|Buster Keaton in Steamboat Bill Jr.|
When it comes to silent films, there are two popular schools of thought. There's the Charles Chaplin way and the Buster Keaton way. As history has proven, Chaplin has withstood the test of time better with a resume of iconic films like Modern Times and The Great Dictator. He is an artist who took the medium into adventurous new directions. However, the Keaton school is more of my favorite for one sole reason: he was just more fun. To witness what Keaton did in any film is to acknowledge a mad man being allowed to endanger himself on screen. There were no stunt doubles. It was all him as he stared danger in the face and hilariously injured himself. It is likely that due to his stories not being the best, he doesn't immediately come to people's minds. However, and I'm serious, there is one moment in which Keaton not only outdid himself, but created one of the greatest silent film scenes in history.
In 1928, director Charles Reisner teamed with him to make Steamboat Bill Jr., which has his most famous moment. Audiences nowadays know Keaton not for his pork pie hat, but for famous wall falling around the unprotected actor. There aren't any special effects. Nothing is keeping him from facing potential life-threatening injuries. Yet it happens. What is the punchline? The always stoic Keaton never smiled, choosing to just brush it off. This was a scene that initially had the actor smiling at the end. When audiences disagreed to an actor who became known as "The Great Stone Face," for his lack of emotional expression, it was altered. It wasn't Keaton's first run in with dangerous sets. His most beloved film The General has him fighting peril while aboard a train. The man wasn't afraid of injuries and was known to perform in the face of danger.
The famous scene was shot in Sacramento, California and was initially supposed to depict a very dangerous flood. This became problematic when there was the 1927 Mississippi River Flood. Instead, they went with a cyclone that was powered by six Liberty-motor wind machines. There were $135,000 worth of removable sets used to depict the chaos as Keaton ran around, controlled by nothing except wires. The results can be seen below:
To claim that Steamboat Bill Jr. is simply a film with one famous moment is to ignore everything else around it. Even if Chaplin had perilous scenes in films like The Gold Rush, he still couldn't hold a candle to Keaton or perennial third favorite Harold Lloyd in his most famous movie Safety Last!, in which he climbs the side of a tall building. While silent film has also been about visual narration, it has also been about overcoming impossible peril. Visual comedy required the peril to be more pronounced. For what it's worth, Chaplin never felt dangerous. Likewise, Keaton never felt safe. He was an anarchic filmmaker willing to sacrifice his body for a laugh and a powerful visual.
While The General has a deserved reputation as a great silent film, I do feel that it isn't the actor's finest moments. To me, the cyclone sequence above captures the potential of silent film in all of its essence. Maybe it is that The General has a more engaging story, but Keaton wasn't scrapped for ideas here. From the moment that the cyclone starts, chaos ensues in a manner unseen by most other cinema. It would become a norm for blockbusters, but in 1928, it would prove to be more costly. Sets would be built, only to be destroyed. Actors weren't always insured nor was there the protection of stunt doubles always on hand. In this sense, Steamboat Bill Jr. feels like it was composed by an irrational man, wanting to see the world collapse because it looked cool. And boy, did it.
Watching the scene is like seeing the impossible before your eyes. Buildings are collapsing and boats are falling apart. A house falls on top of Keaton only for him to walk out of the front door moments later. He holds onto a tree as it blows around the windy town, tethered to nothing. Most of all, the wind machines force Keaton into a quest for equilibrium, constantly doing back flips while grabbing his aching head. For seven minutes, the film turns into a wonderfully destructive tale that encapsulates what sight gags should be. Part of the appeal is that Keaton survived making this. Another part is the cherished realization that this couldn't be done today. At least, not by the physical comedians who grace our screens.
The scene has always stood out to me as the greatest silent film scene in all of history. It's also my favorite silent film in general. On the occasion of the deceased actor's 120th birthday, I felt the need to share my love for this movie as well as this scene. Even if Keaton's name has withstood the test of time despite a problematic later career, I don't know that he gets the same respect as Chaplin. I like both a lot, but I feel that Keaton is more indicative of where film went. He was more ambitious in making powerful, visceral images that stimulated audiences. Sure, his stories were always subpar, but he was just as integral into making cinema exciting and magical to audiences then and now. Frankly, I watch every Keaton film and walk away a little baffled by how he survived to be 70. He was a master of craft, and one that deserves a little more recognition than being The General actor.