(This is the 24th of 50 pieces that originally appeared in a Facebook group devoted to three of us choosing our 50 favorite movies. I’ll present them un-edited except for typos or egregious errors. I’ll also add a post-script to each.)
Steamboat Bill, Jr. is my favorite Buster Keaton movie. But I could just as easily have chosen The General, or Sherlock Jr., or College (which makes me laugh harder than any of them), or a handful of short subjects. I chose Steamboat Bill, Jr. because it was my first.
Nowadays, Keaton and Chaplin are considered the two greatest film comedians to come from the silent era. But this hasn’t always been so. For a variety of reasons, many of them personal, Keaton did not make a successful transition into sound films, whereas Chaplin was still making classics through The Great Dictator in 1940 (although Chaplin stuck with silents as long as he could). In the mid-1950s, though, lost prints of Keaton’s silent works were discovered, and the world once again had the chance to experience his brilliance.
I feel like for some reason, we’re supposed to “pick” Chaplin or Keaton, as if you can’t like them both. Whatever … due respect to Chaplin, but Keaton was indeed my favorite. His acrobatic skills were unparalleled, and like the person most influenced by him, Jackie Chan, Keaton used those skills in creative, intelligent ways. He didn’t just flop around; he constructed scenarios. His famous stone face added to the humor, and was, I think, the main reason some have found existentialist tendencies in Keaton’s greatest work. No matter what happens around him, the face stays the same.
It is also true that Keaton tended to avoid sappy emotionalism. Many folks like those kinds of scenes … Jeff spoke eloquently about how “where others see ‘sentimentalism’ I see ‘optimism’” … I am not one of those people, and I am thankful that Keaton avoids it.
I recommend The General for the excellence of its recreation of its Civil War setting, and Sherlock Jr. for its remarkable surrealism. But Steamboat Bill, Jr. is my personal fave.
The comments discussed how hard it is to catch up to silent movies you missed, because they are harder to find than more recent films, and because there are always so many others to see. Two of us who had the most to say both attended the same film program in college, and that’s one way to see the film canon: just have it forced upon you. In my case, at least, it was worth it.