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Mr. Movie: Buster Keaton

While most of the silent movie stars surrounding him (even including Charlie Chaplin) mugged at the camera unmercifully, Buster Keaton was The Great Stone Face. He could show more with the flick of an eyebrow than most actors could show with their entire bodies. He was the master of physical comedy and many of his bits are just screamingly funny.


Since he made more than 100 movies, including shorts, it’s hard to pick the best, but Mr. Movie is always here for you. Let’s start by saying to avoid not only talkies but anything after 1930. 


Keep in mind as you watch Buster’s movies that in those days there were very few special effects and no stunt men. In other words, those death-defying stunts you see him doing are for real. 


A good place to start is The General (1927), which is a train and Buster is its engineer. It is filled with superb sight gags, including a monumental train chase. How can there be a train chase when the trains have to stay on the tracks? Watch and see. Particularly note a stunt in which he dislodges a big railroad tie by hitting it with another tie while sitting on the train’s cowcatcher. Yeah, he really did that!


In Our Hospitality (1923), Buster goes south to claim an inheritance, unaware that he is a family member of two eternally feuding clans. He, of course, falls in love with a girl from the other family and many hijinks ensue.


Buster is the groom in a Spite Marriage (1929). His social climber wife only marries him to get back at her hoity-toity boyfriend. Buster is, as always, the honest little guy you pull for and things turn out OK. There is a hilarious scene where Buster attempts to get his totally sloshed bride into bed. 


In Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928) Buster reluctantly takes over his father’s steamboat. The boat is a natural locale for several of Buster’s best-ever stunts, including a bang-up finale. 


Keaton is always doing something difficult to get the girl and, as The Cameraman (1928), he tries to learn newsreel photography on the run. He lucks into some great footage of a Tong War and proves the mendacity of his rival by forgetting to turn off the camera and catching the villain on film. 


In Sherlock, Jr. (1924), Buster is a movie projectionist and janitor, hopelessly in love with a beautiful girl. His rival, “the local sheik,” steals her dad’s watch, pawns it, and uses the money to buy her expensive chocolates. When the theft is detected, the villain slips the pawn ticket into Buster’s pocket and he is banished. He has a dream in which he catches the villain and rescues the girl as the famous detective, Sherlock, Jr. When he wakes up all, of course, comes right. 


All of the films in this article are available on DVD. All are suitable(and delightful) for everybody.