Apr 14, 2016

Buster Keaton: Gay Icon of the Silent Screen

I've never understood the comedy of the early 20th century, whether it's comic strips, silent movies, or the short stories of P.G. Wodehouse.   Maybe it's the cultural barrier.

Silent movies, especially: in the absence of substantial dialogue, they make do with slapstick, which is basically people falling down and getting hit by things.

Buster Keaton (1895-1966) was one of the great comedians of the silent film era, taking limitless abuse without comment, his "Stone Face" expressionless or grim.

Although he was rather raw-boned and ugly, he had a respectable physique for the period, and was not shy about taking his clothes off.

His films tend to be heterosexist boy-gets-girl vehicles.

Sherlock Jr. (1924) is about a mild-mannered film projectionist who becomes a sleuth to track down the thief who stole his girlfriend's father's prized watch (it's the local studmuffin).

The General (1926) is about a railroad engineer during the Civil War who is too much of a weakling to join the Union army.  He routes the Confederates anyway, becoming a war hero.  It ends with a famous scene where Keaton is trying to kiss his girlfriend, but has to continually salute passing troops.

Battling Butler (1926) is about a sissified rich kid who tries to get the girl by pretending to be a macho fighter, the "Battling Butler."  He manages to best his opponent, the "Alabama Murderer," by being sneaky.

Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928) is about a collegiate nerd who disappoints his macho father by falling in love with Dad's business rival; it ends with a famous scene in which Keaton proposes to his girlfriend as they're floating around in lifebuoys.

Not a lot of buddy-bonding: in fact, other men are portrayed as oily competitors for the girl or as big, menacing brutes.

But still, Keaton was apparently quite popular among the gay men of the 1920s.

They identified with his characters, butterfly-collecting sissies, beanie-wearing nerds who save the day in spite of their lack of machismo.

And his many shirtless shots didn't hurt.

Keaton continued to perform in comedy shorts into the talking-picture era, and was a recognizable screen and tv presence through the 1950s.  In the 1960s, he had ongoing roles in Frankie and Annette's beach movies, an elder statesman reveling in the antics of youth.

See also: Beach Movies; The Collegians

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