Dr. Rich Edwards

Daily Dose of Doozy #3: End of a Perfect Day: Buster Keaton

119 posts in this topic

1.The mis-building of a house provided numerous opportunities for slapstick in One Week. Keaton's foot splitting the short ladder in two is funny enough, but his quick look of disgust makes it hilarious. The notion that even the most idiotic or sadistic of piano mover would ask a client to sign a form while the piano was laying on him is humorously outrageous enough, but Keaton's calm signing of it makes it surreal and very funny. Continuing with the surreality, using a block and tackle to move a piano up (as Laurel & Hardy would later in The Music Box) provides plenty of slapstick fodder, but the sinking ceiling is so preposterous it's crazy fun, made more so by Keaton's passive acceptance of it.

 

2. Chaplin's Tramp was a charm and a tease, someone who would dance and grin to make a pretty girl favor him and take pleasure in tweaking a policeman who had given him a hard time. His slapstick gags were as often initiated by his character as in response to the world. Keaton's persona was almost exclusively responsive to the dangers life presented him. Chaplin's Tramp often grinned; Keaton rarely did.

 

3. Before Keaton, much of slapstick involved an exaggerated acting style that came from vaudeville and melodrama - stock facial expressions for shock, fear, evil, etc. Keaton's "deadpan" expression wasn't so much "dead" as observing, allowing him to create relatable men trying to survive in a world with enormous obstacles. The other primary element he brought was an acrobatic excellence that made his "little man battling the world" stories filled with astounding stunts that were dangerous, hilarious, and part of the story.

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Beginning with the piano prop which was switched at least twice to make it more moveable, and the ever-changeable house, the key elements in this gag were the props and the acting of Keaton. His acting, other than outside the “living room,” however, did not match his best, in my opinion. I don’t know if you can call it a contribution, but Keaton, as has been said many times already, was far more acrobatic and brave than Chaplin in term of his physicality. As a result, his ideas for constructing gags became more elaborate, mechanically and more dangerous. This raised the bar for Chaplin in later films and for all other comedians.

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Thanks very much for finding these articles. Of course the fourth wall had bee broken many times before, not only by Arbuckle (and we've seen him do it in "Coney Island") but even with Melies during the first decade of the century.
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1. What elements (set design, costume, prop, camera placement, acting) make this gag effective as visual comedy?

 

Rigged house which looked unconventional and pretty zany along with the piano that is the main gag and setup. Costumes of the 4 characters depict civilian clothes and camera mostly included wide shots. Acting was exaggerated which seems to be a ritual aspect of slapstick.

 

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

 

I sense Keaton has a more physical comedy in the takes bruises and injury for the gags. Chaplin was more refined and not as masculine in my opinion. Not that guys took more abuse but Keaton seemed to take a beating more for laughs.

 

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 seemed to represent the stunt aspect of slapstick. If Humor didn't workout he probably could have been a stunt person in my estimation of all he contributed. Not that his performance ever lacked subtlety but there seems to be more an element of danger when I watch his gags.

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It seems to me that the major difference between Keaton and Chaplin is how the props and sets are intricate part of the Gag. This blending of man and Pops is what makes the skits so successful. We have all at one time had problems with inanimate objects. Keaton takes these problems to the extreme. When we laugh at the piano falling on Keaton we are laughing at ourselves when something fell or almost fell on us. Keaton’s humor becomes something very identifiable and something to which we can easily relate.

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The effective gag elements I noticed were the pulled-back camera, the contrast in strength of the burly man to Keaton, the indifference of the burly man, and the very idea that two people would tackle such a project!  I remember too well my family moving my piano through an upper story window.

 

The differences I perceive between Keaton and Chaplin is that Keaton seems the "every man"  character, while Chaplin comes off as a bit of an anarchist and cynic.  I could identify more readily with the person who struggles and fails than the one who cheats and kicks.  Keaton's contribution to slapstick, in fact, may be his more good-hearted approach to it.  And, was this the first time the "fixer-upper" theme was used?  It is certainly an enduring one;  I'm thinking of Jack Benny in "George Washington Slept Here",  Cary Grant's "Mr Blanding's Dream House" and Tom Hanks in "The Money Pit"

 

A side note:  My father used to tell of spending an entire afternoon in the theater for a nickel!  Harold Lloyd, The Keystone Cops, Buster Keaton and Tom Mix were his childhood heroes.  They probably kept him out of a good deal of trouble!

 

 

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Keaton's comedy is much more physical than Chaplin's. When you look at how the scenes are staged, you can see how each part is put together very carefully to create the gag. They are very complex. In contrast, Chaplin makes each scene almost look casual in the delivery. 

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1. We start out with the piano prop. I am sure that everyone in the audience was in awe of the delivery man as he lugged around the heavy piano like child's play. As was mentioned everything in the house as a set in this film was totally out of place. This helped keep the audience off guard as to what is coming next. Costume wise we see Keaton and his wife dressed as average 1920s common folk. Camera placement is different than some we have seen so far. The camera is outside, on the first floor, second floor,and  observing the roof. The props like the piano, the ladders and the iron bar help to exaggerate the whole gag.

2. Regarding Keaton's comedy versus that of Chaplin's comedy we first must state that we are looking at both of these greats at around the 1918-1928 time-frame. Keaton's character is not a "tramp" but a person with a family and home. Keaton's character is the victim whereas Chaplin's little tramp always keeps fighting and trying to best the system or at least twist the systems nose. In Keaton we don't see minor items used to pull off the gag. Unlike Chaplin and a banana peel, Keaton has a several hundred pound piano as his nemesis or in the case of "Steamboat Bill, Jr." we have a two ton house wall falling over him. Again Keaton exaggerates the props for the gag.

3. Seeing a scene like this I sense that Keaton contributes to the idea that the real geniuses of the slapstick silent era were at their best when they controlled the production of the films. He was the best judge of the scope and complexity of of his gags. Let us not forget that the house wall falling in "Steamboat Bill Jr" took eight years to plan. Keaton adds to the history of just what a production these supposedly simple gag films could be. Keaton was asked by Christopher Bishop of Film Quarterly in 1958 what short he thought did the most for his reputation... Keaton responded "Perhaps the first short I made, called One Week"  ( Source "Buster Keaton Interviews Edited by Kevin W. Sweeney pg 56)

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Before I answer my view of today's topic, I wanted to mention this as well. I watched this movie on archive.org after seeing the last episode of "Breakdown of a Gag," and thought it was pretty funny how they did include the fourth wall in the bath scene. Was this the first time the fourth wall was included? Were there other early movies that broke from the movie and did a fourth wall gag? The only later movie I can think of right now is Blazing Saddles.

 

 

The Hope-Crosby-Lamour Road movies regularly broke the 4th wall. That became part of those movies' style. Other comedies certainly did too.

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Chaplin was the master of simple banana peel  pane of glass in the kid. whereas Buster Keaton was more complex. you see Keaton use  a lot more props the piano. the house itself,the porch railing  he uses as a ladder. Also Chaplin was all about rising up against society. whereas Keaton everything seem to happen to him The piano falls on him then he fights it trying to get it in the house and when he does the floor caves in he is the man who can,t catch a break.

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Comparing comedy of Chaplin and Keaton:

 

The foundation for the two characters is different. Chaplin’s character is mischievous or even roguish: he steals, is short-tempered, starts fights. Charlie instigates much of the action, and while he is graceful Charlie moves through a chaotic world. His flaunting of social convention leaves us wishing we could be so bold.

 

Keaton’s character is one of perseverance: he struggles to make due despite woe-begetting circumstances of bad luck. Buster responds to much of the action in a world where physical laws seem to temporarily suspend their norms – either for him (e.g. through his acrobatics) or against him (e.g. the ceiling pulling down). Both his acrobatics and interaction with the sets leaves us wishing we could have such control.

 

Their presentation is different. Charlie places his emotion in his eyes and then his hands; he creates intimacy through close-ups. Buster places his emotion in his shoulders and hips; he creates awe through his acrobatics.

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In this clip from "One Week" Keaton uses everything but the kitchen sink as part of a series of gags. We have the big guy/little guy, Buster's extra long shoes, his backside exiting the window first, the steps of the ladder peeling away in rapid succession... the entire set is a surreal, topsy-turvy through-the-looking glass world in which we expect strange things to happen. The big guy is able to hold up a piano with one hand, the piano can fall on buster and pin him to the ground without him sustaining an injury. the ceiling in the living room is so elastic that it snaps back like a slingshot, catapulting the paper hanger through the roof, and HE sustains no injury! Are we on LSD? While both Chaplin and Keaton were agile and athletic, and both relied at times on the absurd end of the humor spectrum, Keaton came at us with rapid fire gag after gag, each scene a series of struggles and mishaps, while Chaplin teased us with a more subtle build up of smaller laughs leading to the bigger pay off. Chaplin was graceful, conniving and clever, using his wits against his antagonists, whereas Keaton comes across as the polite victim of physical obstacles and thoughtless people. Chaplin gave us subtlety, and Keaton's contribution to slapstick is the fearless, bombastic physical gag.

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

Buster Keaton plays the role of an ordinary person trying to make do with the physical world around him. His prefabricated house reminded me of the furniture and the instructions from IKEA! It’s been a while since I’ve seen National Lampoon’s Christmas movie, but Chevy Chase also comes to mind when he tries to decorate the family home.

Back to the clip: Keaton and the other actors are rather subdued as they react to dealing with the set and the props around them. And it isn’t just the piano. Everything seems to want to get in their way of creating a home. They just can’t seem to get anything to work. Keaton especially and the other actors interact with the set and the props more than they interact with each other.
2. In what ways do you sense that Keaton’s comedy differs from that of Charlie Chaplin?

Keaton is even more physical, even acrobatic. For example, he pulls on the rope attached the ceiling and does a full flip in midair. He interacts with the physical world, which always seems to thwart him: human versus inanimate objects. Chaplin is more often human versus human.
3. When you watch a scene like this with Buster Keaton, what contributions do you think he added to the history of slapstick comedy?

I can think of two examples:

(1) Keaton’s wife (played by (Sybil Seely) gives him a kiss when he descends from the roof of the house, then shoves him two or three times, so that he exits left off screen. It reminded me of Elaine in Seinfeld doing her two-palm shove of the male characters.

(2) Already in 1920 we’re getting an update on the kick-in-the-keister gag: Keaton is bent over with his keister in the direction of the audience and in the direction of his wife entering the scene: and she does not kick him!

And see number 1 above. (I got a little ahead of myself.)

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As a set designer/builder for community theater, I give a big hurrah for the all the props and set build for this clip! It's the set-up before the set-up, the perfect storm. We are, for the most part, the little guy. Something is always too heavy, too long, too high and we never have the proper equipment. What makes this gag work as a visual comedy comes from the positioning of the large or heavy piano and the little guy. If he was a big guy like the delivery man there would have not been any humor in getting the piano in the house. I love the rope that was long and bound up in knots. How often do I find myself lugging something that's a matted mess? ...an extension cord, a garden hose and let's include my phone charger and headphones in that equation. I laughed as he shimmied up the pole to attach a pulley to the ceiling. I thought maybe the chandelier would come down with him, but no... It's the unexpected happenings in real situations that we all find ourselves in and our best laid plans to accomplish our tasks that go awry. So many times, I find myself like him. And so many times, I just have to laugh.

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Buster Keaton plays the straight man to every conceivable pratfall that can happen. Keaton with athletic skill made slapstick comedy funny all the while keeping the audience hooked with that deadpan face. Giving away no facial emotional response, giving the audience its chance to become part of the scene with their laughter. Keaton became the lighting rod for all that could happen, would happen.  

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Right from the very beginning we know that Buster Keaton is going to have a bad day especially when the big guy shows up so easily carrying the piano, we know than that Keaton is going to have a hard time with that piano. I love the way the all the props are used to set us up for the gags to come.

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Buster Keaton dresses and seems more like the "everyday man".  Life is going great - he gets a house for a wedding present - but then chaos ensues because nothing is how it seems.  The visuals are great in that the house is isolated, but we can see how strange it has been put together.  The ceiling is starting to go as he uses the rope, but yet, we are concerned about the man above-then more of the gag plays out. It just shows that Keaton can make you laugh without the use of the facial expressions, but by his body language and the props he is working with.  He truly suffered for his art but we all benefit from that.

 

 

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Keaton always plays the straight man. That is evident as he goes through the day and his expression never changes from deadpan. The set design and props added to the film. For example when Keaton is trying to raise the piano up through the window with a rope tied around the lamp. The ceiling was moving with each tug of the rope until the other guy fell through the floor. The mere fact that the house was bizarrely built added to the film.

 

In comparing Keaton and Chaplin, Keaton is more physical in his gags and stunts. An example is in the General he rides the locomotive in an unconventional way. Or when the house falls down around him. Chaplin gags and stunts flow with the story line like when he tried to steal a hot dog from a vendor and he rolls back and forth under a fence to avoid the cops. Both are good and added to comedy.

 

Yes he adds o the history of slapstick. You can see that with other comedies and cartoons in the sound era.

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

 

....This may sound odd, but I think that Keaton’s comedy differs from Chaplin’s comedy in much the same way that Gene Kelly’s dancing differs from Fred Astaire’s dancing. 

 

I had this thought, too.  Both Astaire and Kelly were athletic and graceful, but Astaire was more graceful; Kelly was more athletic.  Astaire was a dancer who tended towards a high center of balance that reflected his fluid grace. Kelly tended towards a low center of balance that reflected his athletic power. Astaire's dancing looked easy, while Kelly's looked like hard work. Similarly, Chaplin glided gracefully through the chaos around him (often of his own creation), while Keaton powered through the adversity that life (and his own actions) impose on him.  Even in the face of adversity, life seemed relatively easy for Chaplin. For Keaton, even the simplest tasks seemed difficult, and life was a struggle.

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Camera placement makes the gag effective because it shows each bit as it plays out: The piano delivery man with Keaton, then the pully on the ceiling pulling down the second floor, and so on. Props help  add to the comedy: the breaking ladder, and the wonderful bit when Keaton pulls the picket fence off the porch to use as a ladder.

 

Keaton and Chaplin differ in these ways: Keaton is an every-man overwhelmed by situation, such as the building of a house, or a hurricane, while Chaplin is an underdog usually battling some sort of authority, whether it be a policeman, stern wife, or the butcher as we saw in A Dog's Life. In addition, Chaplin seems to act out, while Keaton seems acted upon. We can picture Chaplin kicking the piano man in the butt, for example.

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Buster Keaton seems to use EVERYTHING in his comedy gags. The piano delivery man throwing the piano on poor Buster. He uses robes, ladders, ceilings, floors, neighbors minding their own business, wife excited about the new piano and Buster Keaton being an every day man just trying to get a job done. The house is strange looking. Very funny.

Keaton is different than Charlie Chaplin. He has more of a dead pan, straight man, every day man Persona . Remember I'm on this journey and a lot of these movies are new to me. But from what I can recall from Charlie Chaplin films versus Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin finds trouble, trouble finds Buster Keaton.

Buster Keaton is an absolute treasure in this genre. Of course he was extraordinary just in the stunts alone. But brilliant in using everything around him for the various gags.

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In this gag, all the decoration contributes to give the story a comic sense. The ceiling that sinks, walls and crooked windows, of itself are a humorous element. Also piano, born as if it weighed nothing man-made has become a burden to bear for Buster. Another comic element is the impassivity with which holds the piano so Buster, on the floor, firm, with the same approval receipt. Finally, the final image with a close-up of the sheet music on the piano sunk on the floor add us a tone of irony that reinforces the humor.

Always be spoke of the rivalry between Chaplin and Keaton. In my opinion, them two are giant, each one in its style. More mocking Chaplin, with an increased load of humanity and ideologies... It also gestures and used body and movements of her face (eyebrows, grimacing) as part of the language. With Keaton, his approval is "mark registered". Keaton is a victim of situations and the nature, but makes them front and triumphant without losing that impassivity that ever.

It's exciting to see these two big screen together in the limelight, and I think that both marked the way and his teachings remain until today.

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1. That house . . .OMG, that house!  Everyone who has ever remodeled, restored or (in my case) constantly repaired a house (mine is 116 years old) can relate to every inch.  It's the psychological "feeling"  that follows the visual gag.

 

2. Keaton was "the great stone-face," imperturbable and expressionless,  acting by re-acting.  Chaplin's face set things up:  go back to the scene during "A Piece of Cake,"  when he sees the dog snatch up the sausages, and watch the light go on.

 

3. I believe Keaton's work evolved Slapstick beyond the need to emphasize 'make-believe," in that as exaggerated the gags were, people could relate as I've said above
 

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Keaton's comedy is way more complex than Chaplin. Chaplin used simple props such as a banana peel, while Keaton used everything he could possibly think of. The physical build of the actors (Piano delivery man a big brute, Keaton a thin weakling) also adds to the slapstick.  As the film continues, the way the pulley was developed further fuels the fire as Keaton tries to hoist the piano. When we see what the house looks like when completed, we cannot believe how Keaton designed the house before shooting the film.

 

Keaton's comedy is also very physical and complex. He does more dangerous stunts and sets that are so complex they are truly absurd. He is also very precise, especially when the façade comes crashing down yet he escapes unharmed thanks to a carefully positioned opening.

 

The heavy amounts of acrobatic work were a major influence as this kind of slapstick started to get more outrageous and over the top. And the audiences were eating it up.

 

I also recommend seeing a Keaton film with music by the Alloy Orchestra; they use many different kinds of instruments and props in their comedy films and make the Keaton films much more fun to watch.

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1. The piano, the falling apart house, the man who so easily picked up the piano. Everything was over the top to try to move a piano to inside the house.

2. Keaton is trying to do everything by himself. I would expect Chaplin to get others to do it under his  direction. 

3. The everyday man doing an unremarkable action; trying to move a piano inside his house, but Keaton is able to find all sorts of obstacles to completing it. 

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