Buster Keaton: Stone-Faced Critic

Setting aside the three monumental pillars of Buster Keaton’s acting career (The General, Steamboat Bill Jr. and Sherlock Jr.), there’s an intriguing emergence of Buster Keaton as a figure of social critique. While he still fulfills this role, to an extent, in his great films, a handful of his other features give precedence to the notion that Buster Keaton functions as a societal outsider that allows the audience to laugh at him, but also one that brings into question cultural values.

Starting in 1923 with Our Hospitality, Buster Keaton plays a young man raised by his aunt to keep him away from the family feud that claimed his father’s life. When he comes of age and goes back to collect his father’s estate, he’s oblivious that the “friends” he stumbles across are actually the members of the feuding family who seek to kill him.

The film then becomes a series of gags where Buster Keaton narrowly and obliviously escapes near death from the attempted killings by feuding family. While it makes for a hilarious series of perfectly timed gags and miscommunicated meanings, the ridiculousness of the film is not so much in these jokes as in the feud itself. Our Hospitality explores how futile, silly and ridiculously obsessive the institution of the feud is in this community, the final gag of the film a nod to how excessive and ridiculous force is as a solution to resolution between neighbors.

Seven Chances in 1925 mocks the lofty role marriage plays in society when struggling lawyer discovers that all that keeps him from coming into an inheritance is an addendum that says he must be married before his 27th birthday. It’s his misfortune that his birthday falls on the same day he receives the news and after his true love refuses his flippant proposal, he’s forced to go about town asking the handful he women he knows for a hand in marriage. Of course, Keaton continually fails to find a bride.

It’s this setup that brings into question the unhealthy societal status marriage is given. If Keaton can marry a girl, all his troubles will be solved with a snap of a finger. That man just needs a good woman. And while that’s the societal delusion, in practice, it quickly becomes clear that compatibility, love and marriage are not easy endeavors, or even necessarily the solution. Sometimes, they’re the problem.

Keaton’s third feature in the same year, Go West, takes on the Western myth. A still budding film genre, it’s surprising how easily the writing is able to make Keaton seamlessly work in the world of the Western. A city bloke who decides to work as a cowboy, Keaton embodies almost everything a cowboy isn’t. He’s clumsy, naive, not able to work with rough animals and also sensitive. Instead of branding a cow, he simply shaves a design into the fur.

The film mocks Keaton for failing to embody the masculine traits of the Western hero. His weapon is a pocket sized revolver he found in a woman’s purse and every time he needs it, he finds it stuck in the bottom of his holster. Instead of taming and mastering a steed like the real cowboys, he rides a donkey and later ends up walking around with his pet cow at his heels.

However, even though the film makes fun of Keaton’s inability to become that masculine hero, it’s his lack of those traits that make him endearing and lovable for the audience. He’s the underdog, the cowboy who doesn’t win on grit or skill, but on a naïve persistence. He’s coded as prepubescent and he never becomes that mythic man, but that doesn’t stop him from triumphing at the ending.

College in 1927 is yet another film where Keaton is the object of ridicule: the bookworm surrounded by strong, athletic young men. After graduating high-school and going onto college, he decides to reinvent himself and become the athletic star to win the affections of the girl he loves. The film’s runtime is comprised of Keaton consistently failing at an array of athletic events.

Where College fails is that unlike the rest of these films, it never finds a way to embrace the Keaton character for who he is. The intellectual bookworm might be praised at the beginning as academia’s savior, but once wrapped up in the veneer of the sports world, the film loses focus of what makes the Keaton character exemplary. In fact, his shallow pursuits for a girl’s narrow-minded affections, while called into question, are ultimately rewarded.

And while Keaton stands as a figure continuously mocks the imbalanced societies, he often reaffirms that there are good reasons for why we value certain ideas. While Seven Chances makes fun of the pursuit of marriage, it ultimately concludes that marriage a good thing. Likewise, even for College’s shortcomings, it establishes that the pursuit of athleticism is good insofar as it trains us to have the potential to protect the weak and helpless.

However, for films like Go West and Our Hospitality, the critique stands. While Western depictions of masculinity aren’t painted as evil and ignorant like revenge is, it’s still seen as an unfairly privileged value. Whether for or against whatever the critique is, Buster Keaton is a figure that reminds society of the importance of perspective and balance in our values institutions. Therefore, Buster Keaton is more than just a stone-faced misfit; he’s one of cinema’s funniest social critics.

© 2012 James Blake Ewing