Dr. Rich Edwards

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

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1. What elements (set design, costume, prop, camera placement, acting) make this gag effective as visual comedy?

 

He has a big fellow single handed deliver the piano and he plans on bring it in the house with ropes and pulleys thru a giant hole he has cut in the side of the house. Why not just have the piano delivered inside the house? Because there is nothing funny about that.

2. In what ways do you sense that Keaton's comedy differs from that of Charlie Chaplin?

 

Chaplin is always trying to outwit someone, usually a policeman or a wife in Tille's punctured Romance. Keaton on the other hand is more about being oblivious to his surroundings. Things happen to him that the viewer can relate to. We have all had days like Buster Keathon.

3. When you watch a scene like this with Buster Keaton, what contributions do you sense he added to the history of slapstick comedy?

 

He added the element of reacting to the situations we all face on a daily bases. Many we cause ourselves.


 

 

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I agree with the idea that we all have days like Buster Keaton, but hopefully a bit less harrowing .To me he is more like the Everyman just trying to get through the day with very extraordinary things happening around him. His brilliance comes from his interplay with exaggerated versions of reality and the way he reacts. The audience is immediately drawn in and it is so easy to bond with him because he lets us laugh at ourselves while we breath a sigh of relief...a wait for the next big thrill

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What I find intriguing about Keaton's stunts, and his career in general, is that he was genuinely himself. Show business was in his blood and he learned many of his "tricks" early in life. Like any of us that learn anything -- a sport, an instrument, or a foreign language, for example -- as a young person, the selfconsciousness that inhibits the majority of our years is not there. The feeling of potential failure, or injury, or embarrassment isn't present. So who Keaton was as a film comedian was who he was in reality -- an entertainer. He knew how to do things safely, and smartly, that would have killed anyone else.

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Buster was insanely talented and ridiculously athletic.  No ifs, ands or buts about it.  There is no one in this century who comes close to having his nerve or his ingenuity. 

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Buster Keaton proves to be quite the physical comedic performer as evidenced in Episode 2. In watching the film clips, I genuinely enjoyed Keaton's gags involving the facades of two different houses. Thrusting himself and his co-star several feet into the air, all the while remaining in character knowing if the next gag isn't completed to precision, it will result in serious bodily injury, if not death. Keaton achieved these gags with seemingly effortless ease, as he quickly began to etch his name into history as one of the greats.

 

In comparing the clips of One Week and Steamboat Bill Jr., we witness the evolution of Keaton's comedic routines, displaying his commitment to his craft. The sets, especially that of Steamboat Bill Jr. had to be intricately woven into the routines in order for Keaton to hit his mark and then successfully execute the gag. This is a stark reminder of Charlie Chaplin and his evolving as both a personality and performer.

 

Both Keaton and Chaplin were true talents from the beginning of their legendary careers, but as their star powers grew, they readily evolved into and with their crafts. The two performers pushed boundaries, such as that of authority and one's own physical capabilities. Their beginning and lasting commitment to the comedic craft and the creation of a genre has proven to be a formidable effort, ultimately resulting in a formidable feat.

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Sorry, Chaplin, but Keaton has a slight edge over you in my book. But both are iconic prat men, and thoroughly skilled in the potential of "funny." But I think it's Keaton's use of irony in his physical comedy (and as pointed out by Chris_Coombs, the character is unaware of the danger), that makes Keaton's gags unique.

 

This was a time, of course, before "safety" (or, more accurately, "liability") on set, and were he with us today would never be allowed to do the same (at least not in the same manner). The only one who comes close in our modern day perhaps would be Jackie Chan. Chan is a master of prop stunts and has even performed his stunts with broken bones, casts cleverly covered by costume pieces.

 

In Keaton's films, we're seeing a little more unique placement of the camera than seen in earlier Chaplin and Arbuckle films, which starts to broaden the audience's perspectives of the storytelling beyond a seemingly outside observer.

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Buster Keaton was truly a pioneer in not just slapstick but in the history of films. The stunts he did are incredible and the fact that he doesn't flinch, or hesitate shows how dedicated and professional he was in order to create movie perfection.

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No matter how many times I've seen these two Keaton film clips over the years (and I'm talking a lot of years), I have never lost my sense of awe!!  And I never will!

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As a newbie to the wonder of silent films, I have to regrettably admit that I haven't seen the live and on-scene stunts performed by Buster Keaton.  As sophisticated as modern camera tricks and editing capabilities have become, I am simply amazed and stunned that Keaton's stunts emitted more of a reaction from me than modern films EVER have!!  These are silent films, made nearly a century ago, and I'm still shaking my head in amazement.  Nothing but pure genius....now.... if you'll excuse me, I need to go watch more Buster Keaton brilliance.

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I grew up watching Keaton. He was my first silent film actor I saw and just loved watching his work. Nobody can do his stunts today. it's amazing how many bones he broke and yet still kept going with his films. I guess learning stunts as a child on Vaudeville helped with the stunts he did in his movies. Steamboat Bill, Jr. has to be one of my favorite movies because of his stunts. Especially with the falling house. Watching the set up and also his reaction to what happened is great and all straight faced. It is fun seeing him smile and laugh.

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The reason that Keaton's career went downhill after 1929 may be due in large part to the extreme nature of this type of stunt. As the two clips demonstrated, this kind of stunt driven-comedy required an escalation over time -- mere repetition would not satisfy the audience, they would expect more next time. But, what could he possible do to top this? While the advent of "talkies" and the MGM contract are often cited as the cause of his decline (along with his drinking), I can't help but think that he may have hit the limit of what was possible in physical comedy. Just thinking about what he had done and what he would have to do to top it, would be enough to drive him to drink and despair. 

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Wow! Even now those are great scenes, literally breathtaking and death-defying, precisely chreographed. No CGI! A word should be said about the woman in the scene from One Week, who likewise risked life and limb.

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Another exciting and informative episode of "Breakdown of a Gag" (focusing on Buster Keaton's stunts).  As one of the geniuses of slapstick comedy, Keaton risked his own life by performing his own dangerous stunts, including the aforementioned clips from "One Week" (1920) and "Steamboat Bill, Jr." (1928).  

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Keaton is a risk taker.Yes he has hurt himself doing these stunts.He reminds me of our modern day counterpart Jackie Chan. Jackie is a risk taker too and has about broken every bone in his body doing stunts/martial arts! Ah the price of ones art! :)

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Wow! Even now those are great scenes, literally breathtaking and death-defying, precisely chreographed. No CGI! A word should be said about the woman in the scene from One Week, who likewise risked life and limb.

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Oopd, lost internet for a moment...the woman was Sybil Seely, aka Sybye Trevilla. Work often with Keaton and did some 21 films between 1917 and 1922. Great chemistry with Keaton.

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Wow! Even now those are great scenes, literally breathtaking and death-defying, precisely chreographed. No CGI! A word should be said about the woman in the scene from One Week, who likewise risked life and limb.

 

Agreed. To think that she risked her safety without the credit.

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Keaton is a risk taker.Yes he has hurt himself doing these stunts.He reminds me of our modern day counterpart Jackie Chan. Jackie is a risk taker too and has about broken every bone in his body doing stunts/martial arts! Ah the price of ones art! :)

Jackie Chan is amazing! He stopped doing his own stunts just a few years ago, when he was in his fifties! He almost died in one of his first roles. That is dedication, and it shows.

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I never tire of seeing that gag.  It amazes me how much real danger that was - 2 tons?  Good gravy.  I knew it was risky but not THAT risky.  It takes some real courage and devotion to the art to take that kind of risk.

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i know chaplin and Keatons comedy were way different. However i still feel Keaton was funnier. 

chaplin started Most of the big film comedy but i feel Keaton took the gag to the next leave and then some. at least for the late 20's

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Keaton's humor relied on 'stony-faced' reaction and deadly stunts.  His liability insurance's costs for doing his own stunts must have been astronomical.  Keaton's humor is very different from Chaplin's but just as important, and overwhelmingly funny.  I enjoy both comics for their differences in visual humor.

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Keaton had in fact seriously injured himself while performing one of his stunts. During filming "The General" there is a scene where Keaton stops the locomotive to take on more water for the steam engine. While lowering the water pipe down to the locomotive, the pipe slams down unexpectedly knocking Keaton to the ground. Keaton suffered a fractured neck but he did not realize it until after the scene was shot. As a true dedicated performer, the camera kept rolling till the end of the shot.  

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Keaton was very brave.  If he had missed his measurements by a little, he could have died.  I also like that he knocked stuff down with a straght face.  I would have been whooping an hollaring.  In all seriousness, I believe that he wanted his next feat to be bigger and better than his last.  His slapstick is awesome.  

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