Originally appeared in The Keaton Chronicle, Autumn 1997
by Dan Lybarger
Before he was writing and directing unforgettable comedies like The Producers and Young Frankenstein, Oscar-winner Mel Brooks grew up watching the movie greats: Charlie Chaplin, The Marx Brothers and Bob Hope. His influences are broad and diverse, but Buster Keaton holds a special place in Brooks' heart.
In fact, speaking from his offices in Culver City, California, Brooks says, "The only reason I'm taking this call is because he's left a great legacy for all comedy filmmakers. He's shown us how to do it."
Brooks has succeeded in several fields. His 2000-Year-Old Man routines with Carl Reiner led to best-selling albums. He's produced and collaborated with other major filmmakers like David Lynch (The Elephant Man and Blue Velvet), Barry Levinson (Diner and Rain Man)
Brooks' famous satires Blazing Saddles, High Anxiety and Spaceballs may be more frantic and verbal than Buster's more measured approach, but Brooks insists that Keaton's influence remains. He states, "He gave me things that you can't put your finger on. He kind of said, 'Never play a crazy scene with anything but reality.' He was always intensely and desperately true. He never winked at you. He never said, 'Aren't we having fun?' That was a great lesson for me. He and Chaplin were my mentors."
Brooks was introduced to Buster's work as a youngster growing up in Brooklyn. He was born Melvin Kaminsky in 1926, the year Keaton's The General was released, and was a mere toddler when the Silent Era ended.
Thanks to silent movie houses on Coney Island, Brooks made a discovery that that would stay with him for the rest of his life. He recalls, "We'd go there, and we'd get a frankfurter, a root beer and a boiled-to-death ear of corn at Feldman's, which was before Nathan's Famous Hot Dogs. In the back, they had a silent movie theater.
"The screen was just a white sheet. They had this flickering machine. That was the first time I saw this angel with a white face and these beautiful eyes. I knew this was something special. It was the first time I saw (Keaton). He wore a flat pancake of a hat, and I just couldn't believe the man's grace.
"I never cared about religion, but I prayed to silent movies. It was my contact with things soulful. I'd go there as often as I could. I'd sneak in, actually, and watch the movie without buying the frankfurter or the knish."
Brooks is still enamored of Buster, but he is careful with how he phrases his accolades. He states, "There are many words said about Buster Keaton. They usually use the word 'genius.' I don't think he was a genius. Einstein was a genius; Buster Keaton was astonishing. "I've never seen any human being able to perform as brilliantly and gracefully with such unusually gifted timing. There was only one Keaton."
Much of what makes Keaton unique in the eyes of Brooks and others was his spectacular stuntwork. "[To have] the nerve to stand there and have that 150-ton house fall on him [in Steamboat Bill, Jr.] and to have the faith to stand in the window that was cut out-and live through it-it's amazing. It was no joke. If he missed by an inch, he'd be dead."
He adds, "There were very few tricks. He did the stunts. That was him. When the boulders were rolling down the hill [in Seven Chances], he was in front of them. He was in the foreground. You could see the boulders. He was dodging them. He was running for his life."
While Jackie Chan's Hong Kong-produced movies feature similar gutsy stunts, today's Hollywood features lack some of the daring that made Buster unique-and it's for a good reason.
"The insurance and the movie companies wouldn't allow it. Mel Gibson or even Robin Williams is too valuable to let them do all the stuff Buster Keaton did-even if they could," Brooks explains.
Even if Buster's stuntwork isn't practical in contemporary Hollywood, Brooks doesn't think that modern techniques would have hindered Keaton. He says, "I think that if Keaton lived in the year 2000, he would still be sensational. I think he would have worked just as well, maybe even better, in color. It would have been another instrument. He was inventive. He used whatever was available. If a window was four feet off the floor, suddenly he'd came hurling out of it and he'd be wearing a woman's dress [as in Sherlock Jr.]."
While Buster's movies have a lot of these dazzling images, Brooks also admired Keaton's subtlety. He says, "There's a tiny moment in The General where he captures the bad guy in the engine, and he doesn't do much with the gun. He doesn't threaten or pose; he doesn't overact. He just kind of flicks it like a feather duster twice, like 'C'mon this is a gun. I can kill you.' That's enough. The guy knows."
Brooks is fascinated with Buster's face. "His eyes shone with a certain intensity, fire and love. His face had little expression, but his eyes were always dynamically alive. His eyes spoke more than any script could speak."
In addition to having carefully observed Buster's work for decades, Brooks has a special perspective on Keaton because he directed and starred in the 1976 comedy Silent Movie, one of the few major silent releases since the 1930s.
Brooks recalls that making silent movies required different considerations. He says, "I really felt a closeness to Chaplin and to Keaton. How do you tell a story without talking or overacting? How do you simply indicate?"
If shooting a silent movie forced Brooks to rethink his storytelling techniques, the process offered some unusual benefits. "I didn't have to worry about working outdoors and waiting for (the sound of) airplanes or passing trucks or having boom mikes to dodge. It was a pleasure."
According to Eleanor Keaton, Keaton's widow, she and Brooks worked together briefly on Silent Movie, recreating a comedy bit she and Buster had performed many times on stage and TV. In the scene, she would enter a phone booth to make a call. Buster-or in this case, Brooks-was crouched and hidden from view underneath her. He would stand up, pushing her up through the top of the booth.
Although Eleanor and Brooks spent two days shooting the simple scene, it doesn't appear in the final film; it ended up on the cutting room floor after Brooks noticed a continuity problem when he viewed the rushes. Rather than reshoot the comedy bit, he chose to eliminate the short scene.
Brooks undoubtedly borrowed some of Buster's narrative techniques, and freely admits to using another of Buster's gags. In Silent Movie, villain Harold Gould and his accomplice Ron Carey are unable to leave a bathroom because the diminutive Carey keeps getting stuck in Gould's coat. The more diligently Carey tries to help his partner with his coat, the more aggravating the situation becomes.
When told that the scene in his film is similar to the infamous changing room scene in Buster's The Cameraman, Brooks confesses: "I stole that right from The Cameraman. A lot of people call it homage-I call it thievery. After we did it and it was in the camera, I got on
Despite his own credentials, Brooks maintains, "I owe (Buster) a lot on two levels: One for being such a great teacher for me as a filmmaker myself, and the other just as a human being watching this gifted person doing these amazing things. He made me believe in make-believe."
This page was last updated on 12/09/97.
Site © 1997Dan Lybarger