He was known in Hollywood as The Great Stone Face — one of the silent film era’s most brilliant physical comedians who, despite the often hilarious mayhem unfolding around him, never cracked a smile on camera. But Buster Keaton, whose films “Go West” and “One Week” will be shown at the Paramount Theatre on Nov. 21 to kick off a new season of Silent Movie Mondays, was far from stoic.

“His face seems unstony, so expressive even in stillness,” said film critic Dana Stevens, author of the book “Camera Man: Buster Keaton, the Dawn of Cinema, and the Invention of the Twentieth Century,” in a telephone interview from her New York home. Stevens will be in Seattle to introduce the two films at the Paramount on the 21st. Keaton, she said, “makes comedy with his body — everything from the neck down is doing extraordinary things in a Keaton film, and everything from the neck up is engaged in its own kind of artistry … He was just an incredible pantomimist, and his face was part of that ability to communicate so much of human experience with his body.”

That unique combination came very early, as Stevens documents in her book. Keaton, born Joseph Frank Keaton Jr. in 1895, quickly became part of his parents’ vaudeville act The Three Keatons, much of which involved Joe Sr. flinging his son around the stage (often via a suitcase handle sewn to the back of the boy’s jacket) like, in Stevens’ words, “a human rubber ball.” Such a performance today would be shut down instantly, but child-welfare standards then were very different — and the act was immensely popular. Young Buster, billed as “the boy who couldn’t be damaged,” learned fearlessness from a very young age, and likewise figured out his stage persona as a child.

“In the course of doing the act with his father, they were always trying out different things on stage, and it was the somber Buster who always got the laughs,” said Stevens. “That was who he was, a funny person, someone who didn’t laugh at his own jokes, and didn’t overact.” Later, when Keaton became a filmmaker, that was very much part of his style. “If he thought an extra was overacting, he would try to change it,” Stevens said. “He wanted everyone to act naturally.”

If you watch a Keaton movie now, you’ll be astonished at the level of his daredevilry — flinging himself from rooftops, leaping on and off speeding cars and trains and paddleboat wheels, diving through windows, rolling down hillsides. But one of his most famous (and most dangerous) stunts is entirely still. You see it in “One Week,” later reprised in “Steamboat Bill, Jr.”: the entire front wall of a house collapses on Keaton, who’s standing precisely in the spot of a narrow window opening. A few inches off either way and that’s a set falling on an unprotected head, but Keaton doesn’t flinch. It’s a remarkable shot, one which — like many of Keaton’s famous stunts — was frequently copied by later generations of filmmakers.

Made in 1920, when Keaton had just begun writing and directing his own two-reel silent comedy films, “One Week” is one of Stevens’ favorites; she’s shown it to audiences around the country “and it always literally and figuratively brings down the house.” It’s the tale of a newlywed couple trying to assemble their new home from a kit and experiencing a cavalcade of complications. Stevens notes that it’s “hilariously funny, but I also think it’s wildly romantic for a Buster Keaton movie. It’s one of the few that he made in which you can see the roots of the rom-com.”

Advertising

A few years later, Keaton had moved on to feature-length films; “Go West” was made in 1925. Silent Movie Mondays curator Vicky Lee had selected it, and Stevens readily agreed. “It’s a fun one to show,” she said. “That movie as a Western is kind of a parody of love stories, where the desire of his heart is this cow that he doesn’t want to have slaughtered. It’s a very sweet love story between a boy and his cow.” Keaton, she said, had a special fondness for animals; she’ll be speaking about that in a talk after the film.

Lee, in a telephone interview, said that “Go West” has been shown at Silent Movie Mondays before and is an audience favorite: “People of all ages can love this film.” Both films will be shown with live accompaniment on the theater’s vintage Mighty Wurlitzer organ, by organist Tedde Gibson.

It’s a treat to see Keaton on the big screen; to get an up-close look at impossible moments that he makes look easy. (And yes, it’s him: In his entire silent film career, Stevens confirmed, he used a stunt double exactly once, in order to film a pole-vaulting sequence.) In “One Week,” there’s a throwaway bit where he’s on a tall ladder leaning against the house. Called by his wife (Sybil Seely), he casually leans away from the house, making the ladder perpendicular, transfers to the other side of a ladder now supported by nothing, leans it against the house again and scampers down, like the rules of balance and gravity don’t apply.

It was that sense of uncanny flight, of a lawless relationship with the body’s limits, that initially thrilled Stevens, who said she fell hard for Keaton 25 years ago. “You just ask, how is this possible? How is this person possible?” she said. Keaton himself, and the era he represented, are long gone, but on big screens and small, he’s still there thrilling us. The man who famously never smiled on camera left behind countless moments of joy.

‘Go West’ and ‘One Week’

Silent Movie Mondays, 7 p.m. Nov. 21, Paramount Theatre, 911 Pine St., Seattle. $12 general, $9 students/seniors; season 4-movie pass $35; 206-682-1414, stgpresents.org. Tedde Gibson will provide live organ accompaniment on the theater’s Mighty Wurlitzer; film critic Dana Stevens will introduce the film and sign copies of her book “Camera Man: Buster Keaton, the Dawn of Cinema, and the Invention of the Twentieth Century.”