The world of movies was not always equipped with high definition color images and surround sound audio as clear as the chirping of birds on a Saturday morning. It took decades of technological progress and growth of the film industry before we got sound, and even more time before we got color. And though films of that era might not have had the crisp CGI of today, they did pretty well with the materials they had on hand.
A lot of the content produced back then was centered around comedy. We had many greats make a name for themselves during that time. One particularly fine example that comes to mind is dear old Charlie Chaplin. An actor whose comedy is timeless, and remains some of the best media content available today. Another star from that time, was Buster Keaton.
What Was Mr. Keaton Known For?
So what was Buster Keaton famous for? We had Charlie Chaplin making audiences laugh. We had Harold Lloyd carrying out daring stunts and partaking in believable romance and drama. Buster Keaton was also a comedian first and foremost. Like the certain characters certain actors would take on onscreen; Harold Lloyd for example being known as the “Glass” character, Buster Keaton was known for comedy with a deadpan expression.
For this reason, Buster Keaton was nicknamed “The Great Stone Face”. His physical comedy while he maintained a stony face made your sides hurt from laughter. Among others, Buster Keaton was one of the most popular movie stars of the 1920’s.
Born in Piqua, Kansas to mother Myra Keaton and father Joseph Hallie Keaton, Buster Keaton was born into a vaudeville family. He was the sixth in line in his family from his father’s side to bear the name “Joseph”. His father owned a travelling show with the famous illusionist Harry Houdini. ‘Buster’ wasn’t Keaton’s given name however. It is widely believed, though without any substantial evidence, that he acquired this nickname one day when he fell down a long flight of stairs as a mere infant. An actor friend – George Pardey – was present at the time, and after Keaton shrug off his fall said, “He’s a regular buster!” After this incident Keaton’s father started calling him Buster, and the name caught on.
At the young age of three, Buster Keaton started performing with his parents. The family of three used to perform in The Three Keatons. Keaton appeared on stage for the first time in the year 1899. The plays would normally circle around Keaton’s mother playing the saxophone on one side while Buster and his father performed on stage. Most of the plays were about Buster disobeying his father, and his father picking him up and throwing him around in return. Though many people called this child abuse and Buster’s father was apprehended a handful of times, no evidence of such ever came forward. Later, as an adult, Buster Keaton would mention how he had mastered falling and never got hurt. Keaton credited himself adopting his signature deadpan expression as a kid. He would have so much fun during the plays that he would laugh as his father threw him around. When he noticed this led to fewer laughs from the audience, he dropped it and began to maintain a stony face.
His Transition To Film
Keaton’s family’s act kept running into further problems with the law as the years went on. Laws were passed banning children from working in vaudeville. Keaton continued to perform in New York, but also went to school. Though he dedicated less time to the stage due to school, he still kept rising in popularity. Keaton would later on tell us that he learned to read and write much later than was normal for children at the time, and that it was his mother that taught him to do so.
When Keaton was 21 years old, problems were taking root in his family. His father had fallen prey to alcoholism. And when it was clear that this fact was threatening the family’s act, Keaton and his mother left for New York. It was here in New York that Keaton decided to make the transition from vaudeville to film, though he would also serve in France with the United States Military. During his time in France Keaton picked up an ear infection impaired his hearing forever.
The Early Years Of Keaton In Film
It was in February of 1917 when Buster Keaton met Roscoe Arbuckle, a silent film director. Arbuckle told Keaton that he should consider acting, and soon after Keaton did exactly that for the film “The Butcher Boy”. Arbuckle was quite impressed with Keaton’s talent, and hired then and there for future productions. Keaton would go on to appear in 14 of Arbuckle’s short films, and this being the era before his unique stone-faced character, Keaton showed a lot more emotion on screen than he would later on.
A famous play – The New Henrietta – had been filmed under the name “The Lamb”. When being remade five years later its previous lead, actor Douglas Fairbanks, recommended Buster Keaton for the role. Thus “The Saphead”, released in 1920, was the full-length feature starring Buster Keaton. After his work with Arbuckle, the executive Arbuckle was under contract with; Joseph M. Schenck, gave Buster his own production unit named “Buster Keaton Productions”. Buster Keaton produced a series of two-reel comedies, including “One Week”, “The Playhouse”, “Cops”, and “The Electric House”.
Keaton’s Golden Years
Buster Keaton didn’t stick with this setup for too long however, and moved on to full-length feature films. Though Buster Keaton had multiple writers, the best of his gags were made by himself. Keaton also included some very dangerous stunts into his works, and insisted on doing them himself. These stunts are still heralded today as a show of courage, precise workmanship, and plain old stupidity. Buster Keaton’s stunts could have easily killed him at any time, yet he still persisted with them. In fact, during one stunt, a torrent of water from a water tower fell on him and broke his neck. Buster Keaton however, didn’t notice until years after the incident.
Other memorable stunts by Buster Keaton include one where he let a moving train hit him and he climbed atop its front and continued to perform other acts. Perhaps the single greatest stunt, the one where Keaton literally missed death by two inches, is the one where Keaton had a real two-story wall fall on him while he remained stationary. The trick with this stunt was that there was one open window, and Keaton had to position himself just right to pass through it. He did, and by a mere two inches, and this clip is still shown today when people fondly remember Keaton and his dangerous, goofy exploits.
Keaton’s Fumble And Loss Of Independence
Buster Keaton continued to produce many great films in the succeeding years. These included “Our Hospitality”, “The Navigator”, “Sherlock Jr.” (the one where the water broke his neck, “Seven Chances”, “The Cameraman”, “The General”, and “Steamboat Bill Jr.” (the one with the falling wall).
“The General”, though later regarded as Buster Keaton’s single greatest achievement, received a lukewarm response at the time. Moviegoers of the time considered it “too dramatic” for a comedy film, and its setting being an enactment of an incident from the Civil War didn’t sit right by many. This film would turn out to be Buster Keaton’s downfall; as Keaton was deprived of total control over his films. Keaton’s future films were interfered with by the production manager, often changing key story elements, and Keaton couldn’t stand it after a couple of years. Keaton left, and signed up with Hollywood’s biggest studio; “Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer”. Keaton would later label this move the worst decision of his life.
The Intervening Years
Under MGM, Keaton lost a lot of his creative input. Furthermore, the studio forced Keaton to use a stunt double for the more dangerous scenes, claiming that they didn’t want to “endanger their investment”. As the sound-era took the movie world by storm, MGM teamed up Keaton with Jimmy Durante. Keaton starred in three films with Jimmy; “The Passionate Plumber”, “Speak Easily”, and “What! No Beer?”. Keaton and his fellow actors had to shoot each scene in each movie three times; once in English, once in Spanish, and once in either German or French. They wouldn’t learn the language, but merely memorize the foreign script and utter it on screen. Even though “What! No Beer?” was a successful film, Keaton’s demoralization resulted in MGM firing him.
Keaton would go on to make an independent film in Paris, and another in England. Later on he would return to Hollywood for 16 more two-reel comedies, with most of the gags provided by him. Keaton died on the 1st of February due his lung cancer. Keaton had been diagnosed in January, but had no idea it was terminal. He was restless in his last days; pacing around his hospital room and playing cards with his visitors. Even the day before he died.
The silent-era of films required wholly different kinds of creativity and brilliance. Buster Keaton is one shining example of said brilliance, with a very extra helping of courage. Perhaps it was his childhood spent being thrown around that made him sturdy enough to perform all the wacky stunts he came up with. Or maybe he was just a sucker for realism on camera. Whatever the reason, it sure makes for excellent viewing today, and even better critical analysis for aspiring actors and movie directors.