Between 1914 and 1928, people laughed longer, louder and more often than at any other time in history. The reason why is that during those 14 extremely turbulent years around the world, a group of comic geniuses did things on the movie screen that were more elaborately conceived for comedy, more brilliantly constructed for laughs, and, simply, funnier than anything ever done-before or since. These extraordinary people-among them, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Laurel and Hardy, Mabel Normand, Charlie Chase-had four distinct advantages over all other comedians in the annals of entertainment: They could not be heard speaking; they were in black and white; their images were magnified a hundredfold; they had total freedom of movement.
All four of these-separately, and together even more so-help to make things funnier: Physical comedy, as opposed to verbal, is the belly-laugh kind and can be truly unrelenting since there’s no waiting for the next line to be heard, and laughter is infectious, building on itself. Black and white intensifies comedy because there are no distractions-such as the color of grass and flowers, the color of eyes, hair and skin, the colors of costumes and sets-nothing takes your absolute concentration away from what’s funny. Seeing things bigger makes them clearer, and clearer is funnier. Freedom of movement means the whole world. Keaton’s priceless comedies-the shorts and features he supervised and starred in between 1920 and 1928, the last year of silent pictures-are my own personal favorites from this glorious era. “Keaton was beyond all praise,” Orson Welles said to me years ago, “a very great artist, and one of the most beautiful men I ever saw on the screen. He was also a superb director. In the last analysis, nobody came near him … I wish I’d known him better than I did. A tremendously nice person, you know, but also a man of secrets. I can’t even imagine what they were.”
After a score of superb two- and three-reelers, and a clever three-part feature ( The Three Ages ), Keaton’s first full-length comedy was Our Hospitality , and it happens to have been the first Keaton film I saw after starting my movie card-file when I was 12 1¼2, and I dismissed it as “pretty dated.” By the time I saw it again 17 years later, I had changed my view radically, giving it my highest rating: “A magnificent comedy set in the 1830’s … one of Keaton’s most breathtaking; exhaustingly funny-great atmosphere, sense of period, pacing, mood. A low-key masterpiece by the greatest silent director of them all.” Seen again today, this lesser-known Keaton work, shot on real locations near Lake Tahoe, Nev., is certainly among his most lovely, and very typical of him in the mordantly witty and ironic slant of its humor. Taking the infamous, generations-old Hatfield-McCoy family feud as plot and making Buster the innocent target has an amazingly layered set of reverberations, repeatedly exposing the absurdity of blind hatred and blind vengeance. He also has a field day spoofing a primitive early train, and pulls off one of his most spectacular stunts, saving the girl (first wife Natalie Talmadge) from going over the waterfall. C.B. De Mille stole the whole sequence for one of his epic dramas, Unconquered (1947), but even De Mille and Gary Cooper couldn’t touch Buster’s one-shot marvel.
In his next (very short but intense) feature, Sherlock Jr. , Buster plays a small-town movie projectionist who hopes to become a great detective, and, in one of the most amazing (and famous) sequences in silent cinema, Buster dreams himself right into the picture he’s projecting. The special effects he pulled off in that scene would be a piece of cake in today’s computer-generated fun-house movies, but Keaton’s achievement remains a delightful triumph of audacious craft. This isn’t the funniest of the 10 golden features Keaton created, but it is certainly the most dazzling in its virtuosity. Seventy-seven years after Buster made these two profoundly American movies-as American as Mark Twain-they are still like intoxicating gusts of fresh spring air.
Our Hospitality . Directors: Buster Keaton, John G. Blystone. Cast: Keaton, Natalie Talmadge. Length: 75 minutes.
Sherlock Jr. Director: Buster Keaton. Cast: Keaton, Kathryn McGuire. Length: 44 minutes. Both features included on Kino Video DVD: $29.95.