Buster Keaton could be hilarious on occasion, but most of his work is not geared to a laugh meter. The Frozen North strikes me as his funniest film, with CopsThe High Sign, and The Goat not too far behind. Significantly, these are all short films. Even in these works, the virtuosity unveiled often transforms the wild laugh into an appreciative chuckle. All in all, Keaton is far from being the funniest comedian ever, yet he could generate the belly laugh when he so desired.

Keaton’s comedy, for the most part, does not deflate pomposity or overthrow the powers that be, at least not by conscious design. Cops became an underground classic in the late sixties because of the sheer number of “pigs” who were zapped and lampooned in the course of Buster’s madcap adventures. But Keaton is no anarchic angel. Much of the havoc he wreaks is caused by his lofty indifference to convention. At his best, he is consumed by an obsessive logic that impels him into a physically and visually harmonious relationship with the world around him. His forte is construction rather than demolition. Keaton walking into the movie screen in Sherlock Jr., Keaton dangling confidently from the mast in The Navigator, swinging from the falls in Our Hospitality, fleeing from the hordes of would-be brides in a continuous shot in Seven Chances, and above all, riding the whirlwind itself, to Oedipal reversal in Steamboat Bill Jr. by saving his father from drowning. If one assembles all these haunting images, and many more, the composite effect in one’s mind is a spectacle at which one must gasp rather than guffaw.If one thinks of a comedy/ha-ha as the most important part of screen comedy, one must conclude that the funniest films are almost invariably destructive and subversive and, more often than we like to admit, ratty and mean-spirited. The eternal appeal of the ethnic joke attests to the criterion of cruelty in these matters. So much “humor” is based on feelings of contempt, superiority, and comparative sophistication and normality.

When Buster Keaton was three years old, a Kansas cyclone lifted him out of a second story window and deposited him unharmed in the middle of an unpaved main street some four blocks away. In Steamboat Bill Jr. Keaton seems to draw on intuitive insights into the cyclonic forces of nature, and the state of grace and adaptability necessary to survive them. In the end, he triumphs over adversity by a majestic submission to the forces of motion, the very forces that constitute the logic and magic of all movies.

—Andrew Sarris

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