Monday, February 20, 2017

The Haunted Worlds of Buster Keaton

This post is part of the third annual Buster Keaton Blogathon hosted by Silent-ology, celebrating 100 years of Buster Keaton.

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.


But is this an accurate description of Keaton’s universe?

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)

Roscoe Arbuckle’s two-reelers tend to be fast-paced and chaotic, providing no time for haunting imagery. Good Night, Nurse (1918), the seventh Arbuckle two-reeler in which Keaton appeared, is a bit of an exception. If not exactly haunting, the imagery shown in the clip below is at least a bit disturbing. In the short, Arbuckle’s character is committed by his wife to the No Hope Sanitarium, where his alcohol problem will be cured medically. Keaton’s doctor character enters the reception area wearing bloody scrubs and casually sharpening extremely long knives.

The image of Keaton in his scrubs is more comedic than haunting, with the nonchalance of his performance particularly funny. But the bloodstained costume, knives, and surgical mask and head covering would not be out of place in a modern horror movie. (I can't resist mentioning the similarity of the image to two particular horror movies of ill repute--1980's The Nightmare Never Ends and 1988’s The Last Slumber Party.)


The frenetic and mostly juvenile comedy of Good Night, Nurse reminds me of Keaton's story about the one thing over which he and Arbuckle disagreed, according to his autobiography, My Wonderful World of Slapstick. After Arbuckle told Keaton that the average mentality of the movie audience is 12 years old, "I thought that over for a long time, for three whole months in fact. Then I said to Roscoe, 'I think you'd better forget the idea that the movie audience has a twelve-year-old mind. Anyone who believes that won't be in pictures for very long, in my opinion.'"

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)

One Week, Keaton's first released two-reeler as headliner, is filled with brilliant, whimsical gags, but the climactic windstorm's effect on the build-it-yourself house is truly nightmarish. The beginning of the sequence, in particular, feels like a bad dream, as Keaton's character sees the house start to turn and tries to stop it physically, to no avail.

When Keaton manages to leap into the house, arriving in the living room like a flying fish, the house's rotation is (impossibly) reproduced in the single room. Like the housewarming party guests before him, Keaton stumbles in a circular motion around the edge of the room, finally rolling past everyone else in the house, all of whom have been flung by a nightmarish version of centrifugal force into one corner.

Unlike most of One Week's gags, which are grounded in cause and effect, the spinning house sequence makes no logical sense. A strong wind could not set any kind of house rotating, unless perhaps it were shaped like a pinwheel and anchored to the ground only at the center. Even if the house could rotate around its center, as viewed from the outside, its living room, comprising only part of the downstairs, would not rotate around its own center. But we recognize the nightmare logic of the sequence and find it breathtaking, dreamlike, and something different than a traditionally funny slapstick gag.

The Haunted House (1921)

In The Complete Films of Buster Keaton, Jim Kline says The Haunted House (1921) "suffers somewhat from the hokey haunted-house gimmick." Much of the short relies on phony haunted house shenanigans perpetrated by gangsters attempting to scare away interlopers. I agree that most of the gags are predictable and less than haunting, but one gag is memorably chilling. Keaton observes two gangsters dressed in skeleton costumes carrying, for no clear reason, what appear to be body parts into a room. The skeletons assemble the parts into a man, wearing a suit and hat no less. Then one of the skeletons claps his hands and the assemblage comes to life, attempting to shake Keaton's hand. Understandably freaked out, Keaton leaps out of the room.

This gag should not work well. Though presented in a single shot, it is clearly a camera trick, with the assembled body parts replaced with a live actor during a hidden cut. (The hidden cut occurs not at the obvious moment when the gangster claps his hands but a little earlier, when the audience's view of the mannequin is blocked by the skeleton costume; the timing of the edit greatly enhances the illusion.) Furthermore, there is no reason at all for the gangsters to assemble a mannequin, other than to scare Keaton's interloping bank teller. But the gag works perfectly. It is probably the only really haunted gag in The Haunted House because it is both impossible and convincing. 

The Goat (1921)

One of the most memorable and famous shots of all Keaton’s work comes about nine minutes into The Goat (1921). After Keaton’s character has escaped from a horde of policemen by decoupling some train cars, an iris transition reveals a locomotive approaching the camera. We eventually become aware that Keaton is sitting atop the cow catcher at the front of the train. The shot lasts 20 seconds.

At, Lisle Foote discusses the shot: “It doesn't advance the plot or contain an obvious joke, yet it's striking. Why?” She notes three explanations that have been proposed. Walter Kerr in The Silent Clowns believes the shot presents the camera’s presence as a barrier to Keaton’s forward progress; Gabriella Oldham in Keaton’s Silent Shorts believes the shot shows Keaton’s triumph over obstacles; Jim Kline in The Complete Films of Buster Keaton believes the shot sums up the essence of Keaton’s screen character.

In the end, Ms. Foote says these theories fail to explain why the shot is memorable, and I agree. The effect of the shot probably can’t be explained rationally. Its effect may be related to the beauty and symmetry and depth of the image, the shock of our sudden recognition of Keaton, and our concern about imminent danger to him. But I’m convinced it must have something to do with Keaton’s calmness as well. In a way, it seems to encapsulate history itself steaming straight toward us.

I don’t know what else to say. It’s a beautiful, iconic shot, and it always gives me the chills.

The Boat (1921)

Out of all of Keaton’s two-reelers, The Boat (1921) contains the most shots that I find haunting and nightmarish. I won’t include all of them here for the sake of brevity (yes, yes, too late for brevity, I know), but I want to highlight four of the most surreal shots.

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.

This scene is very funny, but it is also scary as a reminder that nobody can control nature. It also continues the theme running through the short that the universe itself refuses to cooperate with Keaton's character as he attempts to take a leisurely boat ride.

The next nightmarish shot from The Boat I want to highlight is really just a simple gag, but the sheer surrealism of it raises it to a higher level. This is when Keaton tries to anchor the boat, but the anchor refuses to sink.

Is this really a haunting image? Maybe not objectively, but I find it alarming, in part because it is extremely convincing. The anchor just falls to the surface of the water and stops. I’m reminded of Gilberto Perez’s phrase again about “the dream made all the more haunting for being so convincingly materialized.”

It is the next sequence that I really find haunting and nightmarish (literally nightmarish, as I have had unpleasant dreams like this). The sequence occurs near the end of the film, after night has fallen and Keaton’s family is inside. A storm has overtaken the Damfino, which is tossed back and forth until it begins rolling over and over.

Anyone who has ever slept on a boat or ship in rough waters can probably relate to the feeling that rolling 360 degrees is a possibility. To me, this is probably the most nightmarish image in all of Keaton’s films.

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.

However, the family realizes they are standing in only a few feet of water. They wander the dark seascape, seemingly walking on water, searching for land. In the end, they do find themselves on a sandy beach. “Where are we?” Keaton’s wife asks. Keaton fans know the answer. There is no title; Keaton just mouths, “Damfino.”

Daydreams (1922)

Daydreams (1922) is not as dreamlike as its title implies, but it contains the famous sequence in which Keaton, running from the police, hides atop a steamboat's paddle wheel. The result is similar to the rotation of the interior of The Boat from the previous year, but there is more visual symmetry to the image. While not as nightmare-inducing as the scene in The Boat, the sequence in Daydreams is probably a little more clever, giving Keaton more to do as he first attempts to stay upright on the outside of the wheel and then is forced to the inside and turned end over end.

The Balloonatic (1923)

The Balloonatic (1923) opens mysteriously as Keaton strikes a match in a dark, apparently haunted location. We soon find out that he is inside an amusement park funhouse, but the opening shot generates a nice chill.

The Silent Features

After Keaton started making his own feature films, he continued to include haunted and nightmarish images, as well as more traditionally thrilling images. Think of the climactic river rescue at the end of Our Hospitality or the landslide in Seven Chances, two situations that would be frightening in real life, but which are tied to the overall narrative in such a way that, while thrilling, there is no sense that ordinary causality is being suspended. I don’t think they could be described as haunted. There are only a few shots from Keaton’s silent features that I find haunting, and they are some of the most striking in his entire body of work.

Sherlock Jr. (1924)

Sherlock Jr. (1924) is full of cinematic magic, but I think one of its images is more haunting than any other. It is during the chase within the dream sequence, where the great detective's assistant Gillette poses as a woman selling ties. Keaton appears to leap through the briefcase into the woman's midsection.

This amazing shot is more of a magic trick than a gag. Unlike the assembly of the man in The Haunted House, this is not a camera trick (unless you count the setup necessary before the actual shot). Like a lot of these sequences I'm highlighting, I don't know if it's funny, but it certainly generates amazement.

The Navigator (1924)

There are a lot of gags in The Navigator (1924) that are odd and haunting. The sequence in which Keaton and his girlfriend played by Kathryn McGuire each believe themselves to be alone on the ship is somewhat creepy. But the creepiest scene in the movie is purely visual. Kathryn McGuire, intimidated by the bizarre portrait of the ship's captain in her cabin, tosses the painting overboard.

Of course, the painting does not disappear into the sea. Rather, its string gets caught on a hook, causing it to swing back and forth in front of a certain porthole.

The image of the captain's life-sized face swinging outside the porthole as Keaton tries to sleep is nightmare-inducing, and Keaton's entirely appropriate reaction is hilarious. This quick sequence strikes the perfect blend of frightening and funny, and it's one of the highlights of The Navigator.

Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)

Finally, let's look at Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928). During the third act cyclone, there are many memorable scenes, the creepiest of which involve Keaton's interaction with a ventriloquist dummy that seems to come alive. Like the swinging portrait in The Navigator (and unlike most of the shots in The Boat), we clearly see the cause and effect behind the dummy's movements, but again like The Navigator, it hardly takes away from the thrill of terror engendered by a ventriloquist dummy that moves by itself.

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 don't need to belabor the many times sentient dummies and dolls have been used to horrific effect in movies, from Dead of Night to Magic to Child's Play.)


For my money, the most haunting scenes in Steamboat Bill, Jr. involve the floating jail. It is both surreal and frightening to watch as the jailhouse--in which Keaton's character's father is imprisoned--slides into the river, then floats away. (The concept of the floating, half-sunken house reminds me a little of the sunken house in the late T. M. Wright's chilling novel The Island.)

Even more disturbing than the image of the floating jailhouse is the method Keaton's character uses to free his father--ramming the jailhouse with the steamship and slicing it in two. This method is of course successful, but it is hair-raising to watch the ship slice into the house.

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.


  1. Hi Doc. That was a wonderful essay. You're right about Buster's penchant for dreamlike scenes. There is a similar quality in the scene where Buster is drifting down the river in "Our Hospitality." When Chaplin did literal dreams, as in "Easy Street" and "The Gold Rush," they weren't very dreamlike. If Harold Lloyd did any dreamlike scenes, I don't remember. Harry Langdon captured that quality in "Three's a Crowd." I'm also glad you mentioned the first time you heard Buster's voice. I first heard it when "Matinee at the Bijou," a PBS show, ran "Parlor, Bedroom and Bath." It was a moving experience. I had read many disparaging comments, but I thought his voice worked just fine.

    1. Thanks. It's kind of ironic that the more dramatic silent and early sound movies were often effectively dreamlike, but comedies tended to be more down-to-earth.

  2. You've given me a new perspective of these films, and I'll keep your insightful essay in mind when I see these films again. Thanks! :)

    1. Thanks. I liked your post on Steamboat Bill, Jr. The sequence where Buster mimes escaping from the cell with tools from the bread is just perfect. You're right that it's one of his most touching movies. The relationship with his father is so well developed and has a strong, emotional resolution. It's hard to believe it wasn't critically well received.

  3. What a fantastic essay, it exactly the kind of unique perspective on Keaton's work that makes me so happy to be hosting this blogathon. People often say that Buster thrills them...but rarely do you hear that he can be chilling.

    I agree with your analysis on the brilliant shot from THE GOAT, and think that your observation of Buster's calm is very close to the mark. The jarring sight of the huge train coming to such a sudden stop, paired with Buster's completely nonchalant body language, gives it a touch of comedy--but not too much. It's interesting to watch this short with other people, they usually laugh a little bit but don't always know just how to react.

    For me, Buster's voice suited him perfectly as an elderly man. But for some reason, I have the hardest time remembering what he sounded like as a young man. No matter how many times I watch his '30s work, eventually the memory of what his voice precisely sounded like will fade. I'm not kidding, it's the darnedest thing.

    1. Thanks for the kind words, and thanks for hosting such a great blogathon. I'm still working my way through the different posts. Every one I've read so far has been fascinating.

      I think The Goat is my favorite of the two-reelers, along with One Week. That shot must be part of the explanation, though the rest is so well realized.

      That's interesting about your memory of his voice as a young man. I should revisit those 30s features. I haven't seen them for a while, and I remember enjoying them much more than their reputation would imply (and I never thought Durante was as bad as some people think).

    2. I agree, their reputation really isn't quite deserved. Free and Easy was terrible, yes, but Speak Easily? Doughboys? Sidewalks of New York? Really Buster, they were pretty good! Especially if you compare them to the standard comedies of the 1930s. We're used to watching the cream of the crop (like the Marx Brothers, It Happened One Night, etc) but your average '30s comedy feature wasn't particularly mindblowing.

      I wanted to let you know that you won the drawing for the $25 gift certificate to the Buster Stuff online store! You can contact me on my "About Silent-ology" page so we can email each other with the details: Congrats!!

  4. What a fantastic blog post! Thank you.

    “His gags are assembled like the precision of an engineer”. So moving an observation since I feel that’s what Keaton WAS doing.

    It’s interesting that you mention the iconic visual of Keaton in The Goat. I’ve always felt it had a visceral quality, as arguably much of Keaton’s work does. It’s primal stuff. The point of view is from the train tracks itself, so the viewer is ON the tracks with the train (big piece of magnificent machinery) coming towards them. This would/should scare the bejesus out of anyone. But lo and behold it just stops short of hitting the viewer only to reveal a calm, relaxed, beautiful Keaton looking like he’s going for a joy ride. He’s the exact opposite of the feeling the viewer gets from the oncoming engine. He’s the calm in the storm. It’s iconic because this sums up what he is for us on screen. Our man of contradictions.

    1. Thanks for the nice comment. Great point about the camera's position in that shot in The Goat, and the contrast between the looming machinery and Keaton's calmness. I wonder if he just thought it would be a cool shot or get a big laugh, or if he was thinking something else. I also wonder how he would feel if he knew people were discussing that single shot 96 years later.

    2. In Walter Kerr's The Silent Clowns (p. 98) Kerr talks about artists "doing" before thought comes into play. This is currently how I view Keaton's artistry. "He went past cerebration and worked only with the thing itself, creating what amounts to theory out of his body, his camera, his fingers, a pair of scissors. Art is often something done before it is something thought: Keaton’s impulses were not only stronger but more accurate than any verbal formulation he might have chosen to offer for them." Kerr was talking about Sherlock Jr.'s dream sequence. I think it is also true for The Goat's train sequence and it's symbolism. Keaton went for laughs, but got oh so much more!