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From Stage to Film: The Transformation of Keaton's Vaudeville i Ν HIS STUDY of early sound comedy, Henry Jenkins suggests, "Perhaps, the habits of watching classical Holly­ wood texts had become so ingrained that spectators looked for causally integrated narratives even within films not primarily interested in telling stories."1 If spectators watching early sound comedies, which frequently valued performers' virtuosity over narrative, found it difficult to break the habit of concentrating on narrative values, then spectators of Keaton's films, which hold narrative and gag values in a more precarious balance, may find it even more difficult to overcome the tendency to focus on narrative. Yet in order to see the vaudeville in Keaton's films, we must do precisely that: resist, albeit temporarily, the lure of the narrative. By doing so, I seek to answer the following questions about the influence of vaudeville on Kea- ,ton's films: 1) what elements of vaudeville influenced Keaton's filmmaking and remained in his films in some form?; 2) how did Keaton adapt his vaudevillian skills to film?; and 3) what attributes of film attracted Keaton and how did he use these attributes to expand and otherwise change his artistic vision? One of the primary vaudevillian influences on Keaton's filmmaking may not be immediately apparent: his use of improvisation. For Keaton, as with many of the vaudeville performers who left the stage to make silent films, the practice of improvising was central to his working process. "Vaudeville acts were rarely scripted in advance or written down," notes David Robin­ son. "Generally they were developed in performance, and perfected against the reactions of an audience."2 By polishing their acts during performances, F R O M S T A G E T O F I L M 37 vaudevillians exerted artistic control with unmatched immediacy. Although many of The Three Keatons' routines had a basic shape, Joe liked to change their act almost every night and encouraged Buster to improvise from an early age. Keaton observed, "We never bothered to do the same routines twice in a row. We found it much more fun to surprise one another by pulling any crazy, wild stunt that came into our heads."3 From the beginning of his filmmaking apprenticeship with Roscoe Ar­ buckle, Keaton learned to approach filmmaking with the same improvisa­ tory skills upon which he depended in vaudeville. Like Keaton, Arbuckle started out as a vaudeville performer and, together with the less structured studio apparatus Joe Schenck had developed, this led Arbuckle to incorpo­ rate into his filmmaking the methods of improvisational comedy-making he learned during his stage work.4 Arbuckle allowed Keaton to improvise ex­ tensively, so that when Schenck put Keaton in charge of his own studio in 1920 Keaton's use of improvisation was a firmly established part of his filmmaking approach. During the years from 1917 (when he began making films with Arbuckle) to 1928 (when he moved from his own studio to MGM) Keaton, like most of his silent comedy colleagues, never used a written scenario—he worked from a rough, unwritten outline rather than a script.5 As I noted in Chapter 1, to begin making a film, Keaton required only a beginning and an ending for the story. Frequently, a single idea or prop was enough to set a film in motion. In the case of The Navigator (1924), Keaton heard that the S.S. Buford, an oceanliner, was about to be demolished and was available for rent for $25,000.6 Keaton, who had been fascinated by ships and trains since his youth, had his writers brainstorm the ideas for the film in order to make use of the ship; when Clyde Bruckman came up with the basic premise, Keaton rented the ship and began filming. Some of the most brilliant gags in the film were developed from the shape and configuration of the ship. Buster and Betsy, the woman he loves, find themselves stranded on a de­ serted oceanliner, yet they are unaware of each other's presence. In an elab­ orately choreographed chase sequence, Buster and Betsy continually fail to locate each other. As they rush up and down the decks and staircases of the ship, a long shot captures the action on three floors of the ship at once, their paths tracing interwoven patterns of simple geometric beauty suggested by the ship's architecture. To permit himself the freedom to improvise in his filmmaking, Keaton developed particular stylistic preferences...


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