Thursday, May 26, 2011

Buster Keaton: Beautiful clown

Referring to her friend Natalie Talmadge's marriage to silent comedian Buster Keaton, the screenwriter Anita Loos once wrote, "I used to think that looking across a pillow into the fabulous face of Buster Keaton would be a more thrilling destiny than any screen career" (Cast of Thousands, 1977, p. 38).

In his trademark rumpled suit and porkpie hat, Buster Keaton downplayed his beautiful features and kept his flawless gymnast's body hidden. Known as "The Great Stone Face," chaos would ensue around him while his expression betrayed no emotion, except through the depth of his eyes.

A diminutive man - he stood only 5'5" - his characters were frequently bullied and bested by larger, "more masculine" men - be it father, soldier, prizefighter, or romantic rival. His defence was to keep his physicality and emotions safely protected under the guise of the sad clown. Thus it is not a far stretch to think of his characters as akin to gay men before coming out, who keep their feelings and true selves hidden from the dangers around them.

In fact, the trajectory of many of Buster Keaton's films can be seen as being a kind of "coming out" process. His triumph is finally to make his place in the world - usually not through brute strength or "traditional masculinity," but instead through ingenuity, tenacity, and above all, grace. Both balletic and poetic rather than strapping and rough, his victory is that of every "little" man who ever felt weak, disparaged, and picked on.

And, he's gorgeous. For Buster Keaton beefcake, Battling Butler (1926) is tops, but the film also has an interesting subtext about bullying, albeit cloaked in comedy.

Buster begins the movie as the ultimate pampered fop (his idea of camping involves a tent with brass bed, bearskin rug, and butler). When he tries to impress a new lady friend by claiming to be prizefighter Battling Butler, a series of events catches him up in his lie, and he ends up in an actual fight against the real Battling Butler.

Occuring not in the ring but in a dressing room, Battling Butler is brutal. Buster begs, pleads, ducks, cowers, and attempts to flee - like a damsel trying to save herself from a villain - while Battling Butler pursues him relentlessly, cornering him and looking as if he is actually screwing Buster against the wall.

Finally Buster snaps with all the rage of a victim turning against his abuser, reverses the fight and knocks out his opponent. When he realizes what he is done, Buster is shocked at his own accomplishment. However, his victory doesn't turn him into a prizefighter, it merely exposes his lie to his lady friend - who says she prefers he not be a prizefighter anyway. Happy ending...

The closing shot is priceless - as kinky as it is sexy. Escorting his lady through the evening crowd, Buster is naked except for top hat, shoes, boxing trunks and gloves. He is still the dandy, but now has a physicality he is proud of.


  1. I thought of you the other night as I watched John Payne take on the underworld...

    I love Buster--dressed or not...

    Well, I'm off to an orgy in a dark room filled with men...and for once it's not sex. I spend Memorial Day weekend at Cinevent--a 4 day marathon of 30+ silent (and pre 1950 sound) films. I am particularly looking forward to Tom Mix in the costume drama 'Dick Turpin'--to get him out of his cowboy drag...

  2. Cool movie! I know my mom is a Buster Keaton fan (a fan of all sexy male leads, actually), but I've never actually heard of this movie. I will have to ask her if she's seen it.


  3. Hi FelchingPisser, What a terrific way to spend the long weekend! Have a great time and let me know which films turned out to be extra great.

  4. Hi Ace, "Battling Butler" may not be Buster's most famous or even his most funny, but it's definitely worth a look (anything he does has some measure of brilliance... and this film has more Buster flesh than most). It's out on DVD so you should be able to find it.

  5. I never heard of him before but thank you for letting me know him. I'm too young to have known him, hum,hum.


  6. Yves, Glad I could turn you on to a new film hero. I hope you get to check out some of his movies, and that you enjoy them.