Back in the day, when you couldn’t scribble a CGI backflip into a script, if you wanted to include a stunt in a movie, no matter how death-defying, you had to do it for real. From Jackie Chan to Buster Keaton, actors built up a reputation for the best and most daring performers in the industry, willing to do the wildest and most dangerous stunts in the name of art. Though, it was particularly during the silent era of Hollywood cinema from 1894 – 1929, when elaborate plots couldn’t properly be explored, that a taste for such physical stunts flourished.
In 1926, audiences became amazed by the daredevil stunts of comedian Buster Keaton, who after several years of success with short films, transitioned into feature-length projects in 1923 with Three Ages. The following year saw the release of the Keaton comedy classic Sherlock Jr. which featured the slapstick comedy character we recognise today and would showcase some of the actors most memorable stunts, including one that even broke his neck whilst he was on set. By 1926, Keaton was on a winning streak, with Sherlock Jr., The Navigator, Seven Chances and Go West each under his belt before arguably his magnum opus, The General was set to stun audiences.
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, in long shot…close-ups hurt comedy. I like to work full figure. All comedians want their feet in”. Keaton certainly proved this to be true 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.
As the actor wisely stated, “A comedian does funny things. A good comedian does things funny”.
To watch the clip of the Buster Keaton stunt in full, below.