Introducing Buster Keaton

Personal Bio: Born Joseph Frank Keaton in  1895 to a pair of vaudeville  actors who owned their own travelling show, he was supposedly given the nickname Buster, by his parents’ partner, Harry Houdini (yes, that Houdini), who after seeing him emerge unscathed after a tumble down some stairs proclaimed, “That was a real buster!” He had an unconventional childhood, incorporated early on as a child actor in his parent’s act and received no formal schooling, his only education that which his mother could give him on the road.

Young Buster with parents

After the Keaton’s show finally ended due to his father’s alcoholism, Buster spent a short stint serving in the army during WWI where he was stationed in France. Upon his return he traveled to New York where through a mutual acquaintance he met famous comedian Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle who became a close friend and mentor in the film industry. Buster was a quick learner and soon was writing, directing, producing and starring in his own films, beginning with silent comedy shorts and eventually transitioning into feature films where he had great success.

During this time he married his first wife who was part of a well-known and well-respected acting family and had two sons with her. Eventually due to  career issues as well as personal issues, the marriage disintegrated and she took their home, the bulk of his wealth and his sons and refused to allow Buster any contact with his children. He quickly descended into full blown alcoholism and poverty and completely lost the professional respect and the career which he had painstakingly built.

With first wife and son

He spent several years in and out of hospitals and married again two more times, crediting his third and final wife with helping him get control of his alcoholism and  back on his feet. He went back to work in the film industry in uncredited roles as a gag writer and in small cameos and acting roles. He eventually regained the respect he was due in his profession, but never again reached the zenith of his earlier fame. He died of lung cancer in 1970.  

Film Bio: Thanks to his early years working in vaudeville theater, Buster Keaton had gained quite a bit of knowledge and experience which served him well when he moved into film. Being mentored by and working with Fatty Arbuckle only added to his experience and natural aptitude for comedy.

Arbuckle and Keaton

His films are noted for their sight gags and extremely physical comedy, both of which required careful precision and attention to detail. He was also famous for doing his own stunts which were often very dangerous. He was nicknamed The Great Stone Face, because regardless of what hilarious chaos and mayhem swirled around his film characters, he never cracked a smile.

Considered one of his greatest masterpieces, his silent film The General filmed in 1926 inadvertently led to the beginning of the end of his most productive and succesful period of work. The expense and mixed reviews of the film led to the loss of his productive control and eventually led him to sign with MGM. The studio forced him to give up his independence in the film making process which ultimately proved to be disastrous for him. It was during this time that he began drinking and his first marriage fell apart and he eventually lost everything.

After his third marriage and recovery from alcoholism, Keaton began working in the film industry again and regained respect for his talents, working with comedians such as Red Skelton and Lucille Ball.

He is credited as an actor in 148 films, a writer in 41 of those films, a director of 39 and producer of 15. Although the majority of those credits are for sound films, it is his silent comedy shorts and feature films for which he still remains the most famous and appreciated. Near the end of his life, Keaton was finally awarded an honorary Oscar which he so richly deserved and thanks to a resurgence in classic and silent films in recent decades his name and talent are becoming as well known as another famous contemporary of his, Charlie Chaplin.

Buster Keaton was my first introduction to silent film. Despite my longtime love and fascination with movies, I had no interest in silent film. Thank goodness, that I decided to give it a chance and that the film I chose was Keaton’s, because there really is no one else quite like him. His talent was immense and yet appeared effortless, and the impact he had on films and future comedians is impossible to measure.

Famous Films:

      • One Week (1920) – a short film which runs 19 minutes, it depicts the struggle of newlyweds, who receive a build-it-yourself house as a wedding present, to assemble their new home. Thanks to the vindictive actions of the wife’s former suitor the boxes of building materials are numbered incorrectly which leads to a very strange looking home.
    • Seven Chances (1925) -Keaton stars as a man who learns he must marry by the end of the day in order to inherit a fortune left to him by his grandfather.  This hour long film has him chased through town by a mob of wannabe brides as well as trying to outrun a rock slide. This is listed among the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die (along with several other Keaton films).
    • The General (1926) arguably Keaton’s most acclaimed film, it spelled the end of his artistic freedom. Due to the great cost involved in producing this, Keaton was forced to sign with MGM. It features on of his great loves trains, with The General being the name of the beloved locomotive belonging to Keaton’s Confederate engineer. It is stolen by Union spies and Keaton must cross enemy lines in pursuit of it’s recovery.
    • The Cameraman (1928) – Keaton’s first film with MGM still shows Keaton in top form and in control, although for the last time. He falls in love with a secretary who works for MGM and trades in his portrait camera for an old film camera in order to win her attention and her heart. The only problem is his camera is out of date and he lacks the experience for the job.

Quotes:

Tragedy is a close-up; comedy, a long shot.

A comedian does funny things. A good comedian does things funny.

I have simply been brought up by being knocked down.

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