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Keaton Re-Viewed: Beyond Keaton's Classicism OuSTERKEATON began making films with Roscoe Arbuckle in 1917, as the American film industry was in the midst of a massive stylistic and economic transformation—from a "cinema of attractions"1 to classical Hollywood cinema; from a loose association of independent producers into what was becoming the Hollywood industry Bordwell, Staiger, and Thompson's seminal work, The Classical Hollywood Cinema, marks 1917 as the beginning of the classical Hollywood era, when the classical Hollywood style and industry came of age. As Thompson sug­ gests, "The formulation of the classical mode began quite early, in the pe­ riod around 1909-11, and . . . by 1917, the system was complete in its basic narrative and stylistic premises. During the early and mid-teens, older de­ vices lingered, but classical norms began to coalesce."2 Keaton's introduc­ tion to filmmaking comes at this crucial juncture in the history of American filmmaking, just as his loss of independence as a filmmaker when he signed with MGM in 1928 coincides with the next major phase in the development of classical Hollywood cinema—the introduction of sound films. Although Keaton's sound films at MGM were financially successful, he was never again given the opportunity to direct his own work. His reputation as a film director is therefore based on the silent films he made during the 1920s, the so-called "classic era" of slapstick film comedy. Neale and Krutnik observe, however, that the classic era of slapstick com­ edy is not nearly as stylistically monolithic as scholars have traditionally portrayed it. Instead they argue that "these films are a specific and unstable combination of slapstick and narrative elements rather than the final flower- K E A T O N R E - V I E W E D 77 ing of an authentic slapstick tradition, which is how they have generally tended to be seen."3 Perhaps because the first sound comedies in the late 1920s and early 1930s exhibit a more disruptive relationship between gag and narrative, the silent comedies of the 1920s appear in contrast to be more firmly classical than they actually are. It may be more accurate, therefore, to view the silent comedies of the 1920s as part of an ongoing negotiation between gags and narrative, one that shifts its favor toward gags with the onslaught of stand-up comedians from vaudeville into film at the beginning of the sound era. Although Keaton developed stronger narratives after he made the transi­ tion to feature-length films, his vaudeville training—his knowledge and love of gags, gag structure, acrobatics, and improvisation—remained a dom­ inant part of his film practice, as I have demonstrated in Chapter 2. In this chapter I will investigate the range of relationships between gags and narra­ tive with which Keaton experimented in his feature films. I will examine four films that encompass the scope of Keaton's experimentation with the gag-narrative dynamic: The General (1927), Seven Chances (1925), Steam­ boat Bill, Jr. (1928), and Sherlock Jr. (1924).4 To understand the shifting relationship between gags and narrative in Keaton's films, we must first locate his work within the historical evolution of Hollywood cinema as an industry and a form. The films produced from the advent of cinema in 1894 through approxi­ mately 1908 have been labeled "primitive" by many film historians. In re­ cent years, scholars have challenged the suitability of this term.5 Tom Gun­ ning cogently argues that film historians view these films as primitive only in retrospect.6 Once film historians have assumed that the tight linear cau­ sality of later cinema is the inevitable form of filmmaking, they then find early cinema lacking in this regard. Gunning emphasizes the roots of early cinema in vaudeville and popular entertainment and advances the theory that early cinema, rather than being a nascent form of narrative-based film, comes from an entirely different tradition, one that valued variety over unity. During this transition, "The US cinema moved from a narrative model derived largely from vaudeville into a filmmaking formula drawing upon aspects of the novel, the popular legitimate theater, and the visual arts, and combined with specifically cinematic devices."7 Because of early cinema's dependence on the vaudeville theater as an ex­ hibition site, vaudeville exerted a strong influence on the forms of early cinema: "Exhibition circumstances, short length, and small-scale produc­ tion facilities dictated the creation of films which modeled themselves 78 K E A...


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