By the 1960s, Buster Keaton was generally, if belatedly, recognized as America’s greatest film comedian. During Keaton’s heyday in silent movies, 1920s critics and reviewers considered Charlie Chaplin the greatest comedian with Harold Lloyd, Lupino Lane, Ben Turpin, Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle, Harry Langdon sand Keaton as ‘also rans.’ But comedy aficionados considered Keaton as King of Comedy.
Chaplin and his many imitators represented the European tradition of the forsaken clown; strangers in the strange land of modern America. The comedian most popular at movie box offices was Harold Lloyd, a youthful go-getting daredevil. Buster was more in the image of the stoic pioneer.
During the 1920s, Buster Keaton (1895-1966) ran his own small film studio, Comique. But Keaton was as poor a businessman as he was a great comedian. Around 1929, Buster’s contract was sold to MGM, the studio where comedians went to die (Keaton, Stanley Laurel and Oliver Hardy, Jimmy Durante and Red Skelton. A prime example of MGM’s lack of a collective sense of humor. Quiet, athletic Keaton was yoked with boisterous Jimmy Durante—a totally inappropriate on-screen partnership. Their talkies together offer very few laughs today, but in the early years of the Great Depression, Buster and Jimmy were big box office hits.
But before MGM executives ruined Buster Keaton’s career (along with other contract comedians), Keaton had proved his genius in 19 short films and 10 feature-length comedies for Buster Keaton Productions.
One of the most memorable among those feature films was Steamboat Bill Jr., his final silent comedy. It starts off as a drama with a gag here and there, but quickly picks up comedy steam and closes with a precisely staged final stunt—without any special effects—that is an instance of sheer courage. Any miscalculation would have resulted in Buster’s instant death.
After not seeing his father in years, Buster arrives by rail in a town where his tall, strapping he-man father (Ernest Torrance) is the captain-owner of an old steam paddleboat. His worn river vessel is a poor match to the new paddleboat owned and operated by his wealthy competitor.
Buster’s father has come to the railroad depot to meet his long lost son. Father fails to spot his shrimp-sized son among those getting off the train until the last remaining passenger is Buster, garbed in rah-rah collegiate clothing with a beret on his head and a tiny prissy moustache on his upper lip. His father is mortified.
The thrust of the movie is how Buster rises to meet every challenge through nerve, wiles, courage and athleticism. The climax of the film is Buster battling his way on foot through a cyclone. In 1927-28, there were no mechanical special effects and trick cinema photography was very limited. For that scene, Buster used multiple motored airplane propellers to provide the great wind.
The danger was real, and possibly fatal, for Buster as he battled his way during the final reel. Buildings were built with construction grade wood, not lightweight balsa or cardboard and canvass. Buster never employed a stuntman; he did all his own stunts, even most of them in 1966’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, while he was dying of lung cancer.