Here's a trivia question: How many gags can you think of in Buster Keaton films that involve water?
You may be counting for awhile, because out of 19 shorts and 12 features between 1920 and 1928, only three do not contain significant gags using water in one form or another, and many of them have elaborate sequences in which water is used for laughs.
First, let's start off with rain. Name the shorts and/or features where rain was used in one or more sequences. Ready? OK, here goes.
Rain figured significantly in his very first independent production, the two-reeler "One Week." He and costar Sybil Seeley are newlyweds who put together a prefabricated house themselves, with results that look like something out of "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari." While several guests are visiting during the housewarming, a terrible wind and rain storm comes up spinning the house round and round. Buster, Sybil and the guests are thrown from the house, and all he can do is sit outside and wait for the storm to come to an end.
In "The Boat," a storm sinks his boat, and Buster, his wife and two children are set adrift in a bathtub.
In "The Navigator," he and Kathryn think they hear ghosts below and decide to sleep on the deck of the ship, but, as soon as they get themselves comfortably snuggled under their blankets, a big storm comes up soaking them to the skin and sending them below again.
In "The General," he has to abandon his train when the Union soldiers learn he is the only one on board. He escapes into the woods, and, as soon as he settles down into some sense of security, the rains begin to fall Later, he rescues Marion Mack from a house where she is being held captive by the Yankees. They sneak out a window but must find their way through the woods during a heavy storm in the middle of the night. Finally, realizing they don't have a clue which way to go in the woods, they sit down on the ground, hold one another close, and simply wait out the rain.
Although used to set at somber mood rather than for comedy, "Our Hospitality" begins during a terrible nighttime thunder and lightning storm. Buster is a baby, and his father and Jim Canfield kill one another during the storm, assuring that the feud between the Canfields and the McKays will continue until Buster reaches adulthood.
In at least three films, we see Buster walking in the rain, totally oblivious to the fact that he's getting soaking wet, and with no more concern than if he were strolling down the street on a clear, spring day.
In "College," he and his mother are walking to his high school graduation as a torrential downpour falls upon them. Finally, he stops and purchases an umbrella along the way, but it seems all too small to provide him or his mother much protection.
The next year in "Steamboat Bill Jr.," we see an almost identical shot, this time without a mother on his arm. Buster is walking down the street to visit his father in jail. The rain is pouring down, and Buster has that same all-too-small umbrella above his head, still looking completely nonplussed by the rain.
"The Cameraman" also includes a scene where he is walking down the street oblivious to the rain, but this time there's good reason. Co-star Marceline Day has just kissed him on the cheek, and he walks out into the rain still in a daze from the show of affection.
What about fishing? How many films can you name where Buster is fishing . . . and keep in mind he may not be doing it with a fishing pole each time!
Although it may not qualify as fishing in its purest sense, the first time he caught a fish in a comedy was in "Convict 13." Buster has hit his golf ball in the water, and a fish swallows it. Determined to "play it as it lies," he dives, almost "fishlike" himself, into the water over and over again searching for the fish that has his ball - catching each one with his bare hands!
The next year, in "Hard Luck," we find him by a lake fishing. Here the gag has him using a very small fish as bait to catch a somewhat larger one. Not satisfied with the size of this one, he uses it for bait, throws it back in, and catches an even bigger one. Finally, he hooks one that is so big it snatches him through the air and into the water, but the line breaks, and we never see "the one that got away."
In "The Frozen North," Buster is ice fishing. He is back to back with another fisherman, and (we know it will happen) his line gets tangled up with the fisherman's behind him. Both thinking they have caught a big fish, they begin tugging back and forth until Buster finally jerks the other man into one hole in the ice and up and out of the other hole.
"The Balloonatic" has a lengthy sequence with both Buster and co-star Phyllis Haver fishing. Although Buster has no luck with a pole, he does catch a number of fish by grasping the oversized legs of the waders, flapping them and "shooing" the fish into a small rivulet, much as a lady would use her full dress to "shoo" chickens on a farm.
Buster can be found on a rock ledge in "Our Hospitality" fishing in a pool of water. He notices water falling from above and thinks it's beginning to rain. Suddenly, a huge rush of water falls in front of him totally blocking him from view. Someone has blown up the nearby dam creating a waterfall from the ledge above him. Of course, it serves a purpose. The Canfields are armed and searching for Buster so they can kill him. Just as the water hides Buster from view, we see the Canfields walk by. Close call!
While we're on the subject of a dam being blown up, in what other Keaton feature was a dam destroyed by an explosion? Stop and think for a minute before reading on. In case you're having a hard time remembering, it was that 1926 Civil War comedy . . . you know the one!
In "The Love Nest," Buster gets his fish in a different way. Armed with a rifle, he walks down the steps on the side of the ship and into the water. In a moment, we see a puff of smoke rise from the water, indicating he has fired the rifle. Seconds later, Buster walks up the steps from beneath the water with the rifle and the fish he has shot!
In this same film, he gives another variation on fishing. The crew has spotted a whale and loads the harpoon gun. Buster is given the rope attached to the harpoon and told to tie it to the railing. Instead, he braces himself and holds the rope. Of course, when the harpoon is fired, he is jerked overboard. When next we see him, he is swimming back to the ship pulling the rope behind him leading the viewer to understand that he is bringing the whale back to the ship!
A final gag in the film has Buster fishing with the traditional fishing pole this time, but he, unknowingly, is atop a floating target the Navy has out in the water for their maneuvers. Every time one of the shells being shot from a nearby ship splashes near the target, Buster thinks it's a big fish and turns to throw his hook in that spot.
In "Daydreams," the tables are turned and Buster is the "fish" rather than the fisherman. In this film, he is trying to hide from the police in the rotating paddlewheel of a steamboat. Trying to keep up with the motion of the wheel proves to be too much and, tired and exhausted, he is thrown from the paddlewheel into the water. Next, we see an old fisherman on the dock take his "string" of fish, add one more to it, drop them back into the water, and continue fishing. Soon, he latches onto something that really tugs at his pole. He pulls back, and out of the water comes Buster, wet and bedraggled, whom the fisherman has hooked. He looks at Buster with interest for a moment, then takes his "string," runs it through one of Buster's lapel holes, and drops him back into the water with the rest of the fish he has caught.
How about boats? How many can you remember?
The three films that should come to mind most readily are the 1921 short "The Boat," the 1924 feature "The Navigator," and the 1928 feature "Steamboat Bill, Jr."
In "The Boat," Buster destroys his entire house trying to extricate from his basement the boat he has just built. As soon as he, his wife (played by Sybil Seeley) and two children launch the boat for the first time, it immediately sinks to the bottom. Although it is resurrected, it sinks for a final time during a terrible rainstorm (mentioned above). The bathtub they must use as a lifeboat may be considered a second boat in the film.
The idea for "The Navigator" came about after Buster heard the ocean liner, the S.S. Buford, was going to be junked. He bought it, and he and his gagmen built a story around it.
Much of the story centers around how he and co-star Kathryn McGuire use their ingenuity to survive on the old abandoned ship when they are set adrift alone with no power on the vessel. In he end, they are fighting off cannibals who take over the ship when it runs aground at their island.
Actually, a ship figures in the final gag of the film, too. Buster and Kathryn are out in the middle of the water about to be overtaken by the cannibals when something begins to rise up from under the water and lift them into the air. It is a submarine, and they get inside just in time to evade their attackers.
Although this it may be argued that this does not constitute a boat, Buster himself is used as a seagoing vessel in "The Navigator." He and Kathryn must get from the beach, where the cannibals are pursuing them, to the ship, which is a couple of hundred yards out in the water. Buster happens to be wearing a diving suit that is filled with air, so he simply lies on his back in the water, and Kathryn climbs on top of him and begins paddling back to the ship as if he were an inflated life raft.
There are two paddlewheel steamboats in "Steamboat Bill Jr.," a brand new one owned by his father's rival, and the old "workhorse" that Buster's father, Steamboat Bill (played magnificently by Ernest Torrence), has been running on the river for years.
This film may contain the most exciting use of a boat in one of Buster's films. A cyclone is blowing through the town and has caused the ground to give away beneath the local jail where Steamboat Bill has been incarcerated. The jail slips into the river and is slowly sinking. Realizing that his father will drown if something isn't done quickly, Buster swings into action. He rigs up the controls of the boat with a series of ropes so he can operate them from the wheel house while he steers, sets the boat in motion, and rams the floating jail. The structure is demolished, and, for a moment, we're not sure if Buster's father has survived the impact. However, we soon see a head bob up from the water amidst the rubble. He has survived, and, of course, Buster is the hero.
Of the films that were built almost entirely around a boat, "The Love Nest" may be the least familiar. Buster's girl has jilted him, so he sets out in his small craft, "Cupid," to sail around the world. He soon finds himself on a whaling ship run by a vicious captain (played menacingly by "Big" Joe Roberts). Buster wants to use a lifeboat to escape from the ship, but it is too heavy for him to move into the water. Therefore, he sinks the bigger vessel so the lifeboat can simply come to rest in the water as the big ship disappears into the ocean depths.
"College" offers us a different kind of boat, a scull. The coach of the rowing team has been forced by the college dean to make Buster the team's coxswain. During the race, Buster pulls the rudder loose. So he wraps the rope around his waist to tie the rudder to his backside, slips down the narrow stern of the boat and lowers the rudder and his buttocks into the water to steer the boat during the final moments of the race.
One of the strangest scenes involving a boat appears in "The Balloonatic" (1923). Buster is floating down a mountain stream in a canoe when he spies a rabbit on the shore. He paddles in the rabbit's direction, picks up his rifle, and suddenly we see him walking out of the water, the boat around his waist and his legs protruding through the bottom! Later, as he is going downstream, he fails to notice a small waterfall, and, when he goes over it, the boat capsizes, and all we see is the upturned boat floating downstream and Buster's legs kicking in the air.
The end of the film shows Buster and co-star Phyllis Haver in the boat with a canopy added to it. The couple float lazily down the stream as Buster serenades Phyllis on the ukulele. The viewer is then made aware that they are heading straight for a huge waterfall. From a shot looking up, we see the edge of the boat appear as it eases out past the edge of the waterfall. Just as we think the boat should take a nosedive down the falls, it simply continues to float out into space. The next shot shows us that Buster has attached his hot air balloon to the boat allowing them to float safely through the air!
In "Seven Chances," he stands in a small, one-man boat with a rifle trying to get a good shot at a duck that keeps "ducking" (no pun intended) under the water and popping up on alternate sides of the boat. Finally, Buster leans forward peering into the water to see where the duck has gone, but not realizing he has leaned too far, the boat begins to take on water and eventually sinks.
As mentioned previously, Buster escapes from the pursuing police in "Day Dreams" by hiding in the paddlewheel of a ferry boat. In "Our Hospitality," he sets out in a small boat (actually it's a wood box the kind you stack firewood in) to escape the Canfields, but this overturns sending him adrift in the rapids. (More about this sequence below)
Actually, Buster used a boat of sorts for a gag in an earlier short, "The Playhouse." After he has flooded the theatre, we see him floating through the water-filled orchestra pit in a bass drum using a violin as a paddle.
Here's a different kind of boat . . . Buster and Kathryn McGuire run their car into the water in Sherlock Jr., but that's OK with Buster. The car floats (of course it would in a Keaton film), so he makes the most of the situation and sets the convertible top in a perpendicular position so it functions as a sail!
Probably the most unusual "boat" that Buster used was a horse! In "Hard Luck," he is crossing a river on a horse. First we see Buster with a paddle helping the horse along, then we see him turned and facing the rear of the horse stroking with two oars as if he were in a rowboat!
Buster apparently saw the comic possibilities in the old train water towers on more than one occasion. He used one in two of his features and in one short. Can you name them?
The first appearance of a train-watering tower was in the 1922 short "The Blacksmith." Buster and his girlfriend, played by Virginia Fox, are being chased by an angry group out to avenge wrongs Buster has done them. While he and Virginia stand beneath the water tower debating their marriage plans, the angry group is sneaking up behind them. Buster, in his frustration with Virginia, is gesticulating wildly and accidentally pulls the rope to release the water from the tank. Their pursuers just happen to be directly below the spout and are drenched, allowing Buster and Virginia to escape.
The second appearance of a water tower is in "Sherlock Jr." Buster finds himself atop a railroad car. The train begins to move rapidly, but Buster doesn't want to go with it, so he runs toward the rear of the train. When he realizes the final car is approaching and the train is about to run out from under him, he grabs the rope on a train-watering tower. Just as the trains passes from underneath him, the rope allows him to be slowly lowered to the ground, but, of course, that releases a huge rush of water that knocks him down. Just as he gets up and out of the way, two men come along on a hand car and are knocked off by the rushing water. When they get up, they see Buster, and, realizing he is the perpetrator, dash after him.
The most famous appearance of a water tower is in "The General," but do you remember both times it appeared in the film?
The Union soldiers have just stolen The General and have stopped to fill their engine with water when they see Buster's train behind them in hot pursuit. They immediately put their train in motion leaving the water gushing from the tank. Buster comes along fidgeting with various controls in his engine. Just at the right moment, he decides to poke his head out the side of the engine to see where the other train may be, and the water drenches him.
In the second half of the film, Buster and Marion Mack are headed back to Confederate territory in The General, which they have recaptured, and are being pursued by a train full of Union soldiers. Buster must stop and fill his engine with water. Both he and Marion have their backs to the tank as he pulls the spout closer to the opening on the train car. What he doesn't realize is that he has pulled the spout completely away from the tank, and when he pulls the rope to release the water, it gushes out from the tank rather than through the spout knocking Marion down (a gag Marion said she was not told of beforehand). Buster reattaches the spout, fills the engine, and then notices his pursuers closing in on them. He leaves hurriedly, and, of course, the water continues to flow. When the Union soldiers come by, they are soaked by the water, including three officers who are on a flatcar with maps spread out planning the upcoming attack.
Now, try to think of the number of times a pool was used in one of Buster's comedies.
The first appearance of one is in his seventh short, "Hard Luck." Buster happens upon a pool where a man is walking about in the center. The water barely covers the soles of the man's shoes leading one to believe it is only inches deep. Buster steps out on the water but, of course, falls in over his head. When we see the man walking out of the pool, he is on stilts!
The final gag in "Hard Luck" involves a pool, and has gained quite a bit of notoriety over the years because it is a lost segment of the film. Buster dives from a high dive at a pool, but misses it entirely. He crashes through the brick surrounding the pool and disappears into the deep hole he has made. When next we see him, he is with a Chinese wife and children.
A running gag in "The Electric House" has an escalator-staircase that runs so fast it throws its passenger out a second story window into a pool below.
At the end of the film, Buster, dejected, decides to commit suicide by tying a large stone to his neck and jumping in the pool. The girl pushes a large lever that drains the pool in seconds, and there sits Buster on the bottom with a puzzled look on his face. The girl's father, again played by Joe Roberts, pushes the lever back to refill the pool as quickly as possible. Once again, the girl drains the pool to save Buster, but he is no where to be found. The next shot is of a large drain pipe emptying from the side of a hill, and here comes Buster in a rush of water being deposited on the bank!
The best use of a pool in one of his comedies was in "The Cameraman." For approximately six minutes, Buster gives us one gag after another as he and his date, Marceline Day, try to enjoy themselves at a public pool.
Buster's "dream date" is frustrated immediately after he and Marceline change into their bathing suits and walk out to the pool. A large number of admiring young men begin to follow the beautiful Marceline wherever she goes. When she tries to play catch with Buster in the water, all of the guys gather around him and snatch the ball away before he can get it. Marceline finally gets the ball through to him, but, all at once, the guys pounce on Buster in an attempt to snag the ball. When they separate, Buster is nowhere to be seen. Suddenly, one of the guys does a back flip and Buster emerges from the water gasping for breath.
While taking a rest on a fountain in the middle of the pool, Buster and Marceline watch several well-built bathers diving from the high dive. Jealous at the attention they are getting from Marceline, Buster decides he will show her "some fancy diving."
up and surveying the situation, Buster runs to the end of the
board , changes his mind about diving, tries to make a sudden
stop and gets all tangled up in his oversized bathing suit. He
tumbles into the water, and, when he emerges, his bathing suit
is gone! He frantically looks around for it, but to no avail.
At one point during his search, a young lady rises from underneath
the water directly in front of him. As she swims away, Buster
furrows his brown and looks at her questioningly as if to ask,
"What were you doing down there?"
Later, he sees a rather large lady in a full, old-timey bathing suit that consists of pants, and top with a voluminous skirt on it. Buster watches intently as she slips into the water. The next view of her is on the platform, legs bare and shouting, "I've been robbed!". Then we see Buster, wearing the lady's pants, which, by the way, extend up to his chest, running toward the dressing room.
Here's the last "Buster and Water" trivia. Since we've already mentioned some of these, this ought to be easy. In what films does water play a part in the climax-denouement-finale of a film?
We've already mentioned the famous lost gag at the end of "Hard Luck," the waterfall gag at the end of "The Balloonatic," and the boat race at the end of "College," as well as the films whose story line is built around boats and water "The Boat," "The Love Nest," "The Navigator," and "Steamboat Bill Jr." All of these have endings that involve some activity in water. Of course, the one that qualifies as the most famous of all is in "The General" where the train plunges through the burning trestle into the creek below. The final battle also takes place in and around this creek, and reference was made earlier to the dam which was destroyed by a cannon ball. The flooding that resulted sent the Union soldiers in retreat and saved the day for the Confederate army. Of course, it was Buster who accidentally sent the errant cannonball into the dam.
Also mentioned was the scene in "The Playhouse" in which he used a bass drum for a boat, although it was not explained how he flooded the theatre. Virginia Fox was performing an underwater act in a huge glassed-in water tank on stage. When she appears to be in trouble, he smashes the glass with a huge mallet sending a torrent of water into the theatre!
Although Buster used water gags and/or stunts at the end of several of his films, none was more spectacular than the one he used in the climax of "Our Hospitality."
This is the sequence of events that led up to that final, spectacular stunt. . .
Buster is on the side of a cliff. A rope comes down to him from above, and he ties it around his waist. What he doesn't know is that one of the Canfields, who are feuding with Buster's family, is on the ledge above, with the other end of the rope tied around his waist. Canfield is trying to get Buster up and in position so he can shoot him. However, Buster jerks the rope causing Canfield to fall. As he watches Canfield fly past him, he knows what is about to happen and braces himself. Since the rope is still tied to Buster's waist, Canfield's fall jerks him over the cliff as well and both plunge into the water below.
Later, he has temporarily eluded his pursuer, but a length of rope is still tied around Buster's waist. He is continuing his escape on the train, but it derails throwing him into the river. Buster tries to find something to grab onto, finally comes upon a log in the water and attaches his rope to it. However, it dislodges, and both Buster and the log are being forced downstream by the rapids toward a huge waterfall. Fortunately, one end of the log catches on something while the other end, with Buster attached, swings out into space, extending itself beyond the falls. Buster is dangling out in front of the falls, but is able to work his way back up on the log and finally to a small ledge beside the falls.
He struggles to remove the rope from himself and the log but with no success. His girl, (played by real-life wife Natalie Talmadge) who was actually coming to rescue Buster, has been thrown into the rapids, too, and she is heading for the waterfall. Buster tries again to remove the rope so he can get to her, but to no avail. Finally he hits upon an idea. He moves back along the ledge away from the falls, rope still attached to the end of the log which is extended out several feet in front of the falls. He waits for just the right moment, and, when Natalie begins to go over the falls, he jumps from the ledge, swings by the rope in front of the falls, grabs Natalie just at the moment she goes over the edge and swings back toward the ledge where he deposits her a beautiful rhythmic mid-air ballet that not only gets the blood pumping, but dazzles the eye by its sheer grace and timing.
In his autobiography, My Wonderful World of Slapstick (by Buster Keaton and Charles Samuels, De Capo Press, Inc., 1960), Buster reminisces, "The best summers of my life were spent in the cottage Pop had built on Lake Muskegon (Mich.) in 1908." Obviously he looked forward to the recreation and enjoyment that was offered by such an environment and, as he noted, spent much of his time boating and fishing.
Maybe it was these memories that led him to such a frequent use of water in his films, or maybe he just simply saw the comic possibilities of that very basic element that no other comedian realized. Whatever the reason, his comedies are filled with laughs, thrills and, in some cases, gorgeous visual imagery because of water, and, if he hadn't felt as comfortable in that environment as he did . . . well, it just wouldn't be the same.
copyright 1998 by Tim Lussier. All rights reserved
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