How Cinematic Comedy Pioneer Buster Keaton Shaped TV and ‘I Love Lucy’

As fate would have it, Buster Keaton was born in 1895, the same year the Lumière brothers screened the first films shown in public. After a childhood spent as the juvenile star of a family slapstick act reputed to be the most violent in vaudeville, he evolved with remarkable fluidity towards an even greater success in the still new medium of cinema as a director, star, stuntman and editor.

Ahead of his time in many ways, Keaton was sadly largely a product of the pervasive racism of the Jim Crow era, as discussed in an entire chapter of cameraman on the use of blackface, redface and other ethnic “humor” in his films; indeed, film historian Daniel Moews counted 18 examples of jokes in Keaton’s work relating to skin color or ethnicity. That said, Keaton spent the 1920s as the all-around mastermind of some of the greatest silent comedies ever made, including Sherlock Jr., the cameraman, and The general.

In the 1930s, the arrival of sound in film, combined with Keaton’s disastrous drinking problem and his crumbling first marriage, put his career and life on the skids for a few years. But by mid-century, after a decade and a half as a backstage gag writer at MGM, he was reinventing himself as an innovator in another new medium who was just beginning to discover what he could do: television.

The year was 1951. The setting was a reunion for an upcoming movie, limelight, will be directed by Charlie Chaplin. And when Keaton sat down with Chaplin for the first time in decades, the first thing the motion picture comedy giants talked about was…. TV.

As they exchanged pleasantries, the 62-year-old Englishman marveled at the physical form of the 55-year-old American. “Charlie, do you watch television?” came the unexpected response. “God, no,” Chaplin said, explaining that, like many noble parents in the decades to come, he didn’t allow his children to stare at the “ugly, stinky little screen.” Chaplin then observed again what shape Keaton was in and asked what he was doing to stay in shape.

“Television,” replies Keaton, his career then in full revival thanks to the rise of the new medium. This teasing exchange, told in a tone of playful mischief in Keaton’s memoir, My wonderful world of Slapstick, summarizes well the differences between the two: the populist and the aesthete, the mechanistic futurist and the nostalgic technophobe, the pragmatic craftsman and the idealistic artist.

Keaton loved everything about television: appearing on it, watching it, describing it, talking about advances in television technology to anyone who would listen. In 1948, his son Jim, then a 26-year-old Coast Guard veteran with young children, received a television as a gift from his aunt, silent-era superstar Norma Talmadge. It was the first device anyone in his neighborhood owned, a GE with a ten-inch screen that, as Jim remembered, “weighed a ton. My dad came the first weekend we had him. All afternoon, he sat hypnotized in front of this thing. At dinner, I remember him saying, “This is the next thing in entertainment.” ”

A question posed to Keaton in an interview – about the cost of television production – caused him to take an unrelated tangent between the picture quality of American and European televisions: “Their televisions are beautiful, and the French have the number one, the best TV. . I believe we have, what is it, five hundred lines in our image? There are 750 in French. They got a much finer grain to their image than we did. In another interview, he even seemed to foresee the coming world of cable TV and on-demand streaming services, though he imagined an economic benefit to the consumer that hasn’t materialized in our time. proliferation of subscriptions:

I can’t wait for the day when television and the film industry get married and put together a system, because it can’t go on as it is. I see only one solution: there should be pay TV, and they could keep the costs so low that the poorest man in the world could have a TV, they could keep the entertainment so low. And that way, you’d be making images just like you did before television.

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