“Tragedy is a close-up; comedy, a long shot.” – Buster Keaton
When Buster Keaton was at his best, between 1920 and 1929, he did so much with so little that the famed late critic Roger Ebert called him “the greatest actor-director in the history of the movies”. With no audio to play with and very rarely a scrip either, Keaton somehow threw himself into the action (literally) and everything that unfurled thereafter was simply golden.
He may well have coaxed hair-raising laughs from scenes that would cause a Health and Safety inspector to enlist a progressive psychologist for assistance these days, but in truth, he could’ve silently read the phonebook and somehow even that would’ve been funny. As he said himself, “A comedian does funny things. A good comedian does things funny.”
Although cute camera tricks and industry secrets could help to fool audiences into believing a stunt was real, Buster Keaton much preferred full authenticity, and would often keep the action in one shot over a long take. As the actor himself once commented, “I like long takes,” adding, “close-ups hurt comedy. I like to work full figure. All comedians want their feet in”.
Below we have compiled a handful of the wildest stunts that Keaton ever pulled off with comic aplomb. From his iconic train sequence in The General to the classic gambit of Sherlock Jr. Enjoy responsibly, and please don’t try this at home.
Buster Keaton’s five best stunts:
The General – ‘The train sequence’
Keaton certainly proved the benefit of his ‘feet in’ mentality in The General, where, in perhaps the film’s most famous moment, the actor clambers down from the driver’s compartment of a moving train to remove a wooden beam from the track, only for him to fall back onto the front of the locomotive.
Leaning back onto the train for a while, still holding the wooden beam, Keaton notices another beam on the track ahead, and readying himself, launches the beam he’s holding onto the one on the track, setting the train back on a safe course. By today’s standards, it’s a wild moment of filmmaking that presented some very real dangers of death or serious injury. All was par for the course for Buster Keaton however, a true professional and dedicated craftsman to the art of comedy.
Daydream – ‘The San Francisco Chase’
In 1922, the short film Daydream set about creating the first chase scene ever to hit the streets of San Francisco. During the manic piece of cinema pioneering, Keaton clutches onto the back of a streetcar, travelling so fast that he is rendered horizontal by the g-force alone. Then like a marionette, he pulls himself onto the trolley and stands there as smugly as the cat who got the cream as though he didn’t just nearly perish like a pavement Jackson Pollock a few seconds before.
With the streetcar travelling at around 10mph based on the frame rate, Keaton’s stunt might not have been death-defying in a literal sense, but the effortlessness of his performance is indicative of his fearlessness and gymnastic-like ability. In the silent era, these were two key factors that helped him playfully paint comedy on top. (The stunt occurs at 15:00 in the clip below)
Steamboat Bill Jr – The Falling House scene
Aside from his dynamism as a performer, the other trick Keaton had up his sleeve was an important grasp of physics. While standing stock-still might not seem particularly hair-raising on paper, when you factor in that you have to stand there as the potentially deadly weight of an entire house façade falls within millimetres of you then the danger soon becomes clear.
As it happens, many of the cast and crew didn’t share Keaton’s faith in physics and turned away from filming in the fears that they were inevitably about to watch their director and lead crushed to death. Remarkably, it is reported that the house came within a mere two inches of the cracking Keaton, but he stood firm and one of the most iconic scenes in history is living proof of the power of physics.
Our Hospitality – The waterfall rescue
While most of the time, Keaton’s stunts were all-natural, occasionally an expensive set had to be constructed out of necessity. The fact that Metro Pictures managed to create a realistic waterfall is a feat in itself, but Keaton’s antics thereafter are so daring that they remain stupefying to watch even to this day.
In fact, as Keaton swung beneath the water, he received such a pummelling that he was knocked unconscious. “I had to go down to the doctor right there and then,” Keaton once remarked. “They pumped out my ears and nostrils and drained me, because when a full volume of water like that comes down and hits you and you’re upside down — then you really get it.”
The Three Ages – The great leap
In the classic 1923 film The Three Ages, Keaton performs a leap between buildings that had moviegoers gasping for air before breaking into riotous laughter. The reactions would’ve no doubt been even more maddening if the audience knew that he wasn’t intended to fall in the first place.
Fortunately, a net awaited the tumbling star and when he was safely gathered with only minor injuries, he saw the footage and decided to develop the classic drainpipe sequence around it. It is a measure of just how wildly determined he was to entertain that even a fall that would’ve left mere mortals too terrified to ever step foot above curb height forevermore, presented an opportunity to Keaton for even more mayhem.