There’s a one-second part of The Electric House that is one of my favorite Buster Keaton visuals of all time. The scene: Buster’s in the kitchen with a malfunctioning robotic dishwasher, and the machine starts flinging dinnerware across the room. A plate hits him in the back of the head and shatters, and when he turns around to see what’s going on, another hits him square in the face, shattering perfectly, knocking him off his feet. The way his head takes the impact and his feet lift off the ground…it’s the kind of move that only seems possible in cartoons (and honestly probably served as a blueprint for all the cartoons that came after it) but at the same time it’s so wonderfully graceful and real. The plate-to-the-head shot literally lasts a split second before cutting to the next scene, but it’s such a good example of Buster’s physical comedy and timing.
We got to see that ^ moment and about a hundred other exquisite Buster pratfalls at the Castro Theater yesterday as part of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. They were showing three Buster shorts: The High Sign, The Electric House, and The Goat (the theme was “Buster’s Mechanized Mayhem”). I relish seeing silent movies in the theater with live music, but I especially love watching slapstick, which gives you permission to laugh out loud with 500 other people in a dark theater, the silliness of the gags compounding on top of each other, getting funnier and funnier.
A couple other favorite moments:
The banana peel “gag” in The High Sign, in which the villain finishes a banana (a callback from an earlier gag where Buster had put the banana in the cop’s holster after stealing his gun, and the cop later tries to hold up the villain with it), then drops the peel on the sidewalk, waiting for Buster to come around the corner. If you’re like me, watching this scene, there may have been a split second where you wonder if this one of the first ever banana peel slips, a novel concept before it became one of the most familiar gags in slapstick. You prepare yourself to laugh, thinking about the 1921 audiences who may have been seeing it for the first time on screen, or at least seeing Buster trip on a banana peel for the first time, trying to put yourself in their shoes. Then Buster rounds the corner and STEPS RIGHT ONTO BANANA PEEL, keeps walking, and flashes the “high sign” to the camera in a cheeky little nose-thumb to the crowd (because of course everyone was expecting a fall). I’ve seen this scene before and I was STILL caught off guard. The moment everyone in the theater realized we got fooled and erupted into laughter was when I actually did feel transported back in time, right back in the shoes of the 1921 audience. He gottem back then, and got us again 101 years later.
(Alex’s favorite gag from The High Sign was the never-ending newspaper, which I love for its near-obsolescence. It made me wonder what kinds of gags Buster could make out of smartphones, smart homes, self-driving cars, etc. He’d have a field day!)
I hadn’t seen The Goat before (more like The GOAT, amirite?) so one of my favorite parts was when Buster escaped from the cops on a train. The image of the train pulling up with Buster sitting deadpan on the pilot is iconic, and I never knew where it was from! The whole theater cheered and clapped at that point, which made my heart swell. Buster standing up and lighting his cigarette on the boiler (yes, I most definitely had to google “parts of a locomotive” for this paragraph) was the icing on the cake. Timeless, effortless swagger.
My favorite of the three was definitely The High Sign, but all had excellent moments. The Castro Theater is enormous and magnificent—plenty of room for an accompanying live band (or in this case, a pianist)—and the perfect setting for watching silent films. We sat near an exit door, and halfway through The Goat I could hear the rain pelting down outside, which made the whole affair seem even more unifying for some reason. The movies were an escape back in the early 1920s (a slideshow before the screening told us as much: everyone was looking for an excuse to laugh after a world war and global pandemic), and they were an escape yesterday too: from the rain, work, the pandemic, the world. Sometimes I feel like there aren’t enough words for my Buster love (appropriate, given his medium), so I always just let the gags do the talking.