Buster Keaton

Hard Luck (1921, Edward F. Kline and Buster Keaton)

Hard Luck starts as a… failed suicide attempt comedy. Nothing morbid, just absurd and slapstick. And a little dumb. Star, director, and writer Keaton always has dangerous ideas for ending his life, but never particularly good ones. There’s a lot of physical humor from Keaton during this section; situational physical comedy. Most of it is smaller scale, behavior gags. Keaton’s got some amazing stunts in the short, but they’re for little things the narrative requires to keep the situational comedy going. The way he jumps out of the way and whatnot. Hard Luck is micro-physical comedy. At least for the average Keaton. Rare grandiosity. Usually, Keaton and co-writer and co-director Cline keep it pared down. The first act has a lot of Keaton interacting with other actors, a lot with other actors reacting to him.

Keaton’s great at the little comedy moves. He’s charming and sympathetic while still seeming a bit dumb.

And then when he’s not actively trying to kill himself, he stills gets into quite a bit of trouble, leading to a somewhat different feel for the gags. They do get bigger, but with Keaton and Cline very subtly pacing them out. They percolate then explode.

Virginia Fox plays the society girl who catches Keaton’s eye before going on to catch the eye of outlaw Joe Roberts. Roberts’s pursuit of Fox is downright terrifying; Roberts comes into the short late and has no character motivation other than to attack Fox (his men are busy robbing her friends in the other room). Keaton’s showdown with Roberts is smaller scale gags again, but a (literal) explosion by the end.

Besides the solo slapstick and measured physical gags, there are also many involving animals (great and small). Hard Luck is full of big laughs, little laughs, big smiles, little smiles. Despite the dark opening, it’s pleasant once it gets going. Keaton and Cline are meticulous in their direction and assured in the film’s production. The short isn’t pompous or anything and it never self-aggrandizes, but if it wanted to do either, it could easily get away with it. Because Hard Luck is hilarious.

Keaton’s also very willing to embrace the absurd. It helps remind at the beginning we’re not watching a suicidal young man, rather Keaton in a slapstick comedy about a suicidal young man. The narrative distance feels instinctive, with Keaton and Cline staying relatively close but also skewed enough they can get away with Keaton’s plight being for laughs. It does, of course, help they’ve got so much great stuff in store for the rest of the short. Its energy can’t afford to fizzle.

And it doesn’t, not even at the very end, when Hard Luck takes a few breaths before delivering its final punchline.

Keaton’s great, Fox’s fine, Roberts’s hilarious (but still dangerous). There’s not much character for Fox or Roberts, but it doesn’t matter—Hard Luck doesn’t leverage everything off Keaton (but could). He delivers lots on his own, but even more as he fits into the somewhat rigid framework of the story. The short is brimming with energy and potential.

It’s a great success.

3/3Highly Recommended


Written and directed by Edward F. Cline and Buster Keaton; director of photography, Elgin Lessley; released by Metro Pictures Corporation.

Starring Buster Keaton (The Boy), Virginia Fox (The Girl), and Joe Roberts (Lizard Lip Luke).

The Haunted House (1921, Edward F. Cline and Buster Keaton)

The Haunted House has some excellent gags. There’s a lot of set gags in the finale, when bank clerk Keaton ends up in the–well, the haunted house. His coworker–a delightfully evil Joe Roberts–is actually a counterfeiter who uses the haunted house to print money; the haunted bit is just a cover. Lots of great comedic set pieces, including the collapsing stairs.

Earlier, there’s even a nice bit with Keaton doing lower key physical comedy when he can’t get dollar bills off his hands (there was an incident with some glue). The Haunted House is a smooth experience, with lots of pay-off, at least in terms of the gags.

Keaton and co-director Cline are somewhat limited in their ambitions for House. The gags are good, but lengthy. There’s nowhere near enough story. House is funny stuff and extremely well executed, but it finishes up somewhat underweight.



Written and directed by Edward F. Cline and Buster Keaton; director of photography, Elgin Lessley; produced by Joseph M. Schenck; released by Metro Pictures Corporation.

Starring Buster Keaton (Bank Clerk), Virginia Fox (Bank President’s Daughter) and Joe Roberts (Bank Cashier).

Neighbors (1920, Edward F. Cline and Buster Keaton)

I’m not sure what the best thing is about Neighbors. There’s the comic pacing, there’s the comic acrobatics, there’s the story, there’s the acting. Co-directors Keaton and Cline quickly introduce this fantastic setup–Romeo and Juliet across a fence in an alley and then immediately get into two very complicated Keaton-fueled acrobatic mastery. It segues into a mistaken identity chase sequence, then resolves in a melodramatic plot development giving seven cast members (sadly, the bride and groom’s mothers are uncredited) each something to do, before wrapping up in another acrobatic chase sequence.

It’s the perfect slapstick comedy, but it’s also a great romantic comedy, a great comedy of errors. All in seventeen or so minutes. Keaton and Cline perfectly time every shot, every scene.

Neighbors is a perfect seventeen minutes of film. Keaton and Cline do a fantastic, masterful and totally understated job with the film. It’s magnificent.

3/3Highly Recommended


Directed by Edward F. Cline and Buster Keaton; screenplay by Cline and Keaton, based on a story by Keaton; director of photography, Elgin Lessley; produced by Joseph M. Schenck; released by Metro Pictures Corporation.

Starring Buster Keaton (The Boy), Virginia Fox (The Girl), Joe Roberts (Her Father), Joe Keaton (His Father), Edward F. Cline (The Cop) and Jack Duffy (The Judge).

The Scarecrow (1920, Edward F. Cline and Buster Keaton)

The Scarecrow opens with a lengthy practical effects sequence. Buster Keaton and Joe Roberts are roommates and they have an elaborately designed “concise” home. It’s like IKEA’s dream, only with manually pulled ropes instead of some kind of remote control.

(There’s also a gag Chaplin had, a year later, in The Kid).

Turns out the roommates are in love with the same girl (Sybil Seeley, who’s appealing with nothing to do). Somehow, this love triangle results in Keaton getting chased by Seeley’s possibly rabid dog while both he and Roberts run afoul of her father (played by Joe Keaton).

The automated home alone would be enough of a gag for an entire short, the dog chase would be enough for an entire short, but then directors Keaton and Cline turn it all into a runaway romance and chase picture. The Scarecrow’s a breathtaking achievement of technique, practically and narratively.

3/3Highly Recommended


Written and directed by Edward F. Cline and Buster Keaton; director of photography, Elgin Lesley; released by Metro Pictures Corporation.

Starring Buster Keaton (Farmhand), Joe Roberts (Farmhand), Sybil Seely (Farmer’s Daughter) and Joe Keaton (Farmer).

Convict 13 (1920, Edward F. Cline and Buster Keaton)

Convict 13 has some undeniably funny stuff in it, but directors Keaton and Cline rely almost entirely on physical comedy. By physical, I mean actors doing choreographed comedy. Sometimes it’s Keaton, both for the smaller sequences and the larger, or Joe Roberts as a gigantic, revolting prisoner.

Both senses of revolting.

Oh, right. Real quick–Convict is about Keaton, a klutz (which is one of the problems with the short), mistakenly going to jail. He’s not the jail type; his girlfriend, played by Sybil Seely, tries to help him out. That description is maybe the first two-thirds, with the remainder being a whole different, jail and mistaken identity setup.

That emphasis on the choreographed comedy shows skill from Keaton and Cline as directors, but it’s kind of boring. There’s nothing exciting about Convict 13; it’s fine, but also a missed opportunity. The absurdist plotting can’t stand on its own.



Written and directed by Edward F. Cline and Buster Keaton; director of photography, Elgin Lessley; produced by Joseph M. Schenck; released by Metro Pictures Corporation.

Starring Buster Keaton (Golfer), Sybil Seely (Socialite), Edward F. Cline (Hangman) and Joe Roberts (The Crazed Prisoner).

One Week (1920, Edward F. Cline and Buster Keaton)

One Week is pretty much perfect. Directors Cline and Keaton structure the short beautifully. It takes place over a week, the passage of days torn off calendar pages, as newlyweds Keaton and Sybil Seely set up their home. Literally, set up; they’re constructing their own pre-fab and things go wrong.

The tone of the comedy at this point is more traditional slapstick than what Week becomes. It’s also where the film establishes Keaton and Seely’s relationship. They’re a lovely couple, with Seely getting some rather good moments. Even towards the end, when it becomes a disaster picture–but a light-hearted one–and Keaton is more front and center, Seely still gets attention. Keaton and Cline put as much into the story as they do the filmmaking.

Well, maybe not as much; they literally spin a house around, but an excellent amount.

Gorgeous Elgin Lessley photography. Week’s a masterpiece.

3/3Highly Recommended


Written and directed by Edward F. Cline and Buster Keaton; director of photography, Elgin Lesley; edited by Keaton; produced by Joseph M. Schenck; released by Metro Pictures Corporation.

Starring Buster Keaton (The Groom) and Sybil Seely (The Bride).

The ‘High Sign’ (1921, Edward F. Cline and Buster Keaton)

The ‘High Sign’ starts innocuously enough. Leading man Buster Keaton is out of work and answers a want ad to be a clerk at a shooting range. Maybe the tone of the short can be determined from Keaton stealing a cop’s gun to practice, because things don’t stay innocuous for long.

In addition to the range–which affords directors Keaton and Cline two different sequences (one with Keaton acting, one with Keaton reacting)–there’s eventually an elaborate home invasion sequence, with Keaton fighting off the bad guys to protect Bartine Burkett and her father.

Of course, the bad guys hired Keaton to assassinate the father. It’s a lot of brisk storytelling.

There are a handful of lovely cinematic flourishes, but mostly it’s just a good slapstick outing for Keaton. He’s got a wonderful nemesis in the giant Ingram B. Pickett.

Small or (relatively) large, all Keaton and Cline’s gags work.

3/3Highly Recommended


Written and directed by Edward F. Cline and Buster Keaton; director of photography, Elgin Lesley.

Starring Buster Keaton (Our Hero), Bartine Burkett (Miss Nickelnurser) and Ingram B. Pickett (Tiny Tim).

College (1927, James W. Horne)

The best sequence in College is also the longest. Protagonist Buster Keaton, after failing at baseball (he’s a bookworm who needs to get athletic to impress a girl), goes out for track and field. Keaton observes other men succeed at the various events, tries them himself, fails miserably (and comically), keeps trying, presumably assuming he’ll eventually get something right.

And the viewer assumes it too. That sequence, which does eventually have a fantastic payoff, plays with the viewer’s expectations. Its length and thoroughness serves to fully vest the viewer in the film (the sequence is around the halfway point). Keaton’s success is more important to the viewer than it is to Keaton’s protagonist.

College is a little light on plot–after setting up Keaton as unable to afford college without working his way through and showcasing his misadventures at odd jobs, the film drops the subject. Ditto the girl–played by Anne Cornwall–and her problems with her jerk jock boyfriend, Harold Goodwin. The latter comes back into the film for the finale, but the college financing stuff doesn’t.

And Keaton doesn’t really have a story arc. He tries sports to get the girl. Either it’s going to work out or it isn’t. There’s just enough story to get the viewer interested and then Keaton’s attempts (and failures) are funny enough to keep it going. College has about enough story for a short, it just has long form comedic sequences.

The film always moves, always looks great. The finish rocks.



Directed by James W. Horne; written by Carl Harbaugh and Bryan Foy; director of photography, Bert Haines and Devereaux Jennings; edited by Sherman Kell; produced by Joseph M. Schenck; released by United Artists.

Starring Buster Keaton (Ronald), Anne Cornwall (Mary Haynes), Harold Goodwin (Jeff), Flora Bramley (Mary’s friend), Snitz Edwards (Dean Edwards) and Florence Turner (Ronald’s mother).

So You Won’t Squawk (1941, Del Lord)

So You Won’t Squawk opens with a lot of expository dialogue, only not from Buster Keaton. For the first few minutes, Keaton’s treated like he’s in another silent. Except, of course, his actions are much more restrained. He’s goofing around while decorating… not too exciting.

Of course, once he does start talking, he immediately becomes personable.

Squawk is about a mobster using Keaton as his stand-in and the majority of the short is Keaton escaping these rival mobsters out to kill him. Everyone in the short besides Keaton is absolutely awful. He’s a little old to be playing the well-meaning simpleton and he never manages to sell it as an actual character, but he’s still got the charm.

Lord’s direction of actors and his composition are weak. His frequent reliance on sped-up film for every gag also hinders.

It’s tepid at best, but Keaton never embarrasses himself.

1/3Not Recommended


Directed by Del Lord; written by Elwood Ullman; director of photography, Benjamin H. Kline; edited by Art Seid; produced by Lord and Hugh McCollum; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Buster Keaton (Eddie), Matt McHugh (Henchman) and Eddie Fetherston (Henchman).

The Scribe (1966, John Sebert)

The Scribe isn’t totally silent, but Buster Keaton is throughout. While he’s old (Keaton died soon after the film, an instructional short finished shooting), he and the filmmakers don’t make it obvious. There’s some stunt footage where it’s obviously not Keaton—flying around, hooked on a crane (it’s a construction safety film)—but some where it’s less clear, like the chase sequences. Sure, it’s not really Keaton, but if one just lets him or herself suspend disbelief a little more… it is.

Director Sebert is the one who makes The Scribe such a nice homage to Keaton. There are a lot of references to Keaton films, ones I imagine the construction workers forced to watch The Scribe did not appreciate.

It helps the production values are good. They film on a real construction site, no way around it, but the office bookends aren’t fake looking.

The Scribe’s a fine exercise.



Directed by John Sebert; written by Paul Sutherland and Clifford Braggins; director of photography, Miklós Lente; edited by Kenneth Heeley-Ray; music by Quartet Productions Limited; produced by Ann Heeley-Ray and Kenneth Heeley-Ray; released by the Construction Safety Association of Ontario.

Starring Buster Keaton.

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