21st-century cinema is fit with all the luxurious bells and whistles that simply did not exist at the dawn of cinema, and when filmmakers didn’t have the pleasures of CGI, complex cinematography or even colour and sound, they had to resort to far more rudimentary techniques. With no sound and limited avenues for storytelling, many performers turned to physical comic acts, following in the footsteps of the likes of Charlie Chaplin as slapstick became a highly popular art form.
Creating several iconic films, from The Kid to Modern Times, Chaplin became a pioneer of the genre, leading the way for fellow comedy performers, Laurel and Hardy as well as the great Buster Keaton. Whilst Chaplin was certainly better known than Keaton, it was the latter who is often recognised for his more risky cinematic endeavours, taking part in several stunts that seem insane even by today’s standards.
Among Keaton’s most acclaimed films was Sherlock Jr., an action-packed romance that followed the actor and stuntman as a hopeful detective who takes the law into his own hands when he is framed by a rival for stealing a pocket watch. Throughout the comedy, crime caper, Keaton takes part in several daring stunts all in the name of comedy, from balancing on top of a motorcycle to hanging off the back of a moving train. Though, often his stunts didn’t quite go according to plan.
“He always said that by the end of his life he’d broken virtually every bone in his body,” David MacLeod, a keen Keaton historian and the author of The Sound Of Buster Keaton states to The Sunday Post, before explaining how the actor broke his neck on the set of Sherlock Jr. In one of the film’s most impressive sequences, Keaton is filmed running on top of a moving train before he jumps onto a water spout once the train runs out of carriages.
As historian David MacLeod explains, “He grabbed the water spout, it slowly came down and the force of the water knocked him down on to the railway line. In the film he got up and ran away, but he said for about two or three weeks afterwards he was getting these terrible headaches”.
Remarkably, unbeknownst to the actor, Keaton had broken his neck and only noticed the injury 30 years later when the doctor performed an X-ray and revealed the shocking news.
Quite how the actor broke his neck is somewhat unclear, though it is known that it happened during the moment when Keaton is hanging from the water spout being doused with gallons of water. Despite the serious injury, Keaton would go on to appear in several other dangerous roles in the likes of films such as The General, Steamboat Bill, Jr. and Seven Chances throughout the early 20th century.
An eccentric icon of early silent cinema there are few actors as influential, and certainly as daring, as the great Buster Keaton.