Buster Keaton Assembly
Summer Term, 2021
There’s a story I often tell people. And I often tell it because it always gets a laugh. I was at a training course with a load of other English teachers. It was very boring. We sat in a small room, each of us at our own little exam desks. Towards the end of the morning session, I began to feel hungry. When the course leader said, ‘it’s time for lunch’, I immediately jumped up.
Unfortunately, the chair leg was pinning the end of my jeans to the floor. This meant that not only did I not manage to stand up but I also fell over. In a desperate attempt to keep myself from tumbling, I grabbed onto my desk. It was no help. I carried the desk with me. I ended up on my back, the desk on my chest, all the many pieces of paper I’d been given fluttering about me.
‘He must have really wanted lunch,’ said the course instructor. The room laughed.
Now, I was tempted to spend this assembly discussing my new book, out July 8th, Escape from Camp Boring.
But my experience as a teacher is that whenever you want kids to do something (i.e. homework, planning essays, buying my book), they do the opposite (i.e. not doing homework, not planning essays, not buying my book).
So, instead, I’m going to talk about something else.
After poetry, I think humour is the most difficult thing to write. Saying this, I don’t think that the books I write are funny. I hope they’re funny. The second worst question I’ve ever been asked at a school visit, by a young girl with an face like she was chewing a wasp was:
‘Do you really think you’re funny?’ She, quite clearly, did not.
But it’s very easy to write something, be it a novel or screenplay, that makes people sad, that makes people cry. It’s more difficult to make them laugh. We’ve all told a joke nobody found funny. It’s not a great feeling. Comedy demands an instant reaction, almost a binary — you either smile or you don’t. That’s why stand-up comedy must be so terrifying. Despite this, comedy is looked down upon as an art form. When was the last time a comedy won the Oscar for Best Film? When was the last time an out and out funny book won the Booker?
I could now explore why we laugh. Baudelaire said that it’s a consequence of the human notion of one’s own superiority. And I suppose that would explain why people find my story of falling over funny. Biologically, spontaneous laughter emerges in the first few months of life, even in children who are deaf or blind. Laughter not only transcends human cultural boundaries, but species boundaries, too: it is present in a similar form in other great apes.
But I’m not going to talk about this.
I could revert to my status as English teacher and consider ways of writing comic literature. In doing so, I’d probably discuss repetition, exaggeration, repetition, and juxtaposition, or contrast, as a way of creating humour.
But I’m not going to talk about this either.
Instead, I’m going to introduce you to one of my favourite film stars, someone, I think, who was extremely funny. In all literature, in all films, and this is true of content that isn’t comic too, I like to be surprised. I think I find Buster Keaton funny because of how consistently surprising he is.
Born to vaudeville performers, Buster Keaton began performing at 3. He was introduced to film when he was 21 and eventually began directing and starring in Hollywood movies in the 1920s. The talkies eventually pushed him out of demand, but he left behind a run of classic silent comedies that continue to influence film-making to this day.
And he was the guy almost hit by the front of a house in the first clip, taken from the film Steamboat Bill Jr (1928).
Now, I’m conscious that some of you won’t find this funny. Or that you’re too cool to admit to doing so. So, putting what’s laugh-worthy and what isn’t aside, you will have to admit that Keaton’s stunts are amazing. I mean that in the full sense of the word. They amaze. Although occasionally using camera trickery, there were obviously no green screens or CGI, all of the stunts you see Keaton perform were done by him and were often extremely dangerous. Thinking back to the storm scene at the start, he had a mark to stand on which meant he’d be positioned exactly where the window would fall. Any mistake, an inch or two to the left or right, forward or back, and he would have died.
So committed was he to his funny stunts, that he actually broke his neck in one scene and carried on regardless. You’ve got to admit that’s impressive. Let’s take a look.
He hadn’t expected the water to come out at such speed and it was that that meant he broke his neck. Don’t worry, though, he made a full recovery.
The critical consensus is that The General, released in 1926, is Keaton’s finest film.
It’s set in the Civil War and is inspired by an actual event called the Great Locomotive Chase. A group of Union soldiers commandeered a train and travelled through Confederacy-held lands, doing as much damage as possible, all the while chased by soldiers who weren’t on a train.
Keaton used six cameras for the train wreck scene, which began four hours late and required several lengthy trial runs. The train wreck of the “Texas”, the train’s name, cost $42,000, which remains the most expensive single shot in silent film history.
Keaton got in trouble with his studio, United Artists, for the film’s budget more generally. There were also numerous on-set accidents that contributed to the growing over-spend. This included Keaton being knocked unconscious; an assistant director being shot in the face with a blank cartridge; a train wheel running over a brakeman’s foot, resulting in a lawsuit; and the train’s wood-burning engine causing numerous fires. The fires often spread to forests and farmers’ haystacks, which cost the production thousands of dollars in compensation.
The General isn’t my favourite, though. The one film that, I think, has most LOLs per minute is Sherlock Jr. In this film, Buster Keaton plays a cinema operator. He falls asleep during a murder mystery movie and dreams of being a detective, the titular Sherlock Jr. One of the best sequences is fantastically meta, as our hapless heroes enters the screen from the auditorium and struggles to cope with multiple scene changes.
We’re running out of time, so instead of finishing off with some important life lesson you might learn from all this or a further plug for my new book, out July 8th, I want to show not just my favourite scene from a Buster Keaton film but, I think, my favourite cinematic chase of all time. I’m always amazed by the way you (and by that, I mean young people) consume music — I had a chat about 90s Trip-hop with a Year 11 the other day, someone in my form loves Bruce Springsteen, another sixth-former and me share an appreciation of Wu Tang. So, if there were to be a message, it would be something about consuming film in the same way you do music — taking risks and searching out for things that might be old. Like, over a hundred years old. And, you know, it’s okay to enjoy something just because it’s funny. Not all literature, not all art, has to have a deep message. Sometimes, it’s enough just to laugh.
So … here we go … the chase scene from Sherlock Jr.