Buster Keaton (1895-1966) was one of the best known and most respected of the silent film comedians. Dubbed "The Great Stone Face" for his stoic demeanor, he wrote, directed and produced many of his films in the 1920s and 1930s. An innovator behind the camera as well as in front of it, Keaton was lauded for his sometimes dangerous brand of physical comedy and impeccable comic timing.
Joseph Frank Keaton was born on October 4, 1895, in Piqua, Kansas. He was the eldest of three children, including a younger brother and sister, born to two vaudevillians, Joseph Hallie Keaton and Myra Cutler. Shortly after his son's birth, Joseph Keaton changed his son's name to Joseph Francis Keaton. He received the nickname "Buster" while still an infant. Allegedly, Keaton suffered a nasty fall, but displayed a nonchalant reaction to it. This was witnessed by the magician Harry Houdini (or, some say, actor George Pardey), who christened the hearty boy Buster.
Child Vaudeville Star
Keaton's parents appeared in vaudeville as "The Two Keatons," but were not particularly successful. Their son began appearing on stage with them as early as nine months of age. By the time he was three, Keaton had become part of his parents' act, renamed "The Three Keatons." Although forces opposed to child labor tried to keep him off the stage, Keaton soon became an integral part of the show. In the physical comedy routines performed with his father, Keaton became an expert at pratfalls and developed an impassive face that delighted audiences. His talent led the family to New York City and, in 1909, to an appearance in London.
By 1917, Joseph Keaton had developed severe problems with alcohol and the family's act was dissolved. Their routine had relied on physical prowess and exact timing, and required reliable performers. The break brought new opportunities for Keaton. He was soon offered a role in a Broadway show, The Passing Show of 1917, for the princely sum of $250 per week. A chance meeting with comedian Rosco "Fatty" Arbuckle led him to break that contract. Keaton was convinced to star in a short film with Arbuckle, called The Butcher Boy (1917). Arbuckle also wrote and directed this film. Keaton soon discovered that his brand of comedy, especially his deadpan facial expressions, worked very well on film. The only time he ever laughed on screen was in an Arbuckle movie, Fatty at Coney Island (1917).
Keaton appeared in 14 Arbuckle shorts between 1917 and 1919, including His Wedding Night (1917) and The Bell Boy (1918). His film career was briefly interrupted by military service during World War I. He was drafted by the United States Army in 1918, and served for over a year with the 40th Infantry in France. After returning to the U.S. in 1919, Keaton appeared in several more Arbuckle short films such as A Country Hero (1919). In 1920, Keaton made his first full-length feature, The Saphead, playing the straight man, Bertie "The Lamb" Van Alstyne.
Directed First Films
In 1920, Arbuckle left Comique Films for Paramount. Keaton became the new head of the company, which was owned by Joseph Schenck (who later became Keaton's brother in law). Like Arbuckle before him, Keaton began directing films that he appeared in. His first directorial effort, The High Sign, was a short that apparently did not work very well. It was not released until 1921. Keaton found his footing with his next film, One Week (1920), which focused on the tribulations of a do-it-yourself house. Behind the camera, Keaton worked with a co-director, Eddie Cline, with whom he collaborated several times. Though this was a partnership, Cline later acknowledged that Keaton did much of the work.
Keatan balanced his work in front and behind the camera very well. Peter Hogue wrote in Film Comment, "Keaton is astonishing not only for what he does as an actor within the frame, but also for what he does with frame in relation to the actor. Much more thoroughly than Chaplin, he managed a near-perfect, and highly expressive, harmony between the roles of performer and filmmaker." This equilibrium came into play with The Playhouse (1921), which he also wrote and directed with Cline. Keaton played every role in the movie, which was set in a theater. He was every member of the audience as well as every performer. In one sequence, Keaton even danced with himself. He appeared on screen simultaneously nine times. The innovative special effects he developed for The Playhouse made him an early leader in the field. He also began using a moving camera, at a time when many of his peers continued to use stationary ones.
On May 31, 1921, Keaton was married time to Natalie Talmadge. Her sister, Norma Talmadge, was married to Joseph Schenck, owner of Comique Films the company that Keaton managed. They eventually had two sons, Joseph and Robert. Because of Keaton's success, and a notorious scandal involving Arbuckle, Comique Films was renamed Buster Keaton Productions. Keaton, however, did not own any part of the company. With complete artistic control, he developed his own working methodology and made about two pictures per year.
By 1923, Keaton was making full-length features. His first was a parody of the famous D.W. Griffith film Intolerance (1916), entitled The Three Ages. In Our Hospitality (1923), a film about a mountain feud, Keaton shot both a novel train scene and waterfall scene on location. Two of his best films were made in 1924. The first was Sherlock Jr., in which a daydreaming projectionist who longs to be a detective becomes part of the movie he is showing. It marked the first time that a character walks off a movie screen and into "real life." As usual, Keaton performed all of his own stunts. In this film, he broke his neck, but did not discover it until ten years later. Keaton's other 1924 film, The Navigator, was shot on an ocean liner and directed with Donald Crisp.
Keaton had a hard time capturing the promise of Sherlock Jr. over the next few years. While his films were technically and creatively interesting, they were either critical or box office failures. Still, he continued to find new situations in which to put his long-suffering face. In Seven Chances (1925), he faces a rockslide. In Go West (1925), he is stared down by a herd of cattle. Battling Butler (1926), a boxing movie, was a commercial success. Though The General (1926) was successful in retrospect, at the time it was critically derided. The General was a Civil War romance, that featured many impressive chase scenes and one very expensive special effects shot. Keaton spent $42,000 on sending a train into a burning bridge. In College (1927), Keaton was engaged in every athletic sport except football, but it was a disappointment.
Keaton made Steamboat Bill Jr., his last film with Buster Keaton Productions, in 1928. While the movie had an impressive tornado sequence and an interesting topic (a Mississippi riverboat race) which pleased critics, Steamboat Bill Jr. was not a commercial success. After this failure, Schenck sold his contract to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), where his son, Nicholas, just happened to be in charge. Keaton had never paid much attention to the business side of the film industry, and he paid a hefty price. He lost creative control of his pictures, and, like his father before him, developed a nasty drinking problem. While the first project he did for MGM ( The Cameraman in 1928) was rather good, as was his last silent film (Spite Marriage in 1929), Keaton's career was in decline.
Several factors, other than the loss of creative control, contributed to Keaton's downward spiral in the late 1920s and early 1930s. The arrival of the sound era in 1929 did not work in his favor because of his voice. He had his sound debut in The Hollywood Revue of 1929, then made eight more films under his Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer contract. None of them were very good. He was forced to make several films as a straight man to Jimmy Durante, including Free and Easy (1930). Keaton's contract with MGM was ended in 1933.
Keaton suffered from several personal crises as well. He and Natalie Talmadge divorced on bitter terms in 1932. Two years later she changed their sons' last name to Talmadge. Keaton had a short-lived second marriage with Mae Elizabeth Scriven, a nurse, hairstylist and playwright. They were married in Mexico on January 1, 1932, before his divorce was final; then again legally in 1933. By 1935, this second marriage had ended in divorce.
Keaton managed to get his drinking under control by 1934, after a short time in Europe where he appeared in several films including Le roi des Champs-Elyses (1934). That same year, he was put under contract by Educational Films and returned to making shorts. One of the best of this era was Grand Slam Opera. After the company shut its doors in 1937, Keaton was re-signed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, but only as a gagman. He directed three short films in 1938. The following year, United Artists hired Keaton; he made ten shorts in the next two years.
Keaton married for the final time in 1940. His third wife was a dancer named Eleanor Ruth Norris. Keaton supported himself throughout the 1940s by appearing on stage in Europe and the United States, and writing gags for MGM and 20th Century-Fox.
In 1949, Keaton appeared on television for the first time. He would return often. The medium revitalized his career. In addition to appearing in numerous commercials (including one for Alka-Seltzer), Keaton made many guest appearances in both comedies and dramas. He appeared on shows such as Playhouse 90, Route 66, and The Twilight Zone. Keaton had two shows of his own, including The Buster Keaton Comedy Show (1949) and The Buster Keaton Show from 1950 until 1951. Caryn James wrote in The New York Times, "Keaton's television appearances are warm and enduring. They are the work of a man who, after decades of obscurity, found a way to perpetuate his comic images by embracing a new medium." He continued to appear on television until his death.
Keaton returned to film by the 1950s. In 1950, he played himself in Sunset Boulevard. Two years later, he appeared with Charlie Chaplin for the only time in Limelight. Other significant film appearances included Around the World in 80 Days (1956), It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963), A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966), and War Italian Style (1966). In 1965, Keaton appeared in a short film written and shot by French existentialist playwright Samuel Beckett entitled simply Film.
On February 1, 1966, Keaton died of lung cancer in Woodland Hills, California. He was 70 years old. An unnamed author of Keaton's obituary in Variety, wrote, "The secret to his lasting success as a master comedian was his universally recognized character—the unhappy, doleful fall guy to whom 'everything' happened. He ran to meet misfortune and never failed to make connections. Keaton was the world's whipping boy and made the world love him for it."
Further Reading on Buster Keaton
American National Biography, edited by John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, Oxford University Press, 1999.
International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers-3: Actors and Actresses, third edition, edited by Amy L. Unterburger, St. James Press, 1997.
International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers-2: Directors, third edition, edited by Laurie Collier Hillstrom, St. James Press, 1997.
Thomson, David, A Biographical Dictionary of Film, third edition, Alfred A. Knopf, 1994.
American Heritage, September 1995, p. 92.
Cineaste, Summer 1995, p. 14.
Film Comment, September-October 1995, p. 20.
The New York Times, October 6, 1996.
Time, October 9, 1995, p. 81.
USA Today Magazine, May 1995, p. 96; May 1997, p. 81.
Variety, February 2, 1966.