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Buster in fairyland

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Title:
Buster in fairyland fairy-tale narratives in the art and life of Buster Keaton
Creator:
Hart, Sally Johnston
Publication Date:
Language:
English
Physical Description:
79 leaves : ; 28 cm

Subjects

Subjects / Keywords:
Fairy tales -- History and criticism ( lcsh )
Fairy tales ( fast )
Genre:
Criticism, interpretation, etc. ( fast )
bibliography ( marcgt )
theses ( marcgt )
non-fiction ( marcgt )
Criticism, interpretation, etc ( fast )

Notes

Bibliography:
Includes bibliographical references (leaves 78-79).
General Note:
Department of English
Statement of Responsibility:
by Sally Johnston Hart.

Record Information

Source Institution:
|University of Colorado Denver
Holding Location:
Auraria Library
Rights Management:
All applicable rights reserved by the source institution and holding location.
Resource Identifier:
54671020 ( OCLC )
ocm54671020
Classification:
LD1190.L54 2003m H37 ( lcc )

Full Text
BUSTER IN FAIRYLAND:
FAIRY-TALE NARRATIVES IN THE ART AND LIFE
OF BUSTER KEATON
by
Sally Johnston Kimball Hart
R.N., Methodist Hospital of Indiana School of Nursing, 1968
B.A., University of Colorado at Denver, 1998
A thesis submitted to the
University of Colorado at Denver
in partial fulfillment
of the requirements for the degree of
Master of Arts
English
2003


This thesis for the Master of Arts
Degree by
Sally Johnston Kimball Hart
has been approved
by
Susan E. Linville
f/5u/o3
Date
Pompa Banerjee


Hart, Sally Johnston Kimball (M. A., English)
Buster In Fairyland: Fairy-Tale Narratives in the Art And Life of Buster Keaton
Thesis directed by Associate Professor Susan E. Linville
ABSTRACT
Stories and storytelling were immensely important to Buster Keaton throughout
his life. He drew from both in his work, his play, and in his straggle to cope with the
circumstances in which he lived, not only as an abused, exploited boy performer in
vaudeville, but also as the emotionally damaged yet brilliant filmmaker he grew up
to be. In childhood and adulthood alike, when the need to escape from reality arose,
fantasy (in the form of fairy tales and filmmaking) facilitated Keatons excursions to
the world of his imagination. Turning to what he called all the fairylands in the
world, Buster the boy found in popular tales a veritable primer with which to read
the imagistic language of his mind and to express his feelings symbolically, and
thereby, deal with the ambivalence, fear, and helplessness he felt as a result of his
parents bewildering behavior and treatment of him both in private and in their
physically punishing family act. Moreover, evidence suggests that he identified
closely with the protagonists in these narratives because the situations in which they
often find themselves mirrored those he faced in real life.
iii


Later on, as a young adult, Keaton used fairy tales as a template for his films as
the films themselves reveal. The remarkable correspondence between the key
themes, motifs, and narrative patterns in conventional fairy tales and Keatons
independently made silent films speaks to the influence of the former on the latter,
while his absurdist inflections and ironic endings define his stories as distinctly
fractured, modernist renditions representative of the period and problematic world in
which he lived and worked. Filmmaking served similar purposes for the adult
Keaton that fantasy did for the child Buster, including the possibilities to engage
repressed, negative emotions and psychological issues generated by past and present
life experiences; to grant himself, cinematically, the fondest wishes of his inner child
and adult self; and to make the transition, in the psychological sense, from
immaturity to maturity.
This abstract accurately represents the content of the candidates thesis. I
recommend its publication.
Signed:
Susan E. Linville
IV


DEDICATION
I dedicate this thesis to the memory of Buster Keaton who succeeded in making
something good even out of the unpromising material of his abusive childhood, and
thereby, inspires those, like my sister Susie Erikson and myself, who are striving to
do the same.


ACKNOWLEDGEMENT
I wish to express my deepest thanks to my advisor, Susan Linville, first, for
introducing me to the joys of Buster Keaton and sharing her invaluable insights
regarding his films with me, and then, for her expertise, empathy, encouragement,
enthusiasm, patience, and humor throughout the time we spent exploring his art and
life. I also want to thank my daughter, Cara Hart, for being ever ready, willing, and
able to lend me her masterful technical assistance. Finally, I must thank my
husband, A1 Hart, for being my primary source of support, understanding, and love,
always.


CONTENTS
CHAPTER
1. INTRODUCTION.................................1
2. FAIRY-TALE NARRATIVE: DEFINITIONS AND INTERPRETIVE
PARADIGMS.....................................5
3. HOME LIFE IN KEATONS HOUSES OF TROUBLE...18
4. PRE-OEDIPAL COMEDY L: SHERLOCK. JR..........29
5. PRE-OEDIPAL COMEDY DL: THE NAVIGATOR........43
6. PRE-OEDIPAL COMEDY UL: GO WEST..............52
7. PATERNAL RESCUE FANTASY: STEAMBOAT BILL. JR.60
8. MATERNAL RESCUE FANTASY: THE CAMERAMAN......67
9. CONCLUSION..................................73
ENDNOTES............................................76
WORKS CITED.........................................78
Vll


CHAPTER 1
INTRODUCTION
Long before Joseph Buster Keaton (1895-1966) became a filmmaker, Buster
the boy, in effect, started practicing to be one. Referring to his penchant for using
dream sequences as a device in his movies, Keaton once explained to an interviewer,
I used to daydream an awful lot in pictures; I could get carried away and visualize
all the fairylands in the world. Dream sequences ... I guess it was just my natural
way of workin.... (Dardis 130). Like Judith Sanders and Daniel Lieberfeld, in
their path-finding and compassionate article, Dreaming in Pictures: The Childhood
Origins of Buster Keatons Creativity, I take this intriguing statement as my starting
point. However, while their focus is Keatons habit of dreaming in pictures, mine is
his practice of visualizing and conveying himself to all the fairylands in the world.
And while they make a strong case for their assertion that Keaton [used] vaudeville
convention[s] as a vehicle for expressing, and attempting to resolve, psychological
dilemmas rooted in [his] personal history,... [representing] his emotional struggles
through fantasies in film, [and] thereby, moderating for a time the debilitating
consequences of his extraordinary childhood (14-15) I submit that, in addition to
vaudeville conventions, there was another template upon which Keaton fashioned his
film fantasies that served similar purposes: fairy tales.
1


Extant studies of Keatons life and filmography perceptively document and
discuss his formative yearsduring which he was the star of his parents vaudeville
act and the primary object of their exploitation and his fathers abuse. They also
examine his adulthoodduring which, as a filmmaker, he employed (both
unconsciously and consciously) the theatrical skills he perfected as a performer in
The Three Keatons to come to terms with the psychological damage he sustained
as a result of the same experience. While the aforementioned material contributes
substantially to the completion of the puzzle that is Keaton, its lack of attention to
fairy tales is significant because, by his own admission, as a boy, Buster transported
himself out of his tumultuous surroundings via fairy tales. As many children do, he
found aid and comfort there which facilitated his transition, in the psychological
sense, from immaturity to maturity, but, more importantly, as an abused child, he
identified with the protagonists of these narratives because the situations in which
they so often find themselves mirrored those he faced every day in real life.
When Keaton grew up and became an independent moviemakerwriting,
directing, and starring in his own brilliant silent pictures for nearly a decadea
vestige of Buster, the boy, remained inside the filmmaker and profoundly influenced
the way Keaton, the man, crafted his own modernist fairy tales. Some commentators
even refer to certain of Keatons silent movies as fairy tales and make note of his
occasional use of the phrase, Once upon a time ..., in his opening titles or
2


briefly mention the fairy-tale quality they discern in them.1 However, none goes
on to explore this subject in depth as I intend to do here.
At a very young age, Buster started making up and pantomiming stories,
demonstrating that he would rather tell tales visuallyin his own waythan read or
listen to them. For his mother, Myra, who home-schooled him, this was a matter of
some consternation. Although not highly educated, Myra was aware that one learns
to read by reading and by being read to; but, feeling compelled to create and convey
his own stories, Buster balked at both. Hence, Myra and her reluctant student had
different ideas about what form Busters story hour should take. Rudi Blesh,
Keatons first biographer, recounts a conversation he had with Myra about this issue.
[W]ith rueful indirect reference to the unused storybooks that Buster would not
listen to, Blesh writes, Myra recalled [watching Busters] random acrobatics grow
into a kind of improvised narrative in slapstick form, [and] realizing that her son was
a boy who preferred stories to be acted out (30).
Buster did learn to read and write, of course, but, for as long as his
circumstances allowed, he kept to his preferred method of telling stories. He
absorbed the written and orally narrated ones to which he was exposed, added some
material of his own, then retold them, not by way of the printed or spoken word, but
with his own unique language of symbolic images, visual puns and metaphors.
Consequently, by the time he took charge of his own movie studio in 1920 at age 24,
Keaton was up to the challenge because he had long been preparing to be an actor-
3


auteur. Being an intuitive artist and a very quick study, Keaton apparently made the
transition from vaudeville to the movies with the greatest of ease; he was a natural,
in exactly the right place at precisely the right time, and anxious to start expressing
himself in a medium that seemed to have been invented just for him: silent films.
Thus, stories and storytelling were immensely important to Keaton as a child
and as an adult. He immersed himself in both in his work, his play, and in his
struggle to cope with the circumstances in which he lived; as both a boy and a man,
when the need to escape from reality arose, fantasy facilitated his imaginary
excursions to all the fairylands in the world. The remarkable correspondence
between the key themes, motifs, and elements in conventional fairy tales (which
presumably Busters storybooks contained) and in Keatons independently made
silent films speaks to the fundamental influence of the former narratives on the latter,
while his absurdist inflections and ironic endings define his stories as distinctly
fractured, modernist renditions.
4


CHAPTER 2
FAIRY-TALE NARRATIVE:
DEFINITIONS AND INTERPRETIVE PARADIGMS
A basic description of fairy tale narratives is called for here, especially since the
textbook definition of these stories is virtually interchangeable with the defining
traits of Keatons silent films (nineteen shorts and eleven features). In her remarks
concerning fairy tales in Narrative Fiction: An Introduction and Anthology. Kelley
Griffith notes that, although the fairy tale seldom features fairies, it nonetheless
projects a dreamlike world in which the miraculous is so real that characters take it
for granted. She then goes on to list other characteristics of fairy tales which even a
movie-goer with only a passing acquaintance with Keatons oeuvre would recognize
as present in nearly all of his silent films (181).
Griffith writes that, while the tone of these stories is light and playful,...
events are violent and painful; that the hero/ineswho are young, innocent,
vulnerable, isolated, but ideally beautiful and goodare usually outcasts and
victims who aspire to transcend their lowly status; and, that, [ejither from
carelessness or innocence, they break taboos, and thus have to extricate themselves
from seemingly hopeless situations ... [and/or] face radical lossof loved ones,
home, property, limb, reputation, [and] life (181). Against all odds, though, by
means of pluck and luck, and sometimes with the aid of an animal helper, the
5


hero/ine comes out a winner and is rewarded with marriage, wealth, [and/or the
achievement of] high station, creating the conventional happy ending of the genre
(182).
While Griffith places fairy tale narratives in the category of the tale, along
with the enduring folk tale (such as fables and trickster tales) and the more mutable
literary tale, she also observes that they can encompass both. That is, like the folk
tale, a traditional fairy tale has an anonymous author, springs from an oral tradition,
remains essentially the same after innumerable retellings, and is circulated by word
of mouth for many years before finally being written down. And like literary tales,
some are written by known artists who either retell traditional stories or make up
their own (165). Although the best known fairy tales undoubtedly started out as
folk tales, Griffith explains, the famous writers who eventually put them down in
print often altered [them] for literary or thematic purposes either to satisfy the
needs or meet the expectations of their educated middle-class audience (182).
Still, despite their minor differences, all of these tales share certain common
elements, namely: an action-packed, episodic plot; more focus on implausible events
and fantastic circumstances than on character development or details of setting; a
mingling of fantasy and reality; and a happy outcome. Finally, Griffith states that,
although [any type of tale] can be used for instruction,... [its] main purpose is to
entertain (165-66).
6


While fairy tales are certainly entertaining, commentators who look at fairy tales
from a psychological/psychoanalytic perspective see in these folk tales a treasure
trove of archetypes, recurring motifs, images and symbols, and depictions of
universal human dilemmas that speak to us on multiple levels and help us to
understand, cope with, and solve the problems we all face in our everyday lives.
Additionally, those who view fairy tales from an historical perspective see these
literary tales as historical documents that have much to teach us about the lives and
times of the myriad storytellers that set them down, the audience for whom they
wrote, and the way these ever-changing circumstances altered the content, meaning,
and uses of these stories.
The modem fairy tales that Keaton told visually and cinematically, like the
traditional oral and literary ones Griffith discusses, are comprised of the elements she
attributes to both the folk tale and the literary tale, and also serve the Horatian dual
purpose of delighting and instructing because movie-goers watching Keatons
pictures find themselves simultaneously laughing and learningnot just about
human beings in general, but also about their very particular writer, director, and
star. Relying primarily on the theories of Sigmund Freud and Bruno Bettelheim, I
will explicate the folk tale aspects in Keatons silent films from a psychological/
psychoanalytical perspective, and for those of the literary tale, which I will explicate
from an historical perspective, I predominantly look to the works of Marina Warner
and Jack Zipes.
7


In his fascinating book, The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance
of Fairy Tales. Freudian child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim explores the vital role
that he believes fairy tales can play in a childs psychological development. In his
view, [the] fairy tale is the primer from which the child learns to read his mind in
the language of images, the only language which permits understanding before
intellectual maturity has been achieved. Bettelheim goes on to emphasize that, for
a child, dealing in symbols is safe when compared with acting on the real thing
(161; 162). The real things that Bettelheim refers to here are: first, the childs
ambivalence around his parents (generated by what appears to him or her to be their
bewildering behavior); second, the childs feelings of helplessness (generated by his
or her lack of power in a seemingly chaotic, sometimes threatening, world); and
third, the childs conflicted feelings around becoming an adult (generated by the fear
that doing so will result in parental reprisal and/or rejection).
Contrarily, for fairy tale scholar Jack Zipes, who approaches these narratives
from an historical perspective in his book Fairy Tale As Mvth/Mvth As Fairy Tale.
these stories represent another kind of primer: one of a childs first means of
instruction regarding the hegemonic value system of his or her society (15).
Consequently, Zipess primary concern is with the motivations of storytellers and the
effects their tales have on their audience, children and adults alike, most specifically,
the part these narratives play in sexual politics and the impact they have on societal
gender directives. Most important for our purposes here is Zipess contention that
8


fairy tales can, under certain circumstances, acquire the force of cultural myth, a type
of narrative that attempts to explain or represent fundamental realities of existence
(Griffith 645), as does Genesis, for example. Zipes asserts, [fairy] tales do not
become myth unless they are in almost perfect accord with the underlying principles
of how the male members of society seek to arrange [gender] relations to satisfy their
wants and needs (41).
Zipes argues that the paternalistic philosophy consistently reinforced in
conventional fairy taleswhich matches that of the society in which all Three
Keatons came of age and lived as adultsespouses certain tenets regarding gender
which play a major role in a childs socialization, namely that: gender is organized
as polarity with one side idealized, the other devalued; the former is meant to
dominate and the latter to submit; fathers/husbands, being the ultimate male
authority, are to be worshiped and obeyed, while mothers/wives are obligated to
sacrifice, serve, and fulfill [their] promises even though they are made under
duress (36; 37; 33). Because these stereotypical gender roles and behavioral
expectations so often speak to the rationale behind Keatons parents behavior, and
his reactions to it, it is imperative to keep them in mind throughout this exploration
of his uses of enchantment, which recommences here.
As Bettelheim observes in the quotation cited above, every child experiences
conflicting emotions around the actions of his or her parents at times, simply because
they so often do things that make him or her feel angry or afraid. And, the feelings
9


of ambivalence, fear, and helplessness of an abused child are even more profound
than those of his or her more fortunate peers. Such was the case for Buster, who
lived and worked with an abusive father, Joe, a violent drunk who towered over his
diminutive son and battered him regularly without compunction, and an ineffectual
mother, Myra, who was either unable or unwilling to protect him from this
dangerously out-of-control giant 2 or even acknowledge that Buster was in need of
rescue. To deal with this situation, which was more untenable than that most
children face, Buster made use of a strategy that, Bettelheim theorizes, all children
employ.
Bettelheim explains all young children sometimes need to split the image of
their parent into its benevolent and threatening aspects to feel fully sheltered by the
first (68). He further notes that fairy tales reflect and encourage this maneuver with
their wide assortment of both good and bad father and mother figures. Being
peopled with kindly woodsmen and helpful hunters, fond fathers and clever little
men, as well as all manner of fearsome monsters and evil villains, fairy godmothers
and nurturing (albeit, usually deceased) mothers, as well as wicked witches and cruel
stepmothers, these stories [suggest to the child how s/he] may manage the
contradictory feelings which would otherwise overwhelm the child [when s/he has
not yet developed the] ability to integrate contradictory emotions (69). In other
words, this fantastical splitting not only allows the internal image of the childs
idealized parent to remain intact when the actions of the real one might otherwise
10


shatter it, but also permits the child to feel angry at his or her imperfect parent
without the guilt and fear that usually accompanies that negative emotion and
seriously interferes with their relationship.
Because feminist/cultural critic Marina Warner takes issue with Bettelheims
use of the Freudian principle of splitting in her comprehensive study of the history
and meaning of fairy tales, From the BEAST to the BLONDE. I would be remiss in
not addressing her objections to it here. Although she admits that [this] theory is
neat, satisfying and, as a convincing emotional stratagem, strikes home, she also
argues that, in regard to mothers, it has been over-used and abused in pediatrics,
psychotherapy, childrens literature and the media to a dangerous degree which
[mirrors and reinforces current prejudices against them] (212-13). My counter
objection to Warners is that Bettelheim himself does not single out mothers in his
explanation of a childs use of splitting. On the contrary, he theorizes that all young
children sometimes need to split the image of their parent, not their female parent;
what is more, he also writes about a childs need to split his or her own self-image at
times. That being said, however, I concur with Warners observation that a great
many have misinterpreted and/or misused this concept. Hence, I will avoid doing so
here by explicating Keatons employment of this psychological device in his life-
long struggle to come to terms with his conflicted feelings toward not only both his
parents, but also himself.
11


That Keaton made use of this strategy throughout his life in order to maintain his
relationship with his father is apparent in many of the statements he makes about Joe
in his autobiography, Mv Wonderful World of Slapstick, (penned in his sixties with
the help of Charles Samuels). The following one reveals the profundity of his denial
like no other:
After I was seven, Pop would punish me for misbehaving while we were
working on the stage. He knew I was too proud of being able to take it
to yell or cry. I dont think my father had an ounce of cruelty in him. He
just didnt think it was good for a boy as foil of beans as I was to get
away with too much. And nothing that I have observed since gives me
reason to think he was wrong (14).
Keaton attributed his ability to withstand his fathers blows without any
apparent reaction to self-hypnosis (13). Today, a mental health care professional
would likely call this kind of autohypnosis, dissociation: a defense mechanism
now known to be commonly utilized by abused children whereby they manage to
escape psychologically from the foil awareness of an abusive experience or situation.
While steadfastly maintaining his fathers benevolent image in his conscious
mind, Keaton unconsciously projected Joes threatening aspects onto film, albeit in
an oblique fashion. After he started making movies, Keaton often gave his father
minor roles in them but never cast Joe as the primary villain. Although menacing
father-figures are ubiquitous in Keatons films, he usually chose Big Joe Roberts,
whom Blesh terms, an adequate surrogate for Joe Keaton, to play the heavy until
Robertss death in 1923 (166-67). What is more, Joe Keaton plays his sons
12


cinematic father only once, in Neighbors (1921), and, in one scene in particular, both
the actor and the writer/director/actor, reveal their conscious feelings about the
attitude of entitlement Joe had around the way he treated Buster, and Busters
implied acceptance of it. In the film, Buster falls from a great height, landing
vertically, but upside down, with his head stuck in a hole. As his father tries to pull
him out, while standing on his sons outstretched arms, a neighbor laughingly
remarks, I know a better way than that to break his neck! Joe shouts back, Hes
my son and Ill break his neck any way I please! This scenario is reminiscent of an
incident Keaton recounts in his autobiography: as a child, Buster was slapped by an
acrobatics instructor for making a mistake, and Joe, while being restrained from
attacking the man, yelled repeatedly, No one hits Keatons children but Keaton.
Keaton then goes on to observe, Yet Pop, always the impulsive type, did not
hesitate on one occasion to throw me at a young man out in the audience who
insulted Mom (emphasis added, 26-27). As Griffith notes fairy tale narrators do,
Keaton uses a light and playful tone to relate both of these violent and painful
episodes, playing both for laughs in order to maintain his idealized view of his
father.
A family friend, Buster Collier, described Joe Keaton as a living horror that his
son had learned to endure over the years (qtd. in Dardis 23); nevertheless, Keatons
inability to acknowledge overtly any fault in his father was so complete that he had
trouble allowing himself to even make Joe a pretend bad guy in his films. However,
13


after making Neighbors, one of the five shorts he produced during his first year as an
independent filmmaker, Keaton took the liberty of always casting Joe as somebody
elses fatherusually that of his love interestwhich made Joes character Busters
potential father-in-law, but, nonetheless, put him at a somewhat safer distance.
Sanders and Lieberfeld observe, with his emotional responses as inert as his comic
face, Keaton was able to express his hurt and anger only in cinematic disguises
(15).3 So, as it is in so many fairy tales, the recurring story-line in Keatons films
involves Buster taking on an apparently unbeatable foe (representing Joe, not as
Keaton saw him as an adult filmmaker, but rather as the huge punishing Father that
Buster faced as a seven-year-old on stage in front of an audience, applauding and
shouting their approval)a gargantuan rival/villain, an overwhelming multitude of
animals/people/things or an awesome force of natureand emerging triumphant
because the physical power of his adversary is ultimately no match for the clever
little fellows superior wit.
Bettelheim argues that one of the principal purposes served by most fairy tales is
to assure the child that the ferocious giant can always be outwitted by the clever
little mansomebody seemingly as powerless as the child feels himself to be (68).
Revealingly, in the conclusion of his autobiography, Keaton refers to his screen
persona as a little man with a frozen face, and, although modesty would have
prevented him from saying so, his films verify that he was astonishingly clever
(282). Indeed, it is Keatons quickness of wit that most often makes movie-goers
14


grin or chuckle, even as he remains straight-faced, stifling his own laughter while
evoking it in others. While his primary aim is always to entertain, as fairy tale
narrators have done for centuries, Buster also invokes the power of laughter, in
Warners phrase, to confront fear,... destroy enemies, [and] resist oppression
(151). Discussing hero/ines who can neither smile nor laugh, Warner observes that
even when [fairy tales] are about dumbness and dumblings, they break the
silencejust as Keaton, the little man with an unsmiling face, broke through his
mute repression via comedy in his silent films (150). It must also be said though,
that while Busters ingenuity makes us laugh, it is his agility that makes us gasp, for,
like many a fairy-tale hero, he has, in Bettelheims phrase, a body which can
perform miraculous deeds (57).
In addition to his mental acumen, Keatons other claims to fame are his peerless
acrobatic skills, his stunning athletic ability, and his facility for making incredibly
dangerous physical stunts look easy. As Gerald Mast observes, the pattern for
Keatons spectacular displays of physicality were established while he was still in
swaddling clothesimpossible physical feats accomplished with miraculous
success, and from then on, throughout both his vaudeville and film career, Buster
made the impossible seem easy (126; 128). In virtually every Keaton film, the
seemingly inept little underdog we meet in the beginning undergoes a fabulous
metamorphosis before our very eyes and then proceeds to dazzle us with his derring-
do. What is more, this quixotic champion often demonstrates that he not only has the
15


power to transform himself when the need arises, but also to magically alter the form
and function of inanimate objects when necessary.
Like a fairy-tale hero/ine is wont to be, Buster is adept at making something
good even out of unpromising material... [and], by being ingenious, [ridding
himself] of [the] persecuting figures of [his] imagination (Bettelheim 165-66). Just
as s/he does, Buster demonstrates admirable industry by transforming common
objects into incongruous tools and using them in unpredictable ways to solve
seemingly insoluble problems and/or to avoid apparently unavoidable dangers. For
example, Thumbelina makes a tulip petal into a boat, and Buster uses a lobster as a
wire-cutter; Cinderellas fairy godmother changes a pumpkin and some mice into a
coach and six, and Buster transforms a convertible into a sailboat; Rapunzels tresses
serve as a rope and the porch railing on Busters prefab house as a ladder; and,
speaking again of Rapunzel, while she heals the sightless eyes of her long-lost prince
with her tears, Buster seals a good-bye and good-riddance note to his long-gone
fiancee with his.4 Regardless of the situation, Buster seldom fails to find a way to
make do and invariably goes about his business with that famous, reputedly
immutable, look on his face, as if to say that he is neither surprised to be at the mercy
of outrageous Fortune nor taken aback by her capricious cruelty.
Bettelheim notes that, more often than not, a fairy-tale hero/ine accepts without
question that s/he is physically, emotionally or morally threatenedit just happens;
furthermore, while to an adult such a fatalistic worldview is rather shocking, to a
16


child it is not because it so closely matches the way the child perceives his or her
own world. To a child, Bettelheim explains, life seems to be a sequence of periods
of smooth living which are suddenly and incomprehensibly interrupted as [s/he] is
projected into immense danger. [S/he] has felt secure, with hardly a worry in the
world, but in an instant everything changes, and the friendly world turns into a
nightmare of dangers (144-45). If a child living in a safe, loving, predictable home
feels this way, then it stands to reason that an abused child views his with an even
greater degree of trepidation.
17


CHAPTER 3
HOME LIFE IN KEATONS HOUSES OF TROUBLE
Keaton symbolically depicts the way that Buster felt about his home lifewith
its atmosphere of inevitable, yet unpredictable violence (Sanders and Lieberfeld
26)via the various and sundry bizarre houses he created for his films. In The Look
of Buster Keaton. French film critic Robert Benayoun characterizes these scary
places thusly: The haunted house, electric house, prefab house and other trick
dwellings in Keatons shorts are so many crumbling, unbalanced, changeable worlds
where traps, vaults, and dungeons are always within reach, where certainty is
undermined by some new peril every minute (55). Like a fairy-tale hero/ine, Buster
matter-of-factly takes these perils in stride; on an unconscious level though, Keaton
no doubt wondered why his parents allowed him to live in such dangerous
surroundings as a child. Furthermore, since his mother was also at risk there (as Joe
battered her too) but chose to stay, and surely shared his negative feelings about Joe
but refused to acknowledge them either to herself or to her son, the behavior of both
of his parents must have seemed inexplicable, on some level, to Keaton, not only as a
boy, but also as a man.
Just as he does with the unhomely homes described above, Keaton expresses
Busters confusion around his parents aforementioned unaccountable actions in
18


numerous films, but the two following examples should suffice to illustrate this
point. In The Balloonatic (1923), Buster finds himself in a nightmarish fun-house,
The House of Trouble, and realizes that, in order to escape, he must choose one of
three exits; but, finding a threat lurking behind each one (a skeleton [in the familys
closet?], a devil cloaked by a cloud of smoke, and a fierce dragon), he slams the door
on them all. Finally, he is relieved of making a choice by dropping through a
trapdoor which delivers him, by way of a slide, hard on his backside, but, thankfully,
on the outside of this frightful building. As he catches his breath beside its entrance,
a giggling woman arrives, buys a ticket, and enters The House of Trouble;
anticipating her reappearance from the dark tunnel from which he was just expelled,
Buster brushes off the ground in front of it, moves aside, watches, and waits.
Unfortunately, he is distracted by a pretty girl, unwittingly moves back into the line
of fire, and is squashed by the woman when she comes flying out. Paying no mind
to Buster, the boy who broke her fall, the woman merrily returns to the ticket booth,
pays the price of admission, and, to Busters amazement, reenters The House of
Trouble. Busters reaction is the same in Our Hospitality (1923 ) when, on two
occasions, he sees a woman being beaten by her husband: on the first, he tries to
intervene only to have the battered wife turn on him for interfering; on the second,
although he tries to skirt the couple, the woman comes after Buster again, then
returns to her spouse, who takes up choking her where he left off.
19


Myras inability to leave Joe and thereby rescue her son (along with Joes
inability to refrain from abusing both his wife and his child), left Buster physically
unprotected, emotionally conflicted, and, sorely in need of a means by which he
could safely love and hate his mother at the same time (as he did his father). So, he
repressed his indignation and confusion, as he had been assiduously trained to do,
explicitly by Joewith his incessant admonitions that Buster remain mute and
expressionless (e.g., Freeze the puss!) and implicitly by Myrawith her habitual
inconsistent disavowals of Busters accurate, but problematic, perceptions of Joes
abusive behavior (e.g., Myra: Joes not punishing you. Buster: It feels like
it.) (Blesh 38; 80; 81). Then, as he did with his father, Buster employed the
strategy described above to deal with his ambivalent feelings about his mother: he
split his unconscious image of her into two separate entitiesa friend with whom he
identified and an enemy whom he vilified.
When speaking about Myra, Keaton was as likely to refer to her by her given
name as he was to call her Mother, an indication that, throughout his life, he
considered her more a cohort than a parent. She was ten years younger than his
father, only eighteen when Buster was bom, and physically very smallshe could
easily have been mistaken for his older sister. Buster certainly ranked her as a peer
in the professional sense, as she too was bom and raised in show business and
became a multi-talented performer at an early age. Buster and his parents became
equal financial partners early on in his life and Buster remained an only child until he
20


was nine; unlike their big brother, Busters siblings never became permanent
members of the family vaudeville act. Consequently, in the eyes of all The Three
Keatons, their family was comprised of two discrete units: the grown-up bread-
winnersJoe, Myra and Buster, and the dependent childrenBusters younger
brother and sister. In his autobiography, Keaton declares that, after the age of ten, he
was no longer treated like a little boy, and goes on to say that neither of his parents
was demonstrative, but then, he claims, he never expected them to be (14).
Myra and Buster were fellow victims of the same perpetrator and, when Buster
was twenty-one, they escaped from Joe together, not necessarily because Myra
finally decided to remove her son from his abusive father, nor because Buster had at
last overcome his own passivity, but because Myra could no longer abide being a
battered wife. Blesh reports that Keaton recalled her saying, Buster, God help me, I
cant take anymore. Nevertheless, Buster still professed that he admired his mother
for making the belated decision to leave Joe: I still can hardly believe we did it, he
told Blesh, [except] for Myra, I guess Id have gone on taking it (82). Be that as it
may, in order to understand Keatons future work, it is necessary to be aware of what
he never consciously acknowledged and, therefore, leaves unsaid here: that to his
inner child, it likely appeared that Myra was motivated to leave Joe, not by her love
and concern for him, but solely by self-preservation; that he went on taking it as
long as he did because Myra tacitly indicated that he had no other choice; and, that
Myra persisted in [reinforcing] the climate of denial surrounding Joes violence
21


toward [him] (as Sanders and Lieberfeld maintain) until it served her own best
interests to do otherwise (17). To be fair to Myra, however, it is also essential to
reiterate the rules to live by likely instilled in her as a girl which no doubt fostered
her inability to acknowledge the harsh reality of her situation and/or to extricate
herself from a marriageand her son from a homewherein domestic violence was
the norm.
By way of their gender-specific socialization in a male-dominated society (in
which literary socialization plays a role), children learn, not only what society
expects of them (e.g. boys are promised rewards for dominant actions and girls for
masochistic behavior), but also what they can expect from individuals of the opposite
sex. For example, citing both the text and conventional illustrations in Beauty and
the Beast. Zipes outlines what boys and girls glean therein about what to expect from
each other: from a young woman, a boy (like Joe) learns to expect total
abandonment, nurturing, mercy, obedience, responsibility; from a young man, a girl
(like Myra) learns to expect neither tenderness nor compassion, but instead, beastly
behavior about which she must curb her disgust. Moreover, she is expected to
learn to love the monster (or the chains that bind her to him) regardless of how he
acts because he can only be transformed by a submissive and tender wife (40).
As a result of such societal attitudes, children come to associate males with
independence and females with dependence. Furthermore, since boys (like Buster)
eventually identify with their fathers, they ultimately view them in a more positive
22


light than they do their mothers. Indeed, Zipes asserts that a boys idealization of
[his] father [may mask] the childs fear of his power, and his devaluation of his
mother may cause him to not only repudiate [her] as the source of goodness, [but
also] reject all her other feminine attributes as well (35). All of the aforementioned
paternalistic tenets speak to the rationale behind some of the attitudes and behavior
of Keaton and his parents: Joes domination of Myra; her willingness to submit and
unwillingness to break her marriage vows for an inordinate period of time; Busters
simultaneous conscious idealization and unconscious fear of Joe and his own
hesitation to leave his father in spite of being abused by him; and, finally, Busters
feelings of betrayal generated by, what probably appeared to him to be, Myras
selfish motives for leaving Joe. Paradoxically, in order to justify leaving Joe, Keaton
would have had to see his father consciously as a villain, but, being incapable of
doing so, when Myra finally left Joe, Keaton may have unconsciously cast his
mother in that role.
Although Keaton buried his mixed emotions at the time, they resurfaced later in
his work. In the chapter devoted to Keaton in her book, The Untouched Key:
Tracing Childhood Trauma in Creativity and Destructiveness. Alice Miller notes that
[since he] undoubtedly repressed the trauma of being abused and degraded ...
[Keaton] had to repeat the trauma countless times without ever feeling it, for the
early lesson that his feelings were forbidden and were to be ignored retained its hold
on him (40-41). Hence, just as he did with Joe, Keaton struggled to come to terms
23


with his conflicted feelings toward Myra again and again in his films, and his
portrayals of women and their interactions with his cinematic alter egos are as
contradictory as those found in fairy tales. Like the female characters in the latter,
Keatons are modeled after the dissimilar unconscious images created by a
youngsterKeatons inner child, Busterin his effort to preserve a positive
relationship with his flawed parent: a woman who sometimes behaved like a co-
worker and a comrade-in-arms, at others seemed like a traitor, but hardly ever acted
like a conventional mother.
Keatons ambivalence toward the heroines in his silent films comes through in
both the way he depicts their personalities and represents their relationships with his
fantasy alter ego, Buster. The most blatant example of this is in The Playhouse
(1922), wherein Buster meets identical female twins, but initially does not know that
he is dealing with two girls who will respond differently to his amorous advances.
He tries to chat up the unfriendly twin, but she forcefully pushes him away; then, he
has a positive encounter with the amiable one. A little while later, acting on the
favorable response he earlier got from the flirtatious twin, Buster tries to kiss her
sister, and she slaps his face. The one who likes him then yanks the befuddled boy
aside and kisses him. Finally, Buster tries to drag the wrong girl off to get married,
then realizes his mistake, grabs the right one and, with a brush he borrows from a
sign painter, marks his bride-to-be with a big black X on the back of her neck.
24


Keaton learned about the potential for humor in replication from his parents. As
Robert Knopf notes, Joe and Myra recognized the value of the optical illusion
created by [numerous] identical Keatons, so their practice of wearing identical
grotesque Irishmens costumes became a signal part of their act (22-23). Later on,
multiple images played a major role in the various and sundry sight gags that Keaton
created for his films, and probably do so more in The Playhouse than in any other, as
here he chums out enough replicas of Buster to be all the performers in the
vaudeville acts, each musician in the band, and every member of the audience.
Nevertheless, the twins and Busters interaction with them still stand out in high
relief; indeed, it was this bit of comedic business which first led me to suspect that
Keaton might be projecting his repressed feelings regarding Myra onto the screen
because it brought to mind what I had previously read in The Uses of Enchantment
about how children deal with ambivalence. It then became apparent that the
identical female twinswho look just alike yet behave so differentlymirrored
Busters perception of his mother and might also reflect Keatons view of women as
well. Because Myra seemed so bewilderingly capable of being both bad and
good, Buster split his unconscious image of her into two discrete personagesone
who treated him poorly and another who treated him well. And, if Keaton had not
yet acknowledged and dealt with these diametrically opposed images of his mother
and still based his beliefs about women in general on them, then that is how he
would represent them in his films.
25


In the chapter devoted to film comedies in Cinematemitv: Film. Motherhood.
Genre. Lucy Fischer notes Northrop Fryes observation that comedy involves an
Oedipal replacement of the mother by the heros young lover and goes on to assert
that, in film comedies, the maternal is reduced to a spirit... that haunts the heros
paramourher diegetic stand-in (114). The identical female twins in The
Playhouse are clearly an example of this phenomenon for together they represent
Keatons bifurcated image of his mother in its entirety. Furthermore, Fischers
argument is bom out in all the rest of Keatons silent films, wherein his love interest
is always like either one or the other of these twins and, regardless of which one she
resembles, Buster endeavors to win her approval and love.
As a general rule, Keatons leading ladies are either aristocratic, sophisticated,
and self-absorbed, or egalitarian, unadulterated, and self-assured, and they usually
treat Buster accordingly. The haughty, mercenary ones look upon the boy with scorn
and either reject him out of hand or inform him that they will have nothing to do with
him until he demonstrates a certain degree of physical prowess and/or manly
courage or proves that he can maintain them in the manner to which they have
become accustomed under the auspices of their wealthy fathers. Contrarily, the
unaffected girls-next-door treat him like a pal or a brother and gamely try to go along
with him, or even attempt to help him, as he struggles to make his way in a chaotic
world. Regardless of how they initially respond to him, however, the love-starved
Buster usually strives to do whatever it takes to get them to show him the tiniest bit
26


of affection. When they do, he invariably swoons and his frozen face melts
magically transformed by love; Benayoun describes this ecstatic expression as the
delirium of touch in a pair of closed eyes (55; 31).
That Busters neurasthenia is ameliorated by a gentle, loving touch not only
speaks volumes about its underlying cause, but also lends credence to Bettelheims
observation that what looks like an absence of feelings [in a fairy-tale character] is
actually the void left by their repression (280). This is certainly true of Buster
because, although he did not expect his parents to demonstrate unconditional love for
him, he still desperately needed them to and wished that they would, but was
forbiddenfirst, by his parents, and later by himselfto say so. In his biography of
Keaton, Tom Dardis writes that Keaton:
found it impossible to communicate his deepest feelings with any of the
people he ever knew [as words] seemed to be totally inadequate to
express his feelings of anguish and pain, [so] he kept his mouth shut
about them;... [he] craved affection all his life and never really
received it (87).
It is understandable, then, that when Keaton was the one dictating Busters story
he unconsciously saw to it that his fantasy alter ego received, at least, a little love.
Furthermore, since Keaton was always more comfortable expressing himself in
images than in words, silent filmsand the rapid, improvisational manner in which
he made them as he had vaudeville acts as a childprovided him with the perfect
means by which he could fulfill his fondest wish: to be the recipient of mother love.
Sanders and Lieberfeld speculate that [Keatons] free-associative method [of
27


filmmaking] was probably central to [his] creative process [as] spontaneity would
have helped him bypass the inhibitions that production methods requiring more
preplanning would have imposed (18).
28


CHAPTER 4
PRE-OEDIPAL COMEDY I.: SHERLOCK. JR.
Keatons storylines reveal that, although he was chronologically an adult when
he created them, he had yet to confront and resolve any number of Oedipal conflicts
for they invariably involve fulfilling Busters wish to engage in an affectionate
relationship with a friendly girl, as opposed to a sexual relationship with an adult
woman, and his frequent use of dream sequences. Thus, from a Freudian
perspective, most of Keatons short silent films and many of his silent features
qualify as pre-Oedipal film comedies, the criteria for which match that of fairy tales
in the same category. That Keaton was sexually active from an early age is another
subject; my focus here is on the fantasies that underlie his narratives.
Bettelheim observes that pre-Oedipal fairy tales are consistent with a small
boys imaginings about [the] blissful existence he will share with his mother after
they come home from their big adventure, not as a husband or father, as a pre-
Oedipal boy does not dream of having sex with his mother, but just as he is; the
little boys ideal is just he and his princess (Mother), all their needs and wishes taken
care of, living by themselves and for each other forever (112). In his Introduction
to Comedy/Cinema/Theorv, Andrew Horton sets forth a description of the features
of, and the characters in, a pre-Oedipal film comedy which echoes Bettelheims
29


characterization of the hero/ines in fairy tales aimed at children in that particular
I
stage of emotional development. Horton states that this form of comedy features
wish fulfillment [and] dreams whose characters resemble children in their pre-
Oedipal phasethat is, before they have confronted and resolved their Oedipal
conflicts and thus integrated a sense of self with the needs of socialization with
others (10).
Keatons unconscious attempts to come to terms with his complex Oedipal
issues accompanied his transition into feature films; however, while these comedies
often seem to be headed towards an Oedipal resolutiona denouement that
promotes accommodation, compromise, and social integration (Horton 10)he
repeatedly chooses to stop just short of it or to fulfill it in parodic terms, thus
demonstrating that making ones way through the Oedipal period is far easier said
than done, regardless of ones chronological age. Be that as it may, Bettelheim
avows that fairy tales can even guide a child through that thorniest of thickets, and
cites the now familiar strategy that these stories offer to those trying to accomplish
this goal. When he experiences the emotional need to do so, Bettelheim writes,
the child not only splits a parent into two figures, but he may also split himself into
two people who, he wishes to believe, have nothing in common with each other
(73; 69).5
Many of Keatons films offer abundant evidence that he employed this
maneuver to deal with the deep-seated ambivalence he harbored regarding not only
30


his parents but also societyboth forces that expected him to acquiesce to their
demands, meet their standards, and adopt their practices. In Sherlock. Jr., however,
this maneuver is more conspicuous than in any other film. Moreover, it is this film
which most distinctly illustrates the similarity between one of Warners more
insightful conclusions regarding fairy tales and my own about Keatons uses of them
and what he accomplishes here. Warner writes (and I add my own words in
brackets) that it is the double vision of the tales [the double vision of Keaton in the
dual role of the boy and the detective], on the one hand charting perennial drives and
terrors, both conscious and unconscious, and on the other mapping actual, volatile
experience, [that] gives the genre [the film] its fascination and power to satisfy
(Introd. xxi).
In this endlessly discussed film fantasy, Keaton represents himself as two
disparate individuals: his usual screen persona, Bustercast here as a boyish film
projectionist, and, another recurring alter ego, the sophisticated man-about-town
here playing the role of the worlds greatest detective, Sherlock, Jr. While these
characters were often seen in Keatons previous films, they had never before
appeared together in the same one, and, that they do so in Sherlock. Jr., is highly
significant because it is here that Keaton insinuates his intention to take on the
problem of masculine identity (Sanders and Lieberfeld 23).
Keaton casts the boy, Buster, as the real-life protagonist, locating him in the
films outer framethe actual waking world of the movie theaterand assigns the
31


role of Sherlock, Jr. to his adult alter ego, placing him in its inner framethe make-
believe dream world of the movieand, in the last shot, he reveals the identity of the
one with whom, I believe, he identifies the most. The meaning of the films
ambiguous final image of Busters countenancedescribed by turns as bemused,
pensive, disgruntled, or puzzledwhich comes fast upon and displaces the Oedipal
resolution that only moments before seemed to be a forgone conclusion, is a long-
standing subject of debate, and, although many solutions to this mystery have been
suggested, most interested parties still consider it only partially solved. A perusal of
Sherlock. Jr. in the light of its fairy-tale progenitors, and the uses to which Keaton
put them, provides some helpful new clues which suggest yet another possible
explanation for Busters mysterious reaction.
A fairy tale, Bettelheim observes, operates the way a childs mind does when he
confronts a perplexing real-life problem and believes that he has no hope of
resolving it. Bettelheim explains that:
since his rationality has as yet poor control over his unconscious, the
childs imagination runs away with him under the pressure of his
emotions and unsolved conflicts, [and his] barely emerging ability to
reason is soon overwhelmed by anxieties, hopes, fears, desires, loves,
and hateswhich become woven into whatever the child began thinking
about (61).
In an attempt to bring some order to this chaos, the child temporarily turns to
fantasywhere he knows that he can safely address and try to work through these
unconscious issuesin hopes of returning to reality later, better able to solve the
32


problem facing him there. Hence, Bettelheim notes, a fairy-tale narrative
commences from a mundane and simple beginning, with a character who is in a
real but somewhat problematic situation, then launches into fantastic events
wherein a seemingly helpless, ineffective protagonist undergoes a magical
transformation through which he becomes a powerful, competent hero who is able to
overcome whatever dangers threaten him, rescue the princess who adores him, and
then, return to the real world unscathed (61; 63).
At the conclusion of his wild and wonderful adventure, Bettelheim notes, the
hero always returns to realitya happy reality, but one devoid of magic;
furthermore, we are given no details about [the hero and his princesss] later life,
beyond being told that they lived happily ever after (63; 112). No mention is
made of their having children because the child knows that, in real life, his mother
spends a lot of time and energy on his siblings and he does not wish to share her with
other childrenas Buster was obliged to do with Myra when his brother and sister
came along. Up until then, Joe was Busters only rival for Myras attention and the
boy was with his mother almost constantly since they lived and worked together. So,
when Myra took time out to bear and care for two more children, Buster no doubt
experienced some degree of sibling rivalry, just as children in traditional families
do in similar circumstances. Indeed, Busters unconventional relationship with Myra
may have heightened his animosity toward these additional children because they
decreased the amount of time he got to spend with her both at home and on stage.
33


Keaton expressed these particular sentiments in the conclusions of both The
Blacksmith (1922) and The Three Ages (1923),6 but Sherlock. Jr. mirrors the fairy-
tale formula outlined above by Bettelheim in its entirety.
The story begins with a boy in his workaday world being accused of a crime
that he did not commit and losing his sweetheart, the girl in the case, as a result.
(Note that the characters in most of Keatons films, like their fairy-tale counterparts,
do not have proper names). Having been told by the girl and her father that he is no
longer welcome in their home, the boy reluctantly leaves; suspecting that his rival
has something to do with the crime, the boy comically shadows the man when he
comes out of the girls house, but to no avail. Back at his job in the projection room,
the boy falls asleep and dreams that he sees the girl being menaced by his rival in the
movie playing on the screen. He attempts to go to her rescue by jumping into the
moviehis unconsciousbut is bounced right back out. He tries again, and, while
he succeeds this time, once there, he is caught up in a maelstrom of conflicting
emotions: Keatons celebrated graphic-match montage of Buster struggling to cope
with myriad, rapidly changing, unnerving situations.
After miraculously surviving the swirling storm of his ambivalence, the boy
undergoes a marvelous metamorphosis and emerges as Sherlock, Jr., the worlds
greatest detective. In this guise, he enters a fantasy world wherein he successfully
meets every challenge that confronts him: he deftly avoids all of the dangers, traps,
and snares laid out for him by the rival-cum-villain, solves the crime, and rescues the
34


damsel in distress. When the boy awakes, he is met by the happy reality that, while
he was sleeping, his problems were solved: his girl discovered the true identity of the
perpetrator of the crime, informed her father of their mistake, and wants him back
again. Oveijoyed by this surprising turn of events, but unsure of how to relay his
feelings to the girl, the boy looks to the adult male role model in the movie to see
how he does it. All goes well until the cinematic love scene segues to an image of
what happens to grown-ups when they live happily ever: they have children!
Had Sherlock. Jr. ended with a shot of Buster responding to this domestic
scenea proud husband/father bouncing two children on his lap with his smiling
wife at his sidewith a look of unambiguous understanding and approval, it would
qualify as an Oedipal film comedy because that reaction would be consistent with the
behavior expected of characters in such films, who, Horton writes,
no matter how much they have turned the everyday world upside down
during the narrative, must act like adults to the degree of committing
themselves to each other and thus to life within society. They change;
society remains the same. They may have had their flings and fantasies
and acted them out..., but in the end, order is restored, and the rules of
society are maintained (11).
Instead, Keaton abruptly swerves away from an Oedipal resolution, the final
phase of which, Horton notes, is a glorious celebration of the characters success
(11). On the contrary, Sherlock. Jr. concludes with a shot of Buster scratching his
head, not with a celebrative, but a confounded look on his face, which seems to say:
Children? There are no children in happy endings!!
35


The message that Keaton relays in the final shot of Sherlock. Jr., not to mention
all that comes before it, not only implies that he used fairy tale narratives as a
template for his films, but also that filmmaking served the same purposes for him as
an adult that escaping to fairyland did for him as a child. Based on the Warners
description of some of the purposes that fairy tales serve, it appears that both
activities allowed Keaton to lose himself in all the wonders that create the
atmosphere of fairy tale [which] disrupt the apprehensible world in order to open
spaces for dreaming alternatives. Moreover, they enabled him to encipher
concerns, beliefs and desires in brilliant, seductive images that are themselves a form
of camouflage, making it possible [for him] to utter harsh truths, [and] to say what
[he dared] about both parental and societal expectations (Warner Introd. xx-xxi).
For instance, in Sherlock. Jr.. Keaton dares to poke fun at the false romantic notion
that being married with children guarantees happiness.
Being confronted by a perplexing problem in real life that he believed he had no
hope of resolving, and feeling overwhelmed by the ambivalence generated by this
situation, Keaton escaped into fantasy where he could safely address and attempt to
work through his conflicted feelings, hoping that, on his return to reality, he would
be better able to master the challenge awaiting him there. For example, when the
filmmaker made Sherlock. Jr. in the spring of 1924, he faced a seemingly hopeless
situation in real life for which there appeared to be no solution. Ironically, the
problem was that-just as they would in a fairy talechildren sabotaged the happy
36


ending he had imagined he would enjoy with his princess, the youngest of three
daughters in a family that, at the time, was deemed Hollywood royalty.
In May 1921, Keaton married Natalie Talmadge who, he points out in his
autobiography, seemed a meek, mild girl [with] much warmth and great feminine
sweetness; less than three years later, they already had two sons (emphasis added,
94). As Dardis explains, appalled that Natalie had given birth to two children in such
quick succession, her mother and sisterswhose influence made itself felt on the
young woman both before and after she wed Keatoninsisted that Natalie refrain
from any more of this animistic behavior (87). Consequently, Natalie curtailed
any and all conjugal relations with her husband, who was correct in assuming that his
wife was a submissive woman, but did not count on her being incapable of
disobeying her powerful mother. As a result, by the spring of 1924, for all intents
and purposes, Buster and Natalies marriage was over even though they did not
officially divorce until 1932.
Keaton later told Blesh that having got two boys our first three years, frankly,
[to Natalie] it looked as if my work was done. I was ruled ineligible. Lost my
amateur standing. They said I was a pro. I was moved into my own bedroom
(236). Dardis observes that the flip tone here belies the terrible pain that being cut
off by his wife caused Keaton and, looking at the graphic-match montage mentioned
above in the light of this information, we see that the filmmaker may well have
expressed there the real feelings he was unable to verbalize (87). In his essay on
37


Sherlock. Jr.. Peter Parshall explicates this series of visual metaphors thusly: [the
boy] finds himself figuratively swept off his feet, kicked out into the street, left high
and dry, thrown to the lions, in a rut, at sea, all wet, and out in the cold. He then
goes on to say that these symbolic events [capture] the boys emotional state of
rejection (76). I concur, and would only add that the boy obliquely reflects Keaton,
and that his chosen images reveal how it felt to be in a marriage wherein sexual
intimacy was forbidden, not just how it felt to be a boy unable to win his girl.
The history of Keatons conjugal relations with Natalie, when coupled with his
problematic childhood, offers important clues for understanding the impetus for
Keatons reaction shot of Buster at the end of Sherlock. Jr. With that image,
Keatonas Busterclearly illustrates that, although he admires his adult alter ego,
he has no desire to get involved with an adult woman because experience has shown
him how unlikely he is to live happily ever after in that kind of relationship. He
illustrates his preference for the girl in the casewho, like the boy, is depicted as
being pre-pubertalby presenting her in a much more positive light in the films
outer frame than her more passive mature-looking double is in the films inner
frame; the girls actions not only confirm that she truly cares about the boy, but also
that she has the requisite brains and gumption to defy her powerful parent and go out
and solve the crime, while the more sexually attractive but submissive woman just
proves to be a useless victim.
38


Keaton channels his ambivalence about women, and reveals his lingering
unresolved Oedipal conflicts, in the series of symbolic incidents that precipitate
Busters return to the real world. This chain of fantastic events begins with
Sherlock, Jr.s confrontation with the villain in the antechamber of his hide-out
where, through a door leading into the next room, our hero spies a man hanging from
the ceiling in a huge womb-shaped cage, and asks his rival who his prisoner is. A
detective, the villain replies, and sinisterly adds, when hes dead, Ill put you in
there. The man in the cage is an adult male detectivewhat Buster is pretending to
beand the menacing father-figure threatens the boy that if he persists in playing at
being a man, he will end up being imprisoned by a woman, or rather, by the
functions and/or products of her reproductive organs, and die in that prison.
In an essay wherein she explicates Sherlock. Jr. from gender studies, feminist,
and psychoanalytical perspectives, Kathleen Rowe Karlyn refers to this hanging cage
as one of the most bizarre images of framing or confinement in the film, and
leaves it at that (100). But, in the context of this essay, it is too evocative an image
to be passed over so quickly, especially since the sight of it spurs on our heros
subsequent actions. From a Freudian perspective, Keatons use of this disquieting
image of womb as tomb7 in the boys dream can be interpreted as an indication that
he unconsciously perceived marriage as not a tender trap but a lethal onea
sentiment that he voiced in an autobiographical anecdote which, though arguably
shot through with sophomoric bravado, still has the ring of truth about it. In his
39


adolescence, Keaton recalls, he once spent an evening with a buddy, drinking
whiskey and exchanging philosophical reflections about the perfidious nature of
women; that night, he recounts, they promised each other never to marry no matter
how beautiful the girls were who attempted to trap [them] (Keaton 72). Hence, to
connote the symbolic death, that Freud theorized, every boy fears he will suffer at
the hands of his father as a result of his efforts to attain adult sexuality, Keaton uses
an image of confinement, not castration. And, because he seems to have
unconsciously viewed his mother as both a jailer and an object of desire, he conflates
these perceptions with those he has of his abusive father, and the result is this
unconventional representation of castration anxiety.
Our heros reaction to the sight of this grotesque cage reveals that he has not yet
resolved the castration complex that it represents. He wastes no time in heeding his
rivals warning, but immediately proceeds to elude castration, first, by disguising
himself as a female (by jumping into the feminine attire concealed in the circular
case that he earlier placed in the window) and then, when that ploy fails, by leaping
into the safest place for a child to be, a womans womb, incredibly couched in the
belly of a man (the mid-section of his side-kick, Gillette, dressed in womens
clothing). Like the note-worthy cage discussed above, this very curious bit of
cinematemity-a male who is obviously only disguised as a female but who
demonstrates that he actually possesses a uteruscannot be ignored as it too is
eminently germane to this inquiry. In this instance, a plausible explanation for
40


Keatons choice of casting a man as a mother-figure can be found in Karlyns
aforementioned essay, The Detective and the Fool, Or, The Mystery of Manhood in
Sherlock. Jr.
Karlyn likens the relationship between Keatons alter ego, Sherlock, Jr., and his
able assistant, Gillette, to that of the Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson of literary and
movie fame, arguing that both couples share a homosocial relationshipa male
friendship which precludes any need for women, similar to the ones in contemporary
buddy pictures. Gillette, termed by an inter-title as A gem who was Ever-Ready
in a bad scrape, is always there when Sherlock, Jr. needs him; indeed, without ever
being asked or instructed, he facilitates his masters every escape. With a care-
taker/buddy like that, who needs a mother/lover? Karlyn suggests that the boys
dream may reveal his wish to belong to a boys-only club where no girls are
allowedrather like the cozy abode Buster shares with his pal in The Scarecrow
(107). In this 1920 short, Keaton pans to a sampler on the wall which reads, What
is Home without a Mother, directly following a sequence wherein he and his
masculine roommate clearly demonstrate that they have no need of a mother or any
other female in their well-run household.
Returning once more to Sherlock, Jr.s escape, from the safety of Gillettes
womb, our hero emerges, anxious to begin the journey at the end of which he will
be rebornnot as a man (as Karlyn argues [102])but as a boy fantasizing about
being a man. After surviving a harrowing trip through a symbolic birth canalon
41


the handlebars of a runaway motorcycle and in a careening car that propels him into
the final amniotic phase of his dream (the body of water into which the car lands),
the boy wakes up in the real world.
In the penultimate scene of Sherlock. Jr.. Buster plainly shows his hesitancy
around making the psychological transition to manhood by not copying every action
of the male role model in the movie: while the actor kisses the actress in a very adult
fashion, Buster just gives his girl a chaste little peck. With the film that follows
Sherlock. Jr.. Keaton signals his intention to continue in the same vein for, while
there are no dream sequences in The Navigator, it does satisfy Hortons other
criterion for pre-Oedipal comedies: a story in which wish fulfillment without
parental or social hindrance is clearly seen (10). While Buster is obliged to deal
with the girls parents, an imposing rival and a demanding boss in the outer frame of
Sherlock. Jr.. Keaton relieves his alter ego of all such obstacles in his next film.
Nevertheless, he still deals with issues similar to those in the former film for the plot
of The Navigator bears a notable resemblance to a fairy tale which Bettelheim
categorizes as one of those which chiefly speaks to the tug of war between Oedipal
conflicts and resolutions: Hansel and Gretel.
42


CHAPTER 5
PRE-OEDIPAL COMEDY II.: THE NAVIGATOR
Bettelheim writes that a fairy tale of the aforementioned type is of great value
because it reassures the child that a female can be a rescuer as well as a destroyer
... [and] suggests to children that as they grow up they must come to rely more and
more on their age mates for mutual help and understanding. This message, he goes
on to say, then reinforces the storys main thrust, which is a warning against
regression, and an encouragement of growth toward a higher plane of psychological
and intellectual existence (164-65). In The Navigator. Keaton shows that while his
fantasy alter ego longs to accept the premise that a female can be a rescuer as well as
a destroyer, it is still unable to alter his course down the path that Bettelheim
contends the story warns children against taking: regression.
In this particular instance, certain elements and themes of the fairy tale and the
film are so similar that they can virtually be laid side by side and discussed
simultaneously. As the fairy tale is well known, I will forego explicating its specific
details and concentrate on the way that Keaton mirrors them in The Navigator, albeit
only up to a certain point. Both narratives begin realistically with two children
leaving home together, coming to an isolated place, realizing that they must fend for
43


themselves, and doing so by working as a team. Then, when danger threatens, they
serve as each others rescuer and, thereby, succeed in overcoming it.
While Keatons well-heeled protagonists appear to be adults in the opening
scenes of The Navigator, their behavior marks them as children, especially that of the
hero, who is depicted as being helpless, heedless, impulsive, and petulant. This
spoiled affluent dandy is waited on hand and foot by a man-servant; walks into his
sunken bathtub without disrobing; decides to get married on the spur of the moment
because he sees a just-married black couple and envies their happiness; and walks
away pouting without saying a word when the object of his dubious affection turns
his marriage proposal down flat. As Keaton was a wealthy man at the time and plays
the leading man in The Navigator, he not only satirizes the rich in general here, but
mocks himself as well.
Due to a set of irrelevant circumstances, the hero and heroine find themselves on
an unmanned passenger ship adrift in the middle of the ocean, and, motivated by
hunger, seek out the kitchen hoping to discover somebody who will feed them. No
one is there, so they set about trying to make a meal for themselves, but, being
completely unschooled at taking care of themselves, fail miserably. The heros
attempts to wrest food from the cans stored in the galley are futile, as are his
partners efforts to make coffee from unground beans and sea water. Then, when
they pick up the over-sized cutlery with which the heroine has set the table, they
44


really look like the little children that their ineptitude has already implied that they
are.
Back up on deck, they realize the gravity of their situation; then, spying an
approaching ship, they signal for helpwith the quarantine flagand scare it away.
In their desperate attempt to attract the other ship, they both manage to fall into the
ocean, but also succeed at rescuing each other. By nightfall, these would-be grown-
ups have undergone a complete transformation: dressed like children in matching
sailor suits, they now appear to be juvenile fraternal twins. They retire to separate
cabins, but the portrait of a menacing pirate in hers keeps the girl awake, so she
throws it overboard. The picture-wire catches on the side of the boat somehow, so
now the villains scowling face swings back and forth in front of the boys porthole,
and startles him out of bed. This photo of Donald Crisp (whom Keatons audience
would recognize as the murderous father in D. W. Griffiths Broken Blossoms 1919),
is the sole threatening father-figure in this film, and, because it, like the actor in it,
represents a mere imitation of life, not the real thing, it only frightens the boy
initially, intermittently, and for a short while. At the end of a dark and stormy night
fraught with apprehension, the castaways fall asleep sitting up, leaning on each other,
both literally, and, as we shall see shortly, figuratively.
Like Hansel and Greteltwo siblings [who] cooperate in rescuing each other
and succeed because of their combined effortsour hero and heroine, when we
meet them weeks later, have completely mastered their environment by working
45


together (Bettelheim 165-66). Each has made a snug little nest in one of the ships
enormous boilers and furnished it with gender specific accoutrements, and the galley
is now rigged with numerous Rube Goldberg devices which greatly facilitate food
preparation. However, no sooner have they met the challenge of leaving the
parental home and creating [their] own family, than, as it is wont to do in fairy tales,
grave danger threatens their happy home and they must join forces to overcome it
(Bettelheim 83).
One morning they wake up to find that their ship has run aground alongside an
island paradise which, unfortunately, is inhabited by a tribe of cannibalsmuch like
the gingerbread house stumbled upon by Hansel and Gretel that houses a witch
whose favorite dish is plump little children. While our hero is underwater trying to
get the boat unstuck, the cannibals capture the heroine, but he rescues her by coming
ashore in his diving suit and scaring the savages silly; then, when the cannibals
master their fear and start advancing on the phony sea monster, she rescues him right
back by rowing him, lying prone in the water like a raft, away from the ravenous
horde. Soon after these mutual rescues, the floating pair is saved by a submarine;
once safely aboard, the girl kisses the boy, andKeaton informs us via one of his
most delightful visual punsthe lads world turns upside down. Thereafter, we
assume, they live happily ever after in a fond relationship like the one they shared in
their idyll at sea.
46


Like a fairy godmother, in The Navigator Keaton fulfills Busters every wish: he
transforms the living, breathing giant into a harmless facsimile and the rejecting
object of his affection into a compatible help-mate; lets him loose to play with a
marvelous toy (a real ocean liner) in an isolated setting without social hindrance;
and, enables him to escape from peril by way of ingenuity and resourcefulness as
opposed to superior physical strength and/or numbers. In additionunlike the fairy-
tale narrator who advocates for the transition from psychological immaturity to
maturity at the end of Hansel and Gretelthis cinematic story-teller allows his
protagonist to stay right where he is, in his psychological comfort zone, by changing
two notable details in the end of his version of the yam.
In the fairy tale, after Hansel and Gretel escape from the witch, they decide to go
back home, but soon find their way blocked by a large body of water which they can
cross only with the help of a white duck. Hansel seats himself on the duck and
invites Gretel to sit behind him, but she refuses, knowing that this will not do.
Somehow, Gretel knows that they have to cross over the waterthe passage from
immaturity to maturityseparately, and they do. Then, Bettelheim asserts, having
symbolically resolved their Oedipal conflicts, they go home to live happily with then-
parents for a time because [only] through good relations with his parents can a child
successfully mature into adolescence (164-65).
Conversely, in the film, each time the boy and girl need to cross over a large
body of waterfrom the island to the ship and from the ship to the spot in the ocean
47


where the submarine comes up under themthey do so together. In the first
instance, the girl straddles the boy encased in his diving suit and rows him like a
canoe from the island to the ship; in the second, the inseparable pair abandon ship
together, share a white life preserver until it appears that they have no hope of
escaping the savages, then throw it off, grab onto one another, and appear to be
drowning when the deus ex machina rises up out of the deep to save them. The last
we see of them, they are safe in the belly of the sub.
The motif of Keatons ambivalence around the negative and/or positive nature
of wombs discussed above in the section regarding Sherlock. Jr. (the womb-shaped
cage as a lethal trap vs. Gillettes belly as an avenue of escape) also shows up in The
Navigator by way of symbolic uteri: the diving suit and the submarine. While the
image of the girl astride the boy in the diving suit initially strikes the viewer as a
sexual onefor it is indubitably a deliberate quirky sexual punafter taking into
consideration the scenarios involving this prop which precede and follow it, s/he
realizes that, from a psychoanalytical perspective, it might be more representative of
maternity than carnality. When the girl first intimates that the boy should don the
diving suit in order to make the necessary underwater repairs on the ship, his body
language clearly indicates that he really does not want to, and the validity of his fear
is borne out when he nearly dies inside it three times: when he first gets into it,
absent-mindedly keeps smoking, and almost smothers; when he isvsubmerged in it,
the cannibals cut his air hose, and he nearly drowns; and, when the girl rows him
48


back to the ship, it fills up with water and becomes so heavy that he is unable to
climb up the ladder and back into the ship, thus leaving him liable to be attacked by
the advancing cannibals.
The girl rescues the boy from his first near-death experience in the diving suit-
cum-death-trap by managing to unscrew his helmet just in the nick of time; he saves
himself in the second instance by getting out of the water and coming ashore on the
island; and, finally, the two effect his third escape from this quasi-womb by working
together as a team. The girl carries the boy back to the ship and, once alongside,
removes his helmet; then, they find that the weight of his waterlogged diving suit
makes it impossible for him to climb up the ladder. So, the brave boy draws a knife
from his tool belt and makes a huge incision across his lower abdomenas if
breaking his own bag of waters or attempting to perform a Caesarean section on
himself. The trapped water gushes out, and, once relieved of its weight, the boy is
able to clamber aboard. Once there, however, the boys final effort to deliver
himself from the suit fails, but the girl/mother/mid-wife facilitates his birth by
holding the suit upside-down until the boy is expelled. Thus, Keaton illustrates that,
while he still views a womb as a potential death-trap, he also accepts the premise that
he can rely on a female age-mate to rescue him from it.
Be that as it may, however, the couple still gladly escapes from the cannibals by
voluntarily, gratefully, entering into another symbolic wombthe submarine
which, apparently to Keaton, qualifies as a safe one, because, being a machine
49


manned by an all male crew, it is an image of male motherhood, like Gillette:
Sherlock, Jr.s masculine surrogate mother. In any case, at the end of their adventure
at sea, the boy and the girl who ventured off into the great unknown together,
encountered, and then successfully conquered, the dangers lurking there, do not
return home ready to meet the grown-up challenges awaiting them there. On the
contrary, they regress, and return to the safety of the womb.
Perhaps because Keaton had a dysfunctional relationship with his parents and a
disintegrating marriage to contend with when he made The Navigator in the fall of
1924, it is understandable that he was either unable and/or unwilling to give up his
fantasy of living safely and happily ever after in an uncomplicated relationship with
the girl of his dreams, the emphasis being on the girl. Since, in his experience,
grown-up women may have seemed to be untrustworthy and cruel, Keaton may have
preferred, for the time being, not to move toward emotional maturity, but instead, to
hang back and cling to the fairy princess in the back of his mindthat wonderful
woman of the future who [would] compensate for-all his present hardships, and,
[who the thought of, made] it much easier to bear up under them (Bettelheim 114).
As he does with Sherlock. Jr. and The Navigator. Keaton employs fantasy and
humorhis primary psychological coping mechanismsin Go West (1925), the
film he made the following year. In this burlesque Western, Keaton lampoons the
melodramatic conventions of the genre and, in the process, also comically (both
unconsciously and consciously) reveals his growing skepticism regarding the
50


possibility of ever finding a woman capable and/or desirous of giving him the only
recompense fit to compensate for all his past and present hardships: unconditional
love, the kind of love one gets from animals.
51


CHAPTER 6
PRE-OEDIPAL COMEDY HI.: GO WEST
The leading lady in Go West is Brown Eyes, a little dairy cow living amongst
a herd of long-hom steers on a cattle ranch out West; the leading man, Friendless
(a.k.a. Buster), is a recently orphaned wayfaring Hoosier turned hapless cowpoke.
After the death of his dear old mother, Friendless embarks on an odyssey which
takes him first, to the Big Applewhere he is buffeted about crowds of people and
perilous trafficthen, to the wide open spaces of the Wild Westwhere he passes
himself off as cowboy and signs on at the Diamond Bar Ranch. Friendless wins
Brown Eyes undying love by removing a stone from her hoof (in a gesture that
recalls Aesops fable about a mouse removing a thorn from a lions paw and,
thereby, becoming his friend) and she his by saving him from a menacing bull;
thereafter, the two outsiders become inseparable companions who show each other
affection and protect one another from harm. Keaton emphasizes their isolation with
a long shot of the pair, from behind, walking slowly away into the desolate
landscape, evoking a palpable feeling of loneliness with the sight of the two figures
get smaller and smaller as they shuffle off together into the void.
While Keatons Friendless parodies Charlie Chaplins Little Tramp and his
Brown Eyes parodies heroines from both Chaplin and Griffith, she can also be
52


seen as the most outrageous diegetic stand-in for Myra in Keatons oeuvre. Indeed,
at first glance, it may seem a stretch to even characterize her as one despite the tone
of tenderness the film creates toward her in the midst of parody. However, when
Bettelheims explication of the uses of animal helpers in fairy tales is taken into
consideration, it becomes clear that Brown Eyes might qualify as a symbol for the
filmmakers mother.
Bettelheim writes that the memory of the idealized mother of infancy, when
kept alive as an important part of ones internal experience, can and does support us
even in the worst adversity, and, in some fairy tales, the good mother is
represented by a helpful animal. Moreover, in many variations of these stories, it
is a calf, cow, goat, or some other animal into which the ... mother is transformed to
become the [hero/ines] magic helper (257). Such tales, Bettelheim explains,
illustrate the symbolic replacement of the original mother by an animal that gives us
milk,... [and thereby], reflects the emotional and psychological connection of early
feeding experiences which provide security in later life (258).
Friendless and Brown Eyes become a couple after he performs an act of
kindness for her and she reciprocates in kind; what is more, she licks his hand, and
the boys look of profound wonderment at this unqualified show of affection is heart-
rending. From that moment on, Brown Eyes follows Friendless everywhere he goes
while he in turn goes out of his way to watch out for her. In contrast to the
nurturing relationship the greenhorn enjoys with his unorthodox sweetheart is
53


the one he fails to forge with another cow (a bad mother?) which his boss orders
him to go and milk. Since Friendless is clueless when it comes to animal husbandry,
he carefully places the bucket under the cows udder, sets his milking stool in front
of her nose at the other end, sits down, patiently waits for her to give, and, of
course, she doesnt. And, because the only human female on the placethe ranch
owners disdainful daughterinitially treats Friendless like this unyielding heifer
does, he quickly loses interest in her.
At first, Friendless is quite taken with the girl who, according to the dictates of
convention, we expect to be the principal object of his desire. However, when he
removes a splinter from her fingeressentially doing her the same favor he did for
Brown Eyesshe offers him a perfunctory thank you, then turns and walks away.
Consequently, Friendless concentrates his attention on Brown Eyes while,
unbeknownst to him, the girl begins to have feelings for Friendless when she notices
the way he lovingly cares for Brown Eyes. Revealing the delight he took in his own
inventiveness, Keaton later exclaimed to his biographer: Now there,... was a
triangle (Blesh 262).
In the rollicking climax of Go West, as every hero in a melodrama is obliged to
do, Friendless rescues the damsel in distress, and, like a fairy-tale hero is wont to
do, performs miraculous deeds to get the job done. In order to save Brown Eyes
from the slaughter house, Friendless stows away with her in a cattle car; comes
through an ambush; survives a precarious walk atop the rocking freight-cars of a
54


runaway train to get to the locomotives empty cab and fill in for the absent engineer;
and, lacking any previous experience as a drover, single-handedly escorts several
hundred head of steer from the train depot through the thronging business district of
Los Angeles to the stockyards.
The films topper, the final gag that serves as a climax (a device Keaton
learned as a child vaudevillian and continued to employ as an adult filmmaker),
entails Friendless donning a devil suit, and thereby, making himself into a red flag
to regain the herds attention when they get distracted by their urban surroundings.
This maneuver works too well, though, for the cattle drive becomes a stampede that
threatens to trample Friendless until Brown Eyes runs alongside him and our hero
swings upon her like a wrangler would a galloping horse. Henceforth, Brown Eyes,
the bovine damsel in distress, carries Friendless, her knight ... in a Halloween
costume, to their final destination.
As a result of Friendless efforts to rescue Brown Eyes from certain death by
risking his own, his boss avoids financial ruin and his secret admirer falls more
deeply in love with our dauntless hero. In the end, however, when the owner of the
ranch (the king) tells Friendless that he can have any reward he wants in return for
saving the day, the boy points behind himselfwhere both the mans daughter (the
princess) and the dairy cow are standingand declares, I want her. Much to the
girls chagrin, and her fathers amusement, Friendless is not referring to her, but to
Brown Eyes. This is a new wrinkle because, while Keatons cinematic alter ego is
55


often aided by an animal in his films, his furry friend is usually of the canine variety
and his relationship with it is that of a boy and his dog, not the lead and his love
interest. Contrarily, in Go West. Buster actually rides off into the sunset sitting
beside Brown Eyes in the back seat of the ranchers car; the father and his daughter
sit up front and the boy only leans forward to engage the girl in conversation at the
last minute. Thus, this film concludes with both a happily ever after and an
Oedipal resolution, albeit, Keaton-style.
Over the next few years Keaton edged closer to Oedipal resolutions in his
features, but still in the same vacillating fashion as in the three previously discussed
films, and thereby, continued to use filmmaking to express and cope with his
contradictory emotions and attitudes cinematically via a language of the
imagination, with a vocabulary of images and a syntax of plots, to borrow Warners
phrase, which language, incidentally, is the way that some theorists including
Warner contend fairy-tale narrators represent theirs (Introd. xxiii). With his funny
fractured fairy tales, which are sometimes redolent with child-like innocence and
wishful thinking, but at others imbued with astute commentary, social criticism and
even adult cynicism and world-weariness, Keaton frequently reformulates the
traditional fairy tale formula and pulls the rug out from under the conventional
happily ever after we expect to come in the end. In the same manner, he often
subverts his films Oedipal resolutions, rendering the accommodation, compromise,
and social integration they ostensibly extol dubious at best.
56


As Zipes explains, storytellers do not necessarily always champion communal
values; on the contrary, many employ parody [to] mock, question, and undermine
tradition (15). Keatons movies reveal that while he absorbed the value system to
which he was exposed as a boy, certain lessons of his abusive childhood (e.g. that
wedlock can be a prison and that might does not make right) also caused him to
reject some of its teachings.8 So, while many of his films sport conventional happy
endings (with either a wedding or the promise of one), a certain number do not, and,
his fantasy alter egowho is part conformist/part rebelhabitually questions and/or
undermines the paternalistic status quo by mocking those in whom it vests its
authority and power: patriarchs, bosses, wealthy businessmen (and their spoiled
sons), policemen, military men, and community leaders.
While Keaton always keeps us guessing about how he will bend or break
convention next, there is one element in his films which remains constant: his
relentless pursuit of love coupled with his anxiety around failing to obtain it. From a
psychiatric standpoint, a recurring theme is generally indicative of the storytellers
principal concerns and/or conflicts, and this tenet is repeatedly bom out in Keatons
oeuvre, wherein his fantasy alter ego is always willing to do just about anything to
forestall his greatest fear: being left all alone. There is no greater threat in life,
Bettelheim asserts, than that we will be deserted, hence, separation anxiety
(Freuds term for this universal fear), and the means by which the character copes
with it, is a dominant theme in fairy tales, just as it is in Keatons films (145). And,
57


it is the very power of this emotionwhich Keaton apparently had some difficulty
mastering9that seems to have driven him to depart from the dominant fairy tale
paradigm at times, allowing his own pessimism to supplant the heroic optimism the
latter requires and eschewing the conventional happy ending of the genre.
Mast points out a perfect example of this in his remarks about the gloomy
conclusions in some of Keatons films, which he describes as [existing] in the
shadow of disaster and the tombstone (138). In one such film, Cops (1922), created
in the wake of the Arbuckle scandal, which affected Keaton deeply, the filmmaker
blends his profound disillusionment (generated by the way his friends career and
life were annihilated by the justice system) with his dread of abandonment. Mast
notes that when the girl rejects Buster in the end, he, in effect, chooses death over
life without love: Buster reenters the police stationand the homicidal crowd
lurking withinfrom which he has just escaped, choosing to suffer their physical
punishment rather than the pain of his emotional loss. The film ends with a
tombstone, Busters porkpie hat hanging atop it (137).10
In addition to Cops, there are numerous others with similar dark denouements
which speak to the same concern: throughout Hard Luck (1921), Buster tries and
fails to commit suicide again and again, rescues and proposes to the girl, learns that
she is already married, tries to kill himself again, and fails; Daydreams (1922) and
The Electric House (1922) both conclude with a failed suicide attempt brought on by
Busters failure to live up to his girls (or her fathers) expectations and being
58


rejected as a result; and, in The Love Nest (1923), after he has run away to sea
because his fiance threw him over, Buster dreams that a battleship gunner shoots him
dead.
In her concluding remarks about avant-garde fairy tale writers in the distant and
recent past who also broke the mold with their unhappy endings, Warner observes
that [although] laughter breaks the silence and jesting can be provocative,
disruptive, anarchic and unsettling, some laughter never unburdens itself from
knowledge of its own pessimism, [but instead] remains intrinsically ironic (197).
Keaton was obviously unaware of the innovative writers that Warner refers to here,
and I certainly claim no influence of their work on his; nevertheless, in the above
quotation, Warner might just as well be describing some of Keatons subversive
cinematic fairy tales instead of their literary ones.
Like the short films discussed above, Keatons features all reveal his separation
anxiety to some degree, but he never subverts the dominant fairy tale paradigm
which calls for a happy outcome in them. On the contrary, he conveys one of the
very messages that Bettelheim asserts fairy tales send to their readers via their happy
endings: that by forming a true interpersonal relation, one escapes the separation
anxiety which haunts him [or her] (11).
59


CHAPTER 7
PATERNAL RESCUE FANTASY: STEAMBOAT BILL. JR.
The crucial elements in a good fairy tale, Bettelheim states, are fantasy,
recovery, escape, and consolationrecovery from deep despair, escape from some
great danger, but, most of all consolation (143).11 In Steamboat Bill. Jr. (1928), the
last film Keaton made with his own production company before making the worst
mistake of [his] career (Keaton 201)reluctantly signing on with MGMthe focus
is on the protagonists escape from great danger and the consolation afforded him by
forming a true interpersonal relationship with a father who approves of him and even
puts his sons interests ahead of his own (by risking his freedom in order to avenge
him).
Steamboat Bill, Jr. is essentially a father and son story that traces the evolution
of their relationship from one of a gruff, disapproving working class parent and an
unconventionally masculine child to that of two grown men who love and respect
each otheran ideal adult father/son relationshipthe kind of relationship that
Joseph Francis Keaton (called Little Joe until he was nicknamed Buster) no
doubt wished to have with his father, Joseph Hallie Keaton. For the hero of this
fantasy (Willie/Steamboat Bill, Jr.), the primary object of desire is not the girl
(Marion), but his father (William/Steamboat Bill, Sr.). Early on in the film, we learn
60


that Willie and Marion are well acquainted collegiate classmates and that they like
each other a lot; hence, it is clear from the beginning that the boy will get the girl
since he has evidently already won her heart. On the other hand, we have our doubts
about how things will turn out between William and Willie, who are complete
strangers when they meet, realize immediately that they have absolutely nothing in
common, and, initially, dislike each other intensely. Be that as it may, however, the
father-figure that Keaton fashions for his alter ego in Steamboat Bill. Jr. is unlike any
other in his oeuvre because, ultimately, Steamboat Bill, Sr. is more a benevolent
character than a menacing one and is rescued along with the girl by Steamboat Bill,
Jr. in the end.
Willie is a post-adolescent when he meets his father for the first time and, for
William, it is clearly a case of hate at first sight because, to his father, Willie looks
like the saddest excuse for a son he could ever imagine. William makes no attempt
to hide his disappointment either; on the contrary, he grabs his son by the wristas
if Willie were a childand takes him into town to start the process of remaking him
in his own image-just as Joe did with Buster. First, he yanks his son into a
barbershop (to get his ridiculous moustache shaved off), then to a haberdashery (to
replace his beret with a more manly chapeau), and, finally, to a clothier (to
exchange his college-boy wardrobe for more suitable work clothes).
In the hilarious hat shop scene, Willie tries on one hat after another and
eventually puts on a pork pie hatKeatons trademarkthen quickly snatches it off
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before his father sees it. Thus, the filmmaker signals his understanding of how it
feels to be stripped of ones identity and independence, and also how scary it is to
resist. Although Willie is allowed to have no say in the changes wrought on him by
his father, he still manages to defy them to a certain degree by secreting his beret in
his back pocket and putting it back on his head after the wind blows the new hat off,
and, when left to his own devices in the clothing store, by buying, not the garb of an
ordinary seaman, but instead, a uniform more befitting a navel officer.
Initially, Steamboat Bill, Sr. comes off as a giant bully like Joe, Sr., but soon
demonstrates that, while he behaves like a ruffian in the face of his enemies, for Bill,
Jr., he will act as an advocate. When Jr. gets into an altercation with a sailor who
works for his fathers rival (Mr. King), Sr. grabs his sons right hand, curls it into a
fist and punches the fellow, remarking, Thats what thats for! Then, when one of
his own lackeys pushes Jr. around, Sr. slugs him and orders him to keep his hands off
his son. Surprised and impressed, Jr. surreptitiously feels his fathers muscular arm,
recognizes him as a source of protection, and moves closer to him. Thereafter, the
two begin to bond: Sr. brushes off his sons mussed clothing, shows him how to
operate the riverboat, scolds him when he makes mistakes, then praises him when
said mistakes result in his rival falling into the drink, and shares his chewing tobacco
with him. Come nighttime, Sr. sees that Jr. is properly dressed for bed, and Jr.
climbs into his bunk, assuming a familiar sleeping-child poseon his tummy with
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his bum sticking up; Sr. abruptly pushes Jr.s bottom down, but also pulls the covers
up over him.
Later that night, Jr. sneaks out to meet his girl, whom his father has forbidden
him to see; Sr. finds out and responds by angrily giving Jr. some money and a ticket
back to Boston. The youth is disconsolate, but packs his bags and sets off for the
train station; on the way, though, he sees his father being thrown in jail and resolves
to stay and try to get him out. When Jr. succeeds in helping Sr. make his escape, Sr.
appreciatively shakes Jr.s hand and hugs him; Jr. is visibly nonplussed by his
fathers unqualified show of affection. Sr. manages to run off and hide, but Jr. is
caught and knocked unconscious by the sheriff; after watching these events unfold,
and well aware that he risks recapture by doing so, Sr. comes out of hiding to avenge
his son. After he punches the sheriff, Sr. is thrown back in jail, and Jr. is taken off to
the hospital.
Thus far, Keaton presents Steamboat Bill, Sr. as a man capable of both violence
and tenderness, a surly, hulking father who both dominates and protects his puny
son, who chews him out when he screws up or seems less than masculine, but also
praises him when he comes through, and, most importantly, as a parent willing to
make sacrifices for his child. In return, Steamboat Bill, Jr. is ready to risk life and
limb in order to rescue him. Here, filial love is clearly the catalyst that sparks our
heros transformation from the laughable youth, Willie, to the laudable Steamboat
Bill, Jr., who does not just play at being a sailor, but instead, ingeniously harnesses
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the power of his fathers riverboat, harpoons houses floating downstream as if they
were whales, and ultimately takes everything the raging natural world throws at him
in stride.
While the relationship between Joe and Buster resembles that of Steamboat Bill,
Sr. and Jr. in a number of ways, the dissimilar ones are the more meaningful. To
begin with, we know that Joe Keaton greatly appreciated Busters extraordinary
talent. In a letter to Houdini in 1907 he boasts: You cant talk too much on the
ability of my little comedian Buster and our [comedy routine]. There aint another
act like it... hes a corker. The ushers quit work when he troupes (ctd. in Wead
and Lellis 3). Moreover, it is highly probable that Joe expressed that same
admiration to Buster; however, it is also apparent that Joe exploited his son.
Secondly, it is documented that if someone attacked Buster, Joe retaliated; however,
Joe also literally used Busters body as a weapon to assault another person. Finally,
while Joe undoubtedly loved Buster, he also contributed mightily to the boys
perception that the price one pays for affection and approval is unexpressed physical
and emotional pain. Unlike Joe, Steamboat Bill, Sr. never treats his son like a
commodity, an inanimate object or an insentient being.
In the prolonged cataclysmic climax of Steamboat Bill. Jr., which commences
when Jr. wakes up in the hospital, Keaton quite graphically shows what a nightmare
it was sometimes to be Joes little comedian Buster. And, in keeping with his
usual practice of depicting fantastic events in a real world setting, the filmmaker
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projects a dreamlike world in which the miraculous is so real that characters take
it for granted, just as Griffith notes fairy tales do. Much has been written about the
autobiographical elements in the films terrific denouement, and commentators
usually theorize that Keaton is reminiscing here about specific past incidents
including: being carried away by a cyclone when he was three, being frightened by a
mannequin seemingly come to life when he was seven, and being thrown through
backdrops by Joe on a regular basis. Although I agree that these memories inform
the films conclusion, I would go further and surmise that it symbolizes the way that
Buster remembered his childhood in general. As a childlike the fairy tale
hero/ines with whom he evidently so. closely identifiedBuster never knew when he
would be threatened by a ferocious, unpredictable giant who could sweep him away
like a straw in the wind. He just knew that this kind of attack could and did come
often and that he had best always keep his wits about him as they were his most
formidable weapon.
When Steamboat Bill, Jr. regains consciousness in the hospital, he is all alone in
a world that is completely out of control. He finds himself up against, and at the
mercy of, an overwhelming force which he just barely manages to withstand, and,
though he frantically searches from pillar to post, he finds nobody to help him. At
one point, he flings open the stage door of a deserted theatre, hoping to find shelter
and company there, but the place is a wreck and inhabited by only by an uncanny
ventriloquists dummy.12 At another, which Blesh describes as surely the high
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point of Buster Keatons long career of courting death for real, he stands abandoned
in the middle of the wind-blown street and the entire fapade of a house falls on him
(290). Jr. is spared only by pure luck, as he just happens to be in a position where
the open second story window narrowly passes over him. At last, clinging to a tree,
Jr. is carried over and into a river, from which, with great pluck and ingenuity, he
rescues himself, his girl, and both of their fathers.
It should be noted that Keaton rescued his father in real life too, when he could
just as easily have let him sink. While Buster went straight from being a highly
paid vaudeville star to being a successful independent filmmaker, after his son quit
the act, Joe was just an alcoholic has-been. Still, the filmmaker kept his father (and
other members of his family) gainfully employed for many years when it is unlikely
that anyone else would have offered him a job, an indication that, in spite of
everything, Keaton wanted to maintain a relationship with this flawed man whom he
persisted in idealizing throughout his life.
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CHAPTER 8
MATERNAL RESCUE FANTASY: THE CAMERAMAN
As he does in Steamboat Bill, Jr.. Keaton employs a traditional fairy-tale
formula meant to assuage our universal fear of abandonment in The Cameraman.
However, as it is romantic love that effects the protagonists transformation here, he
concludes the story with a happy ending wherein the hero is united with the most
desirable partner who will never leave him (Bettelheim 147). While The
Cameraman contains all of the essential fairy tale components outlined at the
beginning of the previous section, the protagonists recovery from deep despair and
the consolation afforded him by finding a woman to love him and actually put his
interests ahead of her own (by risking her job in order to help him succeed) are this
films most salient fairy-tale features. It seems as if Keaton instinctively knew that
the days of being able to grant himself, cinematically, the fondest wishes of his inner
child and adult self were rapidly coming to an end, so, with this pair of films, he tried
to cover all the bases.
The Cameraman was the first film Keaton produced under his new contract with
MGM in 1928 and the one that represents the beginning of the end of his career as an
independent filmmaker. It includes scenes which not only reveal his longing for love
and deep-seated separation anxiety, but also his animosity toward the companythe
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undefeatable giant as it turned outto which he had surrendered his autonomy. In
The Cameraman. Keaton gives his protagonist just about the most desirable
cinematic love interest to be found in any of his silent films; moreover, to assure his
heros success, he provides him with an animal helper resembling Keaton himself in
a number of ways, not all good. This is not the first time the filmmaker makes a
monkey of himself (he masterfully mimics one in The PlavhouseV. however here,
the animal actually serves as a cinematic alter ego through which the actor/auteur
utters harsh truths, imagistically, about himself as a man, and says what he dares,
symbolically, about the entity now wielding power over him.
Both Keaton (Luke) and his leading lady (Sally) are unequivocally adults here,
but the tintype photographer he plays is as ready to go to any lengths to win her love
as his more childlike alter ego is in any of his previous pictures. When Luke sees
Sally, its love at first sight for the photographer, and just being near this girl makes
him swoon. He asks her to go out with him the following day, and she turns him
down, but only because she already has other plans; shell call him, she promises, if
her date falls through. He gets up in the morning, dresses, and sits waiting, listening
for the phone; miraculously, it rings, its Sally, and shes free. He drops the phone
and sprints through the streets to where she lives. In this scene, as Robert Bowman
puts it, Keaton runs as if his life depended on it or like hes running home.13
Happily, Sally turns out to be a young woman worthy of Lukes admiration.
Unlike all the experienced cameramen working out of the newsreel company office
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who treat Luke like an outcast, their secretary, Sally, is kind, encouraging,
sympathetic, and, what is more, willing to risk losing her job in order to help him
succeed at becoming a professional like the others for whom she works. For some
reason (could it be love?) she does not see Luke as an object of ridicule as they do,
even though he continuously breaks the glass in the office door, upon which the
legendMGM News Reelis embossed in bold letters. Keaton encodes his
repressed anger and frustration toward the film studio that bought him outand to
whom he felt he had sold outin this running gag of Luke accidentally, but
Keaton purposely, smashing through its logo again and again.
Intent on aiding Luke in his endeavor to become a newsreel cameraman, Sally
tips him off about an impending Tong War, and he rushes off to get the scoop. In his
blind pursuit of the story, though, Luke trips over an organ-grinders monkey dressed
in a sailor suit reminiscent of the one Keaton dons in The Navigator, and a cloth hat
resembling the rally cap he wears here in lieu of his token pork pie hatanother
none too subtle hint of Keatons keenly felt loss of identity. Thinking Luke has
killed the animal, a policeman tells him to dispose of it; but, when the monkey comes
around and latches onto the photographer, he allows it to ride on his shoulder to
Chinatown instead. The monkeys reaction upon regaining consciousness is similar
to Steamboat Bill, Jr.s when he wakes up in the hospital: he is confused by his
unfamiliar surroundings; frightened by the danger he encounters there (a vicious
dog); expresses utter panic by jumping up and down (like Steamboat Bill, Jr. does
69


when denied entrance to a storm cellar); and, seeks help. Unlike Steamboat Bill, Jr.,
who finds no one, however, the monkey spots Luke and clings to him for dear life.
After the War, throughout which Luke furiously cranks the camera and the
monkey watches his back, the tyro triumphantly returns to the newsreel office to
deliver his work only to find that he apparently failed to put film in his camera.
Consequently, the boss rants at Luke while his rival, Harold, gloats; the boss scolds
Sally while Luke begs the man not to fire her; Luke takes his leave, totally
humiliated; and, Sally stays, still employed, but heartbroken nonetheless.
Subsequently, Luke decides to cover the Westport Yacht Club Regatta, and
thereby, redeem himself as a newsreel cameraman; the monkey accompanies him,
manning the tiller of the boat from which Luke films the event. As Fate would have
it, his girl and his rival are there too. In an heroic act of self-endangerment rendering
him worthy of Sallys loveas it more than equals the risk she took for himLuke
rescues an unconscious Sally from a boating accident caused by the reckless driving
of Harold. Luke lays Sally gently down on the beach, then runs off to a nearby drug
store to get some smelling salts. In his absence, Harold comes ashore just as Sally
awakes and allows her to believe that he is the one who saved her; when Luke
arrives back on the scene, he sees the two of them walking away together. Because
Luke had allowed himself to begin to hope that he had a chance of winning Sally,
when its looks as if she means to choose the man whom she believes rescued her, the
thought of losing her literally brings him to his knees. In probably the most achingly
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poignant scene in any of Keatons films, Luke slowly sinks to the sand, his body
slumping slightly forward as he watches the girl of his dreams walk away with
another man.
Although it seems as if life has dealt our hero a blow from which he will never
recover, all is not lost because the monkey arranges for the truth to come out by
capturing it all on film, and Luke unwittingly turns the evidence over to the MGM
News Reel company before forlornly going back to his old job. Since Keaton allows
movie-goers to watch the monkey employ the skills he learned in his former
occupation as an organ grinder in his present effort at filmmakingjust as Keaton
does with the ones he honed in his previous career as a vaudevillian in histhey are
not quite as surprised as the boss, the rival, and the girl are when they view the film
which reveals more than the shocking news that Harold is a lying, cowardly cad.
Because it contains footage of the Tong War and the Regatta as well as Lukes
caring rescue of Sally, it also proves that both Luke and his animal helper are fine
filmmakers which, in turn, suggests that any monkey (in the pejorative sense) can
make a movie: a revelation that tells us a lot about Keatons diminished self-image.
While the filmmaker indicates that Lukes accomplishment is praiseworthy by
having the boss call his material, the best camera work [hes] seen in years, Keaton
also reveals his self-loathing by comparing himself to a trained animal. Cognizant
that his passive-aggressive stabs at MGM in The Cameraman will have little effect
on the real thing, and disgusted with himself for being incapable of fighting back in a
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more direct fashion, Keaton likens himself to a little manikin who performs at the
pleasure of his more powerful masterjust like he did as a child while a member of
The Three Keatons. To a viewer familiar with his background, the message that
Keaton sends here is devastating because it indicates that he feels as if he is right
back where he started from: at the mercy of a giant, and that his wit: his most potent
weapon in the past, will probably be ineffectual against this adversary. So, while he
still has the chance, Keaton gives his fantasy alter ego the happiest of endings.
After Sally learns the truth, she finds Luke on the street and shares the good
news with him. Thereafter, the ebullient couple strolls off together and are soon
engulfed in a tickertape parade which is meant for Lucky Lindy, not lucky Luke, but
our hero does not know that, and Keaton lets him enjoy it while he still can. Sadly,
Keatons real life happy ending would be a long time coming.
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CHAPTER 9
CONCLUSION
Stories and storytelling were immensely important to Buster Keaton throughout
his life. He drew from both in his work, his play, and in his struggle to cope with the
circumstances in which he lived, not only as an abused, exploited boy performer in
vaudeville, but also as the emotionally damaged yet brilliant filmmaker he grew up
to be. In childhood and adulthood alike, when the need to escape from reality arose,
fantasy (in the form of fairy tales and filmmaking) facilitated Keatons excursions to
the world of his imagination. Turning to what he called all the fairylands in the
world, Buster the boy found in popular tales a veritable primer with which to read
the imagistic language of his mind and to express his feelings symbolically, and
thereby, deal with the ambivalence, fear, and helplessness he felt as a result of his
parents bewildering behavior and treatment of him. As a man, Keaton used
filmmaking in a similar way to readand speakhis mind, and to cope with the
same feelings engendered by some of his adult relationships.
Keaton used fairy tales as a template for his films as the films themselves reveal.
The remarkable correspondence between the key themes, motifs, and narrative
patterns in conventional fairy tales and Keatons independently made silent films
speaks to the influence of the former on the latter, while his absurdist inflections and
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ironic endings define his stories as distinctly fractured, modernist renditions
representative of the period and problematic world in which he lived and worked.
More importantly though, just as fantasy did for him as a boy, making his silent film
comedies allowed Keaton: to engage repressed, negative emotions and psychological
issues generated by past and present life experiences, thus providing him with a
constructive way to cope with the sometimes bewildering and heart-breaking
circumstances of his life and their emotional sequelae; to grant himself,
cinematically, the fondest wishes of his inner child and adult self; and, to make the
transition, in the psychological sense, from immaturity to maturity.
When deprived of the means by which he had always dealt with his negative
emotions as both a child and an adulttransforming them into images and symbols
and projecting them into storiesKeaton turned them inward onto himself which
resulted in years of depression and self-medication with alcohol. During this dark
period, he divorced his first wife, married and divorced a second, and married a
third. Keatons relationships with women were complicated by his ambivalence
about them and his confusion around what he imagined he wanted and/or needed in
his relationships with them: fairy-tale princess/prince (his Hollywood princess,
Natalie Talmadge, to whom he was married from 1921-32); caretaker/patient (his
nurse, Mea Scriven, to whom he was married from 1932-36); or real-life
wife/husband (his helpmeet, Eleanor Norris, to whom he was married from 1940
until his death in 1966).
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So, in the end, Keaton enjoyed a successful marriage with a woman whom he by
all accounts loved and who loved him back, and with whose support he managed to
quit drinking after barely surviving an esophageal hemorrhage which probably
resulted from his alcoholism. Moreover, shortly after he married Eleanor, Keaton
was permanently reunited with his sons, Joseph and Robert, from whom he was
estranged for many years after he and Natalie divorced and she was awarded their
custody.
What is more, Keaton lived to see the resurgence of public interest in, and the
revival of critical acclaim for, his miraculously rediscovered, carefully restored,
independently made silent films which, in turn, renewed his faded reputation.
Hence, if the elements of a good fairy tale are fantasy, recoveryfrom deep despair,
escapefrom great danger, and consolation, then the story of Buster Keatonthe
little man with the frozen face who made [the people] laugh ... when they and [he]
were both young (Keaton 282)qualifies as one, for although it is decidedly
fractured, like many of those he told cinematically, it also ends happily.
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ENDNOTES
1 These are observations made by, respectively: biographer, Rudi Blesh re: The
Balloonatic (211) and Sherlock. Jr. (242); and, film scholars Gabriella Oldham re:
The Balloonatic (312-331), and Alan S. Dale re: The Scarecrow and Go West (89).
2 Sanders and Lieberfelds characterization of Joe Keaton (21).
Sanders and Lieberfeld fail to note that, although Keatons face seems to remain
inert, he expresses every possible human emotion with his eyes. Moreover,
while he doesnt smile, he does express certain feelings with the way he sets his
mouth. For example, before taking on a particularly difficult stunt, his resolve is
nearly always quite evident there.
4 These are transformation gags from, respectively: The Navigator: Sherlock. Jr.:
One Week; The Love Nest.
5 In a conversation with Blesh, Keaton quite consciously refers to himself as being
comprised of two disparate entities: Me and my understudy, Buster II. He then
goes on to describe Buster II as that part of him which could do anythingplay
and never get tired, be rich and handsome, never grow old (240).
6 The Blacksmith concludes with this sequence of shots: fade out on the happy
couple riding off on a train; fade in on a close-up of, the viewer assumes, the same
train running off the rails; inter-title: Many a honeymoon express has ended
thusly; pull-back revealing that the train is actually a toy one in a nursery occupied
by Buster, now a yawning father, and his bride, now a mother preoccupied with
caring for their baby. In The Three Ages. Keaton concludes the segments about
both the Stone Age and the Roman Age with shots of Buster and his wife
accompanied by numerous children, however, at the end of the sequence about the
Modem Agethe time period he inhabitsBuster and his wife are accompanied
only by a Pekingese.
7 In his paper, The Theme of the Three Caskets, Freud opines that, in dreams,
caskets are symbols of the essential thing in woman, and therefore of a woman
herself, like boxes, large or small, baskets, and so on (489).
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o
In the conclusion of Battling Butler. Keaton clearly illustrates his rejection of
fighting as an acceptable means of dealing with conflict thusly: after Busterthe
bogus Battling Butlerwins his furious fight against the real prizefighter, he
confesses to his wife that he lied and that he is not even a fighter. To his great joy
and relief, she replies, Im glad.
9 As Bettelheim notes, this is one of those fears that [is] not restricted to a particular
period of development... [it can] occur at all ages in the unconscious (15).
10 Due to dark denouements like this, my assertion that Keatons films resemble fairy
tales may appear questionable to those who associate them only with unabashed
optimism; however, Warners work discloses a notable correspondence between the
filmmaker and innovative fairy tale writers of both the distant and recent past who,
like Keaton, also have a penchant for substituting happy endings with ones that
are anything but. In her exploration of grandes dames fairy tale writers of the
late seventeenth centuryMarie-Jeanne LHeritieer (1664-1734) and Marie-
Catherine dAulnoy (1650/51-1705)Warner notes that, while some of their comic
tales end conventionally in reconciliation, vindication, [and] partnership, in
others, the mood is stoic, and the reader senses the author [shrugging] her
shoulders with cool irony (163-64). This rather sullen somber tone, Warner points
out, matches that of some post-modem storytellers, like Angela Carter, who blends
heroic optimism with gallows humour in her subversive variations on fairy
tales (197).
11 Bettelheim credits J. R. R. Tolkien with this assessment of the cmcial facets he
deems necessary in good fairy tales (143).
12
Blesh observes that [beyond] the innate strangeness of [the vaudevillian world]
was the strange fact that [Buster] was almost the only child in itthe rest were
adults, trained animals, and, of course, robots ... mannequins,... [and
ventriloquists] dummies. (41).
13
I want to thank my colleague, Rob Bowman, here for this insightful comment.
77


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Randall Conrad. New York: St. Martins, 1983. Originally published as
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Bettelheim, Bruno. The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance
of Fairy Tales. Vintage Books ed. New York: Random, 1977.
Blesh, Rudi. Keaton. 1966. First Collier Books ed. New York: Macmillan,
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Dale, AlanS. Comedy is a Man in Trouble: Slapstick in American Movies.
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Freud, Sigmund. The Theme of the Three Caskets. In The Critical
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Griffith, Kelley. Narrative Fiction: An Introduction and Anthology. Fort
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Knopf, Robert. The Theater and Cinema of Buster Keaton. Princeton:
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Oldham, Gabriella. Keatons Silent Shorts: Beyond the Laughter. Carbondale:
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Warner, Marina. From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales And Their
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Wead, George, and George Lellis. The Film Career of Buster Keaton. Ed.
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Zipes, Jack. Fairy Tale As Myth / Myth As Fairy Tale. 1993. The Thomas D.
Clark Lectures. Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 1994.
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