Is Keaton an excellent actor who could also direct, or an excellent director who could also act? I think of him first as an actor, whose stoic visage is second only to Charlie Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” as an icon of the silent film era. But he’s revered among film cognoscenti as a director, not just one of the best of his age, but of all time.
Keaton had writers for his films, but conceived of most of the comedic bits himself. Working without a stuntman, he often took great physical risks. In one memorable scene in the movie Steamboat Bill Jr., Keaton had to stand in an exact spot. Then, the several-ton façade of a building fell on him, leaving Keaton uninjured because he stood where an open window landed. It was a huge risk with an incredibly small margin for error, but typical of the physical comedy he loved.
Keaton’s masterpiece was The General, a comedy/drama set during the Civil War. It didn’t perform that well at the box office, because people were still uncomfortable laughing at the Civil War – and because many of its good guys were Confederates. Even so, a 2002 poll by the British film magazine Sight & Sound named The General as the 15th best film of all time. And in an interview, no less of an expert than Orson Welles called the movie the best comedy of all time, and maybe the best film. Entertainment Weekly named Keaton the seventh-best director of all time, and the American Film Institute placed him as 21st on its list of the greatest male actors of all time.
Watch these clips. Brilliant.