Legacies of Buster Keaton: Jackie Chan and Malcolm (1986)

Keaton wrestles and overcomes massive objects in his films. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster

Kevin Brianton,

Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia

In almost every Buster Keaton film, there is a scene where the audience gasps at the actor’s astonishing athleticism. It can be when Keaton wrestles with huge pieces of wood on his steam engine, The General or when a building collapses on him.In an era, well before CGI, Keaton does make that leap or have a house fall on him. Keaton’s career peaked in the 1920s but then declined with the introduction of sound. Interest in the comic actor rose from the 1940s but then declined from about 2000.[1] While Keaton’s career descended from the 1920s great matinée idol to cameos on Sunset Boulevard in the 1950shis legacy has lived on. His films are now considered some of the greatest in the period, and many would argue that they are the greatest of all.

The legacy of Keaton’s great directorial skills can be seen in two unrelated from different countries producing two vastly diverse films. Malcolm (1986) was an Australian comedy, written by the husband-and-wife team of David Parker and Nadia Tass, who directed the film. The film stars Colin Friels as Malcolm, a tram enthusiast who becomes involved with a pair of would-be bank robbers. The film has a lot of nods to silent cinema. But if there is one clear predecessor to Malcolm’s character, it is Buster Keaton in The General (1926). In this film, Keaton plays a Southern railway engineer, just before the civil war breaks out, who loves his locomotive called The General and a young woman. It is easy to speculate that the train probably comes first. Keaton’s character is devoted to the railway engine, just as Malcolm surrounds himself with trams and is devoted to their upkeep.

Colin Friels plays a character who is obsessed with trams and other vehicles in Malcolm (1986).
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Like Keaton, who directed The General, Tass does use the overacted double-take employed by many other silent comedians. Keaton played it with his “stone face,” while Colin Friels employs a boyish smile in response to whatever is happening.[2] It is a similar space to Keaton, who shows little or no emotion. While he is ostracised by the Confederate Army, Keaton employs all sorts of inventiveness to defeat the Union forces who stole his train. Like Keaton, Malcolm is an outsider who triumphs. While the Keaton character loved trains, Malcolm is entranced with Melbourne’s trams. Through his ingenuity, he triumphs.

Consciously or unconsciously, the film also echoed some other characters of silent cinema. Despite their modern uniforms, the police are almost direct descendants of the Keystone Cops. This group of highly incompetent officers made shorts for Mark Sennett. Their only purpose was to chase the central characters, with their batons waving in their air, only to lose the chase, with various pratfalls and explosions. The police depicted in Malcolm hark back to the silent period of cinema.

Like Keaton, Chan does not use a stuntman and he makes sure that audiences know it.
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Like Tass, the police officers in Chan’s films are nothing more than Keystone cops, who wave around guns, and are just useless. The martial arts actor Jackie Chan comes from a different cinematic tradition than Tass. He has been in many films, but one film clearly shows his relationship to Keaton. Rumble in the Bronx (1995) was directed by Stanley Tong, with the stunts developed by Chan and Tong. Released in Hong Kong in 1995, Rumble in the Bronx had a successful worldwide run, and the film announced Jackie Chan’s arrival to United States audiences. As a result of this film and many others, Chan is now one of the most successful actors on the world stage.

Like Keaton, Chan does his own stunts, including a leap from one building to another. It is the type of stunt that Keaton did routinely. Chan did it without wires, and it is astonishing viewing. THe film has a strong link back to The General, with a climax involving a preposterous use of a hovercraft. Chan does a series of stunts around the hovercraft that are more than a nod to Keaton’s theatrics with a railway engine. Chan injured his foot so badly in this film; he required a moon boot for the rest of the film. Chan continued to work, even engaging in water-skiing without skis. Keaton’s similarities to Chan are obvious: he once broke his neck in a film and continued working. Chan is worthy successor to Buster Keaton.

This is a common observation. Many critics have often equated Jackie Chan to Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd, who was Keaton’s central rival in the action-comedy – of course, Charlie Chaplin overshadowed both. Jackie Chan has even stated: “I wanted to be like a Chaplin or Buster Keaton, but all the martial arts directors I worked with wanted me to copy Bruce Lee,” he said. “So after I got famous, I started to change a lot of things. When I was filming ‘Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow’ in the late 1970s, I sat down with the director and watched a Bruce Lee film. I decided, when Bruce Lee kicked high, I’d kick low. When Bruce Lee yowled, I’d punch doing a funny face like it hurt. Whatever Bruce Lee did, I’d do the opposite.”[3] Like Tass, the police officers are nothing more than Keystone cops, who wave around guns, and are just useless.

The conscious or unconscious tributes in Malcolm and Jackie Chan show that one of the cinema’s original masters still influences a new generation of directors. When we see Tom Cruise jump out of a building or any other action-adventure figures, we are looking at one of the descendants of Keaton and Lloyd, who opened the door for a whole branch of cinema.

A pebble dropped in a pond will create waves that ripple out forever. Keaton’s influence is still very much with us.


[1] Figures based on https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=buster+keaton&year_start=1800&year_end=2019&corpus=26&smoothing=3&case_insensitive=true

[2] The film was dedicated to John Tassopoulos, Nadia Tass’s younger brother who died after being struck by a car. When interviewed by from The New York Times, Nadia Tass said the central character reflected her brother a great deal. “Basically, he was very similar to Malcolm, who was withdrawn, and socially inept. He had a very difficult time being accepted in society because of his inability to communicate verbally. However, he was a very clever person.” Lawrence Van Gelder,  “At The Movies,” New York Times, 18 July 1986.

[3] Strauss, Neil. “Faster than a Speeding Bullet, but also Humanly Fallible: [Biography].” New York Times, Jan 30, 1995, Late Edition (East Coast). http://ez.library.latrobe.edu.au/login?url=https://www-proquest-com.ez.library.latrobe.edu.au/docview/429993898?accountid=12001.

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