Buster Keaton’s 10 Most Ridiculous Stunts, Ranked

Movies Lists Buster Keaton
Buster Keaton’s 10 Most Ridiculous Stunts, Ranked

As Ryan Gosling swings back into cinemas in his first major post-Ken role in this weekend’s The Fall Guy, our minds can’t help but drift to the cinematic artform of the professional stunt performer. Gosling, after all, is playing a consummate stunt professional in the David Leitch action comedy, a workaday stunt man thrust into leading role status, who must both solve a mystery and navigate a tricky romance with his own director, played by Emily Blunt. It seems safe to say that the film will pay homage to the long and storied history of Hollywood stunt work, which somehow still doesn’t have an Academy Award to honor it. You can’t really start a conversation about Hollywood stunts and leading men, however, without the topic eventually turning toward the legendary Buster Keaton.

The iconic silent comedy performer was the architect of every aspect of his most famous features, writing, directing and stepping into the line of fire with seemingly suicidal abandon. Where contemporaries such as Harold Lloyd and Charlie Chaplin were likewise iconic silent comedy stars of the era, known for their charm and on-screen pathos, neither of them dared to regularly take the kinds of risks and over-the-top spills Keaton was known for. Presumably, they had a bit more sense of self-preservation than that.

In Keaton’s case, though, this willingness to accept danger and risk was simply a piece of family heritage he had translated to the big screen, an embrace of physicality that had been with him since birth. From the age of three, he was performing on stage with parents Joe Keaton and Myra Cutler as “The Three Keatons,” a vaudeville act known for its rough-and-tumble style, which would see Buster’s father physically flinging him around, aided by a luggage handle literally sewn into the back of the boy’s clothing to make him easier to pick up and throw. Billed as “The Little Boy Who Can’t Be Damaged,” the act was infamous enough to lead to accusations of child abuse, which the younger Keaton was quick to dismiss, pointing out his lack of injuries. But this speaks more, perhaps, to Keaton’s remarkable physical skill than his aversion to genuine danger.

This boldness, and the drive to entertain audiences by any means necessary, were fully on display during Buster Keaton’s classic run of silent comedies from 1920-1928, when the pioneering director and performer would cook up dozens of iconic stunts in both short films and features. Many of these sequences left their mark on the actor in the decades to follow, and a few of them are probably lucky to have not killed “The Great Stone Face” on the spot.

In Keaton’s honor, and in honor of stunt performers everywhere, here are 10 of his best stunt moments, ranked in increasing order of foolhardiness.

10. Railroad Tie Tossing

Film: The General, 1926

Many cinema aesthetes point toward The General as Keaton’s magnum opus, but in truth it’s not nearly so stunt-focused as some of his other features and shorts. It does contain one classic segment of physical performance, though, in which Keaton’s train engineer character must scramble to the front of the slowly moving locomotive in order to deal with obstacles on the tracks laid by the Union soldiers he’s chasing. With his own train bearing down on him, Keaton must heft up the railroad ties just in time to keep the train from derailing, and must then hurl that huge piece of wood at another tie in the middle of the tracks to knock it aside, lest his engine pitch over.

In reality, it will not be surprising to learn that the pieces of wood Keaton is handling here are much less heavy than they look, but the star knows how to physically sell the weight of the sequence.

9. Three Man Human Ladder

Film: Neighbors, 1920

How does a would-be groom reach a third story window in order to abscond with his bride? Well, if you’re in the conclusion of a Buster Keaton short film, the answer is to form a three-story human ladder with your groomsmen and physically carry her away, navigating obstacles as you go.

This is a classic bit of circus/vaudeville strength and balance on display, as Keaton called upon friends from a tumbling group known as The Flying Escalantes to form the base of his three-man tower. There’s some dynamic physical comedy at play, as the three men enter and exit windows on different levels, and then attempt to escape while never breaking their human chain. The ladder then subsequently has its middle and bottom levels taken out, but Keaton manages to land on his feet each time. Honestly, he makes it all look effortless.

Suffice to say, the sheer power of balance featured here is pretty incredible, and it’s easy to imagine how badly any of the performers could have been hurt at any time by a collapse or fall.

8. Pelted With Boxes in a Cyclone

Film: Steamboat Bill Jr., 1928

This stunt happens pretty much immediately in the wake of one of Keaton’s most famous visual gags/stunts, when the entire front section of a house collapses around him, but we’ll get to that one later on the list. This gag relies on the same cyclone winds as the other one, occurring as Keaton’s Bill Jr. is attempting to fight his way through the wind in the middle of the street to hilarious effect. Some seemingly suicidal truck driver picks this precise moment to drive away with a fully laden flatbed piled high with boxes, driving straight on into the incoming path of a powerful crosswind. The resulting gust rips dozens of boxes off the back of the truck, right into Keaton’s face, pelting him and covering him with debris. He’s left slipping and sliding in the mud as the boxes cover him and then blow away.

Presumably, these prop boxes were rigged to be not particularly dangerous to human life, but it makes for a hell of a visual. There was definitely no way to keep Keaton from being hit by one of these squarely between the eyes, so I can only presume the director and star were simply hoping for the best on this take.

7. The Runaway Motorcycle

Film: Sherlock Jr., 1924

In this climactic sequence from Sherlock Jr., Buster Keaton races to save his lady love while sitting on the handlebars of a motorcycle … totally unaware that no one is piloting the vehicle. That would be because the driver fell off at the start of the sequence, and we spend the next two and a half minutes watching as Keaton (who assumes the driver is still there) dodges all manner of obstacles in his path, the deus ex machina saving him increasingly becoming more and more absurd.

This really is quite the comedic sequence of coincidences and close misses, starting out with Keaton dodging pedestrians and traffic, but rapidly escalating until he’s interrupting picnics, dragging people behind him from a tug-of-war match, or narrowly avoiding flipping over the handlebars when a log laying in front of the motorcycle is dynamited just in time for him to pass. It culminates in what looks to the audience like a near miss of being flattened by an oncoming locomotive, but this sequence was likely filmed in reverse (and then sped up) in order to simulate the effect. Still, that didn’t stop Keaton from reportedly being involved in a few nasty crashes here, and you can’t exactly be surprised.

6. Building to Building Jump

Film: Three Ages, 1923

It should go without saying that when you see Keaton making a leap like this from the top of a tall building, there’s probably at least some Hollywood magic at play–the man was willing to take risks and was capable of great physical feats, but he didn’t have a death wish. In this case, the jump he’s making in Three Ages is between constructed sets on a soundstage, with a city background inserted behind him.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that Keaton and co. seemed to vastly overestimate the distance that he would actually be able to jump in this scenario, because the script for this sequence actually called for Keaton to successfully make the jump. Suffice to say, he instead misses it pretty badly, and then fell into a safety net just out of sight, being only mildly hurt. After watching the footage, however, Keaton was inspired to instead keep the failed jump and create a subsequent falling sequence, seeing his character crashing through overhangs before riding a drain pipe down through an open window and sliding down a firepole in one smooth motion. It’s a prime example of the willingness to accept and embrace failure that is inherent to physical comedy.

5. The Boulder Chase

Film: Seven Chances, 1925

There are individual moments within this sequence from Seven Chances that could easily have made the list all on their own, like the beginning shot where Keaton hurls himself down a sand dune head first, tumbling and flipping like a cork. But that first pratfall is just the start of one the most legendary sequences in his career, as it kicks off a progressively larger avalanche that involves Keaton’s character running alongside progressively larger boulders down a seemingly endless slope.

There are just so many ways that this sequence could have gone wrong for Keaton, particularly in the portions where he is surrounded by smaller rolling rocks. Lord only knows how many times he may have tripped over them, but he was lucky not to crack his head open, descending a 30 degree slope at high speed while completely surrounded by rolling prop boulders. It culminates in a sequence where Keaton seemingly takes refuge behind an embankment, but you’re on edge the whole time as you watch the boulders whiz past seemingly inches from his head. Surely these were props that were not particularly heavy, but it all still feels distinctly irresponsible to witness. He eventually ends up in the path of all the biggest boulders and must dive, duck and dodge his way to freedom. This is definitely Keaton at his most athletic.

4. The Waterfall Rope Rescue

Film: Our Hospitality, 1923

Stunts involving water always involve a certain degree of heightened risk, something that Buster Keaton saw for himself while filming the rapids sequence of Our Hospitality in an actual river. He at one point nearly drowned after a restraining wire broke, sending him plunging into the rapids of California’s Truckee River. Deciding to move the action to a constructed river set instead, Keaton went on to film this climactic waterfall rescue sequence, in which his character must swing out into the waterfall with split-second timing in order to save his love interest who is plunging over the falls.

Of course, Keaton didn’t have to catch an actual person while suspended by a rope from his midsection–no, he only had to catch a waterlogged dummy, which surely must have been almost as difficult. This one just looks painfully awkward for the performer–you can see just how much stress is being put on his core as he swings back and forth while carrying a heavy load. If I tried this, I can only assume my shoulders would immediately dislocate. It’s a pretty wild feat of strength from Buster Keaton.

3. Grabbing a Moving Car

Film: Cops, 1922

With at least some of these stunts, it’s not difficult to imagine how Buster Keaton and co. could have envisioned them and assumed they could be pulled off without too much risk, as long as they were being careful. And then there’s this thing from his 1922 short film Cops, a split-second move that sees Keaton running from the police and escaping by means of simply grabbing onto a passing car, which seems to yank him into the air with its acceleration. It looks like a move that someone would attempt to emulate and find their arm pulled out of its socket.

Now, there are some hints that perhaps the car isn’t really going quite as fast as it appears to the viewer, but unlike a similar, famous Keaton stunt in the short film Day Dreams, which sees him dangling from the end of a cable car as his legs fly up in the air, this stunt doesn’t seem to be wire-assisted. Instead, it looks more like he simply jumps into the movement, and then allows the car to drag his body away. This is one of those stunts where you have to figure they were thinking “Okay, there’s a pretty good chance this is going to hurt you badly, but carpe diem, etc.” This kind of thing would take some real guts.

2. The Water Spout

Film: Sherlock Jr., 1924

Sherlock Jr. is full of great Buster Keaton stunts, more than we’re actually able to list here. Something like the traffic gate stunt comes to mind, where Keaton clambers from the roof of a building onto a tall train track traffic gate, which lowers down and deposits him neatly in a passing car. But considerably more infamous is the water spout stunt, for the fact that it caused lasting injury that the actor would carry for the rest of his life.

The stunt comes about as Keaton is scrambling across the cars atop a moving train, looking for a way to descend to the ground. He grabs ahold of the movable spout of a water tower next to the tracks, which begins to lower him to the ground, only for a massive amount of water to rush out of the spout, knocking him to the ground and drenching him. In reality, the pressure of the water was far more intense than Keaton had anticipated, and it slammed him to the ground–on the railroad tracks, no less–with such force that it caused a fracture in the back of the performer’s neck. Despite the immediate pain, and what Keaton referred to as “blinding headaches” for weeks afterward, he dismissed medical treatment and ultimately only discovered that the fracture had happened more than a decade later, when a doctor informed him in 1935 that a callus had grown over the break in his vertebra. In all reality, Keaton is probably lucky that this seemingly innocuous stunt didn’t result in his on-screen death.

1. The Falling House

Film: Steamboat Bill Jr., 1928

It’s perhaps the most iconic stunt associated with Buster Keaton for a reason, and unlike so many of the others, which rely on the actor’s athleticism, tumbling ability or strength, all he had to do for this one was stand in exactly the right place, and not flinch. We’re talking of course about the sequence in the cyclone scene of Steamboat Bill Jr. when the entire front façade of a house breaks away, collapsing on Keaton, who is saved only by the fact that he’s perfectly positioned so that he passes through a single attic window and emerges unscathed.

This one truly is a roll of the dice in terms of the danger factor. This was no constructed set or camera trickery this time–Keaton and co. used a very real two-story house façade for the shot. Keaton had actually done variations on the stunt in several previous short films, but never with a wall that was nearly so large or heavy. In other words, there’s no way they could say for sure that this was going to work. What if the wall fell apart while it was tipping forward? What if Keaton missed his mark by a few inches, causing the window frame to come smashing down on his head? Any slight mistake here could have been extremely costly. It’s just another testament to the performer’s nerves of steel.

Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident genre geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.

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