Monday Over Coffee: "Delight"

Published March 18, 2024 by Greg Funderburk

One of the most wonderful and memorable experiences I’ve had at our church was as an audience member of a musical performance by Harold Wade. A long-time member of our congregation, Harold was a gifted engineer by trade but also a trained musician.

Harold not only played the piano and the organ well as an instrumentalist, but as an engineer and inveterate tinkerer, he built his very own portable pipe organ from scratch, one he put to good use. Harold made it a habit of generously offering organ concerts for the residents of assisted living facilities and nursing homes. But these weren’t mere concerts. After unloading and assembling his homemade organ at the place he was to perform, Harold then set up a screen and a projector to show a silent movie. Taking his place at the organ, Harold would start the projector and launch into a lively calliope-like soundtrack to the ongoing silent film up on the big screen. For the older folks present, it must have been like being transported back in time to a 1920’s movie theater.

When he performed at the church, Harold played along to a Buster Keaton silent film, and we weren’t five minutes into it before I realized what was happening was much more than just some light entertainment for our own senior adults. It wasn’t just delightful but transcendently so. There was joy and laughter rippling through the audience, and a similar joy and laughter exuding from the hard-working man sitting in front of the homemade organ, his music so perfectly timed with all that was happening on screen. The final piece of the curiously-arresting beauty of the moment was, as Harold intended, supplied by Buster Keaton himself.

I really didn’t know much about Keaton and hadn’t watched any of his movies. I guess I thought of him like Charlie Chaplin, just not as famous, but this doesn’t nearly give Buster his due. A little research following Harold’s performance revealed that growing up as a child star in a vaudeville act with his parents, Buster—who got his name early on for his acrobatic pratfalls—learned something crucial. As a kid, he was having so much fun that he would sometimes laugh as his father threw him across the stage during their act. However, he also noticed that when he did, the audience would laugh less. This astute recognition led him to adopt instead, even as a child, an utterly deadpan expression whenever he was doing a show. This, he saw, prompted much heartier laughter from those watching and led Buster to take up this oddly solemn look as his trademark. He’d put the expression to good use for the rest of his career.

Film historian Gilberto Perez said that Keaton's genius as an actor emerged not just from his dispassionate expression but how, with subtle inflections, he rendered a rich, emotional interior life behind it. Film critic Roger Ebert called Keaton "the greatest actor-director in the history of the movies.” Orson Welles considered Keaton’s masterpiece, The General, "perhaps the greatest film ever made.” Directors with such varying approaches as Mel Brooks, Peter Bogdanovich, and Quentin Tarantino all credit Keaton as having influenced their work.

What’s even more remarkable about Keaton is that he was not only the director and star of his own movies, he was also the writer and producer, choreographing and performing all his own, often death-defying, stunts. One iconic picture of Buster Keaton shows him atop a speeding train, leaning forward into the wind, his hair blown back, his figure perfectly straight, tilted forward barely but bravely, a human hood ornament of sorts for the careening locomotive. This moment is emblematic of all of Buster Keaton movies—a jaunty yet also serious young man overcoming daunting obstacle after daunting obstacle. Mishap after mishap. Ebert put it like this: “Buster survives tornadoes, waterfalls, avalanches of boulders, falls from great heights, and never pauses to take a bow.” In one movie, a house even collapses around him. He falls, he lands, he gets back up. His movies, his persona, convey a persisting sense of optimism in the face of all adversity. “The world throws its worst at him,” Ebert wrote, “but he’s plucky and determined, ingenious and stubborn.” Through his own brand of calm and focused grace, Buster always triumphs in the end.

I think it’s no accident, the jaunty Harold Wade loved Buster Keaton films and brought his movies to so many. He was generously offering the delights of heaven—joy, laughter, and a picture of our ultimate triumph—down to earth for the rest of us.

God—Thank You for moments of transcendent delight. Amen.