Cover image for The theater and cinema of Buster Keaton
The theater and cinema of Buster Keaton
Knopf, Robert, 1961-
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press, [1999]

Physical Description:
x, 217 pages : illustrations ; 25 cm

Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
PN2287.K4 K67 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks
PN2287.K4 K67 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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Famous for their stunts, gags, and images, Buster Keaton's silent films have enticed everyone from Hollywood movie fans to the surrealists, such as Dalí and Buñuel. Here Robert Knopf offers an unprecedented look at the wide-ranging appeal of Keaton's genius, considering his vaudeville roots and his ability to integrate this aesthetic into the techniques of classical Hollywood cinema in the 1920s. When young Buster was being hurled about the stage by his comically irate father in the family's vaudeville act, The Three Keatons, he was perfecting his acrobatic skills, timing, visual humor, and trademark "stone face." As Knopf demonstrates, such theatrics would serve Keaton well as a film director and star. By isolating elements of vaudeville within works that have previously been considered "classical," Knopf reevaluates Keaton's films and how they function.

The book combines vivid visual descriptions and illustrations that enable us to see Keaton at work staging his memorable images and gags, such as a three-story wall collapsing on him ( Steamboat Bill, Jr. , 1928) and an avalanche of boulders chasing him down a mountainside ( Seven Chances , 1925). Knopf explains how Keaton's stunts and gags served as fanciful departures from his films' storylines and how they nonetheless reinforced a strange sense of reality, that of a machine-like world with a mind of its own. In comparison to Chaplin and Lloyd, Keaton made more elaborate use of natural locations. The scene in The Navigator, for example , where Buster brandishes a swordfish to fend off another swordfish derives much of its power from actually being shot under water. Such "hyper-literalism" was but one element of Keaton's films that inspired the surrealists.

Exploring Keaton's influence on Salvador Dalí, Luis Buñuel, Federico García Lorca, and Robert Desnos, Knopf suggests that Keaton's achievement extends beyond Hollywood into the avant-garde. The book concludes with an examination of Keaton's late-career performances in Gerald Potterton's The Railrodder and Samuel Beckett's Film , and locates his legacy in the work of Jackie Chan, Blue Man Group, and Bill Irwin.

Author Notes

Robert Knopf is Assistant Professor of Theater at the University of Michigan.

Reviews 2

Library Journal Review

Buster Keaton ranks as one of the foremost clown princes of Hollywood. As a child, Keaton learned his craft as one of vaudeville's Three Keatons, where he was the target of knockabout comedy so rough many observers considered it a form of child abuse. Sadly, personal problems, alcoholism, and a lack of business acumen caused Buster to lose artistic control over the making of his films in later years, and he was reduced to taking bit roles in "Beach Party" films. Knopf (theater, Univ. of Michigan) offers a timely, academic appreciation of the great stoneface, examining why Keaton's films intrigued surrealists and intellectuals such as Salvador Dal¡, Federico Garc¡a Lorca, and Luis Bu¤uel. (One of Keaton's final appearances was in a short film scripted by Samuel Beckett.) Knopf also does an excellent job of tracing the vaudevillian roots of Keaton's stunts and gags. On the other hand, Bengtson's Silent Echoes shows more than 100 sites from early Keaton films, comparing the film view with the scene as it exists today. (Unlike other silent film figures, Keaton preferred natural settings for his pratfalls. As a result, his early films offer a wonderful view of early Hollywood landmarks that are, like some of Keaton's films, now lost to posterity.) This dedicated bit of detective work will be of great interest to Hollywood and urban historians. Although the definitive history of Keaton's life and career has yet to be written, both books will nicely supplement the collections of libraries that already own earlier studies, like Keaton's Wonderful World of Slapstick, Marion Meade's Buster Keaton: Cut to the Chase or Tom Dardis's Keaton: The Man Who Wouldn't Lie DownÄnot to mention Kino on Video's ten-volume The Art of Buster Keaton. Recommended for all academic and large public libraries and specialized film collections.ÄStephen Rees, Levittown Regional Lib., PA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

In the playful, subversive spirit of Henry Jenkins's What Made Pistachio Nuts? (CH, May'93), Knopf (theater, Univ. of Michigan) has excavated the vaudevillian origins of Keaton's films and displayed them with impressive scholarship. Against the dominant perspective of Hollywood's classical narrative paradigm, Knopf focuses on the silent film star's vaudeville aesthetic. In a clear and cogently developed argument, he illustrates how physical stunts, pratfalls, and vaudevillian gags contribute to a cinema of attractions, a cinema that celebrates the ingenuity of gags over story. The comic inheritance of burlesque, mime, and slapstick is convincingly demonstrated in classics like Sherlock Junior. Knopf also shows how Keaton's gags affected French surrealists of the 1920s and the new vaudevillians like the Blue Man Group and kung-fu comedy star Jackie Chan. Particularly praiseworthy is the integration of theoretical literature from surrealists like Luis Bu~nuel and Andre Breton with Keaton's disruptive, downright funny comic bits. With apt photographs, complete filmography, and heuristic bibliography, Knopf reanimates the delightfully improvised cinema of a truly great comic film artist. Recommended for all readership levels. T. Lindvall; Regent University

Table of Contents

List of Illustrationsp. ix
Acknowledgmentsp. xi
Introductionp. 3
The Lens of Classical Hollywood Cinemap. 4
The Lens of Vaudevillep. 10
The Lens of Surrealismp. 15
1. The Evolution of Keaton's Vaudevillep. 19
2. From Stage to Film: The Transformation of Keaton's Vaudevillep. 36
3. Keaton Re-Viewed: Beyond Keaton's Classicismp. 76
Keaton in Context: Keaton, Chaplin, and Lloydp. 79
The Gag-Narrative Relationship in Keaton's Filmsp. 83
4. From Vaudeville to Surrealismp. 112
The Surrealists Claim Keatonp. 113
Keaton's Affinities with Surrealismp. 121
5. Beyond Surrealism: Keaton's Legacyp. 134
Gerald Potterton's The Railrodderp. 135
Samuel Beckett's Filmp. 143
Afterlife: New Vaudeville, Jackie Chan, and Coming Attractionsp. 148
Notesp. 157
Filmographyp. 179
Bibliographyp. 203
Indexp. 213