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Archive for November 1st, 2012

 

by Brandie Ashe

When it comes to silent comedy, three names generally loom largest: Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, and Buster Keaton. And while all three have their respective strengths, and in their time crafted some of the most memorable comedies ever produced in Hollywood, for me, Keaton will always be the clown prince of them all. It’s not just that Buster Keaton was an almost unnaturally gifted comedian—Chaplin and Lloyd, too, were uncommonly talented filmmakers. But I find that, with Keaton’s films, the laughs are simply greater and more imaginatively presented than those manufactured by his colleagues. Chaplin’s work had a great deal of humanity; Lloyd’s had a deliciously antic silliness; but Keaton—well, Keaton’s work had a truly exceptional grace. There is an odd elegance to Keaton’s comedy, a strategically balletic sense to his movements onscreen. Every action is precisely timed for maximum comedic impact, and even the most unrealistic of situations becomes lively and viable in Keaton’s capable hands.

Take, for instance, one of Keaton’s final silent features, Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928). Keaton plays the title character (known as “Willie”), the natty son of a rugged Mississippi steamboat captain (Ernest Torrence). Willie has been raised by his mother in Boston and has not seen his father since he was an infant. After completing college, Willie visits his father, who is less than pleased by his not-quite-manly boy. While Bill futilely tries to make his son over in his own image, Willie reunites with his college sweetheart, Kitty (Marion Byron), whose father, John James King (Tom McGuire), just happens to be Bill’s bitter riverboat competitor. When their rivalry comes to a head and Bill is tossed into jail, Willie must find a way to spring his dad, save the family business, and finally get his girl. And if that’s not enough, Willie also has to deal with the problematic effects of an oncoming hurricane. (more…)

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