A fine man once described me as ‘a big man, but small’. He was being stupidly generous, but the phrase stuck with me and I think it’s as good a description of Buster Keaton as any. A (figurative) giant of cinema at 5’6” (the same as Charlie Chaplin, two inches shorter than Humphrey Bogart who I’m slightly disappointed to find was pretty much regulation height for his time and only had to wear boxes on his feet in Casablanca because Ingrid Bergman was a great big tall person), he used his relative lilliputianality to great effect in, for example, The General. Apart from the gag early on when he measures himself against someone who has (unlike him) been accepted into the Army, he spends the whole movie surrounded by taller people.
Speaking as someone who definitely does not have any angry short man issues (and don’t you forget it, ok?), I’ve always found this an effective and endearing element of his work. The character doggedly persisting whatever obstacles the world placed in his path, always punching up if you will, just wouldn’t have worked as well for a lankier specimen.
That said, there are times when even the biggest small man needs a big man on his side (it’s a really high shelf, alright, what idiot put the teabags up there anyway?). For Buster, that big man was Joe Roberts.
Standing at an almost ridiculous 6’3”, Big Joe was (like so many of the silent stars) a veteran of Vaudeville and indeed was a neighbour of the Keatons in the Bluffton Actors’ Colony. He made it to Hollywood just in time for One Week (good timing, Joe!) in which he played a piano mover – thereafter he appeared in nearly all Buster’s shorts; notably as the dad in Neighbors, the cop in Cops and the cop/dad in The Goat. When Buster made the move to features, he took Big Joe with him to appear in both Three Ages and Our Hospitality – doubtless he would have continue to do so (there are at least three parts in Sherlock Jr. that would have fitted him like a glove), but he suffered a stroke while making Our Hospitality and, although he returned to finish the movie, died shortly thereafter.And that, on the face of it, is about that. Add in half a dozen non-Buster shorts and you have a career that, while far from unimpressive, doesn’t on the face of it distinguish our man from many others playing ‘the heavy’ at that time. And yet not only did Buster stick with him throughout his career in shorts (compared to, for example, his leading ladies who changed frequently), Big Joe gets more attention in most Keaton biographies than any co-star other than Arbuckle. How come?
Well, firstly and most obviously he’s very good at the job. Look again at the famous scene from The Goat in which Buster’s trapped in a room with Big Joe between him and the door, he escapes by (in one smooth movement):
- jumping onto the table;
- bouncing off Joe’s shoulder; and
- diving through the transom window (the little rectangular window between the top of the door and the ceiling, non-architecture geeks).
Buster’s gymnastics are, of course, breathtaking but they’re also impossible unless Big Joe gets himself into exactly the right position and, perhaps more importantly, unless Buster absolutely trusts him to do so. Take away the rigorous discipline you needed to survive in Vaudeville from either party and I’m not sure the stunt is even doable.
This very picture hangs on the wall above my TV. If you haven't seen the movie, really try to correct that oversight as a matter of urgency.
Secondly, and more speculatively, I think it’s because you never get a sense that there’s any malice in him. Yes, he’s the antagonist but to me he has no more ill intent than, say, the truculent horse in Cops or the staircase in The Haunted House. He’s just one more obstacle that the universe has placed in front of our hero. There’s often a level of discomfort about watching a big guy beat up on a little guy, even if it’s for comic effect. Big Joe never comes across as a bully.
|The universe, however, also put an obstacle in Big Joe’s way in the form of Buster’s dog Captain, a Belgian Police Dog. Ferociously protective of his master, he was given to attacking anyone who messed with Buster – which frequently meant Joe. In fact, he apparently once went so far as to attack a screen showing a scene of Buster in peril.
Silent movies were clearly plenty realistic enough for Captain.
So, for once I’ll raise a glass to the big man. Thanks Big Joe. You were a big man, but big.
- Actors’ Colony at Bluffton 1908-1938 – Buster Keaton and the Muskegon Connection
- Buster Keaton: The Persistence of Comedy – Imogen Sarah Smith, 2008