Buster Keaton Made a Lot of Hats (Document of Learning)

Throughout Buster Keaton’s career it’s a documented fact that Keaton and his wife made somewhere over a thousand of his pork pie hats. They were core to Keaton’s signature look; Keaton’s hat was his own creation. It was something that made him stand out from the crowd. It was akin to seeing Micheal Jackson with his one white glove, it was something distinctly him.

So I figured if I’m going to have to make a hat myself if I wanted to portray Keaton with any grain of salt. So that’s what I did, I made a hat to call my own.  It was much simpler than I thought it would be, simple enough that I could teach you in one blog post, you know like maybe this blog post… or maybe in this link.

Eminent Interview: Gerald Potterton

The person I had the pleasure of interviewing was Gerald Potterton. Gerald Potterton was the director of the final silent film Buster Keaton was a part of, The Railrodder, as well as many other films of his own creation, which for the most part were animated.

Gerald, due in part to the nature of my question, didn’t go in-depth about his past work but he talked briefly on some of the variance between his work with Buster and past projects.  He mentioned how with animation most of the work was planning, sketching,  and story boarding, but with Buster it was much more “spur of the moment”. They had the locations and they had the plot, but each gag and scene were changed constantly.

Further along in the interview I asked him how he had started working on this project, after all it’s not ever day you get to work with one of the greats of the silent area. The way Gerald explained it modestly as one part fault of a wise cracking co-worker and another part luck. Gerald had written a half page script for a short film titled   The Traveling Man. He imagined it at the time as an animation piece using a photographed actors head on an animated body as the figure travelled across Canada. While talking about it with some fellow animators over lunch one of them tossed out the idea of using “The Great Stone Face” himself Buster Keaton as the actor.  Gerald admitted he wasn’t sure if he was still “around”, until he remembered someone mentioning he was working on a film in New York. So he set off to meet with Buster in New York and discuss the possibility of working on The Travelling man with him.  “He read it, thought it was a crazy idea, and immediately said he would do it” Gerald said, he felt ecstatic after one of the greats agreed to work with him.

Towards the end of the interview I asked about how Buster Keaton left an impact on him.  His words were “it opened my eyes
up to his thorough thought process of how to plan and work out the workings and complexity of the gags n his films”.  He also mentioned how he realized the genius Buster really was and how  amazing The General, one of Buster’s most acclaimed works, was. It was obvious that after talking to Gerald he thought incredibly highly of Buster.

My take away from the interview in the end was this. Buster Keaton was a man who strives in a social atmosphere, he was unlike other visionary directors like that of Stanley Kubrick who were often described as cold and distant to their crew. Though like the other great directors he was someone who was passionate about his work, working tirelessly on his films. Every scene and every gag he put together was made with a purpose and a idea in his mind. Buster Keaton was a man who there to get the job done in the way he wanted to do it.

Introductions: Buster Keaton

Through Buster Keatons career he’s said he made himself somewhere in the hundreds of his famous pork pie hat. He’s also said he was lucky if only has to make a total of six each film; his hats were stolen, on set, off set, and everywhere in-between, everyone wanted a piece of The Buster Keaton. Who wouldn’t though? He was person willing to do the extreme to accomplish his vision. He jumped roof top to roof top, he sat on the treads of a moving train, and stood beneath a collapsing home. Every one of these scenes he directed, acted, produced and wrote, Buster was a something in-human.

“Buster” was born October 4th 1895, his full name is Joseph Frank Keaton IV; the story goes he was nicknamed “Buster” by Harry Houdini at only eighteen months old after falling down a flight of stairs, after which Houdini exclaimed “that was a real buster!”. He spent his early life performing in vaudeville with his parents even then he was known to be knocked around, his father frequently threw him around, almost like a rag-doll, keeping to Buster’s name. This is also where he started to do his famous “dead-pan” expression, something that would be carried with him once he went to film.

Once he turned twenty and hit his stride, he began his career in film. He quickly gained notoriety as “The Great Stone Face” a man who created scenes that rivaled and surpassed the greats! He worked under Fatty Arbuckle (another comic of the time) but stole the show with his personal brand of comedy and with stunts that rivaled the famous Houdini. By the age of 25 he directed, he wrote, he produced, and he stared in his own films. He crashed into the industry like a wrecking ball, creating comedy and stunts that would inspire future generations. You can see him in the camera work of Wes Anderson, the acrobatics and stunts of Jackie Chan, the dead-paned behavior of Bill Murray and movement of robin Williams; Buster Keatons work exists in every nook and cranny of cinema today.

Knowing Buster Keaton’s legacy has staying power, drew me to him. I saw the roots of visual comedy, the core of a genre. He someone who paved the way for great directors like Edgar Wright and others who want to look beyond the cage many comedic directors found themselves in. Keaton’s films have opened the field for anyone wishes to give visual comedy shot, as long as your willing to get some bruises.

Though the paved path he’s laid isn’t without a barrier to entry. Before I can connect with Buster and follow his footsteps I need to learn how to tell a story through action. During the age of silent films to convey story the average film used around two-hundred title cards, the most Buster ever used was fifty-six. An astounding number if you think about it, with only fifty-six that would mean that he would only use the barest of the bare minimums. He didn’t bother adding dialogue to an entire conversation if believed if he could show it through body language alone, and Buster was a master of showing through actions. On the other hand, I think I struggle with telling stories through action, so I hope to progress this while I study how to be Buster Keaton. Also as I work towards becoming Buster on The Night of the Notable I hope to inch myself towards a more action oriented person, someone able to convey their thoughts through what they do and not always what they say.

Moving away from how we differ Buster Keaton on top of his vast list of qualities was also an improviser. He worked with his failures and the parts he didn’t plan for. He went into every film with fifty percent in his head and the rest to be decided, it made his work seem real, like it was made for you personally. I feel like anyone and certainly I can relate to this, never when I work on something do I come in with every piece planned out, I’ll have the outline but the in-between is always something conceived with some quick thinking. With Buster this added this added personality to many of his films, I hope to capture this personality at my learning centre.

In conclusion, Joseph Frank Keaton IV is a director/actor/writer/producer with works that have branches growing around and within the works of countless eminent directors, actors, writer’s and producers in the current day, with not few but many who play homage to his most and least famous scenes. The Great Stone Face is a man I highly anticipate portraying.