If you’re going to watch short films by Buster Keaton, you should do a marathon if possible. Watching four in a row, as I did, allows you to truly appreciate the comedic talent he was—writing and directing with Edward F. Cline, choreographing his own insane stunts, and creating laughter without ever breaking into a smile. Far better, in my opinion, than his contemporary Charlie Chaplin, Keaton utilizes a brand of intelligent slapstick to earn the physical laughs received as well as the cerebral ones with shrewd filmmaking, smart writing, and an expressionless face so blank that he can show even the minute feeling with a look of the eyes or a sag in posture. When most silent film stars were going bigger and grander with their movements and demeanor to get their audience to understand what was going on, Keaton did the opposite and succeeded in creating a more accomplished and respected legacy as a result.
Oft-times regarded as his greatest two-reeler, Cops is probably his most mainstream work due to its presence in the public’s consciousness. Keaton plays a young man searching to become a successful businessman in order to win over the girl he loves. Unknowing how to do so, he finds himself stealing money from the sheriff’s wallet, getting conned out of it to buy furniture owned by a family moving, being mistaken for the moving man as he takes his new purchase on the road to show he can make a good investment, and eventually crashing a police parade, using an anarchist’s bomb to light a cigarette before throwing it to the street where it explodes on unsuspecting cops who in turn chase him all over town.
Using superb instances of misunderstanding and miscommunication due to an absolute lack of communication coupled with assumptions galore, Keaton partakes in some fun stunts—a ladder see-saw over a fence with policemen on either side, amongst others—and enjoyable gags like a boxing glove on an accordion contraption used for traffic signals that punches a cop directing cars in the face twice. Act One sees a more subtle comedy with his aloof actions causing unknown trouble and Act Two his more broad sensibilities in its continuous chase through the streets. Props are constantly introduced and costume changes are necessary to keep things fresh even though the hunt really is merely a string of close calls and narrow escapes, nothing more. Simple, however, can also be exactly what’s needed.
One Week 
Dealing with the first week of a couple’s marriage, One Week is hilarious. Receiving the gift of a plot of land and a new house (a build it yourself type deal with numbered storage boxes), Keaton and his wife (Sybil Seely) have their work cut out for them. Driven to their new home by the man the new bride previously rejected, boxes get mislabeled in jealousy and the house is constructed a bit askew—doors on the second floor, sinks facing the outside, revolving walls, and detachable porch railings. A bit absentminded in the decorating process too, the couple does their best to ready everything for a housewarming party full of disaster.
With a second floor room almost being cranked down to the first by a lever system attempting to hoist in a piano (which Joe Roberts carries in on one shoulder for a great sight gag), upstairs doors convenient for easy removal of unwanted guests, and a rotating axis that spins the whole building like a merry-go-round in a heavy storm, the inaugural showing of the home sees its share of problems. But the film does speak to a length of time and the days add up to build it as well as to take it down for relocation. Keaton’s stunt work is more advanced with windowed walls falling on him and chase attempts to enter the revolving house, as the wind and rain blows, sees him running on the porch and jumping for doors to get inside as the guests are bundled together from gravity’s pull. Add in a bearing down train at the end and you’ll be laughing for the entire 19 minute duration, unbelieving this man was crazy enough to risk his body so fearlessly.
The Boat 
An unofficial sequel to One Week, (once thought to be combined into one feature), The Boat finds Seely and Keaton with a couple of young children and a new boat built in their basement … yes, their basement, so you can imagine the process needed to get it out. The worst of it, however, is trying to get the vessel to float, as it appears to have a penchant for sinking while Keaton sits atop, his family watching from the dock. Once they do finally reach the open seas, we transfer our view to the interior living space and the patriarch’s antics to make everything work for dinner, slumber, and plain old leisure time. Burnt pancakes become great leak stoppers; nails prove to be a boat’s worst enemy; and the devastating storm brewing (why does bad weather follow this family around?) soon risks capsizing the boat in a 360 degree spin that rivals Chris Nolan’s fight choreography in Inception.
Without any dull moments, The Boat easily became my favorite Keaton short with visual laughs such as retractable mast polls to go under bridges, hair-brained ideas to puncture holes in the hull to try and stop leakage, and some of the actor’s best physical beatings as his surroundings cause him grief at every turn. I also love that these two little boys are allowed to partake in the stunts, being grabbed and moved as the boat teeters from side to side while objects fall on them. And the ending flows so naturally as a stopping point with its lifeboat/bathtub taking on water, bailed by the foursome feverishly, only to discover the best joke of them all. A true delight, all involved are at the top of their game showing how inventive one could be almost a century ago.
The Play House 
I would love to give The Play House full marks due to its first half being insanely innovative and still leaving my mind-boggled at the artistry on display hours later, but unfortunately the second half comes off dull and uninspired. Beginning inside a dream, Buster Keaton plays everyone onscreen from men, women, musicians, and actors, old and young. At times there are up to eight of him at once, each version filmed separately with impeccable precision to later be combined in multiple exposures. The effect is absolutely seamless and the interactions between Keatons are astonishingly realistic. It could be done in a cinch today with computers and green screen, but the level of dedication and patience to pull it off with exact overlap of eight frames together is a feat of cinematic genius 90 years ago. Keaton pulls off every role, whether an old man, a young couple, frantic band members, or a bored child, but my favorite detail is in the fantasy show’s playbill. Amongst all the parts written as being played by Buster Keaton, one name has a typoed ‘f’, a subtle surprise infused into the chaos.
And then, for some reason, Cline and Keaton decide to wake up the orchestrator of it all in order to watch him pursue a twin (her and her sister portrayed by Virginia Fox with the same double exposure process), work behind stage and pretend to be an orangutan when he loses the actual monkey, and try to not be reprimanded by Joe Roberts’s Stage Manager. There are some laughs for sure and the gags do for the most part succeed, but I just couldn’t shake the amazing work at the start rendering all that came after inferior. In all honesty, I don’t even really recall any distinct events occurring in the second half, the story being the most simplistic of the four shorts I watched and the stunts not coming close to the danger and intrigue of those in One Week and The Boat. It’s ultimate failure never risks ruining the whole, though, as these filmmakers went all out to create an impossible first 10 minutes of footage that made me want to watch again right away.