Low Comedy as a High Art, by Malcolm H. Oettinger – originally published in Picture-Play Magazine, March 1923
For a long time it was considered a breach of critical etiquette, if there be such a thing, to write of any one engaged in such a lowly sphere as that of comedy. It was little short of lese majesty to strum one’s lyre in praise of such funny fellows as Fred Mace, John Bunny, Mack Swain, and the then blooming Chaplin. Some few did it: venturesome souls, but as a general thing it was discouraged.
Times, capriciously enough, have changed. Today Charlot is hymned by the literati and the cognoscenti, the beautiful and the damning. The mere mention of his name is sufficient to start a feverish discussion in the highest circles, even including the well-known vicious one at the Algonquin. The critics have decided that the abominable movies have produced something worth while in this harlequin of the mustachios and baggy trousers. Five years hence they will discover Buster Keaton. In writing of the leading drolls of the flittering photos, it is tempting to take a leaf from Eugene Field’s “Wynken, Blynken, and Nod,” for it is conceded, almost without question, that the preeminent names today are Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd.
The methods of the three are utterly unlike. Each leads an individual School of the Snicker. The comedy of Chaplin is most often elusive, bordering on the serious if not the tragic. Nothing more typical can be instanced than his moment of contemplation beside the manhole, in “The Kid“–an amazing commingling of pathos and humor. In an earlier two-reeler, “The Bank,” the great comedian also officiated at the wedding of smile and tear. It is characteristic of Chaplin to appeal to philosophers as well as to flappers. We laugh with Lloyd, but we laugh at Keaton. These two may better be compared than Lloyd and Chaplin or Keaton and Chaplin, because Charlie is so infinitely superior, amusing though the other pair are.
Neither Keaton nor Lloyd attempt to reach your funny bone through your heart: they openly tickle you. For this reason, most of all, perhaps they are not in Chaplin’s class. For Chaplin has always stood alone. Many of Harold Lloyd’s pictures have whole slices played in straight comedy vein. Keaton is rarely heroic; at such fleeting times he invariably makes a swift and laughter-grafting turn to grotesquerie. Buster’s stuff borders on the realm of burlesque; Lloyd at times suggests a Willie Collier of the shadow stage. His is the school sponsored by Sidney Drew, embellished with quips and quirks and occasional stunts that are solely Lloyd’s. Originality marks the method of all leaders, and certainly this is true of Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd.
“That’s the one thing that I dread,” Buster told me sadly. “I dread the day when we won’t find another new wheeze to wrap up, when all the gags will have been sprung, when we’re stumped for something new. That’s what a comedian has to guard against: running out. That is why Charlie Chaplin makes his pictures so slowly. I know as a matter of fact that he takes thousands of feet of film on every picture, only to destroy it when he sees it in the projection room. And this carefulness is just what helps to make him a great artist.”
Keaton is master of snicker and guffaw technique. His art is to work up a situation deliberately, to build it as logically and as systematically as a carpenter builds a house. Gags, Buster told me, are natural or mechanical.
“Both get laughs,” he explained, “but the natural gag is the one we lay awake nights trying to dream of.”
And it is the mechanical gag that Keaton has mastered. Take the situation in “The Boat,” where, after having built a boat, he finds that he has not made the doorway large enough, and consequently, as the boat slides to the water, it pulls the shed down with it. Take the situation in “One Week.” Buster has ordered a Sears-Roebuck bungalow for his bride-to- be. The wicked rival mixes the numerals on the various parts, and the comedy ensues when Buster attempts to assemble the jazzed sections. This is mechanically perfect giggle material. But though one of the most adroit technicians of comedy. Buster fails to reach the heart, his pictures elude the sympathy. It seems consistent to endow Chaplin with massive intellect, to read sermons into his capering feet. It is fairly simple to sympathize with the lovesick Harold Lloyd, upon occasion. But Keaton alone stands forth as the Trouper–unabashed, unaffected, unassuming, and–very like Shaw’s Undershaft –unashamed!
“We just wrap up a little hokum,” he will tell you. “We build up a little story on some sure-fire idea, throw in a dozen gags, if we can think of ‘em, and let ‘er ride. The scenario we use is written on the correspondence end of a picture post card. If it’s lost its no great matter.”
You cannot read hidden motifs into the Keaton spoolings. You cannot persuade him that there was a hint of satire concealed in his last comedy, or the one before that. You cannot coerce him into admitting that he planned an unique characterization which he has steadfastly maintained. He will take credit for nothing. Not even his make-up.
“The pancake hat and the oversized collar and the misfit suit and the slapstick shoes are my old vaudeville stand-bys. My father rigged me out as a third of The Three Keatons, when I was too young to ‘originate’ anything but a yowl! I’ve kept the same make-up ever since–guess I always will.”
Solemnity is more than a habit with Keaton; it’s ingrown. Throughout our conversation his face was stony. Nor was this an exception to his usual attitude. I have seen him in the turmoil of a comic sequence, a business of break-away ladders, swinging ropes, and trapdoor scaffoldings; I have seen him eyeing the proceedings at one of Manhattan’s most energizing nights clubs; I have seen him purring at his baby in father-like fashion; I have seen him casually viewing the day’s rushes, and upon not one but all of these occasions Buster wore an expression that was infinitely more sphinxlike than the Sphinx ever thought of being. His is an entirely emotionless face, suggesting most of all, a mask. It is the ideal phiz for a droll pantaloon.
“You originated the idea of never smiling,” I supposed. But Buster refused to take credit for it. In the days of The Three Keatons, it seems, his father taught him never to crack a smile. The habit grew on him. Now it is so deeply rooted that it is almost impossible for him to grin. It has long been one of the beliefs of the American Credo that all comedians are, off stage, lugubrious fellows, and never was a truth more apparent than in the appearance and behavior of Buster Keaton. His countenance is little short of funereal, his speech laconic, his outlook none too sanguine.
“Next I’m going back to the Coast to do a five-reel picture. No plots, you know. Just gags. But we’ll space our laughs. If we ran five reels of the sort of stuff we cram into two, the audience would be tired before it was half over. So we’ll plant the characters more slowly, use introductory bits, and all that. It’ll be just as easy to make a five-reeler, because we always take about fifteen reels, anyway. Now we’ll cut to five instead of two.”
Buster thinks “One Week” his best comedy, but he admits he had hoped to make “The Playhouse” his best. In that clever picture, he essayed a dozen or more roles. He had intended doing all of the parts, but his ego failed him at the crucial moment. Despite the fact that he is one of the big drawing cards, often featured in the lights and billed above the longer picture of the program, Keaton has assumed no airs, adopted no pose. He denied that he made a preparation for a picture. He denied that he planned his plots. Try as you will, you cannot convince him that he is anything more than a trouper who manages to give ‘em what they like. It is useless to talk to him of psychological effects.
“It’s hokum,” said Buster definitely and positively. “And by draping it in different styles you disguise it and bring results each time.”
According to his lights, it is simply a case of old gags in new clothing. But if this were so, there would be more Keatons. Unfortunately enough, there aren’t.