best film:   Sherlock Jr. swims just a tad faster than The General for the top slot in Buster Keaton’s filmography. Sherlock Jr. has Keaton’s genius changing landscape background sequence – while The General exists almost entirely on one big, moving set piece (the train) …  talk about cinema art. The mic-drop stunner of a final shot for Sherlock Jr. breaks the tie.


Sherlock Jr.  is a jaw-on the floor masterpiece, and, believe it or not, one that does not really take off and fly until the last 20-25 minutes so one can imagine how good those last 20- 25 minutes are.  There are three parts of this film that set it above virtually everything else in cinema history: the last frame, which is an all-timer, of course the justifiably famous surreal backdrop montage is a standout, as is one of the all-time chase, long shot, motorcycle sequences. This is Keaton’s third feature and first masterpiece, at age 29 – staggering the ramifications and influences of this film. The conclusion is one of cinema’s finest – the window for the projector acts as a frame, a transcendent frame – again – one of cinema’s single best – he is inspired by the movie he has been watching shown in shot reverse shot. Simple and sublime


best performance:  The General but there is essentially no difference between #1 and #6 (Steamboat Bill, Jr.) or #7 (The Cameraman). In his heyday, Buster Keaton’s unmatched deadpan delivery was prevalent in every film. In some films he showed more tenderness than others (Our Hospitality — and here in The General) but he is largely recreating the same screen persona (much like Charlie Chaplin, John Wayne, Humphrey Bogart, Clint Eastwood and others) in each performance. This category is a bit of a weakness (though the depth is a strength) – the top 100 single male acting performances will surely come and go without a Keaton mention.


Buster as Johnnie Gray in The General – the greatest of his hilarious, typical weakling (or underestimatedly so) characters. This is Keaton’s most consistently brilliant film throughout – even if Sherlock Jr. (with that slower start) has the best moments in Keaton’s oeuvre. The General is a set piece high-wire act that last for nearly the entire duration of the film. At age 31 in 1926, Keaton has a second unassailable masterpiece between this and Sherlock Jr.


stylistic innovations/traits:  For a small stretch of real estate in the 1920s, Buster Keaton was the best actor on the planet (surrounded by Charlie Chaplin and Emil Jannings). Two of Chaplin’s big performances are in the 1930s, and Jannings’ Blue Angel is post-advent of sound and post-1920s, too.  Keaton was working quickly – eleven (11) archiveable films in six (6) years. The candle that burns twice as bright, burns half as long. He was done in 1928 at the age of 33 with the coming of talkies (The Jazz Singer is 1927). Yet, it is his depth (many “best performances of the year” in the year by year archives) that is an undeniable strength for him on this list. Keaton and Chaplin – the two auteurs and comic actors – that will be forever linked. Keaton is stronger with visuals, set pieces, and artistic direction. Chaplin is the more sentimental and at the end of the day – the better actor (his focus is just on performance more).  Keaton, the performer, is contributing to a greater larger whole but often in long shot as just part of the tableau. However, it is more than just ranking the two actors – there is a fundamental difference in acting approach despite the fact that they are both silent comedians. There are two types of actors essentially (and this is way too simplistic but it helps to make a point). One type of acting is to animate or express. That is Chaplin. His face is almost always alive. That is James Cagney. That is Sean Penn in Mystic River. Early comic Bill Murray in broader comedies, or Al Pacino in Scarface – loud, very expressive, and dynamic performances. Then there is the second type – the Keaton type – the internalized performance that withholds. It is deadpan. This is Steve McQueen, later Bill Murray (Broken Flowers, Lost in Translation), Robert De Niro in Heat, perhaps Ryan Gosling in his Nicolas Winding Refn collaborations – or Blade Runner 2049.  Keaton is a type – and his subtle style of acting has aged so well. Keaton is also the Jackie Chan or even 21st century Mission Impossible Tom Cruise of his day –  daredevil and stunt man. Keaton’s characters are romantic, but they never ask for attention (from the viewer or camera) – very different than Chaplin’s epic pathos.


from the brilliant falling house façade set piece in Steamboat Bill, Jr. Like nearly all of Keaton’s work, the climax and back half of the film are so much stronger than the scenario setting in the opening. At the 56-minute mark the wind storm comes along – buildings and sets collapsing. Instead of Buster’s trademark chase where he is running to or from something – here the wind is the substitute, he is getting blown around. At the 59-minute mark –  the famous building collapsing on Buster shot – again, trademark to his typical choices as director, he is in long shot, not to see the full details of his facial expression, pine for pathos, but to appreciate the set piece. It is dangerous, it is impressive – certainly one of Keaton’s greatest moments


directors worked with:  Buster Keaton (11), Billy Wilder (1) and Charlie Chaplin (1)


top five performances:

  1. The General
  2. Sherlock Jr.
  3. Our Hospitality
  4. The Navigator
  5. Seven Chances


archiveable films

1923- Our Hospitality
1923- Three Ages
1924- Sherlock Jr.
1924- The Navigator
1925- Go West
1925- Seven Chances
1926- Battling Butler
1926- The General
1927- College
1928- Steamboat Bill, Jr.
1928- The Cameraman
1950- Sunset Boulevard
1952- Limelight
1956- Around the World In 80 Days
1963- It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World