chaplin will always be the ultimate exquisite, delicate comedian to me, but seeing some of these contemporaries will be great fun!

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Buster Keaton risked his life to make his films.  Amazing!  But not really.  Robert De Niro risked his life during the making of The Deerhunter.  Actors do this more often than you'd think.

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Buster Keaton is my favorite slapstick comedian from the silent era.  I loved seeing the progression of the house-falling-down-gag and how fearless this guy really was to perform a trick like that.  Perhaps the instructor will talk about this next week, but I adore the whole sequence from Sherlock, Jr. when Keaton falls asleep at the projector and dreams that he enters the movie screen.  How he interacts with the changing backdrop/set and his timing is just so incredible.  It really sets a high standard for actors learning to "hit their mark."  For Keaton, his mark was the difference between life and death (or serious injury).  Keaton's risk-taking sets a high standard for all performers of slapstick/physical comedy.

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While viewing Keaton's catalogue of films, its apparent that he was an engineering and mechanic of his own training.  I am sure he had a talented staff around him, as all the greats did, that were quite capable in designing and building the elaborate props and mechanisms seen.  But it was Keaton that conjured most of these from his imagination, or nurtured and developed previously known material, weaving them into narrative to form classic screen comedy.  And then performing the execution of these stunts, at personal risk to himself.  

The wall collapse gag goes back prior to Keaton's use of One Week, to a Roscoe Arbuckle film in which a flimsier building false-front on a stage falls over Arbuckle.  Considering Keaton was first hired for films by Arbuckle, there is no doubt he was exposed to his films, or perhaps both were inspired previously from a stage show.  As stated in the lesson, it is hard to determine where such gags originated...  :-)

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I always knew they were practical effects being used, but to actually have them say that as you're watching it really brought it home as to how, especially that last one, could have been his last film if he moved just a little too far to the right, left, back or front. He had such commitment to his style of comedy and to a gag, which I for one think is awesome. I loved the first one too it was adorable and hilarious. 

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 He is involved in the drama of the moment and just "happens" to survive.

 

Not too long ago I watched a bio on Keaton...  the day or day before he did the second house falling / window scene he was in a terrible place in his actual life..  He'd just been served divorce papers, was broke, and told that very day that his studio was closing down. 

 

It was stated he went into that scene not caring if he lived or died.  Meh.... perhaps.  Though if he'd wanted to die, it was presented to him on a gold platter that day, which he thankfully did not accept!

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I love the fact that Buster Keaton did his own stunts. That's huge in the movie business now and if actors can do their own stunts that's twice as great for movie directors. I would love to do my own stunts. I love the physical part of slapstick comedy. It just adds so much more to these gags. Buster Keaton also seems like he is smart with math and science. He definitely had to calculate all that placement and steps for his gags to happen correctly. That or it was all random luck!

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I'll again state how much I enjoy the "Breakdowns of a Gag" portions of the class. Vince Cellini and Dr Edwards use this technique so effectively. I loved the discussion of how Keaton got his name "Buster" and his nickname as the "Human Prop" Both the clip from "One Week"  and the clip from Steamboat Bill, Jr." show how much work went into some of these gags. To think it took eight years to plan and execute the wall falling gag. Regarding that scene, Keaton himself discussed it in detail with John Gillett and James Blue in a 1965 interview at the Venice Film Festival. Jon Gillette asked him: "How about the technical side? The marvelous shot, for instance, of the front of the building falling on you, so that you are standing in the window as it hits the ground. What were the problems in staging that scene? Keaton answered in part: "First I had them build the framework of this building and make sure that the hinges were all firm and solid. It was a building with a tall V-shaped roof, so that we could make this window up in the roof exceptionally high. An average second story window would be about twelve feet, but we're up about eighteen feet. Then you lay this framework down on the ground, and build the window around me. We built the window so that I had a clearance of two inches on each shoulder, and the top missed my head by two inches and the bottom my heels by two inches. We mark that ground out and drive big nails where my two heels are going to be. Then you put that house back up in position while they finish building it.... But it's a one-take scene and we got it that way. You don't do those things twice."

Pretty confident genius with a two ton wall falling around him!

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Of the two gags I actually prefer the earlier, as the wall pivots first, which is very funny. The Steamboat Bill Jr gag was imitated by Jackie Chan in Project A 2 I believe.

 

Part of the fun of the gag is that the victim is unaware of what is about to happen. It's funnier to see him stand there, completely clueless, than if he saw it was about to fall.

 

Which reminds me of a gag in The Gold Rush that had that same element of cluelessness: While journeying across treacherous mountain paths, a bear comes out of a cave, following right behind Chaplin. After a while, it heads back into another cave just as Chaplin looks around behind him, sees nothing, shrugs his shoulders and moves on. The point is what makes such gags funny is that the person is unaware of the danger.

 

Another element of this gag that makes it relatable to audiences is that we ourselves have sometimes avoided injury by sheer luck. Perhaps not so grandiose as the Keaton gag, but it is an idea to which we can relate. And those kind of things always resonate with audiences.

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Viewing Keaton's gags now, knowing a tad about slapstick, it is utterly remarkable to wonder about the planning stages for such gags to  be successful.  I don't know if there were any rehearsals, but if it was all in one take, Keaton and his film crew were geniuses. Gerald Mast's comment "film comedy was born from the delight in physical movement" rings true in the clips from Chaplin and Keaton so far.  Keaton I imagine let Chaplin be the master of the great slapstick fall; Keaton now wants to add the environment around him as part of falling whilst he stands still.  Incredible!  

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