"This Fellow Keaton Seems to be the Whole Show":
Buster Keaton, Interrupted Performance and the Vaudeville Aesthetic

by Henry Jenkins

Imagine two Introduction to Film Courses: Prof. Oldman, a liberal humanist, has been teaching film for several decades, helping to introduce cinema studies at his university by crossing over from literature. His course stresses the formal and thematic "evolution" of film. Prof. Oldman wants his students to appreciate cinema's ability to tell ever more sophisticated stories, to construct rounded characters, to engage in social criticism, and to achieve a high degree of "realism." Prof. Oldman's selections are works of formal "unity," "richness," "universality" and "profundity." Prof. Youngman, a lapsed leftist, came later, arriving with a degree in Film Studies from a major midwestern university and a distrust of the "snares and deceptions" involved in classical narrative. Reflecting his ties to modernism, Youngman embraces "transgression," "excess," and "self-reflexivity," wanting a "counter-cinema" which calls attention to itself as a "constructed object" and which rejects the notion of "passive spectatorship."

One would anticipate that the films they chose to show their students would be radically different. Prof. Oldman's syllabus is full of works by Griffith, Chaplin, Ford, Renoir, DaSica, Bergman, and Truffaut. Prof. Youngman's course is dominated by Von Sternberg, Sirk, Arzner, Godard, Fellini, Oshima and Fassbender.

Both professors teach Hitchcock and both professors teach Keaton, though their choices of exemplary films reflect their larger aesthetic judgments. Prof. Oldman teaches The General, stressing Keaton's classicism, his willingness to subordinate isolated comic moments to a larger plot trajectory, his ability to motivate gags through a sympathetic understanding of his central protagonist, and his ability to speak both to a nostalgia for the 19th century agrarian south and to contemporary anxieties about technology. Keaton is valued because he broke with the melodramatic excesses of Chaplin and produced more formally satisfying works. Prof. Youngman teaches Sherlock Junior as a film which is profoundly aware of the institutions and practices of cinema, which forces the spectator to think about what it means to watch a movie and what place Hollywood fantasy plays in our lives. Prof. Oldman's Keaton the classicist bears little or no resemblance to Prof. Youngman's Keaton the modernist, and their interpretations and evaluations, no doubt, would allow for endless hours of debate at the faculty club. For Prof. Oldman, Sherlock Junior is too fragmented, its image of a spectator penetrating into the world of the screen seen as a "parlor trick" which distracts from larger plot goals. For Prof. Youngman, The General is too staid and predictable, too much a part of the classical tradition.

In their search for the "essential Keaton film," both Profs. Oldman and Youngman distort the complexity of his place in film history. First, both men build a case for Keaton's "uniqueness" not so much by a systematic comparison of his works with the slapstick tradition but rather by pulling his films out of their larger generic context altogether. Neither seems especially interested in tracing the vaudeville tradition that Keaton's style of comedy came from or how it fit within larger production patterns in the silent cinema. Second, the Keaton features are viewed in isolation from his larger career trajectory -- or more accurately, the other Keaton films, the non-"essential" ones, are understood as "stepping stones" towards his "great achievements" or as marking his "swift and tragic decline." Neither his early shorts with Fatty Arbuckle nor his sound features with Jimmy Durante warrant much more than a sneer in this discussion, since these films do not exhibit his control over the production process. Third, their readings of the films in question depend upon a simplification of their formal construction. Prof. Oldman's focus on narrative and characterization requires him to read past gags that don't fit comfortably within the causal development of the film -- or to dismiss them as undesirable excess. Prof. Youngman's focus on the reflexivity of Sherlock Junior often comes to rest on a couple of comic set-pieces, while ignoring how those moments of disruption operate within the narrative. Keaton's films, like those of other slapstick clowns, struggle to resolve the tension between plot and spectacle, character and performance, which are core concerns of the Comedian Comedy as a generic tradition.

All of which is to say that the choice of Sherlock Junior as the focus of an anthology in the 1990s is a product of complex shifts within film studies as a discipline, shifts in aesthetic taste, professional training, and ideological commitment that effect both what films we teach and what we say about them. For those reasons, it is important to understand why Sherlock Junior incites our critical attention as probably the canonical Keaton film for the 1980s and 1990s. (The General's decline in critical popularity is another story which would require a different essay). While we need to look closely at the aesthetic claims made for Sherlock Junior, we risk duplicating the blindnesses of both Profs. Oldman and Youngman if we isolate the film from larger historical contexts. Sherlock Junior came at a particular moment in Keaton's career and in the history of screen comedy, and to understand it, we need to broaden our framework, to make links between its moments of disruption, reflexivity, and spectacle, and the traditions from which it emerged.

To begin with, we might look at a point on which Profs. Oldman and Youngman (and indeed, most film critics and historians) might agree: the centrality of Keaton as comic persona, comic performer, and comic film maker to our understanding of his feature films. The historic conditions which gave rise to this phenomenon, its aesthetic and thematic consequences, and its place within the larger history of Classical Hollywood Cinema are only just beginning to be explored. This clown-centered style of slapstick represented a specific (and fleeting) moment in the development of screen comedy. At the same time, the tension between performance virtuosity and narrative continuity, the grounds upon which Profs. Oldman and Youngman disagree, reflects the complex relationship of Keaton's features to larger shifts in film style throughout the early years of cinema. A growing body of scholarship has focused upon the transition between the "cinema of attractions," an early mode of film practice based on self-conscious spectacle and strongly inspired by vaudeville practice, and the Classical Hollywood Cinema, a subsequent mode centrally focused on narrative and influenced by traditions of theatrical realism. The relationship between these competing aesthetic systems was dynamic, not static, shifting in response to changing production contexts and audience demands. Film comedy was particularly bound to the vaudeville tradition which defined the "cinema of attractions" and more resistant than most genres to the pull towards classical narrative.

The career of Buster Keaton, who began as a child star in vaudeville, traced the transitions in screen comedy throughout the silent era. Keaton began as a bit player or "second banana" with Fatty Arbuckle's comic troupe, reflecting the ensemble-based comedy style associated with early slapstick films, but gradually gaining greater screentime. Keaton's solo shorts, such as The Playhouse, required only the most minimal plot frame with most of the pleasure coming from spectacular sequences of virtuoso performance, stunts or gags. Like those of his contemporaries, Keaton's silent features, such as Sherlock Junior, drew upon melodramatic conventions to give coherence and structure to their comic set-pieces, responding, with varying degrees of success, to demands for strong story logic and clear character motivation. The coming of sound provoked a reconsideration of the potential appeal of variety entertainment, resulting in a more fragmented, performance-centered style of screen comedy. Keaton negotiated this final transition with difficulty and only minimal success.

After a brief discussion of Keaton's relationship to the Vaudeville tradition, this essay will look closely at four Keaton films, Backstage (1919), The Playhouse (1921), Sherlock Jr. (1924) and Speak Easily (1932) which pose, in particularly vivid terms, the tension between the vaudeville aesthetic and the classical Hollywood cinema. Specifically, I will focus on the various ways that the four films facilitate and motivate extended sequences of performance virtuosity. Each film takes a playhouse or movie theater as its central location and each represents as its central comic image, the disruption or interruption of a performance (an image which can be traced back to the Three Keatons stage act). Each film invites our awareness of performance as performance, of the institutions and processes of show business, and of the construction and maintenance of social identity.

Looking at these four films suggests a new way of resolving the conflicting claims Profs. Oldman and Youngman would make about Sherlock Junior and the other Keaton films. Prof. Oldman's account doesn't fully acknowledge the continued influence of the disruptive, non-linear, performance-based tradition of vaudeville throughout Keaton's career. On the other hand, Prof. Youngman's account leads him to locate reflexive impulses at the very moment where Keaton's comedy seems most fully assimilated into the classical system and to find transgressiveness in elements which are highly conventional aspects of slapstick comedy. Sherlock Junior is both more transgressive and more classical than our faculty lunchroom debates acknowledge, representing simply one moment in Keaton's life-long negotiation between the competing aesthetics that shaped early film comedy. What will emerge is not so much Keaton the Classicist or Keaton the Modernist, but Keaton the Vaudevillian.

"The Three Keatons" (1901)
Within months of his birth, Buster Keaton was appearing on stage with his parents and by the age of five, he had become the central feature of a popular vaudeville act. As Peter Kramer has shown, the addition of this child star was what his parents had long needed to make the transition from medicine shows and small-time variety shows to the big time -- a novel twist. The original Keaton act, "The Man With a Table," had adhered closely to the traditional formula for male-female comedy acts, combining Joe Keaton's acrobatic performance and broad comedy with Myrna Keaton's "artistic" poses, dancing, and musical performance on various woodwinds. Without Buster, the Keatons had enjoyed moderate fortune. With Buster, the act became a popular success.

Not only was Buster younger than most child stars of the period, but his act offered a radically different picture of childhood. The most popular child stars typically embraced sentimental and melodramatic notions of childhood innocence and remain more or less passive spectacles within acts dominated by adult performers. Keaton's act, however, offered a more rambunctious and aggressive image of parent-child relations, requiring Bad Boy Buster's active performance. The mischievous child pretended to disrupt Joe Keaton's act until Keaton's father hurled the boy about the stage, dragging his head along the floor like a mop. At one point, Joe would toss Buster into the wings or into the orchestra pit, thinking he had at last cleared the way for a completion of his performance, only to have the boy returned by a thoughtful stage hand: "Is this yours, Mr. Keaton?" Joe often "milked the laugh" slowly signing a receipt for Buster, before beginning to sing a song, which once again the boy would interrupt. The interrupted performance was a common act structure within the vaudeville tradition, seeming to hold open the prospect of on-stage action as spontaneous, unrehearsed, improvisational. Vaudeville sought to maintain the illusion -- and it was only partially an illusion -- that the audience's responses shaped the performance. In a theatrical tradition described by one Chicago critic as "the field of the expert," there was a certain pleasure in watching a performance go awry, witnessing events disrupt and threaten the performer's mastery over stagecraft, only to see order be restored once again.

Such knockabout antics integrated Buster fully within an act which had made its reputation for vigorous and acrobatic performance. Buster's contributions to the family act might also include singing songs, reciting "the Village Blacksmith," or doing impersonations of other popular performers. The specific content of the act varied as the Keatons toured the circuits, expanded, shortened, or altered to conform to the demands of specific venues but the concept of an interrupted act and the slapstick treatment of the young boy remained the core around which other performance specialties could be structured.

In many ways, the Three Keatons epitomizes the vaudeville tradition. The underlying logic of the variety show rested on the assumption that heterogeneous entertainment was essential to attract and satisfy a mass audience. The vaudeville program was constructed from modular units of diverse material, each no more than twenty minutes long, juxtaposed together with an eye towards the maximum amount of variety and novelty. Performers were responsible for originating their acts, negotiating with production specialists for materials and props, rehearsing and refining their performance skills, and transporting and maintaining scenery. Under these conditions, a family-based act like the Keatons was far from unusual and it was possible, even necessary, for all members of the act to make creative contributions towards its evolution.

This performer-centered mode of production resulted in an aesthetic strongly focused on performance virtuosity. Performers were expected to execute their specialties with a consistently high level of speed and precision. Frequently, acts were designed to focus attention upon the performer's skills, having little or no other interest. Such was certainly the case with protean or quick-change acts, where the star might perform an entire one-act play, alone on the stage, shifting gestures, vocal patterns, and costumes to convey as many as forty or fifty different characters. The young Buster's abilities as a prodigious child performer attracted this same kind of fascination, with some critics speculating that his feats could only be performed by a midget.

Vaudeville style was streamlined, striped down to those elements most likely to provoke emotion, building towards a "wow climax," a moment of peak spectacle calculated to insure a final burst of applause. Performers often directly addressed the audience or crossed beyond the footlights. Making little attempt to preserve the invisible fourth wall that characterized theatrical realism, vaudeville performers foregrounded the process of performance, often in highly reflexive ways, as when the Keatons structured their performance around Buster's perpetual disruptions of his father's act and included orchestra members and stage hands as part of the performance. Closely related to this reflexive quality in vaudeville performance was what Neil Harris calls the "operational aesthetic," a fascination with how things work, with the mechanics and technology of showmanship.

Vaudeville was not about telling stories; it was about putting on a show and more than that, it was about each performer's individual attempt to stop the show and steal the applause. Vaudeville had little use for the trappings of theatrical realism; it was about the spectacular, the fantastic, and the novel. Vaudeville had little use for continuity, consistency, or unity; it was about fragmentation, transformation, and heterogeneity. The incorporation of this vaudeville tradition was what gave silent screen comedy its intensity and fascination; it was also what made the genres' absorption into the mainstream of classical Hollywood cinema so problematic. Classical cinema, like theatrical realism, was in the business of telling stories, constructing characters, maintaining continuity, consistency, unity, causality, and plausibility. Classical cinema, unlike vaudeville, sought to efface the mechanisms of its production, presenting itself as a coherent self-contained world cut off from the realm of spectator experience.

Backstage (1919)
One of the last of the fifteen two-reelers which Buster Keaton made as a contract player from Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle's Comique Studios, Backstage reflects the ensemble or "stock company" style associated with early slapstick comedy, something of a throwback to the techniques Doug Riblet associates with Mack Sennett's Keystone Studios in the early part of the decade. If Fatty Arbuckle was billed as the star attraction and constructed the film to showcase his talents, Buster Keaton's contributions have grown to the point that he can no longer justly be characterized as a "second banana" and John Coogan waits in the wings, stealing the spotlight at key moments with his own eccentric performance. Watching the film today, we are drawn to Keaton's stone face and his extravagant pratfalls, and especially to a series of mechanical gags which prefigure famous moments in Keaton's own star vehicles: the film's opening shows a bedroom which is quickly transformed into a stage when the walls are carted away, a comic surprise which Keaton will exploit in The Playhouse; a stage flat depicting the side of a house gets knocked over and falls directly onto Fatty who passes untouched through the window, a moment which predates the falling house in Steamboat Bill Jr. and the "shocking" revenge that Buster an Fatty take on an abusive strongman, electrifying his barbells, a gag which rehearses Buster's punishment of the rival electrician in The Electric House.

Retrospectively, Backstage seems like Buster's show, but this is something of an optical illusion, a trick of historical consciousness. The film opens and closes on Fatty and it is Fatty who woos and wins the female lead, even if it is Buster who takes the more active role in overpowering the film's comic antagonist, the brutish strongman who seeks to disrupt their performance. Fatty may be the boss and Buster the assistant, on screen and off, but Buster's comedy often hinges upon his insubordination in upstaging his master.

Its theatrical setting allowing a constant exploration of issues of performance, Backstage seems acutely aware of this struggle over the spotlight, exploiting it for comic variety and narrative conflict. A running gag has one performer after another demanding the "star dressing room" at this flea-bag theater with Buster and Fatty using a pulley to circulate the star among all of the dressing rooms. The star role similarly circulates, at times almost as mechanically, between Buster and Fatty. When John Coogan makes a memorable cameo appearance as an eccentric dancer, his rubber-leg contortions are framed by matching (but separate) reaction shots from Buster and Fatty. First Fatty and then Buster try to imitate Coogan's performance with equally spectacular results, proving their own mastery over the bodily repertoire of silent slapstick. The effect is not unlike challenge dances in tap or improv sessions in jazz, where each performer seeks to match and top what has come before. Something similar occurs when first Fatty and then Buster confront the abusive strong man: Fatty's threatening gesture turns into a silly little dance, while Buster's attempts to bash him with an ax only seem to "tickle" him.

When the focus shifts from backstage preparations to on-stage entertainment, the film allows Buster to perform a harem dance in drag, showing an unexpected grace and fragile beauty, only to be pushed aside by the arrival of Fatty, dressed in a leopard-skin robe, who engages in a frenzied and equally show-stopping dance. Here, the two clowns achieve maximum impact by dancing together, the queen having caught "dance fever" and the King having "mistaken himself for an acrobat." At other moments, Buster threatens to upstage Fatty, as in the "Serenade in Snow" sequence, where a bossy Fatty chastises Buster for not "shivering" in the cold and then chastises him again for overplaying his responses ("I said shiver -- not shimmy!") or when Buster disrupts Fatty's big musical solo by accidentally knocking the backdrop over his head. The aggression reaches its peak when "Queen" Buster steels "King" Fatty's throne and then the possessive monarch picks her up and dumps her, unceremoniously, onto the ground. Seated at Fatty's feet, Buster disrupts the King's wooing by plucking hairs painfully from his legs, a gesture of aggression trying to pass itself for a sign of affection.

The constant one-upmanship between Fatty and Buster spills over onto the rest of the characters with the plot centering around a succession of theatrical rivalries. In the rough-and-tumble world of the Arbuckle shorts, the threat of assault and humiliation is never far from the surface. A sign posted on the wall outside one of the dressing rooms reads, "In bowing after your act, bow as low as possible. You can't tell what is coming!" Coogan's expansive dance movements send one stage hand flying and he kicks the hat off Fatty's head. The other performers are shocked and outraged by the Strong Man's constant abuse of his female assistant, whom he makes carry all of the bags and arrange his weights. The group plots and schemes to teach him a lesson in chivalry, finally subduing him with electrified barbells. The strongman seeks revenge by calling the other performers out on strike, forcing Buster, Fatty and the other stagehands to "improvise" a performance. Coogan jeers the show from a boxed seat, until Buster, leaping into Fatty's awaiting arms, misses and crashes down upon him. A stagehand, hanging from the rafters and sending fake snow onto the actors below, gets tired and dumps the whole bag on Fatty's head, and an angry Arbuckle strips off his coat and threatens to punch him. The strongman's attempts to disrupt the show prove even more aggressive with boos turning into open violence; he pulls out a pistol and shoots the leading lady mid-performance. Here, the comic violence of slapstick seems to push too far and more dramatic retribution is demanded. Buster grabs a trapeze, swings up into the balcony and drags the "bully" back on stage, where the entire cast pelts him and finally drops a trunk full of weights on his head. If this disrupted performance and the resulting fisticuffs give the film its "wow climax," it must be followed by a more traditional resolution, where Fatty kisses the romantic female lead as she recuperates in the hospital, arbitrarily culminating a romantic subplot scarcely suggested by the preceding scenes. That the film spends so little time introducing or developing this relationship suggests Arbuckle's indifference to the trappings of the classical Hollywood narrative, the plot existing only to motivate and contain the sequences of comic performance.

If the professional competition/collaboration of Arbuckle and Keaton intensifies Backstage's entertainment value, the story suggests that professional rivalries between characters can only disrupt the show with escalating violence. As a director, Arbuckle seems to have been remarkably generous (or perhaps simply shrewd) in allowing his talented co-star to share so much screen time. As a character, Fatty seems to fight aggressively for control over the theatrical troupe, even if such control is always just beyond his reach. In the world of Backstage, co-stars, though necessary, are also always potential competitors and audiences, while necessary, are always potential assailants, with threats to the star's dignity and dominance coming from all sides. The trope of the interrupted performance serves to foreground the instability of ensemble comedy, while providing ample chances for each of the comic stars to showcase what they can do. One of Keaton's first independent project, The Playhouse, by contrast, centers far more fully on the pleasures of virtuoso solo performance and the resulting problems in maintaining a stable character identity.

The Playhouse (1921)
Buster Keaton buys a ticket to a vaudeville show. On stage, he finds Buster Keaton conducting an orchestra of musicians, each of whom looks just like Buster. The curtain opens to reveal a minstrel show, a whole troupe of Buster Keatons who dance and crack jokes. The camera pans the audience to show a woman (Keaton in drag) and a man (also Keaton), both dressed in high fashion. Buster studies the program, "Keaton's Opera House. Buster Keaton Presents Buster Keaton's Minstrels." The camera slowly scans down the page, showing that all of the jobs are being performed by Buster's multiplying clones. Scratching his head, the gentleman remarks, "This fellow Keaton seems to be the whole show."

Paying homage to the vaudeville tradition of the protean act, The Playhouse allows Keaton to showcase his range as a performer, displaying his mastery over all of the stock characters of the vaudeville repertoire. Keaton plays musical instruments; he dances; he dresses in drag, as a infant, and as a trained monkey; he does acrobatics as part of a troupe of Zouaves; he mugs to the camera. He does all of this in a single film, often occupying multiple positions on screen at the same time through his mastery of trick photography, so that he can subsequently settle down to one role and one identity (and some would argue, one plot) repeated over the rest of his career.

The Keaton shorts only retrospectively seem like prototypes for the feature films, while, experienced in their own terms, they suggest a series of explorations and experiments into non-narrative or semi-narrativized structures. In his shorts, Keaton allows the vaudevillian's fascination with performance, spectacle, the "operational aesthetic" to outweigh the classical demands of storytelling and characterization. The shorts may parody other film genres (The Paleface) or transform the very notion of plausible causality into an absurd joke (Cops); they may play with theme and variation, systematically dismantling a previously ordered space (The Blacksmith) or trace the process of constructing and deconstructing a house (One Week) or a boat (The Boat). But, what ultimately matters are not these flimsy structures but rather the gags and performances they imperfectly contain. Nowhere is that pleasure in performance as performance, as a disruption of characterization and a delay of narrative closure, more fully experienced than in The Playhouse.

From the outset, the film links Keaton's technical virtuosity as a film maker (the camera tricks which allow multiple Keatons to dance in precise synchronization within a single frame) with his mastery as a performer (his ability to become a whole theater full of different characters). Much as the vaudeville aesthetic pushed performers to encompass many different modes of entertainment within a single act, The Playhouse depends upon a succession of protean shifts between different comic roles and different forms of showmanship.

At the same time, the film consistently returns to the image of the disrupted act, the performance which fails to proceed according to plan. Even in the opening dream sequence where "that Keaton fellow seems to be the whole show," the Keatons are not fully in control of their performances, as the conductor scratches a persistent itch with his baton or the musicians seem confused about how to play their instruments, as the various audience members squabble with each other and clumsily spill their drinks down each other's backs. As the film proceeds, Keaton's harried stagehand must struggle to avert disaster as one performance after another falls apart. The Zouaves go on strike so he must try to transform a group of ditchdiggers into a drill team. Buster watches helplessly as they bungle action after action, mistaking a midget for a gun barrel, firing the cannon into their own ranks, and knocking over the wall they are supposed to climb. When Keaton tries to dress the ape in his tuxedo, the primate escapes and so Buster is forced to take his place, resulting in a dizzying layer of identities (a man pretending to be an ape pretending to be a man). Ultimately, this already unlikely impersonation dissolves into a man pretending to be an ape failing to imitate a man and giving way to his animal nature. Buster picks fleas, scampers about the stage on all four, climbs into the audience to frighten a female spectator into a faint, and finally dives through the backdrop to escape punishment. His co-worker dons a fake beard only to have it burst into flames and the tank act starts to drown, requiring Buster to smash open the aquarium. Each sequence hinges upon the liveness of theater, the possibility that anything that can go wrong will and the need for improvisation to insure that the show will go on no matter what.

The frenzy of performance seems to disrupt and destabilize everything here. The boundary between stage and audience space is highly permeable, with Keaton at one point hurled off the stage into the street, where he is forced to buy a ticket in order to re-enter the theater. In the final sequence, Keaton floods the audience, forcing it to flee into the streets, transforming the orchestra pit into a swimming pool which he rows across using a drum as a boat and a fiddle as an oar. Identity is wildly unstable. Gag after gag depending upon mistaken identity (his consistent inability to tell the two twins apart), incomplete identity (a running gag about two one-armed men who must cooperate to applaud the performance), transformed identities (Keaton's impersonations of women, children, and animals), and multiple identities (a whole series of gags center on proliferating mirrors). In the end, Keaton stands confused before his own reflection. Space is wildly unstable. At one point, Keaton as an audience member applauds a team of eccentric dancers, only to awaken in the next shot in his own bed, the whole act having been a dream. No sooner than he awakens, however, than people begin to move his furniture away and then, the entire wall of his apartment seems to collapse, turning out to be a theatrical backdrop, and he finds himself in the wings of the playhouse. He leans on his broom and he falls through the floor. Nothing is stable, nothing coheres -- until the film's final sequence where everything falls apart and everything comes together. As with so many of Keaton's shorts, we only know where we are going when we get there.

The twins, two beautiful women whom Keaton seems incapable of telling apart, are first introduced as a running gag. One responds to Buster's romantic attraction with a kiss, the other with a slap, yet circumstances conspire to keep him perpetually confused about which is which. As The Playhouse progresses, Keaton moves back and forth between scenes involving his off-stage confusion over the twins and scenes involving the disruption of on-stage performances. The on-stage acts are constantly changing, the episode involving the Zouaves following immediately after the episode involving the trained monkey, while the enigma posed by the twin recurs, Keaton's frustration escalating each time he is unable to distinguish between them. The film's conclusion involves two successive actions -- the final disruption of the staged entertainment (the flooding on the theater) on the one hand and the final stabilization of the twin's identities. Buster escapes from the flooded theater, dragging one protesting twin in tow to the Justice of the Peace. When he discovers his mistake, he races back to rescue the other more willing woman and then, borrowing a paint brush from a nearby workman, places a big X on her shoulder blade, at last fixing her identity, one stable point in an otherwise chaotic universe.

The flooding of the theater represents the kind of "wow climax" preferred by the vaudeville aesthetic, a moment of maximum spectacle and peak emotional experience. The scene at the Justice of the Peace, on the other hand, represents the classical closure preferred by the Hollywood cinema, at last resolving narrative enigmas and completing the central plot threads. That both climax and closure must be present suggests the tensions which run throughout the film between audience fascination with virtuoso performance and spectator expectations of narrative coherence. Keaton's accomplishment has been to forestall until the last possible moment the subordination of performance spectacle to narrative causality. With his move to feature films, the balance will shift in the other direction.

Sherlock Junior (1924)
Sherlock Junior, the world's greatest detective, the crime-crushing criminologist, displays a surprising character flaw. He needs to have things explained. Again and again, Gillette, his "gem" of an assistant, stops the action to show the preparations for a trick or to reveal his face behind a disguise. Elsewhere in Hearts and Pearls, the film within the film, Sherlock's deductive powers are unquestioned. He can seemingly read the suspects' minds, scrutinizing their features for uncomfortably long periods. He anticipates the exploding pool ball, dodges the poisoned drink, and toys with the booby-traped chair. No matter what the trap, he escapes unscathed -- partly as a result of his own brilliance as a descendent of the great Sherlock Holmes, partially as a result of sheer-luck (that seemingly inescapable pun on his name). Yet, at other moments, he is surprisingly imperceptive, confused by Gillette's ability to masquerade as a mustached police-man or an old lady. He needs to be shown the dress inside the hoop before he can do his miraculous transformation into an old woman.

Of course, we recognize that these explanations exist not for the character but rather for the audience, part of the process of letting us in on the trick. Keaton knows that even with all of the explanations, even when the transformation occurs before our eyes (complete with a cutaway wall on the cabin), we will never quite be able to figure out how he leaps through the window, passes through the hoop, and emerges on the other side clad in women's clothing. Even with all the forewarning, we will never quite determine how he is able to dive through the box at Gillette's midsection and disappear into the rotating wall behind him or how Gillette, fully materialized again, can walk away. Like a good magician, Keaton wants to show as much as he can so that we focus on how the trick might have been performed while withholding just enough so that we can never really understand how the mechanisms work.

In A Hard Act to Follow, the Kevin Brownlow documentary on his life, Keaton suggests that Sherlock Junior originated from his desire to exploit "some of these tricks I knew from the stage...some of them are clown gags, some Houdini, some Shung Li Fou." On the vaudeville stage, however, a magician, like Keaton's old family friend Harry Houdini, would present these devices directly for our examination, would lift his sleeves to show us that there was no hidden trick. Here, however, operating within the classical cinema, Keaton can not directly address the spectator and must instead cast himself as an observer for whom the trick must be explained before it can be performed. The contrivance doesn't quite work. We recognize that these devices are being laid out for our attention. If nothing else, the disappearing wall on the cabin tips the filmmaker's hand. Still, Keaton tried to fit his penchant for stunts and magic tricks within the rules and conventions of the classical film, to explain everything according to plot and character even as he focuses our attention on performance and spectacle.

In fact, there are two kinds of tricks Keaton performs in Sherlock Jr. First, there are the tricks he performs for the camera, his pool tricks, his acrobatic stunts (including a fall off a moving train that broke his neck), his trick motorcycle riding, his quick-change act, and his demonstration of stock comic turns, such as the sticky paper act or slipping on a banana peel. Here, Keaton wants us to watch his performance unfold in continuous space and time so that there can be no escaping our awareness of his mastery. Second, there are the tricks Keaton performs with the camera, special effects such as the doubling of Keaton as he slips into dream or the transformation of the cast of Hearts and Pearls into their real-world counterparts or editing tricks such as the rapid transformation of space as Keaton struggles to get a foothold in the movie world. Here, Keaton wants us to be fully aware of the camera manipulation, to recognize that the camera can make us see things that could not possibly occur. (And, in some cases, as in the motorcycle riding, he mixes freely trick photography with actual stuntwork so that it is hard to tell how much of what we see is really happening.) There is a certain contradiction, then, between Keaton's desire to impress us with the reality of what he can do in physical space and to fascinate us with the illusion of reality he can create through his manipulation of cinematic space. The fascination with his leap from manhood into womanhood lies in the fact that we can't be certain which form of trickery is involved: seeing is believing and yet at the same time, what we are seeing is incredible, and that is the essence of magic (screen, stage, or otherwise).

Few can doubt that Keaton wants us to be acutely aware of the experience of watching a movie unfold. Critical analysis of Sherlock Jr. has always focused on its reflexive qualities. Walter Kerr, for example, writes, "Sherlock Jr. is, plainly and simply, a film about film...an almost abstract -- though uninterruptedly funny -- statement of shocking first principles." Kerr finds it a highly self-conscious exploration of the differences between cinema and everyday experience:

Film's properties and man's properties are of contrary orders altogether. Man's presence in the universe...is a sustained one, continuous in time and space; film is discontinuous. Man's presence on earth...is organic, all of a piece; film is all pieces, broken, fragmented. Man's knowledge of himself is in great part a logical knowledge, moving in a linear fashion from cause to effect...; film is arbitrary on all counts.

Kerr's description is curious, since, rather than identifying properties that separate lived experience from the cinema, he is really identifying the distinction between classical cinema and a more avant garde film practice, between continuity editing and montage/collage. Without denying Sherlock Jr.'s impulses towards reflexivity, we must also acknowledge its impulses towards conformity to classical Hollywood norms, including those mandating continuity, coherence, and causality. All too often, the case for its anti-classical impulses comes down to a single sequence, the moment when Keaton tries to pass from the movie theater into the film itself and filmic reality gets destabilized, shifting from scene to scene with little narrative motivation, tossing Buster from a river bank into a snow drift. If, for a few moments, Keaton imagines a different kind of cinema, one governed by discontinuity editing, one built from clearly visible fragments, one joined together in a purely arbitrary fashion without regard to cause-effect logic, the film as a whole does not operate according to those principles. Once Buster has been absorbed into Hearts and Pearls, the film resumes continuity editing, follows a clear, conventional plot trajectory, with each part following linearly and logically from what has come before.

What is perhaps most striking about this justly celebrated sequence is just how difficult it is to penetrate into the realm of the movies in comparison with the constant breaking of the "fourth wall" in Backstage, The Playhouse and Speak Easily. Buster must undergo a series of painful transformations before he can be fit to the demands of cinema -- not the least of which is the insistence that he accept the plot's goals as a dictate on his own actions. Buster's intrusion into Hearts and Pearls is, in some senses, another interrupted performance -- with one significant difference. When young Buster intruded into his father's vaudeville act, he could stop it in its tracks, change its shape and direction. When Buster, as the stagehand in The Playhouse, smashes open the glass and floods the theater, he again changes the performance through his actions. But, here, Keaton can do little to alter the forward momentum of the film. He is at the mercy of its movements; the form allows only limited room for improvisation. Buster can imagine himself the film's masterful protagonist, can read its characters in relation to his real-life experiences, but Hearts and Pearls ends the same way (with the rescue of the woman and the consummation of their romance) whoever plays the lead.

Here, Keaton expresses something of the uncertainties and ambivalence a vaudevillian must have felt towards this new medium. News reports describe vaudevillians as confused and agitated when they stepped onto a film set, uncertain what audience to address, directing jokes towards the cameramen and thereby "spoiling" takes, looking into the camera and violating Hollywood's edicts against direct address. Vaudevillians had difficulty grasping the temporal and spacial separation between performer and audience as well as the need to reproduce the performance the same way for each take. If the point of the Keaton's stage act was that anything could happen once a child took the spotlight, the point of Sherlock Jr. might be the indifference of film to audience intervention and performer improvisation.

Significantly, of the four films, Sherlock Jr. is the only one which focuses on the mechanism of cinematic performance rather than theatrical performance. Sherlock Jr. is the film in which Keaton, as director, as performer, is most fully constrained by classical norms, consistently working to provide strong narrative motivation for each and every performance turn, slapstick bit, and spectacular stunt. From the opening scenes, the film introduces its protagonist's problems, the conflict between his ambitious fantasies (to become a detective) and his mundane real occupation (as a projectionist), the rivalry between Buster and "the local sheik" for the girl, and the barriers which he faces in resolving these problems. What might have been treated as a random series of gags in one of the shorts -- Buster's discovery of a dollar bill in a rubbish heap and its subsequent reclaiming by a beautiful if obviously deceitful woman, a sobbing older woman, and a street tough -- is here given a tight narrative explanation. Buster needs three dollars to buy his girl a box of candy but only has two; with the extra dollar, he can make a good impression, but forced to fork over his own money to one of the claimants, he must settle for the one dollar box. A minor deception, trying to pass the one dollar box off for a more expensive selection, leaves him open to being framed by his rival and sets the whole story into motion.

In the next sequence, comic moments (his clumsy attempts at courtship) are consistently cross-cut with more narratively-significant ones (the Sheik's theft of the watch, his exchange at the pawnshop, his purchase of the coveted expensive candy at the confection store, and his planting of the pawn ticket in Buster's pocket). Cross-cutting, a mechanism of continuity, causality, and consequence, epitomizes classical narration, both pushing the event chain towards its inevitable resolution and re-inscribing the links between otherwise isolated actions. Buster's courtship represents the culmination of one plot movement (the concerns about Buster's $1 candy box being sufficiently impressive to woo the woman) but also introduces a new problem (the theft of the watch) which threatens to further delay the romance's anticipated resolution. Buster's attempt to play detective results instead in his being identified as the thief and forbidden by the girl's father to court her again. His desire to clear his name motivates an extended slapstick sequence as he pursues the Sheik, resulting only in soaking himself. The girl, however, suspects something is fishy, goes to the pawnshop, and identifies the man who hocked the watch, thus holding open the prospect of a speedy reconciliation.

The introduction of the film within a film structure forestalls such a simple and direct path towards closure, introducing a second plot which closely parallels the first. Again, a jewel is stolen, a woman threatened, and a detective called to solve the mystery. The use of a parallel plot allows Keaton to abbreviate the narrative exposition, but he is still careful to show us each step in the plot. Hearts and Pearls arguably has five movements: the theft of the jewels, Sherlock Junior's investigation of the scene of the crime (where he narrowly avoids a series of attempts on his life), the recovery of the pearls and the uncovering of the villain's plans, the rescue of the girl, and their escape and romantic coupling. Each movement provides opportunities for Keaton to perform a number of spectacular stunts, often involving the transformation of his identity or a narrow escape from death. Rather than stopping the show, Keaton's ability to change his identity serves utilitarian purposes, allowing him to foil the villains and complete his narrative goals.

The most extensive performance sequence involves his crosscountry ride on the handle-bars of a runaway motorcycle during which he weaves in and out of cars, passes by a row of workers hurling dirt, rips through a tug-a-war and knocks aside picnic tables, and barely misses an oncoming train. If, as Don Crafton suggests, slapstick gags represent the "potholes" that slow and sometimes derail the forward momentum of comic chases, the chase here is occurring at such a break-neck speed that it scarcely slows for the gags. It simply rolls over them and keeps on moving. Buster's cycle is approaching a tree laying across the road, but workmen blow it away with dynamite just before he hits it. Narrative logic is pushed to absurd lengths here as nothing seems to retard the protagonist's relentless and single-minded pursuit of his goals, and less we miss the point, the film crosscuts to the villains accosting the girl, insuring that each and every gag is read in terms of its narrative consequences.

Perhaps its most overt parody of the very idea of continuity comes when Sherlock, racing away from the villains in the final moments of the film, pulls out the exploding billiard ball, introduced, pocketed and then forgotten in a much earlier scene, and blows them away. Classical to a fault, every detail counts, nothing can be excess, and so the exploding billiard ball will finally be rendered functional in terms of the plot. At the same time, however, the extreme delay between its introduction and its plot consequences renders the whole concept of narrative economy an absurd joke, resolving an enigma that the audience has long since forgotten.

This chase sequence can be interpreted as a parody of the silent serials where chance plays a large role in the protagonists' escapes from their cliff-hanging plight at the end of each chapter. Here, as in the serials, the protagonist cheats the viewers almost as much as he cheats death, and in this context, the non-realistic elements seem highly conventional rather than breaking the cinematic illusion. Sherlock's larger-than-life exploits are so exaggerated that it becomes hard to take them seriously and so we laugh at their improbability and excess. Yet, I would argue, our laughter does little to diminish our intense fascination with Sherlock's pursuit of the villain or our sense of triumph when he rescues the girl. The sequence draws its emotional force from the very plot conventions it parodies, just as the film as a whole both operates within and calls attention to the norms of classical narrative.

As with many comedian comedies, the film's narrative trajectory is a conservative one, bringing its protagonist into greater conformity with social expectations. Buster learns his proper place within the social order by imagining himself cast as a film protagonist and mapping his real world problems onto the screen story. In his real-life, Buster's attempts to become a hero are clumsy and ineffectual; he ends up being rescued from false accusations not by his own decisive actions or brilliant deductions but by his fiance's feminine intuition. As Sherlock Junior, on the other hand, he takes charge of the situation from the outset and maintain control no matter what obstacles he encounters. The detective book, however useless in the real world, seems to have prepared him for the challenges he faces within the imaginary space of the cinema, while the cinema's instructions, in the end, may be what he needs to move from romantic ineptitude towards marital bliss. Performance, thus, allows Keaton to try out heroic and romantic roles and to master them. Just as Sherlock Jr. brings Keaton's fascination with performance in line with classical norms of story construction, the film also brings Buster's eccentric performance into conformity with the performance of socially-expected roles.

However, as with many comedian comedies, this assimilation into social norms may be temporary and unstable, called into question by the final ambiguous gag where Keaton either refuses or doesn't know how to fulfill the expectations of heterosexual marriage. The comedian comedy never fully embraced the closure characteristic of the classical cinema, allowing a degree of openness or ambiguity normally absent from the Hollywood film. On the other hand, since the move to assimilate the protagonist into the social mainstream gives this genre its core plot structure, some nod towards social acceptance is conventionally present, even if the final gag almost inevitably pulls the rug out from under narrative expectations. If Sherlock Junior is a film about film, what it teaches us is the strategies by which slapstick comics sought to be assimilated into the mainstream of the classical cinema, strategies which subordinate comic spectacle into narrative exposition, even as the film wants to exploit our fascination with the extraordinary technique of its star performer. By the early sound period, the relations between performance and narrative would shift once again, but by this point, Keaton seemed unable to make this transition to a looser, more flamboyant style of performance.

Speak Easily (1932)
The opening night performance is a shambles. Chaos reigns onstage and off. Each time the Professor (Buster Keaton) tries to put things right, he makes things worse, knocking dancers from their feet, getting roped and spun around by his feet from a moving cyclorama, tripping into the orchestra pit and being shoved back onto stage again. With each catastrophe, he offers a mild-mannered apology to the audience for "a slight departure from the routine of this section of the entertainment." But, the far-from-disgruntled audience laughs, applauds, celebrates each disruption, and the show is a triumph. A Broadway veteran, having seen the show in rehearsal and judged it a failure, berates the director, "Why didn't you tell me that the professor was a comedian?"

The showman's confusion is understandable. Little in the film up until that concluding sequence would have given anyone much cause to believe that Buster Keaton was a comedian. Few critics have written about Keaton's sound comedies at all and those who have pass over them quickly amid the tragedy and pathos of Keaton's off-screen problems, his financial difficulties, his alcoholism, his declining control over his own career. If we look closely here, we can see scenes that were obviously flubbed because a drunk Keaton was unable to deliver his lines, moments where he can't hold his head steady, his voice waivers, and his eyes refuse to focus. Lines are muffed, gags fall flat, pratfalls are clumsily presented, and perhaps most tellingly, one of the film's primary set-pieces is strung across a number of quick cuts, suggesting that it was pasted together in the editing room. This marks quite a fall from Keaton's famous long-take, distant camera approach which sought to preserve and display the integrity of his most spectacular performances. But, in Speak Easily's final moments, Keaton returns yet again to the motif of the interrupted performance with spectacular results. As the Professor loses control, Keaton gains his old footing.

Far from a throwaway line, the opposition between the professor and the comedian is basic to the film. In the early sound period, MGM sought to revive Keaton's sagging screen career by casting him against Jimmy Durante, then the studio's most promising comic performer. Durante's style was loud and vulgar; his delivery was quick and excessive, providing a sharp contrast to the restraint most often associated with Keaton, whose carefully modulated voice ideally suited his "stone-face" image. At times, Keaton plays straight-man for the hyperbolic comedian, yet at its best moments, the film depends upon the stark contrast between two distinctive comic styles. Early sound comedy had embraced such eclecticism, striving for a blending of different comic styles, of alternative forms of entertainment, in hopes of creating something that might appeal to both urban sophisticates and smalltown audiences. Taking its lesson from vaudeville itself, the early sound period wanted to package heterogenous material for a heterogeneous audience, while somehow, shoehorning the mix into conformity with classical norms of storytelling and characterization.

As Professor Post, Keaton plays a man fundamentally out of touch with the world around him. In the opening scenes, his valet tells the professor that he approaches the same fate that befell his predecessor, a man who committed suicide because he had "lived alone with his nerves" for so many years. The valet urges the professor to "go out and find life" but the professor wants to save his money for a rainy day. "It rained the day they buried him," the valet warns, before producing a letter (later revealed to be a forgery) informing Post that he has inherited a small fortune. The "mythological inheritance" liberates Post. Where, moments before, his movements were lethargic, the professor now bursts into action, frantically packing his bags, bouncing through the doors and windows, at last ready to confront the world: "I'm going some place. I just don't know where yet."

Durante, on the other hand, plays Jimmy, a down-and-out comedian traveling with the flea-bitten Midnight Maids Company Theater, constantly only one step ahead bill collectors and town's sheriffs. When Durante makes his first appearance, Jimmy's performance skills are being called into question, "You haven't got a gag that would get a giggle." When Jimmy first encounters the professor, it is in a painful attempt to prove to his critic that he can get laughs, but the literal-minded academic keeps missing the point and foiling the punchlines, offering new twists on otherwise stale jokes. "It was too subtle," Jimmy protests, "It went over his head like a trapeze." Twice in the film, Durante is shown performing before totally indifferent audiences, his desperate attempts to entertain falling short of the mark.

Much of the film's comedy centers around the unsuccessful attempts of the two men to bridge the great cultural gulf between learned professor and lowbrow comedian. Jimmy speaks only in slang, while the professor's speech is pretentious, convoluted, and arcane. At some points, communication breaks down completely as Jimmy spews forth a string of equally vernacular synonyms until Post begs, "Can someone tell me what he's trying to say?" It is the professor's stodgy attempt to correct the slang term, "speak easy" with the more grammatically precise, "speak easily" which gives the film (and the play within the film) its title. Keaton's character has "learned everything except how to live." Durante's character, on the other hand, needs to have someone "tone you down and polish you up."

In the end, Speak Easily does not so much revitalize Keaton or refine Durante as it finds a blending of the vulgar and the arcane the perfect material to satisfy a jaded Broadway audience. Considering the need for comedy, the professor proposes that they might "take a lesson from the Greeks," borrowing material from Aristophanes. Citing a succession of fads in show business for exotic material (such as Hawaiian hula dancers), Durante suggests that Greek material might have calculated ethnic appeal: "There's a million Greeks in New York! I'll take somethin' from 'em." When the Professor instructs the chorus girls on how to do "authentic" Greek dancing, it comes out looking more like the Shimmy, though he suggests to the shapely Thelma Todd that "it would be more effective if you performed it in the nude." For once, the professor's ideas are too lively for Jimmy, who as a seasoned vulgarian knows how far to push over the line: "They might get away with that in Athens. That's a college town."

Itself something of a patchwork of borrowed material, Speak Easily takes much of its plot structure from the backstage musical. Gags and one-liners compete for screentime alongside the struggle to put on the show, the constant threat of failure and the romantic rivalry between the seductive (and scheming) Eleanor Espiere and the decent and good-natured Pansy Peets. Here, as in Sherlock Jr., classical norms hold sway, motivating the comic action, while, in this case, robbing it of much of its punch. Exposition often surfaces in plodding and mechanical ways in early sound comedies, as if it has had to be severely compressed in order to make way for the spectacular performance sequences. The more attention the film plays to this often formulaic plot development, the more pedestrian it starts to seem, with the absence of solid character development allowing little or no interest to develop around the twists and turns of the story.

However, in the film's closing moments, performance set-pieces displace the forward progression of the plot, at last offering a space where Keaton can engage in broad slapstick. Eleanor (Thelma Todd) lures the Professor back to her apartment, planning to seduce him and force him to marry her, serving him a Tom Collins to set the mood. The tea-totaling professor quickly develops a taste for the drink, which, avoiding as always the vernacular, he calls "Thomas Collins," and so he mixes them even stronger, resulting in a slippery mess. Keaton and Todd fall all over each other, their limbs twist and tangle, their bodies flip, flop, and fold. Ironically, given Keaton's off-screen alcoholism, drinking "Thomas Collins" seems to emancipate the professor from his constraint and free Keaton to do his performance tricks. Eleanor directs the action, having already scripted the evening so as to trap the "wealthy" professor into marriage and arranged for a male actor to play the part of her outraged brother. Yet, her attempts to stage-manage the affair fail, since the professor doesn't understand his role, doesn't deliver his lines, and eventually turns the show into a crazed farce. Durante arrives just in time, trading places with the confused professor. When the outraged "brother" delivers his melodramatic denunciation of Todd's moral downfall, Durante steps onto the stage proclaiming himself her suitor and vowing marriage. As a result, the entire scene goes no where -- at least as far as plot consequences are concerned. But the comic spectacle of Keaton and Todd groping each other offered its own rewards for pre-code audiences.

At the opening night performance of "Speak Easily," narrative order is further fractured to make way from broad slapstick spectacle. Post has played the part of a rich Broadway producer without realizing that his inheritance was a fraud and he has no money to pay his bills. Jimmy seeks to keep the professor away from the bill-collectors long enough that the show can open and perhaps recoup its costs. The professor, for his part, wants to insure a smooth performance, but his unfamiliarity with stage routine and his own absent-mindedness create disorder every time he seeks to restore order.

If, in Sherlock Jr., Keaton twice gets expelled when he tries to pass through the screen into cinematic reality, nobody can stop Post from wandering past the curtain and into the show, even when they tie him to the flies. No clear-cut barrier separates on-stage from backstage. Keaton may bound around all over the stage, even swooping down on the show from the rafters, but the world of the stage remains separate from the space of the spectators, preserving the fourth wall that was so consistently violated in The Playhouse.

The film in Sherlock Jr. is relentlessly plot-driven, suggesting the narrative commitments of the classical Hollywood cinema, but the Broadway revue in Speak Easily is resolutely non-narrative, a string of musical numbers offering up constant spectacle and novelty but little plot. Keaton's disruptions only intensify the fragmentation and eclecticism of the variety show. Keaton's accidental comedy draws loud laughter from the theater audience ("they think the professor is part of the show.") When Jimmy tries to do his rehearsed performance, he doesn't get a single laugh, but when Post's erratic and confused behavior encourages him to improvise on stage, Jimmy also becomes a comic hit. His vaudeville skills allow him to react quickly and capitalize upon each catastrophe. When a humiliated Eleanor storms off stage following her disrupted number, Jimmy puts on drag and shamelessly mugs on stage, while Post romps around him. Here, Keaton and Durante offer audiences two kinds of performances and two kinds of comedy. Keaton's comedy centers around an inability to conform to social expectation, a comedy of accidents and ineptitude, while Durante's comedy is more aggressively anarchic, marking a conscious break with social expectation and a pleasure in its own rambunctiousness.

This elaborate set piece provides the kind of "wow climax" anticipated by the vaudeville aesthetic and the anarchistic comedy typical of the early sound period. The film moves Keaton from a stifling order (where his inability to act in the world leads towards loneliness and death) towards the moment of peak chaos and confusion (where his actions enliven an otherwise predictable performance). Yet, to read Speak Easily as simply another anarchistic comedy is to misread the paradoxical status of this performance, since its point is precisely to use disorder to clear the way for a new order, somehow turning a disastrous failure into the basis for a stage (and screen) success. Jimmy finds the audience approval he so desperately seeks. The producer who once scorned the show leaves it impressed. The bill-collector walks off with the new backer who is promising to put his real fortunes behind the show. The professor at last acts upon his love for Pansy and at the same moment, learns to use slang, telling Eleanor "nuts to you." Despite some anarchistic tendencies, Speak Easily still embraces the comedian comedy model, still wants to operate as fully as possible within the demands of the classical cinema, still provides a strong sense of closure. At the same time, the film's narrative, no less than the stage show, gets derailed by excessive performance sequences. In so far as the comedy works here, it works in opposition to rather than in the context of plot logic. Ultimately, however, performances sequences are pulled back into narrative logic and become instrumental for plot resolution.

Writing in The New York Times, modern-day comic Bill Irwin, whose Broadway shows have been read as a return to the Ziegfeld and vaudeville traditions, spoke of his admiration for Keaton's silent comedy: "What's the blend that makes Buster Keaton's physical comedy so wild and so visceral but at the same time so finished, so sure?" Keaton, Irwin argues, was both a gifted acrobat, whose remarkable performance sequences provoke awe from modern day performers ("Take care in viewing this part with dancers: They often want to rewind and watch it again and again"), and a gifted actor, who knows "how to harness the story-telling potential of acrobatic movements." For Irwin, the comic highpoint of Keaton's career was his monkey impersonation in The Playhouse, a set piece which perfectly illustrated his performance skills, yet the contemporary clown also admires Sherlock Junior as a film which more perfectly subordinated gags to larger narrative contexts: "These gags and stunts and bits are, with Keaton, almost always memorable episodes in tightly told story....That's what he and Chaplin were best at: stories that don't feel episodic even when they're woven from little comic turns." Irwin assesses Keaton as a fellow craftsman, someone who appreciates both the vaudeville stage traditions and the classical Hollywood traditions that shaped his work. His account of Sherlock Junior sees it as a perfect balance between the two.

For many other critics, like the hypothetical Prof. Youngman, Sherlock Junior's bid for canonization hinges upon its reflexive qualities, properties which set it apart from dominant Hollywood practice. Unlike the other Keaton features, it does not simply tell a classically constructed story but rather it offers a meditation on how classical stories are told. Sherlock Junior's film-within-a-film structure invites audience awareness of cinema as an set of institutions and practices, as a technology of showmanship and storytelling. Yet, we need to be cautious in ascribing to the film a modernist sensibility. To do so is to isolate these moments from their broader historical context(s), to reduce Sherlock Junior to a series of set-pieces without considering how these seemingly transgressive moments operate within the film as a whole, how they fit into Keaton's career, or how they relate to the complex interplay between vaudeville and classical traditions. We need to recognize the classical impulses which Irwin praised in his discussion of the film.

Far from transgressive, the self-conscious display of performance was a conventional aspect of American slapstick, a hold-over from the vaudeville stage where showmanship took precedence over storytelling and performers invited audience awareness of their performance skills. As we move from the canonical works of Chaplin and Keaton to the forgotten comedies of minor clowns such as Lupino Lane or Raymond Griffith, the display of performance as performance becomes more pervasive. What separated the classic silent comedies from the bulk of slapstick films was not their reflexiveness but their conformity to classical norms, their ability to couple spectacular performance with melodramatic storylines so that each gag had plot consequences and was motivated in terms of the characters, their goals, and their conflicts. In doing so, they traded the advantages of one aesthetic tradition for those of another, a shift which need not be understood simply in terms of a progressive mastery over the techniques of cinematic storytelling, as Prof. Oldman would now doubt have it, nor of a selling out of counter-cinematic impulses, as Prof. Youngman might protest. The embrace of classical conventions does not come without a loss in spontaneity and virtuosity, in the freedom of the performer to display the full range of his talents and in the unpredictability of a style of comedy which could take off in any direction. What it gained, perhaps, was a sense of narrative consequence, emotional resonance and social import. Rather than choosing sides, valuing narrative over spectacle or spectacle over narrative, we might opt out of the debate, recognizing the relative strengths of The Playhouse and Sherlock Junior as embodying differing aesthetic sensibilities, each with their own appeals, each with their own merits. Placing the films into a historical framework does not mean we have to buy into models of progress or of decline; we simply recognize the nature of the changes that are occurring. The reflexivity of Sherlock Junior was not so much a radical departure as the last gasp of a style of comedy disappearing from the screen, not to resurface again until the coming of sound triggered a new phase of formal experimentation. What replaced it was a more narrative-and-character-centered style of comedy, one which gained greater critical acceptance, if not always audience popularity, as it sought a closer relationship to dominant Hollywood practice.

The motif of the interrupted act surfaces yet again in the final moments of Chaplin's Limelight (1952). Here, Chaplin and Keaton appeared together on screen for the first time, playing two former music hall stars brought out of retirement for a charity benefit. By this point, Keaton is a fading star, brought back through Chaplin's charity, while Chaplin is himself acutely aware that his own heyday is past. As with much of this film, their performance together is ripe with nostalgia. Even Keaton grumbles about the constant references to "old times." Their act involves a musical recital that goes progressively awry, material clearly closer to Keaton's ouevre than Chaplin's. Chaplin insists on hogging both the camera and the spotlight, giving himself the broad rubber-legged comedy while Keaton is reduced to fumbling with the sheet music and reacting to Chaplin's antics.
Yet, it is significant that, having chosen to include Keaton in the film, Chaplin saw this image of the disrupted performance as evoking his comic legacy. In Limelight, the narrative clearly demarks times and places where performance spectacle can occur, motivating it in terms of the plot, the story of the last days of a once great music hall performer. Chaplin allows the performance to be completed, smoothly, as it had been done so many times in the characters past, but as Chaplin is hurled from the stage into the orchestra pit (repeating, consciously or otherwise, Keaton's experiences in "The Three Keaton"), he injures himself. Sadly, Chaplin's character dies in the wings, bringing this tragic-comedy to its inevitable ending. If the assassination of the actress in Backstage was played for comic effect, Chaplin's death is pure pathos, a melodramatic tribute to the clown's professional commitment to see that the show goes on no matter what the cost, looking forward to a similar death scene at the climax of John Osborne's The Entertainer. Anything but a disruption of the film's plot, the performance provides the necessary context for its resolution, the plot simply having stalled long enough for us to mourn the passing not only of a performer but of a whole style of performance.

Far from unique to Sherlock Junior, the motif of the disrupted performance runs through Keaton's work, starting with his earliest stage appearances in "the Three Keatons," recurring in his shorts, silent features, early sound comedies and reprised with nostalgia relatively late in his career. Each time this image resurfaces, it suggests something slightly different. In "The Three Keatons," the disrupted performance centers around a particular conception of the Bad Boy as aggressive, unpredictable and spontaneous. Here, the disrupted performance created excitement by suggesting the unpredictability of live theater, its responsiveness to audience enthusiasms and unexpected turns of events. In Backstage, the disrupted act invites an awareness of the comic ensemble as an unstable blending of distinct personalities, showing both the potential collaboration and the potential competition between talent. In The Playhouse, the disruptive performances fit within a thematic of destabilized and transformed identities, allowing us to celebrate Keaton's ability to take on and discard an array of stock theatrical roles. Here, the non-narrative pleasures in performance virtuosity exist on a co-equal footing with our hunger for narrative coherence and resolution. The final disruption of the stage performance paves the way for closure as Buster and his lover escape from the playhouse into marriage. In Speak Easily, the disrupted performance breaks down the barriers between sophisticated and low-brow performance, between the professor and the clown, and between success and failure. The disrupted performance is at once an anarchic celebration of liberating disorder and the mechanism by which the film moves towards closure, resolving one by one the problems confronting the protagonists.

In many ways, Sherlock Junior is the most aesthetically conservative of all of these films, allowing the least space for transgressive performance, demanding the greatest conformity to plot logic and narrative progress. Here, the message seems to be that it is impossible to stop or transform a cinematic narrative once it is set into motion. In "The Three Keatons," Backstage, The Playhouse and Speak Easily, Keaton could stop the show or improvise in response to changing situations, while in Sherlock Junior, the film moves relentlessly, ceaselessly towards its prescribed destination and Keaton, unable to steer his own course, can only grab hold for the ride.