Written and directed by Buster Keaton and Eddie Cline.
Released 22 December 1920.
Starring: Buster Keaton, Virginia Fox (his fiance), Big Joe Roberts (her father), Joe Keaton (Buster’s father), Eddie Cline (the cop), and Jack Duffy (the judge).
I need to start this by self-plagiarizing a long-ago comment I made about the most important element of cinema:
Of all the arts the movies draw upon to become what they are, which is the most important, or the one you value most?
I think it all comes down to choreography, which, while related to the theater, isn’t quite the same thing. Here’s what I mean: Everything you see onscreen is the result of negotiations in space between stationary figures (objects), moving bodies (humans, animals, trees, appliances), fluctuating light that draws attention to both, and the camera—sometimes stationary, sometimes still—that tracks it all. The principles of blocking, the use of gaffers, and an understanding of basic camera movement (tracking shots, zooms, handheld photography, etc.) are critical to even the most haphazard movie production. It’s all bodies in space, and how light and camera are timed to capture it. A great movie is always a well-choreographed movie, in terms of both the cast and the crew, no matter how improvised it looks.
Choreography was even more critical in Buster Keaton’s heyday than in the talkies that would come later. He couldn’t depend on dialogue to iron out narrative problems; everything is conveyed through movement, even when the camera is still. And in early cinema, the camera usually was still. Because they were so heavy and the technology so new and cumbersome, cameras tended to stay put, preferably at a distance far enough from the action that everything could be captured, like an audience member looking at the stage from the back row. Indeed, “stagey” is the appropriate word here, and one of the reasons that I think so many people resist silent comedy.
The staginess extends beyond the camera. Keaton came out of vaudeville and minstrel shows, meaning that his artistic orientation drew from the stage. So, he knew how to block a scene, how to fake a depth of field with props and paintings, how to convey subtleties—ironically—with broad gestures, and how to keep lots of people moving around on a single stage without crashing into each other or looking incoherent.
To illustrate how that works in Keaton’s cinema, let’s look at a sequence from Neighbors (1920).
If you count The High Sign, which Keaton shot just before One Week, that’s four two-reel shorts he & Eddie Cline directed in that year alone. All but Convict 13 are masterpieces; we’ll get to The Scarecrow next week. Anyway, in this Neighbors scene, a great bit of choreography comes together:
And then, because Buster is Buster, he ups the ante (and the laughs):
And then, because I really think he couldn’t help himself, he ups it again:
Because Keaton worked without scripts, and because at any given time there might have been five gag writers on-set at the time, and because his co-director Eddie Cline has a substantial role as a cop in this one, I can’t say with certainty that Keaton came up with this escalating gag himself.1 The whole movie, though, vibrates with Keaton’s let’s-top-this sensibility, which wows me as much as it makes me laugh. It’s a crazy, beautiful dance.
Keaton’s dance choreography is seamless, even if—as is true for so much of Keaton—it’s intended to look freewheeling and rough-hewn. It has to be perfect. The actors here work without the comforts of CGI, wires, cushions, or literal safety nets. So, the stakes aren’t just, “if we get this wrong, we have to redo the shot” but, rather, “if we get this wrong, somebody’s going to the hospital.”
This isn’t just dramaturgy learned from vaudeville stages. Keaton’s sensibility is cinematic as well as theatrical, even here in his first year of directing movies. The exuberant acrobatics and fast pace of the performers are matched by Keaton’s nimble editing. Look at that second clip. It’s fairly clear that, in the long shot of the men walking together, Buster is holding a dummy instead of a real woman. 2 But he half-convinced me that the woman was real because the preceding shot, a medium shot of Buster and Fox, proceeds smoothly into the next, wider, shot. The motion in both shots even match up, down to the way the actors turn around.
Or, let’s take this sequence. Fox’s father doesn’t like Buster. The feeling is mutual, so much so Buster’s father-in-law can’t even give away the bride with good grace. So, here are Buster and Big Joe Roberts scrapping it up before the wedding:
Note the quick cuts between shots, and that the pacing of these shots helps the overall rhythm of the sequence. Look at the variety of shots—closeup, to medium shot, to long shot, back to a medium shot, another long shot of the courtyard, and finally a triumphant crash in relative closeup. Note the fluidity of it—a perfect circle of comedy. Buster may have learned these pratfalls and setups through his work on the stage but this laundry-line moment is cinematic; it couldn’t work in a proscenium.
Of course, because Buster spent his childhood bouncing around vaudeville boards and minstrel-show tents, blackface minstrelsy informed his cinema. How could it not? Let’s be clear: From roughly the 1880s through the 1920s, blackface minstrel shows were the primary source of, and inspiration for, American popular culture. The roots of American music and songwriting, dance, theatre, circus acts, and fashion starts with minstrelsy, and was often refined and disseminated best through minstrelsy.3
Minstrelsy led to vaudeville, and vaudeville led to silent cinema. There’s no getting around that. Does that make me, a leftish black man, uncomfortable? Again: How could it not? (I’ll discuss this even more in later posts.) But, honestly, I was relatively shocked that it took Keaton three shorts to put on the burnt cork.
Except, it’s interesting—he does and he doesn’t. In two chase scenes, Keaton gets blackened by accident. In neither case does he participate in the lampooning or mean caricaturing of black life that made up most of minstrelsy by whites. It’s not black folks who are being played for laughs but instead white buffoons. Keaton never shuffles, jives, or does anything parodying African Americans here. He doesn’t even go full-on jigaboo, not donning the big lips or fake ‘fro that dominates the costume.
Instead, the blackface becomes essential to the—fuck it, I’ll say it, really funny—gags through incident rather than through stereotype. In the first sequence, Buster ends up head-first in a mud hole (don’t ask) and, once pulled out, he looks like this…
…which wouldn’t be a problem, except that he just hit a cop in the head with a broom—Buster confused him with someone else—while not being aware that he’s blackened. He quickly wipes the mud off. The pursuing police officer no longer identifies Buster as the culprit, and starts chasing an actual black man who wants nothing to do with these white folks. Moments later, though, he inadvertently pisses off a house painter, who drops a bucket of paint on Buster. Two guesses as to what color it is.
This leads to, thematically, the bravest gag of Neighbors. The cop catches Buster. As they stride along toward the police station, Buster frantically wipes the paint off but only gets half the job done. This leads to confusion, and ultimately fear on the part of the cop:
There’s a lot of truth in that clip. As a child of vaudeville and minstrelsy, Buster Keaton could be said, culturally at least, to be at least half-black. He nonchalantly uses that duality to scare off a cop who—just as is often the case in real life—can’t handle the mix without overreacting.
Even better, the actual brother in the film gets the last laugh, watching this insanity from a safe distance. The black man is the surrogate audience for Neighbors, wondering why these crazy white folks have to act this way.
2. Probably because Virginia Fox wasn’t a dummy. I can imagine the antics on the set as they’re all figuring out this gag. It’s like teenage boys: Their intelligence is inversely proportional to the number of them in the same place. One gag man is reasonably sane; two together are relative numbskulls; get three of them together, and they might decide that a four-person balancing act across a courtyard is a good idea. And I can see, as they’re planning all this, Fox arching an eyebrow at Keaton, and saying, “uh, yeahhhhhhh, this is where I draw the line, Buster.”↩
3. For the most thorough understanding of all this, read Lynn Abbott & Doug Seroff’s seminal tomes, Out of Sight: The Rise of African American Popular Music, 1889-1895 (2002) and Ragged but Right: Black Traveling Shows, “Coon Songs,” and the Dark Pathway to Blues and Jazz (2007).↩