Magazine article The New Yorker

In on the Act

Magazine article The New Yorker

In on the Act

Article excerpt

Movies may have killed vaudeville, but they also preserved the acts of some of its greatest performers and launched them in new directions. The music-hall setting of "The Play House"--one of the gems in Kino's three-disk set "Buster Keaton: The Short Films Collection, 1920-1923"--reflects the roots of Keaton's acrobatic artistry, and although many of the breathtaking stunts he performs were taken from his stage shows, these early films reveal that his genius was distinctively cinematic.

In "The Play House," Keaton makes use of elaborate camera tricks to play a panoply of roles onstage, in the orchestra pit, and in the audience--yet he also has himself performing creaky minstrel-show routines, as if proving that modernity belonged not to vaudeville but to the cinema. Keaton took his camera into the Los Angeles streets, where he endangered himself on life's vast stage. In seeming defiance of the laws of physics, he leaped on and off fast-moving cars and motorcycles, dallied with speeding trains, capered on hot-air balloons, braved waterfalls, and let a house collapse on him. Yet even his astonishingly delicate feats of daring sometimes took a back seat to the fascinating city views he incidentally captured. …

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