Friday, April 10, 2009

Silents Please

The Voice of Buster Keaton

Originally Published in the Damfinos Newsletter

Talkies created the greatest revolution in film history, and sound’s effect on film comedy was no less revolutionary. Sight gags became less important. Hollywood grew, in film critic Richard Schickel’s phrase “drunk with words.” The stars were no longer pantomimists, but rather fast talkers like Groucho Marx and Bob Hope. W.C. Fields, who’d had a middling silent career, finally achieved prominence on screen now that his inimitable voice could be heard.

Buster Keaton is generally categorized as one of the talkie casualties. However, Keaton’s problem did not stem from having a “bad” voice (as did Vilma Banky and Emil Jannings, neither of whom could speak English), but from having a voice that did not match his unique screen image.

Look at the other great silent comedians:

Raymond Griffith was the only silent comedian whose career was destroyed by the talkies. He had been injured as a young man and could not speak above a whisper. He gave up acting and became a producer at Fox.

Harry Langdon’s rapid and unfortunate decline began before talkies and was due to his ego, not his voice.

Although many will argue speech made Chaplin’s Tramp less universal, his genteel, somewhat bourgeois English accent suited the character well. It suggested a fallen Lord, a noble gentleman who’d been caught in a scandal back in England and had come to America to escape the consequences. Chaplin’s manner was never that of a real tramp.

Harold Lloyd spoke unassumingly with a soft Midwester twang, which jibed well with his image as an all-American Boy with all-American values.

Laurel and Hardy were the only major silent comedians (W. C. Fields was never a major star in silents) to become more popular in talkies. Their voices suited them, especially Hardy’s. Ollie was a Southern pseudo-aristocrat, all manners and no brains, always doing the wrong thing for all the right reasons. Laurel’s voice was less important because he spoke less, but sound added a certain pathos to his crying scenes that made them all the more effective.

Buster Keaton’s voice was a bass marked by a nasal twang, revealing his Midwestern origin. It makes one think of a Nebraska corn farmer. The voice just didn’t go with the playboy millionaire, a steamboat captain, or a Confederate locomotive engineer. Had Keaton arrived in Hollywood in 1930 he’d have been shunted off immediately into character roles. Fortunately for us, he arrived at a time at which the technology was suited to his unique talents.

The perfect voice for Buster’s character would be a cultured, Ashley Wilkes sort of Southern drawl. Despite Buster’s prodigious skill with gadgets, he always seemed at odds with the modern world (unlike Lloyd, who suits it well). The ideal Buster voice would have enhanced this facet of Keaton’s persona – gentlemanly, more concerned with honor than pragmatism, obsessed with values rendered archaic by the 20th century. Thanks to the magic of silent films it is left to our own imaginations to supply the voice of Buster Keaton.

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