Buster Keaton was one of the great comedians of the silent era, although today he is less familiar to the general public than Charlie Chaplin and his Little Tramp persona. Perhaps that's because Keaton's screen persona is more subtle; known as "The Great Stone Face," Keaton on screen is not a tramp or even really a clown, but a determined everyman constantly at odds with the forces of fortune, gravity, and romance. His silent movies reflect Keaton's genius as both a performer and a director, and they hold up beautifully thanks to a combination of zany sight gags and thrilling physical stunts. If you want to introduce silent movies to younger viewers or start watching them yourself, Buster Keaton's features are a great place to begin. Here are ten classic movies where you can get to know the star and his unique comedy style.
1) "Three Ages" (1923) - A spoof of D.W. Griffith's 1916 drama, "Intolerance," Keaton's first big feature-length production tells the story of an underdog lover in three different time periods, with Keaton starring as the protagonist in each sequence. Kids will love the goofy Stone Age scenes, complete with dinosaurs and caveman costumes, while adults will appreciate the sophisticated interweaving of the three narrative strands. Classic movie buffs will recognize Wallace Beery as Buster's antagonist through the ages.
2) "Sherlock Jr." (1924) - A favorite with Keaton fans, this surreal fantasy plays with the very medium of film during a sequence in which Keaton's character, a movie projectionist, dreams his way into the movie being shown on the screen. The title refers to Keaton's character imagining himself as the famous detective of the film. Watch for an especially eye-popping trick in which Keaton leaps through a window and transforms into an old woman in the process.
3) "The Navigator" (1924) - Keaton's foppish young protagonist, Rollo, finds himself adrift at sea with an equally spoiled young lady (Kathryn McQuire) in this nautical comedy. Left to their own resources, the pair come up with some ingenious methods for getting things done around the ship. Kids will enjoy the wacky inventions that Keaton employs to tackle tasks like cooking as well as the underwater scenes when he dons a deep-sea diving outfit to repair a hole in the ship.
4) "Go West" (1925) - After meeting with a series of failures in the city, Keaton's hero tries his luck out West, where he encounters a pretty girl and an even more attractive cow. Keaton's character, known as "Friendless," is truly pathetic until he hooks up with Brown Eyes, his bovine companion. When she gets sent off to the stockyards for slaughter, Friendless heroically struggles to save her. Silent movie fans will spot Keaton's old friend, Fatty Arbuckle, making an uncredited appearance in drag in one brief scene.
5) "The General" (1926) - Generally regarded as Keaton's finest picture, this classic Civil War story puts Keaton on the Confederate side of the conflict as a young engineer who loves his girl and his train. When Yankees make off with both of them, it's up to our hero to give chase. Keaton stages some jaw-dropping stunts on moving trains, and the ultimate spectacle is the biggest train crash sequence ever filmed. You can watch a trailer for "The General" at the top of this article and see Buster Keaton in action.
6) "Steamboat Bill, Jr." (1928) - One of Keaton's greatest accomplishments, this picture includes the famous stunt in which a building falls down right around Buster's head, something you really have to see to believe. Keaton plays the son of a riverboat captain who falls into a forbidden romance with the daughter of his father's arch enemy. When a huge storm bears down on the town, Buster's hero must save the day, win the girl, and heal the rift between the two older men.
7) "The Cameraman" (1928) - This time Buster stars as an old-fashioned photographer trying to break into the motion picture business in order to impress a pretty girl (Marceline Day). Unfortunately, his enthusiasm is greater than his skill, until luck and a funny monkey help him get his big break. Kids will especially love Keaton's hilarious simian sidekick, who gets Buster into plenty of trouble.
8) "In the Good Old Summertime" (1949) - Keaton has a memorable supporting role in this musical romance starring Judy Garland and Van Johnson. A remake of "The Shop Around the Corner" (1940), this cheerful comedy also stars S.Z. Sakall and Spring Byington. Keaton has some especially good scenes that demonstrate his enduring talent despite his long fall from the heights of his silent career.
9) "Limelight" (1952) - Keaton stars with Charlie Chaplin in this musical drama written and directed by Chaplin. Although it's not as well-known as either star's best silent pictures, this movie does offer fans a unique opportunity to see the pair performing together. Chaplin plays an aging music hall comedian, with Keaton as his partner. Other notable players include Claire Bloom, Nigel Bruce, and Chaplin's son, Sydney.
10) "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" (1966) - This musical comedy starring Zero Mostel is Buster Keaton's final screen appearance before his death in 1966. Keaton plays Erronius, an old man searching for his lost children. The movie, adapted from the 1962 Broadway musical, also stars Phil Silvers and Michael Crawford.
Keaton's career suffered after the silent era ended, and personal problems compounded his fall, but he lived long enough to see his work appreciated and celebrated by a new generation of fans. For more of his films, try shorts like "One Week" (1920) and "The Balloonatic" (1923) or feature films like "Seven Chances" (1925) and "Spite Marriage" (1929). You can learn about Buster Keaton's life and work by reading books like "Buster Keaton: Tempest in a Flat Hat" by Edward McPherson or "Buster Keaton's Silent Shorts" by James L. Neibaur and Terri Niemi.
Jennifer Garlen writes as the Huntsville and National Classic Movies Examiner. Her books, "Beyond Casablanca: 100 Classic Movies Worth Watching" and "Beyond Casablanca II: 101 Classic Movies Worth Watching," are both available on Amazon.