Buster Keaton’s is a clockwork universe. Cause and effect are at the heart of gags both big and small. Johnnie Gray might not see a boxcar roll past his train engine on an alternate track and return to the main track right in front of him, but the audience sees exactly how it happens. Rollo Treadway, conversely, can see the potential cause and effect when he is tied to a tiny cannon with a lit fuse. In both cases, physical causes are set up and their effects play out like clockwork. The gags are assembled with the precision of an engineer. Part of my admiration for Keaton’s work is due to the awe that his clockwork universe inspires.
Maybe it is not all clockwork. There are some shots and sequences in his work that defy mechanical explanations, and some that do not exist solely to set up or pay off a comedic gag. I think there are pockets of the Keaton universe where cause and effect are not central, where cinematic images are haunting, even nightmarish, in themselves. The fact that these images occur in Keaton's rational universe only makes them more haunting. (Gilberto Perez, quoted in Knopf's The Theater and Cinema of Buster Keaton, says, "Much of the evocative power of Keaton's films derives from their blend of actuality with a dreamlike strangeness: the dream made all the more haunting for being so convincingly materialized.")
The purpose of this post is to highlight some of the nightmarish, chilling, haunted corners of Keaton’s universe. In these corners, Keaton uses film imagery not just to generate laughs but to give us chills. In some of the cases discussed here, causality is clear to the audience but not the characters. In other cases, causality seems to be suspended with no explanation at all. But whether or not we see the mechanics or not, the audience experiences a haunted shiver, the sudden perception that, in a little part of the universe, the normal rules don’t apply.
As a fan of both silent comedy and horror movies, I think these haunting moments are to be treasured.
Good Night, Nurse (1918)
When Keaton ventured out to headline his own two-reelers in 1920, he broadened the range of gags and visuals beyond the confines of the Arbuckle shorts. Based on his short films, Keaton seemed more willing than others such as Arbuckle to create haunting images. While many of these kinds of images were probably motivated by Keaton's interest in reproducing and expanding on the tricks and gags developed in vaudeville, they still represent a willingness to go beyond simple slapstick to generate a different kind of audience response.
One Week (1920)
The Haunted House (1921)
The Goat (1921)
I don’t know what else to say. It’s a beautiful, iconic shot, and it always gives me the chills.
The Boat (1921)
The first of these surreal shots is the initial launch of the titular boat, whose name of course is Damfino. As Keaton stands triumphantly atop the bow, his family releases the lines and the boat slides stern-first into the water. Instead of floating, it simply continues moving along the bottom of the marina until Keaton is forced to abandon the no-longer-present vessel.
The final haunted image from The Boat that I want to highlight is the final sequence of the two-reeler. After the Damfino has sunk for the last time, the family is relegated to floating in its bathtub. When the youngest son pulls the plug, even the tub starts sinking. It looks like the end.
The Balloonatic (1923)
The Silent Features
Sherlock Jr. (1924)
The Navigator (1924)
Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)
As a bonus, the dummy scene includes the second of three ever more dangerous stunts in Steamboat Bill, Jr. in which Keaton's character avoids a falling wall through sheer luck.
I'm sure I'm missing other images scattered throughout his films, but these are the scenes and images I find most haunting in Keaton's major works.
There is one more thing I want to add, which I unfortunately can't illustrate visually. It's the story of another chill I experienced when watching a Buster Keaton film. My initial experience with Keaton occurred in a college history of film class in the 1980s where Cops (1922) and The General (1926) were shown. I watched as much Keaton as I could find on VHS and laserdisc. At the time, most of the silent features and two-reelers were available, but not much else.
In the 1990s, I was happy to see that the Silent Movie Theater in Los Angeles had scheduled Keaton's sound movies from the 1930s. I went to see a few of them. I think the first one I saw in the theater was Sidewalks of New York, not one of his most beloved movies. But when he opened his mouth and I heard that deep, slightly gravelly, Midwestern voice for the very first time, it was one of the eeriest experiences of my life. It felt something like a ghost returning to life.
I have heard Keaton's voice described in less than flattering terms (Kevin Brownlow compared his voice in later life to an anchor chain running out; on the excellent Wrong Reel podcast about Keaton, James Hancock and J. Blake Finchera are a bit negative about his voice), but to me it is one of the greatest voices in cinema. Like his films, his voice is both solidly down-to-earth and eerily, hauntingly beautiful. My perception is no doubt influenced by the fact that I was familiar with the man years before I ever heard his voice, and the resultant disconnection between image and voice, the odd disembodiment, makes his voice even more powerful and resonant to me.
In any case, like the haunted moments in his films, his voice is something to be deeply treasured.