How Buster Keaton Took a Concept From Cinema’s Infancy and Revolutionized Comedy Forever

Buster Keaton dangles from a water well after jumping off a train in Sherlock Jr (1924)

If there is one word to describe Buster Keaton’s filmography, it would be precision: a cinematic accuracy backed by intentionality. Sherlock Jr. (Keaton, 1924) is no different from the rest of his films. Compared to other films during this time period, such as Battleship Potemkin (Sergei Eisenstein, 1925) and The Thief of Baghdad (Raoul Walsh, 1924), Sherlock Jr. seem ahead of its time, rivaling the pacing and technical lyricism of the best ‘talkies’ released twenty years later. While most of his contemporaries were using title cards more frequently, Keaton only uses one title card in both scenes that I will continue to refer back to in this paper. He takes full advantage of composition, editing techniques, and figure behavior to help communicate the story and humor.

All three of these relay back to the main goal of Keaton’s films: to create a shocking joke that no one has ever seen before. In this way, he effectively masters the ‘cinema of attractions’, a term coined by Tom Gunning to describe a type of film that offers an unexpected shock-and-awe effect for the viewer in exchange for a hyper-focused attention. As seen in Sherlock Jr.’s Pool Table and Bike Riding scenes, just like his intentionality in composition and editing, Keaton’s grand-scale approach to dramatic and situational irony intentionally manifests itself to be the peak of cinema of attractions.

The Butler wipes the seat. Guillotine just above.

There are three plots to kill Buster in the Pool Table scene: the chopping block, the poisoned drink, and the explosive pool ball. We begin with the premise that the audience member and the Villain/Butler duo understand the gravitas of the situation better than Sherlock Jr (Buster Keaton). These three plotlines are jokes with simple plot structures: starting with dramatic irony, transitioning into situational irony, and ending with the ‘Lubitsch Touch’–a term I will discuss later in this essay. Each of these is intrinsically tied to one another. First, the joke is being played on Buster’s character; he relays information loud and clear to the audience within a high-stakes context, initiating the process of dramatic irony.

Each plotline of the Pool Table scene highlights this clearly [i.e. Sherlock Jr. believes the group is engaging in a game of pool while remaining ignorant that the Villain (Ward Crane) and Butler (Erwin Connelly) are attempting to kill him]. The audience finds this so blatantly obvious, and that dangerous contrast between the informed and uninformed arises feelings of passionate frustration and confusion in the viewer. These feelings hook she/he into the film; during the first shot, the audience member just wants to jump up and tell Keaton that if he sits down in the chair, an axe will fall on his head. He gets your attention by showing you something that can and will kill him, then he shows you how clueless his character is about that something. The insert shot of the Butler’s tube of poison, the sequences where the Butler shows off the explosive pool ball and the chair-guillotine combo, all contribute to Keaton’s infuriating the viewer about his character’s ignorance, signified in his stolid, clueless face. His character is so clueless that, from the perspective of the viewer, the situations are outrageous. The shock that comes from this dynamic is how cinema of attractions is invoked. Now that he commands his audience’s attention, he is able to take advantage of them.

After Keaton renders the audience member focused and emotionally charged, he initiates the second process: situational irony. In this stage, the joke is being flipped onto the audience and the other characters in the scene. In order to invoke situational irony, he offers the audience a chance to feel they are ahead. Keaton’s classic stone face is meant to enforce the theme of him being constantly unengaged and unaware of his environment. By contrast, the audience sees themselves as having the upper hand. So, once the audience is confident in their knowledge of the scene, he strategically begins to break their expectations. In his first shot in the pool game, the audience and villainous duo enter knowing that the 13th billiard is explosive, but the Duo does not know Keaton’s character is suspicious of the new billiard–he sees in it in the mirror above him. Sherlock Jr. goes on to have the best stroke of luck anyone has ever seen: he hits billiards off three different walls and grazes the explosive 13th one several times, and the Villainous Duo hops into the other room to watch safely from afar in a cowardly manner.

The Villain, left, and the Butler, right, watch as Sherlock Jr dominates his turn in the other room.

These two are now voyeurs to the spectacled attraction that is Sherlock Jr’s turn in the game of pool. They are watching Buster’s character through a doorway edged by two curtains as if they are audience members to a theatrical performance directed by Sherlock. In a metaphysical sense, they are. They are now representative of the film’s audience, as audience members and the Villainous duo are meant to share the similar– if not, identical–reactions to Sherlock’s probability-defying game of billiards. With the theme of spectatorship actively working in the film, Keaton displays his maturity as a filmmaker through smaller meta-commentaries such as these.

Their incredulous disbelief of Sherlock’s ability to consistently miss the explosive 13th billiard manifests in their facial reactions. When the Butler explains to the Villain through hand-motions that Buster hit the balls in a perfect arc around the ball, the Villain’s face could only be verbally expressed with frustrated expletives. While viewing this movie in class, I witnessed the similar faces and gasps being made from my fellow classmates in the audience. This is not an accident. We are meant to feel what the Duo feels. So once Keaton’s character has miraculously finished his round unscathed, the Villain hits the ball before scurrying off into the other room again. Now, the joke is on the Duo, who thought they were smarter than Sherlock Jr. in the beginning. Yet, the audience also thought we were smarter than Sherlock in the beginning, so it begs us to answer the question: who is really at the height of awareness?

As with any film, the answer is the director. Only Keaton is aware. It seems like Keaton’s film is meant to challenge and outsmart the audience member for a laugh, and the audience clearly responds well to that. After several minutes into this film, Keaton is given full trust as he has established that his cinematic universe defies logic. With each step forward, it now becomes a game.

It is about how often and well can Keaton lull the viewer into believing they are a step ahead, then, as the saying goes, “pull the rug out from underneath them”. It is a tug-and-pull for viewership and attention, and that game is the cinema of attractions. The audience experiences the unexplainable in Keaton’s films: we wonder how Sherlock was able to avoid the 13th ball or how later on, he stays alive as he rides through dense traffic on the front tire of a driverless moped. Because of this, audiences will flood into theatres to see Keaton’s films for the same reason they flooded available screens to watch the Lumiere Brothers’ films twenty-five years earlier: they want to experience something they cannot experience anywhere else.

Each scene is tied together with a final joke, a twist on the recurring theme of situational irony but used in a way the audience never expected. This joke is emblematic “The Lubitsch Touch,” which references filmmaker Ernst Lubitsch’s unique style to end a scene (although Lubitsch’s career followed Keaton’s film, he is credited for this technique, so we will address it that way). Billy Wilder describes the Lubitsch Touch as an “elegant use of the Super Joke. You had a joke and you felt satisfied. And then there was one more big joke on top of it–the joke you didn’t expect” (Wilder).

At the end of the Pool Table scene, the Villain accidentally sits down in the guillotine chair, the Butler accidentally drinks the poisoned drink, and Sherlock opens a metal safe door and exits out onto the street through it. At the end of the motorcycle chase, Sherlock learns that no one is driving the bike, crashes, and flies through a window to accidentally stop a potential case of sexual assault from occurring. This comedic technique serves to bring the audience back to bookend the joke, allowing Keaton to start the three-step process all over again.

The Darjeeling Limited (Wes Anderson, 2007)
The before.

Ultimately, Keaton’s productions are about absurdity. Taking every joke to the fullest extent is his comedy. By way of editing, composition, and figure behavior, he is able to manipulate his audiences with a serious flow of between dramatic and situational irony. His influence is pervasive. It is evident in areas of art culture such as the popular rise of sitcoms in America, to the flat composition in Wes Anderson’s films, to the extreme cringe comedy in shows like Nathan for You (Nathan Fielder, 2013-Present). In my opinion, Buster Keaton cemented his place in history as the godfather of onscreen comedy because he repurposed the historical art movement in film that is cinema of attractions and repackaged it into an absurdist form of comedy that has become omnipresent in the world of entertainment today.

Works Cited

Wilder, Billy. “Billy Wilder.” AFI Harold Lloyd Master Seminar. AFI Harold Lloyd Master Seminar, 1976.

Filmmaker. Writer. Hypothesizer.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store