What a magical place Buster Keaton’s mind must have been. Most people might be tempted to regard a chair as merely a chair, or an automobile as simply an automobile. Keaton looked at them and beheld endless comic possibilities. And not only possibilities for the objects themselves, but also for the spaces around them and any tantalizing proximities to other objects. For this born comedian, who started performing in his parents’ vaudeville act at the age of three, such an elastic imagination came naturally to him.
His imagination was never more engaged than when it came to designing gags involving machinery. Keaton had a natural affinity for all things mechanical and by his teens was creating his own Rube Goldberg-esque contraptions. During his idyllic summers at Lake Muskegon—the Keaton family home in Michigan during vaudeville’s off-season—his playful concoctions became the stuff of legend. To trick gullible passersby Keaton set up a fishing pole whose line ran underwater to a nearby clubhouse so friends could tug it like a fish was on the hook. At a neighbor’s house he set up an “alarm clock” using a system of weights, counterweights, and a motor to snatch off blankets and make the bed rock like an amusement park ride. Young Keaton’s crowning achievement was rigging that same neighbor’s outhouse so each of the four walls would collapse outwards—a practical joke on the strangers who used it without permission.
His inventiveness was very much in the spirit of the early 20th century, when the old horse-and-buggy way of life was rapidly transforming into the modern era of speeding automobiles and electric conveniences. The flood of new technologies—the brightening of city blocks with incandescent lamps, the astonishing sight of an occasional airplane overhead—was greeted with excitement by many and head-scratching by some. These changes were quickly reflected in popular culture, in songs like “Live Wires Rag” and “Come, Josephine in My Flying Machine” and in comic strips such as Frank Crane’s Willie Westinghouse Edison Smith, The Boy Inventor. It crept into vaudeville acts like “The Graphophone Girl,” for which Adelaide Francis recorded her own voice and then interacted charmingly with the recordings onstage, while “Johnny’s New Car” showcased future silent comedy star Harry Langdon’s frustrations with an ornery automobile. And moving pictures, of course, quickly rose from their humble origins in traveling shows to become a worldwide craze, delivering a form of entertainment only possible through newfangled machinery.
An admirer of moving pictures—he recalled seeing the 1914 landmark comedy Tillie’s Punctured Romance four times—Keaton was the most intrigued by the movie camera itself, longing to know precisely how the extraordinary apparatus worked. Opportunity finally came in 1917 when he was invited to the set where Roscoe Arbuckle was making a two-reeler, The Butcher Boy. Keaton immediately expressed interest in the technical side of filmmaking and the genial Arbuckle obliged, taking apart one of his costly movie cameras for him piece by piece. It’s said that Keaton practically climbed inside it. Already enthralled by what it could capture on screen—“Nothing you could stand on, feel, or see was beyond the range of the camera,” he later said in his autobiography—the practical side of how a shutter turned static images into life was what made Keaton fall hard for movies.
That same visit not only resulted in Keaton’s first scene on film, a gooey sequence involving a bucket of molasses, but also his decision to leave the stage for motion pictures. The gleeful, slapstick-infused world of Comique (as Arbuckle’s studio was called) was an ideal environment for the creative ex-vaudevillian, especially since Arbuckle welcomed all his players’ ideas. At times, suspiciously Keaton-esque inventions show up in the Arbuckle shorts, like the star on the dressing room door in 1918’s Back Stage that moves from door to door as a passive-aggressive punishment to vain actors deemed unworthy of it. But when Keaton got his own studio two years later, his creative powers in engineering were truly unleashed.
His first solo short, The High Sign (filmed in early 1920 but not released until 1921), didn’t waste time integrating humorous contraptions into the plot. Hired to work at a shooting gallery without any shooting experience, Buster is informed by his new boss, “I want to hear the bell ring every time you shoot.” Unfazed, he secretly rigs up a series of levers and pulleys with a string attached to a little dog’s collar. Stepping on a lever lowers a bone, the dog lunges for it, and the movement rings a bell. Keaton’s apparent shooting prowess leads to another gig as a bodyguard for a hotly-pursued client whose house is outfitted with numerous trapdoors for quick getaways. The film’s biggest set piece features a long shot of an acrobatic chase scene where Buster and the villains tumble from room to room and floor to floor like a violent dollhouse come to life.
Such contraptions, while cartoony, are still anchored in the real world. Keaton would occasionally indulge in surreal gags for his short films, such as drawing a hook on the wall to hang his hat in The High Sign. In The Goat he indulged a bit more. After spending the bulk of the film being thoroughly in the wrong place at the wrong time, Keaton is chased by an angry police chief through an apartment building. Repeatedly trying to escape on the elevator, he simply moves the arrow that indicates each floor and voilà, instant arrival. In a final touch of Looney Tunes logic, he lures the police chief into the elevator and cranks the arrow past the top floor, launching it through the building’s roof.
Keaton abandoned this type of surreal comedy when he started making features. “We had to stop doing impossible gags,” he later explained. “They had to be believable or your story wouldn’t hold up.” The Electric House, his seventeenth short, is much in the spirit of those future features, showing his ability to run amok with zany machinery without violating the laws of physics. After Buster the botany major accidentally winds up with a diploma for electrical engineering, he’s hired to equip a home with electricity. Naturally he fills the house with all manner of gadgetry, from an escalator to an elaborate dishwasher to a tiny train track that delivers meals from the kitchen to the table. It’s all greeted with delight by the owner … until someone starts messing with the wires.
Keaton was far from alone in using mechanical devices for on-screen gags. They show up frequently in silent films, from 1904’s bizarre Dog Factory, where sausages fed into a “Patent Dog Transformator” turn into live dogs, to 1926’s He Done His Best, in which Charley Bowers as a put-upon dishwasher invents a bulky machine that singlehandedly runs the entire restaurant. But it’s Keaton we associate with machines the most. Perhaps it’s the contrast between his stoic face and the chaos of malfunctioning escalators or racing trains, or perhaps it’s because his affection for these things often shines through.
Some have tried to analyze Keaton’s relationship with the mechanical from the grittier viewpoint of early 20th century man being pushed rather unwillingly into a strange, machine-dominated world. Critic James Agee wrote of Keaton in 1949: “As he ran afoul of locomotives, steamships, prefabricated and over-electrified houses, he put himself through some of the hardest and cleverest punishments ever designed for laughs.” Curator Iris Barry, writing that same year, put it another way: “… Keaton moves in a mechanized world of today like the inhabitant of another planet. He gazes with frozen bewilderment at a nightmare reality. Inventions and contrivances like deck-chairs and railroad engines seem insuperably animate to him ….” It’s worth noting that when Keaton was asked about the Barry quote, he blithely sidestepped any pretentiousness and answered simply, “Well, I guess I found out that I get my best material working with something like that.”
THE HIGH SIGN (1921) Directed by Buster Keaton. With Bartine Burkett, Ingram B. Pickett, and Al St. John THE ELECTRIC HOUSE (1922) Directed by Buster Keaton and Eddie Cline. With Virginia Fox and Joe Roberts THE GOAT (1921) Directed by Buster Keaton and Malcolm St. Clair. With Virginia Fox and Joe Roberts Production Comique/Buster Keaton Productions Print Source Lobster Films
Presented at A Day of Silents 2022 with live musical accompaniment by Wayne Barker