You can guess a lot about a person if you know their favorite silent film star. People who pick Harold Lloyd don’t much care for messy emotion. Fans of Charlie Chaplin are all about emotion. And people who love Buster Keaton favor subtlety.
The three longtime rivals compete again at this Saturday’s installment of the Silent Clowns series (curated by Bruce Lawton with music by the silent-film accompanist Ben Model), and for my money Buster still outshines the other two, even though the film being shown is his first and one of his least favorite.
Lloyd is the featured star this month, so two of his two-reelers are showing. Both are from 1920, during the time when he was playing the gangly, glasses-wearing 98-pound weakling you’ve probably seen on that famous clock picture. In High and Dizzy, he’s a newly minted doctor, which gives him an excuse to start off in the first of a series of classic vaudevillian settings (doctor’s office, hotel lobby…) and set-ups (getting chased by a cop; walking on a dizzyingly high ledge …). He’s a likable loser, but the film feels more like a series of gags than a building narrative and some of the gags are overly familiar, though they’re all nicely executed.
A coherent story with a more original set-up, Lloyd’s Number, Please is far more engaging. As Harold vies with a gigantic rival for the girl of his dreams, his frustration takes on real, welcome emotional weight, and his protracted battle with that newfangled contraption, the telephone, contains some memorably spiky bits, like the sassy switchboard operator who snaps back when Harold complains about all the calls she misdirected.
Chaplin’s The Pawn Shop sidesteps the maudlin self-pity his duck-walking tramp sometimes displays, but it unfolds at a leisurely pace that slows to a painful crawl. This time, the tramp is a hapless clerk in a pawnshop. Ringing variations on just a handful of bits, Chaplin repeatedly sets up a situation and then plays it out to the nth degree. When the clerk holds his feather duster in front of a fan while it blows off all the feathers, making the room more of a mess than it was when he started to clean it, he seems more clueless than clumsy as he stands with his arm out, waiting—and waiting—for the gag to pay off.
The film plays with contrasts, often shifting on a dime from the hectic slapstick of the clerk’s constant battles with his coworker to the calm they feign when the boss checks in on them. Chaplin’s love of contrasts and mining a gag converge in the film’s best bit, where a customer who cons the clerk by spinning a phony sob story is followed by an honest man with a clock to pawn and the newly wised-up clerk checks the clock out so thoroughly he ruins the thing.
Buster’s The High Sign was the first film he conceived and shot on his own, though he held off on releasing it for a while, convinced it was “ordinary,” according to biographer Marion Meade.
To which one can only say: In what universe? True, The High Sign is constructed from a lot of familiar parts—including an oceanside amusement park that looks just like the one in Number, Please—but the familiar bits are tossed off with deadpan understatement and the narrative is tidily constructed.
Buster plays a drifter thrown off a train who looks for a job and finds one—along with plenty of trouble. Each bit builds on the last, and every setup leads to a satisfying payoff—except when it doesn’t because our expectations are being subverted. Nods like that to the audience make his films feel very modern, as does the streamlined editing. Buster never lingers on a setup or underlines a point by mugging. He just shows us something funny and moves on, assuming that we got it.
The film finds some imaginative ways to convey information without resorting to title cards, including an ultimatum letter to the wealthy August Nickelnurser, who Buster’s boss and his gang are trying to blackmail (“Unless you come across today, the first of September will be the last of August,” they warn.) And he sets up a couple of the complicated extended sight gags he was so good at, including the beautifully timed blend of gymnastics and slapstick he uses to fend off the gangsters in Nickelnurser’s house. The cameras sometimes pulls back during that sequence to show all four rooms of the two-story house in dollhouse mode, the façade pulled off so we can watch Buster pour himself in and out of windows, up walls, through transoms and trapdoors, gracefully knocking off the bad guys as he goes.