From the Archive: Buster Keaton and the Lost Art of Silent Film

Here’s one of our favorites from the Studs Terkel Collection:

Hear Studs Terkel in conversation with silent film star and master of the “mechanical gag,” Buster Keaton, in 1960. Be warned, you’ll never be able to go back from the shock of hearing that the world famous silent actor actually has a quite distinctive Marlboro Man voice.

Terkel quotes film critic James Agee in this powerful description of Keaton:

Keaton’s face ranked almost with Lincoln’s as an early American archetype; it was haunting, handsome, almost beautiful, yet it was irreducibly funny; he improved matters by topping it off with a deadly horizontal hat, as flat and thin as a phonograph record. 


They go on to discuss the art of silent film, and how the values differed from modern sound cinema. In Keaton’s world, your subtitle count was the measure of your art. In the mute medium of silent film, the more you could communicate with sheer physicality, the more range you had as an actor.

Here Keaton and Terkel break down the concision of the silent film masters by the numbers, including a bet between Keaton and Charlie Chaplin:

Terkel: You had to communicate to the audience in only one way. Through action, through pantomime.

Keaton: That’s right. We eliminated subtitles just as fast as we could if we could possibly tell it in action.

Terkel: I remember you once told me something about ten years ago that you and Charlie Chaplin had a friendly contest, who could do the feature film with the least amount of subtitles.

Keaton: I think Chaplin won that. […] He got that one of his pictures down to something like 21 titles and I had 23.

Terkel: This is for an hour and a half film […]

Keaton: Another thing for you to call attention to is the average picture used 240 titles. That was about the average. […] And the most I have ever used was 56.

Listen to it on the Archive here.