A silent-film comic who tickles today's funny bone

"He loved erector sets and models. He once built a mechanical nutcracker that was four feet high and covered a whole bridge table. "But he was always thinking about his next movie and writing it in his head. If you saw him through a window, you'd think he was crazy. He'd be working on some contraption, or just playing solitaire, and suddenly he'd jump up and go through all these wild gestures, turning every which way. Then, when the gag was worked out, he'd go right back to his project.

"He could have been a great civil engineer, I think. His five-foot Golden Gate Bridge won first prize at a hobby show."

Eleanor Keaton, widow of the fabulous Buster, told me this on a recent visit here. She had come to help celebrate a new Buster Keaton Film Festival which comprised virtually all the films made by and starring her hilarious husband.

Running through Sept. 19 at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema in Manhattan, it's due soon in at least six or eight more American cities, from San Francisco to Boston , and perhaps abroad, as well - England, Iceland, and Japan are just three of the many countries that have hailed Keaton revivals during the past decade.

Keaton's current popularity is remarkable, considering that his reputation was just about nil a dozen years ago. Silent films were considered box-office poison -- still are, in most cases -- and the only silent comic with any lingering fame was Charlie Chaplin. For most people, Keaton was a name from a forgotten past.

Credit for the revival goes largely to Raymond Rohauer, a film historian and certified Keaton nut, who has single-handedly yanked his favorite star back into public favor. The tide turned in 1970, when he launched a Keaton retrospective in New York, prompting fans and critics into a mad rush for the bandwagon. The craze for Keaton has continued to grow, and today his light burns as brightly as ever.

Looking at Keaton's classics, and laughing yourself silly, it's hard to believe Rohauer had to struggle. But it was no easy task to establish Keaton's genius with a whole new audience. In fact, it wasn't easy to findm all the movies. Made when films were regarded as disposable items, many had been destroyed or misplaced, and some were thought lost forever. Rohauer foraged in every cranny, ferreting out negatives and prints, screening every frame he could find in the hunt for missing scenes and sequences. Today, every film has been located and restored except one early short. Yet the search continues for portions that may still be overlooked.

There were legal obstacles too. Keaton was no businessman: Though he headed his own studio, he let his advisers run the financial end. Years later, he was convinced that he owned an interest in all his movies -- but had nothing on paper to prove it. Rohauer took up the fight to regain control of the Keaton pictures -- and won, after a long battle including "court cases, appeals, the works." Only then could the films be unspooled for public approval, which promptly affirmed the value of Rohauer's heroic efforts.

What's the key to Keaton's enduring popularity? "People like to mother him," surmises Rohauer. "There's something about him that you like.m You can't always say that about Chaplin.

"Also, his comedy is simple and direct. Every gag is easily understood, though there's always an element of surprise. He would spend weeks on a gag that took seconds on the screen. He had a natural instinct for cinema."

Mrs. Keaton confirms her husband's craftsmanship "He insisted on a strong story," she says. "He worked very hard on the beginning and the end, and felt the middle would fall into place if the other parts were sturdy. The gags might fly all over the place, but the story stayed firm." Rohauer adds that Keaton disliked "impossible gags" -- things that couldn't happen in real life. "He used them in his earlier films, but later he avoided them," says the Keaton historian. "His comedy was rooted in real life."

Of course, the full meaning of Keaton's genius goes deeper than story and personality. His best pictures were finely polished works of art with their own laws, their own rhythm, their own vision. James Agee hit the mark in 1949 when he likened Keaton's films to "a transcendent juggling act in which it seems that the whole universe is in exquisite flying motion and the one point of repose is the juggler's effortless, uninterested face." As critic Andrew Sarris points out , Keaton understood the logic of the physical world, and used that logic in his own zany way. His greatest moments, Saris wrote in 1968, "involve the collision between an irresistible farce and an immovable persona."

But how easy it is to analyze the life out of comedy, and how many scholars have labored to do just that. Keaton's movies are laugh-out-loud funny,m and that's the important thing about them -- from a berserk short like "The High Sign" to a sublime feature like "The General," with its gags underscored by limpid photography and a suspenseful plot.

True, the artist himself may have felt a bit differently. According to Rohauer, his own favorite was "Battling Butler," with its bittersweet finale in which the main character turns serious, even tragic. Like so many clowns (including Woody Allen) the great Keaton wanted to cry, to express the kind of inner anguish that finally erupted into his personal life and disrupted his later years.

Nearly always he suppressed this urge, though, avoiding pathos is favor of stoicism, and a pictorial richness that make his films as visually striking as any from the silent age. Not for him the sentimentality of a Chaplin, the arrested development of a Harry Langdon, the vulnerability of a Harold Lloyd. That deadpan said it all -- and so economically that the smallest twitch of a muscle became a major cinematic event.

The new festival includes just about every comedy Keaton made under his own auspices. It's hard to single out particular pictures for special recommendation, but a few do leap from the crowd. "The High Sign" is an especially frantic farce, for example, while "One Week" -- full of "impossible" gags -- introduces the dreamlike, almost surrealistic imagery that became a recurring aspect of Keaton's work. Made a couple of year later, "The Blacksmith" also generates an exceptional number of laughs in its 20 minutes.

Among the feature-length productions, "The General" is probably the most distinguished, and there's no quarreling with that. But the early "Our Hospitality" contains some of Keaton's most frenetic physical comedy, as does "College," made just before he moved to MGM and lost direct control over his pictures. "Sherlock Jr." is beloved of film buffs for its "reflexive" structure -- it's the one where buster plays a projectionist who enters a movie-within-the-move. "The Navigator" is another favorite. And don't forget "Seven Chances," whose surrealistic imagery becomes overwhelming in a climax in which Buster is chased down a mountainside by boulders run amok.

Off the screen, Keaton was a shy and private person according to those who knew him. His love for film was connected with his love for mechanics: When he made his very first movie with Fatty Arbuckle, says Rohauer, "he took the whole camera apart to find out how it worked."

But he didn't stop with the controllable, predictable aspects of technique. Rather, he used them to fashion his own topsy-turvy universe, in which a careening cosmos never quite gets the better of our ingenuous hero. Almost alone among silent classics, his films live on with large, young audiences. Why? Because, more than half a century later, they still make us laugh. Loud, long, and lovingly.

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