The Second Annual Buster Keaton blogathon: Top 10 post-1940s appearances

There are many who view the last thirty-something years of Buster Keaton’s life as a tragedy worthy of the absurdists, ignoring his own statements about considering himself fabulously lucky. Many Keatonphiles take him at his word nowadays, though it is hard not to be disappointed that after 1928, he was never again behind or in front of the camera on projects like The General or Steamboat Bill Jr. Still, that does not mean his later career is worthless; in fact, there are a lot of moments that are quite fun and rewarding. In the spirit of the second annual Buster Keaton blogathon, I’ve decided to make a top ten list ranking my favorites of his post-1940 film and television appearances… at least, of what I have seen so far, which is quite a bit. So relax and enjoy; I’ll provide clips where I am able.

  1. The Triumph of Lester Snapwell

Yeah, this is pretty much a twenty minute commercial for Kodak, but it is a mildly funny trip through the history of Kodak’s many photographic technologies. Keaton plays the titular hero, who travels through the 1860s, 1880s, 1920s, 1950s, and eventually the contemporary 1960s on a quest to perfectly photograph his girlfriend Clementine and her battle axe mother. Though the Party City-ish historical costumes make me cringe (especially that ridiculous outfit they try to pass off as flapper get-up, woof!), the short is more enjoyable than you would suspect.

  1. Route 66 – “Journey to Nineveh”

Having never seen other episodes of this series (though I understand it’s usually much more dramatic than this), I cannot judge this fifty minute episode on how well it fits into Route 66, but even so I had a pretty good time watching it as a BK fan. He plays a luckless fellow named Jonah who just wants to catch a fish and hitch a ride back to his brother (played by Joe E. Brown) so he can give him a cake for his birthday. Complications ensue when the ex-fiancée Brown’s granddaughter claims Brown stole the engagement ring to buy a truck; of course, the granddaughter put the ring in Keaton’s fishing kit, so they have to pray he’ll get home in one piece with it in tow, lest Brown be stuck in jail.

The story is honestly average and the granddaughter is beyond irritating, weeping and wailing every other line, but it’s worth it for Keaton (and/or Brown, if you’re a hardcore fan of his). While his pratfalls are needlessly saddled with cringe-worthy cartoon sound effects that would make Bugs Bunny cry in pain, his best moments are the less overtly slapstick-ish ones, such as his managing to cram a massive amount of luggage into the back of the protagonists’ Chevrolet, his adorable interactions with Shaddy the dog, or the satisfying yet understated resolution to the issue of whether or not the birthday cake was pulverized by their trying journey into town. It’s not a laugh riot, but it is very cute. The episode can be found on Hulu or you can rent it on YouTube.

  1. The Twilight Zone – “Once Upon a Time”
The great derp face

The great derp face

A rare comic episode for this strange series, “Once Upon a Time” has both Keaton and one of life’s most important lessons, namely that the grass ain’t always greener on the other side, or in this case, another time. Keaton plays a janitor from the 1890s; dissatisfied with the noise and expense of modern life, he nabs a time helmet from his scientist boss and decides to try the future on for a spin. Landing in the noisier world of 1960s America, he reconsiders his complaints. The 1890s scenes are silent, complete with intertitles and what people thought silent film music should sound like (tinkling pianos). The then-present is all sound, full of background noise to emphasize the divide between the past and future.

The episode does have issues, like the other characters being a little too obnoxious for me and some of the slapstick being uninspired. Still, most of it is cute and funny, with Keaton being given a relative amount of creative freedom. Worth a watch. The episode can be viewed on Hulu.

  1. Candid Camera

Keaton was a lifelong lover of practical jokes, so it’s no surprise he appeared on Candid Camera. I’m particularly fond of the segment where he goofs around unsuspecting patrons in a diner, especially with all those people trying their best not to be rude by laughing.

  1. Limelight

Despite all the nasty rumors that circulate around the sole time Keaton and Chaplin shared the screen together (concerning everything from Chaplin’s treatment of Keaton to the idea that he was jealous of him and cut some of his stuff out of spite… even though that would make sense considering this is Chaplin’s project, one that is more drama than comedy anyway), their little routine in Limelight is a lot of fun for silent comedy nerds.

It’s a fun little routine, with the two masters playing hapless concert hall musicians who just can’t get their instruments to work, and once they manage that, Chaplin’s violinist is thrown into artistic frenzy, with Keaton’s deadpan pianist trying his best to keep up with the insanity. For two artists with such differing styles and aims in their craft, the two manage a low-key chemistry that makes you want more interaction between them. It’s also a great example of how different they were: Chaplin is the extrovert who uses his body as the source for humor, while Keaton is reserved and prefers props. As James Neibaur said in his book The Fall of Buster Keaton, this sequence “reminds us of each comedian’s own special magic.”

As a bonus, here’s Keaton doing the same skit on television with Martha Raye (who had also played opposite Chaplin in the black comedy Monsieur Verdoux):

This time Keaton is leading the action, the pace is faster, and there are additional gags. The two versions make for interesting comparison.

  1. San Diego, I Love You

We all know San Diego, I Love You as “that one movie where Buster smiles.” Considering he also smiled in many of the 1910s Arbuckle shorts and at the end of the underrated Le Roi de Champys-Elysses, one has to wonder why this seven minute cameo warrants as much attention as it does.

For one thing, the bus driver Keaton’s playing appears to possess a great deal of character and inner life for such a small part. He’s trapped in his routine-ridden life, miserable and angry driving along the same ugly route every day, saying things like, “Being alive is monotonous.” The two protagonists “subtly” advise him to drive along the beach for a change (and by “subtly,” I mean they may as well have used a sledge hammer to beat the idea into his brain); at first, the bus driver reacts with hostility to the very idea of busting up routine, but seduced by the idea of scenic beauty and spontaneity, he swerves into another lane and exclaims, “For ten years, I’ve been driving this route and for ten years most of ya have been riding with me through the cursed backyards and I’m sick of it! I’m gonna drive along the beach and the consolidated bus company can go shoot itself!” With the exception of a henpecked husband afraid of angering his wife, everyone else agrees that routine is overrated and supports the notion of mixing things up a little.

Then they all go off and drive along the beach, with a band conveniently located in the back and Buster the Bus Driver lighting up a cigarette. He says he may not be able to take such a detour again if he wants to keep his job, but the audience can tell that the driver from then on will be a much happier man open to the simple beauties of life. And then in the end, he has that beautiful, spontaneous smile, one that I much prefer to the rather strained one Keaton gives at the end of Le Roi. It’s a nice, quiet, almost lyrical moment and it just melts the old heart.

  1. The Villain Still Pursued Her

I know I’m probably—okay, definitely biased— but I’m convinced that Buster Keaton is the only worthwhile aspect of this clunker of a picture. A parody of Victorian melodrama (“Hark! Who knocks?!” and “I shall go to yon hill! Hark! A man approaches!” and best of all, “Come now, me proud beauty! Aha, at last I have you in my power—helpless and alone!”), it’s mostly uninspired and gets old quick, like an SNL skit stretched out beyond comfort or entertainment value.

Keaton plays the alcoholic protagonist’s loyal best friend and basically does most of the heroics, confronting practitioners of mustache-twirling villainy and defending the heroine’s virtue from unwanted advances, always proclaiming, “Just in the nick of time!” From his first appearance, he’s active and a lot of fun, or his name’s not *looks at the screen* WILLIAM DALTON!! After trudging through material such as the Columbia shorts from this period, it’s so nice to see Buster playing a character who’s both a competent badass and dryly humorous. It’s little over an hour long, so for a Keaton fan, it’s worth watching just once, especially to hear him say lines like, “Be off before I come at ya like a steam engine—chugga, chugga, chugga!”

Interesting to note that Eddie Cline, long-time collaborator of Keaton’s during the 1920s, sat in the director’s chair. And just in case you’re wondering, yes, Buster can still rock nineteenth century clothing like a boss.

  1. The Railrodder

Often considered Keaton’s final great film appearance. The results are funny, wistful, and a little bittersweet when one knows this was one of the last things Buster ever did. The Railrodder was made as an advertisement for Canadian tourism, but it’s so much more than that. Concerning Buster’s quiet railroad adventure through the beautiful Canadian wilderness, one could easily imagine this short as an elderly Johnnie Gray’s vacation, what with the shenanigans going on, Buster’s expressive face, and the understated physical humor (and dangerous stunt work) throughout.

  1. The Buster Keaton Show

Part of what makes this one so special is that it’s about as close as we’re going to get to see what Buster was like in front of an audience. You can tell he’s enjoying every bit of laughter he’s getting; indeed, part of the appeal of early television for an old vaudevillian like Keaton was the presence of spectators.

The story of this episode is about as thin as one of Keaton’s two-reelers: Buster (or “BK” as he’s called by the other characters) wants to get into shape, so he hires a personal trainer. Of course, there’s the presence of a homicidally jealous man who craves blood whenever any man so much as taps his woman on the shoulder to complicate things. Gags are recycled from Battling Butler and Spite Marriage, but there’s plenty of new material in there too. The sequence with Buster shooting hoops is just amazing and his creative solutions to comic problems are as inspired as ever.

Also worth watching due to this being a reunion of sorts for Keaton with his old collaborator Clyde Bruckman and former onscreen rival Harold Goodwin (of College and The Cameraman fame).

  1. Rhenigold Theatre – “The Awakening”

It’s ironic that my favorite post-1940 appearance of Keaton’s is not from a comedy at all, but from a dystopian drama. On her IMDB review of the episode, Imogen Sara Smith described “The Awakening” as the antidote for Buster Keaton fans disenchanted with his appearances in Beach Party schlock and beer commercials. One of the few purely dramatic roles Keaton essayed in his career, “The Awakening” reveals how versatile he was as an actor. Even without the moments of physical grace and pratfalls and stunts, Keaton is a marvel playing a lonely, vulnerable man, a tool of a totalitarian regime who comes to stand up for justice and humanity.

Watching “The Awakening” is like seeing one of Keaton’s protagonists transplanted into an Orwellian nightmare where human life is cheap and compassion is a foreign concept, beaten down and frustrated in a job cataloging missing persons. After being robbed of an overcoat he had struggled to save for (and one that had given him an immense amount of respect from those who had looked down upon him), Keaton realizes how inhumane the world has become. Appearing before the Big Brother-like tyrant who rules over this hellhole, Keaton gives a speech often compared to the one Chaplin delivers at the end of The Great Dictator, arguing for a more humane world:

“You can keep dismissing me. Stripping them of all power, disgracing them, and replacing them until the end of time and it still won’t get my overcoat back! And when I protest, they’ll still throw me into prison– because it’s not ‘they.’ They’re just part of a machine, a machine that was to give us so much happiness! This machine that reduces a broken heart to a number in a catalog, that says a hungry child is no more than 26583-Y! A machine that has forgotten what kindness, warmth, and pity means!

When you say you care, you lie! You can’t possibly care! None of us can care– we’ve forgotten how! This machine that has taken our souls– so let the machine die with you!”

Keaton delivers this monologue with a great deal of passion and righteous fury. And then, he goes from talk to violent action in a moment that brings to mind the climax of Battling Butler, where Buster’s milquetoast character flies into a fit of rage when his attacker strikes down his diminutive valet, going for the man’s throat again and again, even long after he’s knocked him unconscious. And like Keaton’s would-be boxer, the rebel of “The Awakening” recoils in horror when he realizes his own power, though by the end he does not regret a thing, choosing to continue to follow the path of the rebel to the end.

This post is part of the Second Annual Buster Keaton blogathon, hosted by the fabulous Silentology. Check out her website for more Buster-themed goodness!

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17 thoughts on “The Second Annual Buster Keaton blogathon: Top 10 post-1940s appearances

  1. Pingback: The Second Annual Buster Keaton Blogathon | Silent-ology

  2. Wow. That was an excellent idea for a post. I think Buster’s post-1940 work gets dismissed because it used to be so hard to find. I saw “The Railrodder” when it was played at a library. A UHF television station showed the Twilight Zone episode. I never saw the others till some of them became available online. I liked your description of these movies and episodes, especially “The Awakening.”

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  3. This was a great post, I loved revisiting these films! That scene from Limelight and Buster’s scene in The Villain Still Pursued Her are some of my favorite of his later appearances. To me, the Limelight sequence has a great balance between Chaplin and Keaton, with just a tad more screentime for Chaplin since he was the main character but not too much. When folks say that Chaplin must’ve viciously cut out more of Buster’s footage, I can’t help wondering if they even watched the scene…and if they were paying attention. 😀

    In The Villain, the way he delivers his lines is so snappy and fast compared to, say, some of those MGMs that it’s a little startling. And heck yes, he can rock those period outfits!

    Thank you so much for joining the blogathon, off to your second post…!

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    • I think the “viciously cutting Keaton’s footage” idea comes from the Chaplin vs Keaton battle. Like a certain animated ice queen, I say, “let it go.”

      You know, I never noticed how much better Keaton’s line delivery was in Villain as opposed to the MGM films. Perhaps he was in better spirits in 1940, having gotten to marry Eleanor Norris and shaking off the coil of those awful Columbia shorts.

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      • The same thing occurred to me! That having Eleanor in his life gave him more “spirit” again, so to speak. I watched a couple MGMs recently, so watching parts of the Villain right after that made the difference surprisingly clear.

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  4. A well written piece. I love that you spotlighted Buster’s “Candid Camera” appearance. His comedy technique is so subtle and natural even when he was in his sixties. It’s a joy to watch. I was also happy to see your thoughts on “The Awakening”. It makes me wish he could have explored the possibilities of drama more. It’s surprising that actors with comedy talent also seem to have a knack for serious roles. It doesn’t always work the other way ’round.

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    • Thank you so much, Tracy! Keaton was simply a marvel and it pains me his talents were not better mined in the 1950s/1960s, but I’m grateful for what we have. Keaton’s soulful persona just shines and I think that’s why his comic persona translates so easily into drama. I mean gosh, The Cameraman has him doing straight dramatic moments as well: his horror during the Tong War scene and his heartbreak at losing Marceline Day.

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  5. Great piece! I think ‘The Awakening’ is a bit of an undiscovered gem, he’s great in it but also the whole thing has a very effective feel of a place that’s a bit worn down, a bit ragged.

    Would it be pushing a point to suggest Sunset Boulevard? The whole movie is great, of course, but I do enjoy his little moment!

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    • Sunset Blvd and Keaton’s cameo in it are fantastic, but his bit is so, so brief. I felt it might be more interesting to go over his neglected appearances. I really do love the side eye he exchanges with HB Warner though once Joe Gillis and Norma have their little disagreement! Classic

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  6. Yay! So glad “The Railrodder” made the list! It’s one of my fave films from Buster’s later career.

    That scene from the diner is hilarious! He is SOOO funny. The toupee in the soup!! I almost fell over laughing.

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  7. The costumes in “The Triumph of Lester Snapwell” have Buster in 1920s clothes again, just like in The Cameraman. I was so taken aback by that!! Also, I hadn’t really realized that his television appearances were the only recorded instances of him with a live audience.
    And of course “The Awakening”. Buster again proves he was a man of so many hidden talents.
    Thank you so much for your insights!!

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  8. Fantastic post! I liked that you focused on the later part of his career that people tend to either not know about or discuss. Many of these videos show what a talented artist he truly was. He is able to do such diverse things without ever seeming out of place.

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  9. Thanks for introducing me to so many late Keaton clips! I know the Twilight Zone and San Diego, I Love You, and know about The Railrodder (though I haven’t seen it), but most of the rest were new to me. This has to be the only Candid Camera sketch I ever liked, and I howled! That has to be the worst toupee in history… My takeaway from your list is that aside from obviously not having the athletic skills of youth, Buster had lost nothing—not timing, not facility, not perfectly nuanced character. Also that his range was incredible. It seems so lame to me that for decades people wrote about his not smiling as if he were expressionless, when he is one of the most expressive actors ever. Who does more with less movement? …anyway, love the piece and your observations, and your picks.

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    • Whenever any critic claims Buster is emotionless or a drone, I have a hard time taking them seriously from then onward. Keaton’s expressions were subtle, delicate, but powerful and clear. A true gem. Thank you for the lovely comment! I enjoyed your piece as well!

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  10. I set a recording for Limelight on TCM, and when I got around to watching the film, it decided to stop recording RIGHT BEFORE the bit with Chaplin and Keaton. I was devastated, and don’t remember being able to find it online either, so thank you for remedying that! I enjoyed watching “The Railrodder” and the associated documentary, and his smile in “San Diego, I Love You” is another sight to behold. I’m curious about the Route 66 episode, so I’ll have to get around to watching it sometime.

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