November 6, 1920 [The Saphead]

The New Henrietta with Douglas Fairbanks becomes The Saphead with Buster Keaton. Despite their shared athleticism, the two seem cut from different cloths--with Keaton the odder remnant, as it were. And his Bertie is more than "passing strange," with the quality of--I don't know what; a solemn, self-possessed toddler, his movements--such as they are (he is often all but inert)--precise, mechanical--and his passivity almost philosophical. It's funny, but like nothing else. I did not laugh out loud even once, and felt always off-kilter inside, as though my laughter had turned inward, like a sudden gulp of solid air, thick inside and heavy.

Do I exaggerate? I'm not sure; all I can write with certainty is that, with his bland demeanor, his near-tragic stance--thwarted on his marriage-day, standing in the Stock Exchange with his morning coat and cane, his beloved boutonniere (attached by his fiancée) clinging to his breast, buffeted by the traders--he becomes, for a space, the idiot rag-doll of Wall Street, ignorant of its double-dealings--so much so that, in true cinema fashion, he prevails, his greatness not so much thrust upon as pummeled into him. Keaton always promises--threatens?--such characterizations; here, despite the usual over-cooked story, he reveals without apology his freakish approach to--I must, I suppose, call it "comedy," although again it does not allow me to respond with any normal sign of having been amused.

In short, Keaton is a kind of genius--like Chaplin in his rubber-framed capacity to take a severe beating--but all the screen comics are boneless wonders. No, Keaton's greatness (and I know others note this--but I cannot note anything else) is his sad-Buddha serenity, tattered and bloody as he literally is by the end--but driven by the urge to survive, and the will to love. --And oh that last seems itself over-cooked; but Keaton engenders such outbursts. It is slapstick administered with distress and pity, driving him to do the right thing and reclaim his due. Of course, he gets his girl--but with Keaton it seems more a necessity than a surrender to form. I feared for his life, he looked so love-sick, unblinking amid the tumult of commerce. He is an acrobat-invalid, seemingly doomed until in the climax he springs, shouting "I'll take it!" over and over. And he does take it, over and over. Funny business.

Comments

  1. Fantastic! "Sad-Buddha serenity" is such a wonderful turn of phrase, I want to steal it.

    I don't know if it matters, but the photo you've included is actually from Keaton's 1922 short "Daydreams." Although it does nicely capture the wide-eyed innocence mingled with world-weariness that is the classic Keaton persona.

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    1. Well, it's been three years, but thanks for the kind words--and the heads-up about the image. I'm in the process of turning this into an ebook, so I'm happy for all the warnings and corrections I can get.

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