Buster Keaton was the most kinetic, athletic and stylistically daring of the great silent comedians. While his popularity waned briefly with the coming of sound, the 12 features he made during the 1920s were justly rediscovered and celebrated; four of them have been included for preservation in the National Film Registry for their lasting importance. His nickname, “the Great Stone Face,” describes his beautifully implacable, subtly expressive visage — the “quiet at the hurricane’s eye,” to quote historian Walter Kerr. In masterpieces such as Sherlock Jr. and The General, the mute majesty of his breakneck stunts complements the down-home charm of his sentimental romantic overtures. Above all, his movies move.
Los Angeles has officially declared Saturday, June 16, “Buster Keaton Day.” Hosted by the International Buster Keaton Society (known collectively as the Damfinos, after the eponymous vessel in the 1921 short subject The Boat), the celebration will reach a climax with the dedication of a bronze plaque at the site of the former Buster Keaton Studios on Lillian Way. (A previous plaque given to Keaton during a 1957 episode of This Is Your Life was erroneously installed across the street in the 1980s — this one remedies the mistake.) But the ceremony is a mere aperitif to a weekend feast that will include film screenings, talks, tours and a night of Keaton-inspired live comedy.
The commemoration is the brainchild of Patricia Eliot Tobias, film historian and president emerita of the Keaton Society. Her enthusiasm for the star’s films stretches back to her childhood. In 1992, she and society co-founder Melody Bunting took in a Keaton retrospective at Film Forum, New York’s legendary rep house. Soon Tobias was baking a cake for friends in the shape of Keaton’s famous porkpie hat in honor of the late comedian’s birthday. The cake didn’t work out, but it sparked an idea for a more lasting celebration — a fan club. Among early members were Eleanor Keaton, Buster’s third wife, and several notable film historians, including Leonard Maltin and Kevin Brownlow.
In 2002, the group was upgraded to a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. In addition to its newsletter — which cumulatively represents the single most vital source of original research about Keaton’s life and work — the Damfinos offers an annual grant, organizes a yearly event in Muskegon, Michigan (Buster’s favorite place on the planet), and offers financial and educational support to various documentaries, restorations and distribution channels that promote appreciation for Keaton’s legacy.
Tobias has much to say regarding the actor-director’s enduring appeal. “He was ahead of his time, and we’re just now catching up with him. Buster often played what I call a stranger in a strange land. He’s looking at this really weird, absurd world we live in and is confused by it.” Indeed, Keaton’s charmingly articulated bafflement at the modern world looks forward to artists such as Jacques Tati, the French auteur who revived the pantomime tradition with his satiric comedies of the 1950s and ’60s. Like Tati’s Monsieur Hulot, Keaton’s shy, flummoxed boy-next-door lays bare the absurd rituals of modern life, challenging us to see the comic potential in the mundane.
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Keaton also was far ahead of his contemporaries when it came to expanding the grammar of the film medium. Sherlock Jr. — the 1924 comedy in which Buster plays a projectionist who dreams himself into the movie he’s showing — is nothing less than a meta-commentary on how movies work on our minds and emotions. It’s also funny as hell. “I think the reason Sherlock Jr. has gotten more popular,” Tobias notes, “is that we’re living in an age where we interact with media constantly. We look to media — email, GPS, dating websites, etc. — for the answers. Here is Buster interacting with the media of his day.”
For those unfamiliar with Keaton’s films, the weekend’s events will offer plenty of entry points into the comedian’s work. Longtime fans will get an opportunity to delve deeper into their mania. There is no registration fee, and several events are free.
Friday night’s kickoff at the Hollywood Heritage Museum will include 16mm screenings of Neighbors and The Goat and presentations by Tobias, actor Paul Dooley and author John Bengtson. (RSVP is required for tickets.) On Saturday and Sunday, Bengtson will lead several “Silent Echoes” walking tours of various locations used in Keaton’s films. Saturday evening will feature two screenings of The Cameraman at the Egyptian Theatre, hosted by Damfinos VP Alek Lev, followed by Q&A discussions with Maltin and Tobias. Sunday will include a visit to Keaton’s final resting place at Forest Lawn Cemetery, as well as an afternoon of Keaton-esque performances at the Inner Sanctum Café on Sunset Boulevard. Finally, for those sticking around town until Wednesday, the Orpheum Theatre will screen Steamboat Bill, Jr. accompanied by Mark Herman’s live organ music. Keaton Talmadge, great-granddaughter of Buster Keaton, will appear for an introduction and Q&A.
More detailed information on each of these events — and more — can be found at keatonweekend.com.