Still one of the best sight gags ever: Buster Keaton in Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)

Buster Keaton

  • Born:  1895
  • Died:  1966
  • Rank:  #96
  • Score:  511.60
  • Feature Films:  10
  • Best:  The General
  • Worst:  Battling Butler

Top 5 Feature Films:

  1. The General  –  1926
  2. Our Hospitality  –  1923
  3. Steamboat Bill, Jr.  –  1928
  4. Seven Chances  –  1925
  5. Three Ages  –  1923

Top 10 Best Director Finishes  (Nighthawk Awards):

  • 1928-29  –  5th  –  Steamboat Bill, Jr.

“There are those who think Buster Keaton was more talented than Chaplin. I am not one of those people. Keaton was a very good director, but not in the top 100. Chaplin is. And high up.”  That was what I originally wrote, two and a half years ago now, in my original Introduction.  So what has changed that Keaton has 40 more points now and makes the list?  Well, almost all of it was in the two categories I reconfigured – he benefited from his films on the external Top 1000 list and his points from me for Weighted Total helped him overcome the fact that his entire career was basically done before any awards existed for what he was doing.  And really, even though I think Chaplin is far more talented – a better actor, writer, director and all-around entertainer, the fact is, that Keaton was extraordinarily talented, that his films have wit and charm and he really does deserve his place on this list.

There are 10 films according to my list up there.  But look at the IMDb, and, of course, you will get a very different story.  Well, my list doesn’t include shorts, which is much of what he directed.  But I do include certain films that the consensus now says that he directed.  So, if you’re trying to figure out the ten films listed above, they are, in release order: Three Ages, Our Hospitality, The Navigator, Seven Chances, Go West, Battling Butler, The General, College, Steamboat Bill Jr. and The Cameraman  (there is no Sherlock, Jr. because it is too short to qualify).  Though only three are classics, all of them are absolutely worth watching and they are all testaments to Keaton’s well-rounded talent.  It’s just too bad that after The Cameraman he lost the kind of control that Chaplin was able to keep by financing his own films and there was no more to come.

Steamboat Bill, Jr.  –  #3 film of 1928-29

There are not many moments like it in film history.  It is something to see, startling and amazing, funny and breath-taking all at once, and, sadly, has been copied so many times that when you see the original, it might lose some of its power.  Might.  But it doesn’t, and Keaton the actor is the key to what Keaton the director is doing here.  It works so well because he’s so blissfully unaware that it’s happening.  Watch Jackie Chan do the same thing and there’s a bit of comic smugness to it.  Watch Aladdin do it and there is grim determination.  But watch Keaton, and he is so clueless of what is about to happen that it works so beautifully.  He’s not an action hero.  He’s the poor dope standing there and most likely to actually have a house fall on him, but somehow manages not to.

But of course, this is only the crowning jewel of a magnificent 15 minute stretch of special effects.  We’ve already seen a car getting blown away, dragging its owner with it.  And Buster ends up out in the storm because the hospital that he is in blows away, leaving him exposed.  After watching the library collapse, he leaps back into his hospital bed, hoping to hide away from the storm under the sheets, but finds his whole bed blown away.  He ends up in front of the collapsing house when the owner leaps out of that same window, landing on Keaton’s bed – which he has hidden under – and knocks Keaton out.  Keaton stumbles around and then comes that all-too-wonderful moment of film.

There is a romance in the film, of course.  There usually is in a Keaton film, a romance that is frowned upon.  But this film isn’t about that plot, or even that much about the early gags.  It is all about the hurricane that blows into town and nearly blows everything away.  We are reminded that the Silent Era produced some amazing films that simply didn’t require dialogue.  There is barely a title to be seen in the last fifteen minutes of the film and they aren’t needed.  Keaton’s expressions pretty much say it all – especially in that moment.  And even knowing what is coming, you still find yourself laughing and laughing, because that’s what a great director can do.