What Are the Best Buster Keaton Films?

Nicknamed “The Great Stone Face,” Buster Keaton was one of silent cinema’s most significant figures. Working predominantly as an independent auteur, Keaton made 19 short films and 12 feature films as an actor/director throughout the 1920s. Roger Ebert hailed Keaton as arguably the greatest actor/director in movie history. Keaton’s films contain world-class slapstick humor mixed with death-defying stunts that Keaton performed himself. While most silent-era comedians excelled at expressive pantomime, Keaton always kept a straight face, making his brand of comedy distinctive from his contemporaries.

Sadly, Keaton’s career rapidly declined after he infamously signed a contract with MGM, which left Keaton without the creative control he maintained as an independent filmmaker. Although Keaton never reached his silent era heights in the sound era, his output in the 1920s produced some of cinema’s greatest works. Seven of Keaton’s films, One Week, Cops, Sherlock Jr., The Navigator, The General, Steamboat Bill, Jr., and The Cameraman reside in the National Film Registry.

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While many modern critics and scholars consider Keaton a cinematic genius, the exact opposite was true during the 1920s, for many Keaton films received poor reviews and failed financially at the box office. After the dismal box office performance of The General, Keaton needed a project with commercial appeal. The 1920s saw an emergence in the popularity of college-themed media, with collegiate songs dominating radio airwaves and Harold Lloyd’s film The Freshman becoming one of the era’s highest-grossing films.

In an attempt to bank on the collegiate craze, Keaton directed and starred in College. In the film, Keaton plays an athletically inept college student who tries to excel at sports to win the heart of the woman he loves. It is an ironic performance from Keaton considering he was probably the most athletic movie star of the 1920s. Despite College having brilliant sequences such as the baseball scene and the track and field scene, the film went on to be an even bigger flop than The General. Today, many praise College as a silent comedy classic. The American Film Institute nominated the film for its list of the greatest comedies.

9 Keaton Avoids An Avalanche In Seven Chances (1925)


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Keaton hated the idea of making Seven Chances, an adaptation of Roi Cooper Megrue’s play of the same name. However, Keaton owed producer Joseph Schenck money and reluctantly accepted the project. The film stars Keaton as a man who learns he can inherit seven million dollars if he marries by 7 pm that evening. As a result, he frantically begins searching for a bride.

Seven Chances’ most famous sequence is the avalanche scene, which came into existence by accident. Toward the end of the film, a group of women after Keaton’s inheritance chase after him. While running down a hill, Keaton caused some rocks to tumble after him. Test audiences laughed the hardest at this scene, causing Keaton and his team to reshoot the segment, expanding it in scale. Using hundreds of papier-mâché rocks ranging in size from pebbles to massive boulders, Keaton created a full-scale avalanche that now stands out as one of his signature cinematic moments.

8 Cops Is One Of Keaton’s Most Beloved Short Films (1922)

Viewed as a Kafka-esque comedy with darker undertones for a Keaton movie than usual, Cops is a landmark comedy short film that features Keaton playing an innocent man who, through a series of mishaps, becomes pursued by the entire city’s police force. Critics have pointed to the film’s darker tone representing the turmoil affecting Keaton’s life at the time. Keaton’s close friend and mentor Fatty Arbuckle was on trial for a third time for manslaughter after the first two trials resulted in hung juries. Arbuckle was eventually exonerated, however, his film career never recovered.

Cops features one of Keaton’s most shocking stunts. While chased by the police, Keaton runs down an alleyway, moving toward the camera. Out of nowhere, a car zooms by, and Keaton swiftly grabs onto the vehicle as he is lifted into the air and driven out of frame. This stunt epitomizes Keaton at his best. He manages to make something highly dangerous look calm, cool, collected, and wholeheartedly nonchalant.

7 One Week Was Keaton’s First Independent Production (1920)

After breaking into the film industry with the help of Fatty Arbuckle, Keaton branched out on his own in 1920, forming his own production company with the intent of starring in and directing his projects. One Week was Keaton’s first solo project, a short film in which a newlywed couple attempted to build a house with a prefabricated kit.

One Week is a revolutionary short film that contains groundbreaking special effects and visual gags. Scenes such as the house spinning during the storm and the train collision with the home were achieved using practical effects and without the assistance of models. During one scene, the framing of the home falls onto Keaton, however, he emerges unscathed due to his perfect positioning within the window opening. Keaton would reuse this stunt on a much grander scale eight years later in Steamboat Bill, Jr.

6 The Navigator Was Among Keaton’s Personal Favorite Films (1924)


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Following the disappointment of Sherlock Jr., Keaton longed for a project that both piqued his interest and had the potential for commercial appeal. Eventually, Keaton settled on The Navigator, a comedy about two spoiled rich people who find themselves trapped on an empty passenger ship. Keaton’s production company purchased the USAT Buford for $25,000 for use in the film.

Upon its release, The Navigator was a huge hit for Keaton. Even though Keaton would make eight more films during the 1920s, The Navigator remained his highest-grossing film. Years later, Keaton named The Navigator and The General as his two favorite films from his oeuvre. In 2000, the American Film Institute listed The Navigator as the 81st greatest American comedy of all time.

5 Our Hospitality Is A Foundational Romantic Comedy (1923)

The early 1920s were a pivotal moment in time for comedies as the genre shifted from the short film format to full-length features. Our Hospitality was a game-changing comedy that used a narrative structure that focused on telling a cohesive story complete with fully realized character development. Our Hospitality tells the story of Willie McKay, a man caught in the middle of a feud between the McKay and Canfield families. The plot is a satire of the real-life Hatfield and McCoy feud.

In addition to its narrative structure, Our Hospitality also transformed comedies through its gorgeous cinematography, on-location shooting, and the meticulous period details of its production design. Our Hospitality features one of Keaton’s defining cinematic segments. During the climactic sequence of the film, Keaton’s love interest, played by his real-life wife Natalie Talmadge, flows down a river toward a waterfall. Just in the nick of time, Keaton swings from a rope and saves her. Despite using a dummy and filming on a set, this scene still ranks among Keaton’s best.

4 Steamboat Bill, Jr. Is A Romantic Comedy Action Masterpiece (1928)

The final film Keaton made before he moved to MGM, Steamboat Bill, Jr. is a romantic comedy action masterpiece. In the film, Keaton plays William Canfield Jr., a meek man who joins his father’s steamship crew. The plot thickens when Canfield Jr. begins to fall for his dad’s rival’s daughter.

Steamboat Bill Jr. was initially a box office and critical failure upon its debut in 1928. Today, the film is universally considered one of the most influential works of the silent era. Steamboat Bill Jr.’s most famous sequence occurs when a cyclone strikes the town. Buildings become ripped apart as Keaton battles against the whipping winds of the storm. In his most iconic and dangerous stunt, a building facade weighing two tons falls onto Keaton, though like the scene in One Week, he survives due to the window opening. Rumors persist that Keaton went ahead with performing the dangerous stunt due to depression stemming from financial trouble and his failing marriage. Steven Schneider included Steamboat Bill, Jr. in his book 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.

3 The Cameraman Is Keaton’s Final Masterpiece (1928)


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The Cameraman was the first film Keaton made for MGM and the final film in which he had artistic control over the production. In The Cameraman, Keaton falls hopelessly in love with Sally, a woman who works at MGM Studios. To gain her attention, Keaton attempts to get a job as a cameraman.

Similar to Sherlock Jr., The Cameraman is a love letter to cinema and the machine that makes cinematic creation possible. Unlike many previous Keaton films, The Cameraman was a box-office success and earned positive reviews from critics. The Cameraman is notable for its baseball scene, the Tong War sequence, and the zany antics of Keaton’s co-star, Josephine the Monkey. After the 1965 MGM vault fire, The Cameraman was briefly considered a lost film. Luckily, a version of the film appeared in France in 1968. A higher-quality print surfaced in 1991 and the two existing versions helped to restore the film to its original form.

2 The General Was Among The First 25 Films Inducted Into The National Film Registry (1926)

A production of massive proportions, The General was by far Keaton’s most expensive film with a budget of roughly $750,000. Inspired by the Great Locomotive Chase, The General stars Keaton as a train engineer who must rescue his locomotive from Union spies during the American Civil War. The film contains the single most expensive shot of the silent era. The General’s train crash bridge explosion cost $42,000 to shoot.

Much to Keaton’s dismay, The General was a monumental disaster. The film failed commercially and received poor reviews from critics. Retrospective analysis now rightfully places The General among the greatest films of all time. The General placed in the top ten of Sight & Sound’s critics’ film poll in both 1972 and 1982. Orson Welles declared The General to be the greatest comedy ever made and arguably the best film of all time. In 2007, the American Film Institute named The General the 18th best American movie ever made.

1 Sherlock Jr. Is Keaton’s Greatest Film (1924)

Keaton’s greatest film, Sherlock Jr. is a seminal silent-era comedy that stars Keaton as a movie projectionist who becomes framed for stealing his girlfriend’s father’s pocketwatch. After falling asleep in the projection booth, Keaton dreams he enters the movie on screen. In this film within a film sequence, Keaton dreams he is a master detective.

Sherlock Jr. contains arguably Keaton’s worst on-screen accident. During a stunt in which Keaton hangs from a water spout, the water poured out harder than expected and Keaton fell to the ground, slamming his neck against a steel rail. Nine years later, a doctor discovered that Keaton had fractured his neck. Sherlock Jr. is notable for its in-camera special effects, its billiard sequence, and the scene where Keaton walks into the movie screen. Time magazine, Sight & Sound, and the BBC have all included Sherlock Jr. on their lists of the greatest movies of all time. The American Film Institute ranked Sherlock Jr. as the 62nd-best American comedy.

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