Bilton 2006

Bilton, A. 2006. Buster Keaton and the South: The first things and the last. Journal of American Studies 40: 487 -502.

The South occurs prominently in Keaton’s work. The General (1926), perhaps Keaton’s greatest work, is about the Civil War from a Southern perspective; earlier, Our Hospitality (1923) was set in the South as was, slightly later, Steamboat Bill Jnr. (1928). Bilton wonders why. As he puts it:

“After all, Keaton was born in Kansas in 1895 (the same year as film itself ), and spent most of his extraordinary childhood as part of a travelling medicine show
plying its trade between the Midwest and New York, only (and then relatively briefly) touring the South in 1907, when Keaton was already twelve. Why, then, should the region be so central to so many of Keaton’s films? (p. 488).”

Moreover, the tour of the South in 1907 was at a time when the family’s fortunes were at the lowest. Because the show had become controversial (the “slapstick walked a fine line between physical comedy and child abuse [p. 488]”), by 1907 few theaters were still willing to book them and money was short. It seems virtually impossible that Keaton would have remembered this period with fondness.

Bilton thus asks an interesting question his answer seems at best incomplete. According to him the explanation lies in

“idea of the South as a fallen Eden, a rural past now lost forever, drew upon an inexhaustible reserve of homesickness and nostalgia crucial to the period. . . . . Early films may have idealized the rural past, but by reproducing it as a spectral, inaccessible landscape they simultaneously acknowledged its passing–for urban, immigrant audiences at least. For later generations this model would be taken up by the Western, and the specifically American theme of the closing of the frontier. But for early immigrant audiences the South carried greater resonance, conflating the paternal and the pastoral, images of authority and images of freedom (pp. 491 -492).”

Unfortunately, Bilton provides no evidence that immigrant audiences had this reaction; nor does it seem plausible.

Bilton also notes that there was the dominating example of D. W. Griffith (whose Intolerance [1916] was parodied by Keaton in Three Ages [1923]). Griffith drew on his father’s tall tales of the Civil War in hundreds of films and made a film that was  technically innovative but also one of the most offensive racist ones ever to smear the screen (Birth of a Nation, 1915). Keaton uses blackface for one of his characters (in Seven Chances, 1925), as did other white directors in those segregated times; the portrayal of First Nations in Paleface (1922) is jarring to modern sensibilities, and the First Nation characters are all played by white actors in brownface (though the film would be dubbed politically correct for its time); but we do not see Griffith’s brand of racism in Keaton’s work. Racial politics, particularly offensive racial politics, does not explain Keaton’s choice of the South for so many of his films.

In spite of Bilton’s efforts we are left with a puzzle. As noted earlier, Bilton suggestion that social resonance with the pastoral image of the South as a fallen Eden explains why Keaton and others of his generation would use the South as a setting is equally applicable to the other silent movie comedians of the time. But other comedians did not show a preference for the South in the same way–take the cases of Chaplin or Harold Lloyd, Keaton’s most accomplished contemporaries. Perhaps we need a deeper internal reading of how the South was represented in each of Keaton’s films–but that is a task for another day.

17 January 2020