I went on a bit of a Buster Keaton spree here, courtesy of LoveFilm’s watch online feature, allowing me to watch all of his films from the list – five in total – almost in one go. Ranging from 45 to 107 minutes in length, all are of course silent and black and white – the latest was made in 1928 after all, but to a film they are all exceptional, but I couldn’t help picking up on some recurring themes. Of the five, four involved a damsel in distress scenario, where Keaton’s diminutive heroic figure is the only one able to save her. Four predominantly feature trains, three offer a high speed pursuit, three have major plotlines revolving around an across the tracks romance, three use the theme of inheritance in some way and all five feature peril involving water, be it a dam, waterfall, water tower, boat or flood.
The best of the bunch are the General, depicting Keaton’s southern train engineer singlehandedly invading the North to rescue his girl and his beloved train, and Sherlock Jr., where a cinema employee dreams of being a famous detective. The General offers much in the way of action and physical comedy, as Keaton climbs over and sits on the front of a moving train engine. It’s Keaton’s most famous film, and rightly so, as his straight-faced fool tries so desperately and earnestly to do the right thing that he cannot help but be hilarious, staggering from one mishap to the next, rescuing the girl from the enemy only to be confronted by a bear. Throughout the films Keaton takes a cartoonish view to violence – getting limbs caught in a bear trap is less of an inconvenience than when it happens in the likes of Straw Dogs or Severance, but this only adds to the fun – it wouldn’t be very entertaining for the characters to be rushed to hospital every few minutes.
Seven Chances is at the disadvantage of having been made into the Bachelor, starring Chris O’Donnell in 1999. The remake does nothing but detract from the quality of the original film, as both use almost entirely the same plot – a man must marry before a given date, or be denied a rich relative’s vast inheritance – yet Keaton does it much more successfully with little messing around or unnecessary mucking about with now perfunctory rom-com tropes.
Our Hospitality plays on the Romeo and Juliet tale of warring families with besotted children, but takes it in an inspired new direction when Keaton’s Willie McKay attends a dinner hosted by the family of his new love, only to discover they are the Canfields, with whom the McKays have feuded for many years, and who are responsible for killing Willie’s father. The new spin is that, although the Canfields desperately want to kill Willie, their family code of honour prevents them from doing so whilst he is a guest in their house, so Willie does his best to remain there indefinitely.
Finally, Steamboat Bill Jr. sees Keaton sent to work in Boston with his steamboat captain father, but the beret clad, ukulele playing, moustachioed diminutive Keaton is not what his father was expecting. Somewhat predictably, Keaton’s Bill Jr. is eventually required to save the day, making his father see him in a whole new light, but along the way some incredible stunts, including the infamous house front falling on Keaton during a storm that could have killed him had it gone wrong, make this a worthwhile watch all the same.
The General – Choose film – 9/10
Seven Chances – Choose film – 8/10
Our Hospitality – Choose film – 7/10
Steamboat Bill Jr. – Choose film – 6/10
Sherlock Jr. – Choose film – 9/10