Thursday, December 29, 2011

Guest Post: "Keaton the Conjuror" by Ben Robinson

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Ben Robinson is both a master magician and an historian of magic, author of Twelve Have Died: Bullet Catching, The Story & Secrets and of The MagiCIAn: John Mulholland's Secret Life, as well as numerous articles for major magic publications. Just last month, Ben's decades-long research into the use of magic in silent films came to fruition with publication of his latest book, Magic and the Silent Clowns — a subject that had received scant attention until Ben's work. Concurrent with that, Ben helped curate a fascinating show at New York's Museum of the Moving Image entitled Magicians on Screen, including both a magic performance by Ben and a lecture-demo on the subject of magic and the silent clowns. In fact, Ben had first proposed the idea to the museum back in the 80s. Patience is indeed a virtue — though persistence sure helps! This blogopedia is very pleased to be able to share the first chapter from Magic & the Silent Clowns, and to be able to match Ben's enthusiastic prose with a few video clips.

Keaton the Conjuror
Buster Keaton’s education and use of the conjurer’s illusionary techniques. 
by Ben Robinson

“Once Pop accidentally wrecked another act by tossing me into the backdrop curtain. This was the turn of Madame Herrmann, the widow of Herrmann the Great, one of the most popular magicians. She was working some of his simpler tricks. At the finish of her act she had dozens of white doves flying to her from every corner of the stage.” (My Wonderful World of Slapstick, p27)

Buster Keaton was an illusionist.

It is said that the world’s greatest illusionist, or magician, would never be truly known by the public at large. Why?  Because so great a “talent” wouldn’t need the adulation, as the prowess by which the work was deployed would be best praised by not even being seen. In the shadows of show business and art, there would lie success. In the French this is referred to as eminence grise. While Buster is certainly known, his use of illusion is at best appreciated as an auxiliary component to the gag

However, a deeper look into Buster’s upbringing and eventual use of his fantastic vaudeville education clearly expresses itself in his movies, some of his TV appearances and, more notably, when meeting the media. It might be assumed that the Keaton we see is an image he is in total control of. That being said, the controlled image we always saw was one of a surreal world where “magic” was part of the landscape, like air. In the famous Sid Avery photograph of Keaton, titled “What Elephant?” while Keaton looks forward, with his hand on his brow, the elephant’s trunk winds through his other arm, the pachyderm quietly standing behind the comedian.  This is a vanishing elephant only to the person closest to the king of the forest, a good metaphor for Keaton’s “magic.”

While the examples of Keaton’s legerdemain are too numerous for inclusion here, this notion may bear some examination in the following examples. 

Clearly, legend has it that Buster received his nickname from Houdini. While this may be a matter of conjecture, the legend sticks (and most vaudevillians would tell you that when it comes down to printing the myth or the truth, they yowl, “the myth, print that!”). 

That Joe Keaton and Harry Houdini (1874-1926) once appeared before the audiences of the Midwest in a tent show is certainly a fact. It is also a fact that this show, The Keaton-Houdini Medicine Show, was not a great success, and occurred years before Houdini’s triumphant success in Europe in 1900. Of his father Keaton remarks that “he was an eccentric dancer, not an acrobat, but damn near.” The same might be said of Keaton: he wasn’t a magician in the classic sense, but damn near. Like a classic magician, everything that he saw, particularly of the mechanical variety, was always filed away in his memory for future use. His summer home amidst the actor’s colony in Muskegon, Michigan was not far from a little town named Marshall, among its distinctions being the home of the very first electrified house in the US. Called Honolulu House, it doesn’t have the electric staircase (escalator) Buster later used in his movie The Electric House, but it does have many other mechanical wonders, including the sliding bathtub that switches between rooms that Buster used on celluloid. 

Backstage, Buster saw it all. He refers to utilizing some of Houdini’s tricks in his movie Sherlock Junior, and even opens Cops with a line credited to Houdini: “Love laughs at Locksmiths.” He also acknowledges a relatively little-remembered genuine Chinese vaudeville illusionist, Ching Ling Foo — whose grand feats included turning a somersault in mid-air and when he returned to a standing position, he held a bowl of goldfish that 
appeared from nowhere! 

Young Buster grew up learning that magic had to be “justified” or plausible for the introduction of an illusion. He realized in his movie-making career that “cartoon or impossible” gags (and illusions) had to be justified, like his jumping and impossibly disappearing into the briefcase held by a man (dressed as a woman) accomplice on the street (Sherlock Jr.)....

....or appearing as nine individual dancers on stage at the same time (The Playhouse)....

 ....or avoiding the tornado winds by hiding in a magician’s prop (Steamboat Bill Jr.)....

Whenever magic occurred, Keaton might have been justifying his conceit he explained as “I always want  the audience to out guess me, and then I double cross them.”

Keaton’s use of illusion was not always as a trick per se. When the house he moves across the train tracks in One Week narrowly escapes destruction by an oncoming train, another train enters the frame — and his on-screen drama — and demolishes what we only thought, seconds before, was safe. The revelation of the perceptual difference of the first train set the audience up for the wow appearance of the second train.

Similarly a magician will make a scarf appear, only to have the audience relax at that manifestation. When a dove flutters from the folds of that scarf, there comes the “topper.” Buster just played with much larger props. 

This type of drama, albeit small, is as much part of the conjurer’s lexicon as a rabbit and a hat. Magicians refer to this type of presentation as a “sucker gag.” Feigned failure, only to be consummated by winning success, or in the previous example, unexpected total destruction. 

I believe Buster was schooled in such thinking about surprise (both magic and comedy being dependent on surprise) by his vaudeville and mud show upbringing.  The magician’s technique he learned as a child pervaded his work on screen and elsewhere. On stage in France, in the late 1940s, he counseled the clowns in the Cirque Medrano how to get more out of the crowded clown car gag. Multiple large clowns (always ending with the largest of all) simply emerging from a small vehicle was impossible. Once Keaton showed them how the impossibility became surprising, then the illusion became magical, funny and even more surprising. How many times have we all seen this? And how many times have we seen the clowns emerge with beach chairs and finally a clown emerging with a full tray of food including a stuffed turkey?  These were Keaton’s touches he culled from the Hanlon Bros. performance of clowning, magic and illusion that took place in 
Europe and the US prior to 1900. 

And now for the magic that hits you as reality.  This may give you an example of Buster’s eminence grise

Remember the famous scene in Sherlock Junior where Buster is “shadowing” a man walking in front of him?  Now, watch as the man tosses a cigarette behind him which Buster catches, takes a drag of and then discards...or does he?  Given that Buster is the fellow who had a whole side of a building fall around him, missing him by mere inches, I think handling a lighted cigarette in flight was child’s play for him. But slow down the image and you will see a nifty piece of sleight of hand he no doubt executed on many occasions, being an inveterate cigarette smoker.

Other hand magic: in The Cameraman Buster tried to catch the fancy of the photo assignment secretary by making a quarter disappear in his hand, only to be revealed from behind his ear.

 In Steamboat Bill Jr., when attempting to have his father receive a loaf of bread in jail, Buster mimes the contents of the bread and involves another deception of the hands. Effortlessly. Gracefully. As if he yawned.

All magical illusions are understood by the student of the art, firstly through small, hand-held deceptions.  Given Buster’s consummate understanding of the nature of his medium (in this case, film) it is likely Buster combined this understanding with his familiarity with the scene backstage where magicians show each other tricks they carry with them, one time known as "vest pocket magic." 

The point: Buster understood close-up magic because he was schooled in close-up magic from day one. 

Whether it was dangling from a rope to save his wife from the pitfalls of a raging waterfall (a la Houdini) in Our Hospitality or making it appear as if he simply caught a lighted cigarette from the air, Keaton saw the meshing of illusion and  reality in every situation, and exploited it. While performing off stage for a visiting film crew, in his later years, he created the illusion of catching a train, and bringing a 10-ton locomotive to a halt.  One might say this was a developed version of catching the side of a moving car and being whisked from view, as in one of his short comedies.  

Jack Flosso, the late owner of the world’s oldest magic shop, knew Keaton remotely through his father, the great Al Flosso, veteran of thousands of vaudeville and Coney Island sideshow performances.  Flosso says, “When you do magic and don’t admit it, that’s great. Harpo did that, and where’d ya think he got that...Keaton! Buster had an eye for everything. Remember that.”  That Keaton’s silent, surreal illusions should find a home in the 1930s amidst Harpo’s arsenal of wonders is not surprising to any Keaton scholar. What is delightful is that Keaton’s use of illusion was an integral part of his day-to-day life.

Buster Keaton working as a gag writer for the Marx Brothers
He frequently polished a window near him only to surprise his viewers by putting his head through the glass he had just polished, revealing that his polishing was deft pantomime... the illusionary transparent glass was only perceived as solid by his impromptu audience.  Many remark what a great practical joker he was. Such visual jokes have their roots in illusion. In several newsreels depicting Buster at play one finds Keaton doing something short and sweet like sewing his fingers together (later adopted by Red Skelton) or making a baseball disappear for a dog (but not for the rest of the audience). Anything surprising, anything out of the ordinary from this apparently “ordinary” man made his magic more memorable and surprising. 

We always hear of the “magic of the movies.” Buster Keaton is a master of a special type of  movie magic that, often, you don’t even realize is right in front of you! 

Beckett, Samuel., FILM, Grove Press, NY 1969. 
Bengtson, John., Silent Echoes  (Discovering Early Hollywood Through the Films of Buster Keaton), Santa Monica Press, CA 2000. 
Blesh, Rudi., Keaton, The Macmillan Company, New York, NY 1966. 
Dardis, Tom., KEATON — The Man Who Wouldn’t Lie Down, Limelight Edition, 1996 
Kerr, Walter., The Silent Clowns, Da Capo Press, NY 1975. 
Keaton, Buster with Charles Samuels., My Wonderful World of SlapstickDoubleday & Co., NY 1960. 
Kline, Jim., The Complete Films of Buster Keaton, Citadel Press, NY 1993. 
Knopf, Robert., The Theater and Cinema of Buster Keaton, Princeton University, Press, NJ 1999. 
Meade, Marion., Buster Keaton Cut to the Chase., Harper Collins, NY 1995. 
Tobias, Patricia Eliot, Ed., The Great Stone Face, The Magazine of the Damfinos, The International Buster Keaton Society, Volume 1, 1996. 
Interview with Jack Flosso in New York City, December, 1999. 
Kevin Brownlow, & David Gill (producers)., Keaton A Hard Act to Follow, Thames TV production, 1987. 
This article was originally published in The Keaton Chronicle, the magazine of the International Buster Keaton Society, The Damfino’s, in the Vol. 10 Issue 4, Autumn, 2002. Reprinted by permission. It is also part of Ben Robinson’s book Magic & The Silent Clowns (2011).

Visit Ben's web site here, where you can also purchase his book directly via PayPal.

1 comment:

David said...

None of the embedded video clips are loading. Have the videos been removed or are the links broken ?