October 4, 2009
At one point in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950), we find washed-up silent film stars literally and figuratively playing out their last hands. A small ashen-faced man declines to bid on consecutive hands, and with just a small movement of the head and a wrinkled brow, he manages to signal that he’s a former film giant reduced to playing for his keep. When he was a star, BUSTER KEATON (1895-1996) played the ingenue and the boyscout with heartbreaking aplomb. That signature Keaton look — brow furrowed, big eyes looking desperately to the heavens — is a perfect manifestation of his appeal. Where Chaplin was the coy clown, Keaton was the believable underdog. Where Lloyd was a show-off, Keaton was a craftsman. He was supposedly hardest on himself, and worked endless hours to get things exactly right. In the end, far from his showy tumbling antics and daring risks as a performer — he was the original Jackie Chan — Keaton’s genius lay in small, seemingly effortless movements made possible by a lifetime of ceaseless labor.
— Text and illustration by Joe Alterio. To view a gallery of Alterio’s HiLobrow illustrations, click here.
HUMORISTS at HILOBROW: Michael O’Donoghue | Jemaine Clement | Andy Kaufman | Danny Kaye | George Ade | Jimmy Durante | Jack Benny | Aziz Ansari | Don Rickles | Godfrey Cambridge | Eric Idle | David Cross | Stewart Lee | Samuel Beckett | Jerry Lewis | Joanna Lumley | Jerome K. Jerome | Phil Silvers | Edward Lear | Tony Hancock | George Carlin | Stephen Colbert | Tina Fey | Keith Allen | Russell Brand | Michael Cera | Stan Laurel | Ricky Gervais | Gilda Radner | Larry David | Chris Pontius | Dave Chappelle | Jimmy Finlayson | Paul Reubens | Peter Sellers | Buster Keaton | Flann O’Brien | Lenny Bruce | Sacha Baron Cohen | Steve Coogan | PG Wodehouse | A.J. Liebling | Curly Howard | Fran Lebowitz | Charlie Kaufman | Stephen Merchant | Richard Pryor | James Thurber | Bill Hicks | ALSO: Comedy and the Death of God
READ MORE about the Hardboiled Generation (1894-1903).
What do you think?
Love it. The plank creates so much tension, but his face is so calm.
Love the artwork. However, you’ve got Buster’s death date wrong. He was born Oct. 4, 1895, and died Feb. 1, 1966.
Buster was the greatest genius of the silent era. Some little-known facts:
– Louise Brooks, a great star in silent films (though nearly forgotten for the last 50 years of her life) and a sexually liberated rebel, wrote that Buster was the best of her many Hollywood sex partners – virile, relaxed and possessed of great stamina.
– During a medical exam in the 30’s, Keaton was found to have a healed neck fracture. He probably broke his neck performing a stunt in ‘Sherlock Jr.’ in which he fell head-first from a railroad water tank. For years afterward, Keaton suffered from blinding headaches which contributed to his alcoholism.
– Keaton’s last silent film was a short produced by the National Film Board of Canada, ‘The Railrodder’, in which he rides across Canada on an open railroad speeder. A documentary of the production, ‘Buster Keaton Rides Again’, was shot at the same time – it contains the only behind-the-scenes footage of Keaton at work.
Comments are closed.