April 17th, 2021


Remember Talented People?

Greg Crosby

By Greg Crosby

Published Jan. 10, 2020

Remember Talented People?
The start of a new year means the beginning of awards time for the entertainment industry.

I've long ago stopped watching the so-called "awards shows." I don't need to see accolades bestowed upon people with questionable character, not to mention little or no talent.

However, it should be noted that once upon a time in our culture there actually were great talents working in the movie industry. People who really deserve to be honored.

There were many, but here are just two for example: Buster Keaton: In my opinion, the greatest silent film comedian of all time and one of the greatest film markers and pioneers.

He is best known for his trademark physical comedy with a consistently stoic, deadpan expression that earned him the nickname "The Great Stone Face." He has been called "the greatest actor-director in the history of the movies" for his extraordinary output of pictures throughout the 1920's.

His physicality, inventiveness, and comic timing have never been equaled. His camera innovations set the stage for movie trick photography and special effects techniques for years to come. Most of all though, the man was FUNNY. He knew what worked and what wouldn't work in a scene. His sense of comedy storytelling and gag staging is as valid and fresh today as it was nearly 100 years ago.

Many of Keaton's short subjects are among his best work. "One Week," "The Haunted House," "The High Sign," "Cops," and others still have the ability to convulse an audience into hysterical laughter. His feature films from the 1920s remain highly regarded, such as Sherlock Jr. (1924), "Seven Chances (1925), The General (1926), Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928), and "The Cameraman" (1928).

Among his strongest admirers was Orson Welles, who stated that "The General" was cinema's highest achievement in comedy, and perhaps the greatest film ever made. In 1996 Entertainment Weekly recognized Buster Keaton as the seventh-greatest film director, and the American Film Institute ranked him in 1999 as the 21st greatest male star of classic Hollywood cinema.

Buster Keaton always played down his genius. To him he was just a guy doing a job and his job was to be funny. He once summed up film acting with one sentence, "Tragedy is a close-up; comedy is a long shot."

Fred Astaire. Undoubtedly the greatest male dancer in motion pictures. He revolutionized the movie musical with his elegant and seemingly effortless dance style. He may have made dancing look easy, but he was a well-known perfectionist, and his work was the product of endless hours of practice. Smooth, sophisticated, elegant, and classy. Fred Astaire was all that and more. He possessed humility and likability on screen that kept audiences interested in-between the dance numbers.

Astaire has been credited with two major innovations that revolutionized dance on screen. Number one, he insisted that a closely tracking dolly camera film his dance routines in as few shots as possible, typically with just four to eight cuts at most, while holding the dancers in full view at all times. This gave the illusion of an almost stationary camera filming an entire dance in a single shot.

The second innovation dealt with the context of the dance within the storyline; he was adamant that all song and dance routines be integral to the plot of the picture. Instead of using dance as a stand-alone spectacle, Astaire used it to move the plot along.

Besides his fantastic footwork, Fred Astaire had a marvelous way of putting over a song. Although he was always modest about his singing abilities, he was widely admired for his lyricism, diction, and phrasing --- the grace and elegance so much a part of his dancing seemed to be reflected in his singing as well. Songwriter, Burton Lane described him as "the world's greatest musical performer."

Irving Berlin considered Astaire the equal of any male interpreter of his songsÑ"as good as Jolson, Crosby or Sinatra, not necessarily because of his voice, but for his conception of projecting a song."

Jerome Kern considered him the supreme male interpreter of his songs and Cole Porter and Johnny Mercer also admired his unique treatment of their work. Buster Keaton and Fred Astaire.

Two men who seemingly have nothing whatsoever in common. Except for immense talent.

And the fact that they both had impeccable timing on stage and on film; and a screen presence that still entertains and enchants audiences decades after they're gone. Two truly great and talented performers.

Think of those guys when you watch the next "awards show" winner running up to collect his trophy this year.

Sign up for the daily JWR update. It's free. Just click here.


JWR contributor Greg Crosby, former creative head for Walt Disney publications, has written thousands of comics, hundreds of children's books, dozens of essays, and a letter to his congressman. He's been a JWR contributor since 1999.