The concept of love in Buster Keaton’s films
Martin Egge

Buster Keaton, one of the greatest comedians in film history, will be discussed from a psychoanalytical point of view[1]. I believe that the creations in his films are drawn from his personal fantasies, his particular world and the irony that makes us laugh derives from his own personal view of the world, a world with no firm anchorage.

Buster Keaton was not only the director but also the total creator of his films. He introduces us into a chaotic world, full of anguish and persecution, a world in which there is no law in the meaning of symbolic order, which he faces without apparent fear with his “stone face”. I am referring to the years 1920-1930, when Buster Keaton produced his greatest silent comic films. He states: “We followed the script writing of the films through to the end, we chose the sets, the locations, we directed the films, invented and fixed our gags, we attended the test screenings, supervised the editing and organized the preview showings.” Thus, he both observes and participates in his own films.

He has the characteristics of a clown, performing death-defying stunts, while maintaining a deadpan expression. This choice and his particular irony, with which he constructed his stories, were “symptoms” turned into art. I use the term sinthome as defined by Jacques Lacan as a substitution for a lacking symbolic law.

The only thing that Buster Keaton cannot deal with is women. He loves them, but at the same time he is afraid of them. In order to cope with this he finds various solutions: to love women in their absence, to escape or to avoid them, or to try to face them, in spite of being aware that there is nothing to be done to overcome the irremediable loneliness of life.

This paper will explore three concepts in particular: Love, Law and Laughs, which are treated in an extremely interesting manner by Buster Keaton in his films.



First of all, I’d like to explore the concept of Love. In the film The Three Ages Buster Keaton writes in the introduction:

If you let your mind wander back through History
You will find that the only thing that has not changed
since the world began is – Love.
Love is the unchanging axis on which the World revolves.

There is no better way to prove this
than by comparing love stories
of three widely separated periods of Time.
As appropriate examples we have selected
the Stone Age, the Roman Age and the modern age.

And he adds:

Beauty is a part of yesterday, today and forever.
In every age Beauty is sought by the adventurer.
Through every age there is the faithful worshipper at Beauty’s shrine.

signed by Buster Keaton

In actual fact, in each of the three ages the main character competes for a woman’s love, hampered by the fact that he is poor, small, puny and always a loser.

He also says that in modern times some things have changed: the respect for a father’s authority: “I want you boys to know that I am master of my own home, and the choice of my daughter’s husband rests entirely with – my wife!” Buster Keaton anticipates in this film the disturbing diminution of the influence of the father. Or we can say with the words of Lacan, that in modern society the symbolic function of the father is in decline. Another thing has changed: money has substituted muscles when we read: “In the present Age of Speed, Need and Greed” the father of his love says: “Of course you gentleman understand that my daughter’s happiness hangs in the balance”. Another component of love is jealousy, when Buster says: “A man’s attempt to arouse Jealousy is as old as time.”

I would like to outline the three principal concepts of love in the films of Buster Keaton:

1) Love is eternal, the unchanging axis of the world. However, remember that Lacan wholly disagrees with this notion, demonstrating that our concept of love derives from the courtly love of troubadours in the middle Ages.

2) Beauty is directly combined with the concept of love: the lover “is the faithful worshipper at Beauty’s shrine.” With Lacan we could stress that “beauty is the last veil before death.”

3) Jealousy is here the reverse of love. It is crucial for love, because the object of love is exalted by the love of a rival lover. Lacan says: “the desire is the desire of the Other”. This means that all objects gain in desire when they are desired by another person. However, this concept of love takes into consideration only the imaginary aspect of love. The object is not so important. When Buster Keaton has to deal with a beloved girl, he has no idea how to do it. The extreme shyness of the main character as regards the female gender is illustrated in the film Seven Chances:

One beautiful summer day, when fragrant flowers were in bloom,
Jimmie Shannon met Mary Jones,
and he wanted to tell her he loved her.
When Autumn had cast its golden glow
and the flowers had faded and died,
He still wanted to tell her he loved her.
When Winter came and the leaves had fallen one by one
and the snow had covered the hills and valleys
he still wanted to tell her he loved her.
However – when nature had changed again,
bringing forth spring time with its beautiful buds and blossoms – –
He still wanted to tell her he loved her.

The concept of love in Buster Keaton seems to be absolute. I would say that he has fallen in love, and it is written all over him. All films begin and end with a love story. However, Buster Keaton’s portrayal of these figures in his films are generally uninteresting and could be anyone. Many times the beloved is only a frame for the story. The beloved girl is always very pretty, but her role is merely to display her beauty. Buster Keaton states as regards the female actors in his films: “Normally there were only three principal roles: the baddy, I and the girl, and she wasn’t important at all. […] She had to be pretty and maybe it was helpful for her to know how to do something.” All the female lovers, reduced to the poor object of desire, have little chance to emerge, and when they do it they emerge in a negative sense. Indeed, when they are not beautiful, they are terrifying; they are vulgar, aggressive, or in short they are “persecutors”. This you can see, for example, in the film Seven Chances in which Buster is chased all over town by hordes of potential brides, who are willing to do anything in order to hook a millionaire groom.  However, when faced with a beautiful girl, the actor demonstrates extreme shyness in declaring his love, although utterly bewitched by her image and drawn to her.

Buster Keaton’s love seems to be situated only in the imaginary field. He is not interested at all in what his dream girl thinks, neither in what she does, nor what she wants beside himself. She is only an imago. Moreover, when she is doing something, the actions are mainly trivial or inopportune. For example, in The General, she sweeps the floor of the locomotive cab prior to an imminent attack by Northern soldiers. Furthermore, Buster Keaton does not treat his love gently when he is occupied with his heroic acts, even when he has to save her. He knows what to do with the enemy even in the most desperate situations, but dealing with a woman remains for him an enigma. In some films he demonstrates that even conquering love does not solve his loneliness. For instance, in the film entitled College the final scenes seem to point to a happy ending. However after the wedding scene, the next scene cuts directly to the couple in their old age, which is concluded by a shot of their graves in a cemetery. In order to exemplify the concept of love, Keaton begins his film The General with the words: There were two loves in his life: His engine – the locomotive with the name “General” – and Annabelle Lee.His first love is his engine and his beloved is placed on the same level, the machine and the girl.

Another interesting film regarding the possibility of exchanging one person with another is The Playhouse. Here all the musicians and the director of the orchestra and even all the spectators have Buster Keaton’s face and when one of the twin girls demonstrates her interest for him and he cannot distinguish between them, he makes a big cross on the shoulder of the right girl and he drags her immediately to the Justice of Peace to be married.

As in other films, for example in Seven Chances, the way he tackles the problem of marriage is unique. He addresses this issue as if it were a game of imitation, as if he had decided that in any situation “that’s what the others do!” So in the film The Navigator the protagonist sees a bride with her husband in the car and so he also decides to get married. He says to his waiter: I think I’ll get married – Today” He has completed all the arrangements – except to notify the girl. And when he finally asks her: “Will you marry me?” she obviously answers: “Certainly not!” Even so, he decides to leave anyway on a ship for a world tour, which was to have been their honey-moon trip.

It could be argued that the film stories are pure invention and have no connection to Buster Keaton’s real life. Nevertheless, I think that the character has many traits drawn from the real person of Buster Keaton. Indeed, he says that he makes comic films and the main role of the comedian is to make spectators laugh. One of the principal ways to make people laugh is “to exaggerate situations in everyday life”. This means that the construction of his actor’s personality is based on an exaggeration of his subjective experience of life.

For example, when he was married to Natalie Talmadge, all her family moved to his mansion. He comments this event in this way: “In certain moments I had the unpleasant impression of being married not to a woman, but to her entire family”. As Giorgio Cremonini observes in his book Buster Keaton[2], it is no coincidence that his next film is entitled My Wife’s Relations. In this film he is forced to live in his wife’s house and is surrounded by her violent and boorish relatives, and when he escapes the whole family chases him.

Unlike the character of Charlie Chaplin, who always remains a vagabond, or the ineffectual character of Harold Lloyd, what characterizes Buster Keaton in his films is that he adapts to all situations in life, even when the world is hostile and harsh. Only in extreme situations of danger does he manage to escape.

Just as people can either be friendly or hostile, so can objects prove to be useful or extremely dangerous as we can see, for example, in the film Our Hospitality, the only film that he made with his first wife Natalie Talmadge in the first months of their marriage. In the climactic waterfall scene, the rope constantly shifts in significance, going from being his salvation when left hanging in the air, so that he is able to haul himself up to the edge of the waterfall, to being a deathly trap when he realises he cannot extricate himself from it. Shortly after his girlfriend falls into the water and risks being swept down the waterfall, but thanks to the rope, which he uses like a trapeze artist, he manages to save her at the last minute. This spectacular stunt was the last he performed together with his wife, and shortly after he divorced her.


Law: the Symbolic Order of the World

I shall now turn to the Lacanian concept of Law as the symbolic order of the world in relation to Buster Keaton’s interpretation of the world. Normally we trust the symbolic order of the world, which limits anxiety caused by destiny by providing rules in life and a symbolic organization. However, Buster Keaton does not fall into this error, which would make our world bearable. He does not believe in symbolic order. His world is chaotic, anything can happen, and he demonstrates that he does not belong to this modern mechanic world, which also mechanises people. He is willing to submit to this strange world, but that world is not for him since he is unable to discover a law which regulates it, but only construe some strategies to deal with it. I will now describe some features in his films that illustrate his personal construction of the world.

One important feature of Keaton’s films is the surprise effect to provoke laughter, the unexpected final action that is introduced to create an incongruous situation. Freud has termed this logic that we do not expect as das Unheimliche, the uncanny. It is an action that disrupts our logic and transforms order into disorder, where repetition introduces the idea of fatality and the ineluctable in what is normally a random event. It is a world where actions and functions are constantly in specular contradiction through figures of symmetry and change of persons. In this world gone to rack and ruin we can say with Freud, that when das Unheimliche, the uncanny emerges, the border between fantasy and reality becomes blurred. Keaton’s comic effects are very often derived from uncanny situations.

Another interesting feature in Buster Keaton’s films is the figure of the underdog, even when he undertakes successful heroic actions. However, this in itself is quite common in the comedy of that period. What is more interesting and surprising is the absence of the phallus in his inventions, which is a crucial concept in psychoanalysis. We desire what we are lacking. This lack directs our desire, and this absence makes objects phallic. The phallus in the Lacanian sense is the signifier of lack, that makes lack desirable at the core of the human being. All desired objects are phallicized, for example the body of a woman, the icon of a star, but also a fine car or the clothes and gadgets which embellish a body. Everything we desire introduces the phallic measure and satisfies us when we have reached it.

However, in Buster Keaton’s films, there is no evidence of the character gaining satisfaction. Even when he wins a battle single-handedly, as can be seen in the film The General, and when he is finally a high rank soldier, he expresses no pride at all. At the end of the film the only thing that concerns him is how to kiss his beloved girl and to greet passing soldiers at the same time. The particular inventions and surprises are all in this a-phallic direction. He pulls some near-impossible stunts to save himself or another person, with no real feeling of triumph, even when he performs miracles. He always remains the underdog who tries to adapt to this strange world.

Despite this, he is aware of attraction. To illustrate this point, in the film Go West he saves a cow from the slaughterhouse. She subsequently follows him everywhere and he is touched by her attentions. After many adventures he finally single-handedly leads 1000 cows to the port of San Francisco, and the landowner says to him gratefully: “My home and everything I have is yours for the asking” and Friendless, the name of the character, replies: “I want her!” Of course, everybody thinks that he is indicating the owner’s lovely daughter, but in fact he prefers the cow!

One of the most important things that psychoanalysis teaches us is that a person does not identify with loss. But each of Buster Keaton’s characters is above all identified with the “loser”. It is no coincidence that the protagonist of the film is called “Friendless”. Some films begin with expulsion from a home, others with the end of a love story. The film The Boat finishes with the destruction of his boat and in the film One Week the house, just constructed, will be completely destroyed. Thus, even the films with an apparent happy ending prove to be unreal. This fascination with the underdog also extended to treating the subject of suicide, and there are several films that feature this. For instance, Hard Luck begins with a series of failed suicide attempts. At the end of the film, when he finds out that the beloved girl is already married, he offers her a four-leaf clover and says: “this is a souvenir to say goodbye, I am going for a dip in Eternity!” All these examples demonstrate that the main character has identified with his loss and has not escaped at all.

A source of ambiguity is the nature of the objects that appear in the scenes, which may be life-saving or dangerous, such as a rope, as we have seen above Nothing is safe. The same can be said for the presence of women. Either they are pretty, harmless and naïf or they are dangerous. There is no safety in the world. Everything can be turned upside-down. There is no rule that can offer security.

Another important feature is the interchange of reality and dreams. In many films the spectator only retroactively realises that what occurred before was only a dream sequence. In the film The Love Nest, for example, the film begins with the introduction:

Even the loveliest sunset seems wretched
when your fiancée tells you she is leaving you.
In despair, Buster has decided to give up women.

And he writes her the letter of adieu:

Vicious traitress!
Since you have broken off your engagement, I’ve decided not to marry you.
I’m going on a trip around the world in order to forget you.
Yours truly – for the last time                  Buster

He closes the letter with his tears and begins an adventurous voyage with his boat named Cupid. At the end of a long sequence of escapes from the irascible captain of the whale ship, named “Love Nest”, he awakens and discovers that he had not left at all. There are other films where dream and reality are mixed. For example, in the film Sherlock Jr. the protagonist, a humble film projectionist falls asleep and dreams of being Sherlock Holmes.

But there is another phenomenon in his films where reality is suddenly dissolved, scenes that the surrealists liked most of all. For example, the final scenes in The Navigator, in which salvation in extremis comes in the form of a small submarine that arrives from nowhere. Or in The Balloonatic when a balloon, appearing out of nowhere, saves the little canoe from falling down the waterfall thus ending the film in a surreal manner.

All these scenes demonstrate that anything can happen. There is no law that orders the world and even momentary luck provides no security for the future. It seems that Buster Keaton has difficulty in “reading” reality. Everybody has to read, to interpret what he sees and everybody “reads” his subjective reality with his glasses, what is termed in psychoanalytic theory as ‘phantasm’. The phantasm provides the frame for reading the world around us. This means that what we see and hear, we have to intelligere, to read between the lines, so as to understand what somebody really wants at all from us. Furthermore, we have to interpret what is really happening in a chosen context, and determine if it is safe or dangerous.

In absence of the symbolic order everything can be dangerous, because the Other is unforeseeable and tends to be dangerous or persecutory. Lacan distinguished three forms of the Other:

First: the little Other, the imaginary Other, the similar, the jealous Other, but also friend or enemy etc;

Second: the big Other, the symbolic Other, which provides security, but at the same time limits us. The symbolic Other depends on what Lacan defined as “the Name – Of – the – Father”. The father’s recognition of his child implies his acceptance of his symbolic rule. In other words, being a father is not the result of procreation, but of the signifier through which the father acknowledges his child. In this respect, the Name-of-the-Father is a law that substitutes the mother’s desire and is imprinted on the unconscious. On the one hand, the Name-of-the-father works to separate, to say ‘no’ to the mother’s jouissance or enjoyment, which can be too intrusive towards the child, and, on the other, to say ‘yes’ to the subject and his/her desire.

Third: When the symbolic father is not present as the principal function to provide order in the world, the Other comes out in certain situations as the primitive Forefather, the “Father of the horde”, a Tyrant without rules, who can do what he wants, who can maltreat and kill anybody, have all women, be a persecutor. So he demonstrates the real face of mortal enjoyment. In psychosis, either the Other is insubstantial, a little Other, or when the Other imposes itself in the absence of law he becomes dangerous. But the subject can get around this by creating a substitute through a particular artifice, which in Buster Keaton’s case is the use of irony, with which he is able to render the Other less dangerous. But as we can see, with women there remained some difficulties. The Other does not necessarily have to be one individual, it may also be a group of people, for instance the cops or the women who chase Buster Keaton, but also the natural forces when they confront us with their destructive violence. Indeed, in his films individual people are generally not very dangerous, but act in a civilised way. It is when there are groups or an indistinctive mass of people that persecution may occur. It is always surprising how Buster Keaton is able to negotiate the passage from reality to dream and unreality, from luck to disaster, from tranquillity to anguish, all things which are the main ingredients of his films. But his skill also makes us think that the symbolic order of the world is unreliable and highly unstable. Even when in love he always seeks a behaviour model when dealing with a girl, as can be seen in Sherlock Jr., where the main character is a film projectionist who looks to the film couple for suggestions on how to behave with his girlfriend. It is extremely interesting to see his reaction to the uncanny when he sees in the final scene the couple in the film with their children. This gives us some idea what he thinks about fatherhood.


Laughs and the mask of “stone face”

In slapstick comedy, the cinema of custard pie fights in the period from 1910 to 1920 the caricatured abstraction of the characters is substituted by masks, make-up and clothes, stereotyped so that they are immediately recognizable in every film. Apart from his particular pork pie hat, the pre-eminent sign of the main character in Buster Keaton is the pale “stone face”, a white mask with facial expressivity reduced to a minimum. He maintains a deadpan face at all times, even in the most perilous situations. He invented this mask in his first film with “Fatty“ Arbuckle, who introduced him to the cinema world, and kept it from then on in his films. We all generally use a mask of some kind when we meet somebody, adapting it according to the situation, whereas Buster Keaton’s mask is fixed, as if there were only one trait, which endows him with a fixed identity. Normally we can identify ourselves in many things, objects, persons, ideals etc., but no identification represents our whole “self”, but only the sum of them represents us.

When Lacan affirms that beyond the mask there is nothing, what does it mean? The mask is a semblance, an appearance, which we use in function of the Other, a mix of imaginary and symbolic construction, which does not include the real aspect of enjoyment, which is the heart of our being beginning with das Ding. The Thing is the anchorage of every human being and the imaginary and symbolic construction is a shell surrounding the human being’s kernel. Buster Keaton affirms: “I am the author of myself”. Or, in Jacques-Alain Miller‘s words, Keaton “produces the subject”[3]. This means that everybody is born in the position of the object for their mother and is initially alienated from her will. Only later do they normally extricate themselves from the will and desire of the Other and do what they want, despite the dreams and ideals of the parents and influential people. The individual is separated from the Other and achieves his/her subjective position. The influence of Buster Keaton’s parents as regards this is highly crucial. At a very early age Buster Keaton was taken on the stage with his parents, who were Vaudeville actors. He says of his early years:

“My old man was an eccentric comic and as soon as I could take care of myself at all on my feet, I had slapshoes on me and big baggy pants. And he’d just start doing gags with me and especially kicking me clean across the stage or taking me by the back of the neck and throwing me. By the time I got up to around seven or eight years old, we were called ‘The Roughest Act That Was Ever in the History of the Stage.”

Buster was used as an object, and he had to learn how to survive and to keep his body safe. Thus, he learned from early childhood to adapt to this dangerous world and I believe that very early on he identified himself in the role of the little actor who made the spectators laugh, when his body was treated – I would say maltreated – by his parents: that was his role. A body subject to maltreatment, which made him famous when he was only a couple of years old.

Buster Keaton is generally defined as a comic actor. But this does not explain why he created his “stone face” character. He stresses that the spectators do not laugh with him but laugh at him. The more misadventures he has, the more the spectators laugh. He presents a mask that makes people laugh, and in a certain way he makes himself laugh. He represents a foolish person (but he certainly is not), who tries to find his own way in a world full of peril. Buster laughs at the Other, but this Other is himself. This you can also observe in people facing difficult and continual hardships in life which can easily create a personal narcissistic crisis. One of the most common mechanisms of defence is to look for another person, who suffers much more. This permits him to think: “yes, I am a wretched person, but compared to the other I am a King”. This leads to self-reassessment. With Lacan we can say that this is an operation on an imaginary level. It can give some temporary comfort, but provides no solutions to his problems at all. At a symbolic level he remains a wretched person, who knows that he has no chance to change anything.

It is true that in his films Buster Keaton seeks to emerge from his solitude by loving a nice girl. It does not make any difference which girl it is, as long as she is lovely. However, he knows that as regards his loneliness, love is only an illusion which denies the truth. As we see in some film endings, the only friend who remains seems to be a dog – or a cow. The sad truth is that there is no remedy at all for loneliness. This is true for everybody, but normally the lover is able to situate the beloved in a certain place, which Lacan named “object, cause of desire”. Indeed, it seems that Buster Keaton desires girls, but he is not able to make them his “cause of desire”. They remain a series of sweet, unerotized and extremely innocent women, and their beauty is connected to an asexual ideal. His films could have made use of the erotic aspect of the female body, for instance, wearing wet clothes or in a bathing costume, but this is totally absent from his films. Note that traditional slapstick comedy, in particular as performed by his master Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle”, used vulgarity also with evident obscene sexual connotations and violence as the main ingredient in the primitive comic scenes. Nothing like that appears in Buster Keaton’s films. He behaves like a youngster, like Peter Pan, who does not want to grow up and when he approaches a girl, he has no idea how to do it and ends up imitating the others or finding bizarre solutions by himself. So he shows that he is without the key, the phallic key, as defined by Lacan, which orders the world, made of a scale of phallic evaluations that gives all things the right weight and helps us to cope with different situations.

I shall now mention something about Lacan and the difference between humour and irony. Freud writes in his article Humour[4] that humour is the comic side of the Superego. Humour hits the neurotic subject in the misery of his impotence and the subject is caught out. Irony, as J.-A. Miller remarks[5], goes against the Other. With irony the subject unmasks the insubstantial nature of the Other, which has the effect of removing his deep anxiety in relation to the Other. This is the kind of comic quality used by people with a psychotic structure. There are numerous examples in the films where Buster Keaton displays irony as regards the Other, but also as regards himself. But I would add that when he laughs at himself, he also laughs at the Other, who is the creation of the personality which he plays in his films. My hypothesis is therefore that the comedy used by Buster Keaton to produce laughter does not depend on his failed attempts to satisfy the demands of the Superego, but depends on the temptation to relieve the pressure of the Other, to ridicule the big Other and to diminish his persecutory side and reduce him to anyone else. The big Other as such is without substance, and becomes nothing.

When Buster Keaton is not provoking laughter, the tragic side of his character emerges. We can see this in one of his last films named “Film” where he is the only protagonist, suffering from psychotic delirium. The screenplay of this film, written by Samuel Beckett, was created in 1965 by Alan Schneider. When asked to comment on the film screened at the 1965 Venice Film Festival, he said: “What I think it means is that a man can keep away from everybody, but he can’t get away from himself.” It is believed that his extraordinary interpretation stems from his own experience, in particular when in 1933 he suffered from delirium tremens due to chronic alcoholism and when he was admitted to a psychiatric hospital, staying there for a year. Interestingly, in the film The Playhouse from 1921 he foreshadows this when he says: “I resolve never to drink anymore” and afterwards he repeats it ad adds: “but just as much”. In many ways, the years 1932-34 were the worst in Buster Keaton’s existence. He said: “I began to knock back one bottle after another”.

Thus, in conclusion, I believe Buster Keaton’s concept of love consists in these three notions: Love, Law and Laughs. Without law there is no love, but with laughter each person can find his/her own way to love. Buster Keaton’s films reveal his particular way of coping with the world through his use of irony, which permeates all his films.


Translated with Federika Gebhardt


[1] Conference at the Film Seminar “Mysteries of Love”, Department of Comparative Literature & Centre for Women’s and Gender Research, (SKOK) University of Bergen at the Cinematheque USF, Georgerens Verft on 23.09.2010. Convenor: Kjell Soleim, Course Coordinator for Psychoanalysis, Faculty of Humanities.

[2] G. Cremonini, Buster Keaton, Editrice Il Castoro, Milano 1995, p. 36.

[3] J.-A. Miller, Produire le sujet?, Actes de l’Ecole de la Cause freudienne, Paris 1983.

[4] S. Freud, Humor, Standard Edition, London 1961, n. 21, pp. 159-166

[5] J.-A- Miller, Clinique ironique, La Cause freudienne n. 23, 1993, pp. 7-13.


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