Buster Keaton - 1895-1966
Above: Buster Keaton in "The Love Nest" from 1923
Stoic Sphinx with a Porkpie Hat
Keaton's rise in American film history from being the #3 silent era clown behind Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd to being arguable the most popular and highly regarded is partly a reflection of the changes in tastes by movie critics and also the change among movie aficionados. Only Chaplin is considered a comparative figure in both film history and in quality, and though clowns like Harold Lloyd and Charlie Chase (and there are many others) are revered by the silent movie claque, Keaton looms out over them all now, stoic "stone face" revealing little, like a sphinx (as he was often called).
After Chaplin's rise to fame in the silent era, Chaplin's popularity and importance was partially due to the fact that as a thinking filmgoer, you're supposed to like and appreciate Chaplin, something encouraged by Chaplin and film critic alike. In Keaton's case, it wasn't until 1949 (with the article in Life Magazine "Comedy's Greatest Era" by James Agee) and then the partnership with film preservationist and exhibitor Raymond Rohauer, that the mere availability of Keaton's films was even possible for evaluation and comparison. Appreciating Keaton was an option, not a requirement among the buffs of film, and during this time Buster Keaton made himself available for numerous movies and television shows of varying levels of quality, playing small parts to help finance his retirement in his small home (which he called "The Ranch") where he raised chickens and tended an orchard. His visibility increased with the bit parts and the showing of his silent films, and as he entered the last years of his life (he died in 1966) the accolades and the praise started to mount, the most important probably being an honorary Academy Award Oscar in 1960. His wife Eleanor Keaton said (in her book about Keaton, "Buster Keaton Remembered" published in 2001 by Harry Abrams), that Keaton did not consider himself one of the movie clowns, but a vaudeville performer, which is the medium he originally came from as one of the "Three Keatons" which included his father, comedian Joe Keaton, and his mother, singer and performer Myra Keaton. (Buster Keaton authored a book in 1960 titled "My Wonderful World of Slapstick" which is still in print published by Capo Books. The book was written as a retaliation to the heavy fictionalizing of Buster's life in the 1958 bio film "The Buster Keaton Story.")
How Buster Keaton worked
According to Eleanor Keaton, Keaton's work methods rarely included writing anything down, instead he would sit and work out entire routines in his head, or silently pantomime his way through a sketch over and over. Most comedians keep records of gags and jokes, even whole filing rooms that look like the back room at a bank where clerks toil, but Keaton only kept bags of props and his own mental filing system.
He was known to break down segments of a routine by timing it against pop music which he would listen to over a radio while working the routine , editing the timing to flow like a piece of music. Keaton liked to experiment and tinker with routines, and this attitude was what he utilized in making films, something he learned from his personal friend film comedian "Fatty" Arbuckle, who Keaton treated as a mentor on how to make a movie.
Keaton took physical risks in making his films that went well beyond just dedication. During the making of Sherlock Jr., he actually broke his neck, and without knowing it continued to work, the break not being detected for years. He nearly drowned in Our Hospitality. He broke other bones in various films, but had a physical resilience that rarely slowed him down on set, where he would usually finish a scene in one take, would continue to improvise a scene if it had gone wrong, thus sometimes using material that was made up on camera.
When Keaton made Steamboat Bill in 1928, a carefully constructed breakaway house was made to have the front facade to fall forward where Buster stood (his shoes nailed into the ground), the top floor window of the house aligned exactly to pass over Buster so that after the facade hit the earth, Buster was still standing up. The clearance to have the window frame in the wall pass by Keaton was only 2 inches, and had he moved or the fall of the facade been off (it was attached to the house itself by hinges), Keaton would have been instantly crushed. Eleanor Keaton recounted that Buster said he was only willing to do such a dangerous stunt because at the time his career was falling apart along with his marriage to his first wife Norma Talmadge, and he actually didn't care if the house hit him.
Like had happened to his father, Joe Keaton (who appeared in some of Buster's films), alcoholism became the impediment to both stability and success for Buster, and years of drinking followed his divorce to Talmadge and entry into a confining contract working for M-G-M, the creative freedom he had under United Artists long gone. By the time he had cleaned up, his career was virtually over and he had gone from headlining film star to a for-hire gagman. Replacing drink with the card game of bridge, it was at this activity that brought him into contact with Eleanor Norris who he eventually married. It was with Eleanor Keaton that the "rehabilitation" of Keaton's reputation and fame began.
Kinetic Man: Buster Keaton
From the Hugh Kenner book "The Counterfeiters: An Historical Comedy" (Published 1968) page 68:
"Buster Keaton's subject was kinetic man, a being he approached with the almost metaphysical awe we reserve for a Doppelganger. This being was, eerily, himself, played by himself, then later in a projection room, watched by himself: an experience never possible to any generation of actors in the previous history of the world. He could watch himself, moreover, doing again things that in much earlier phases of his life he had actually done: being blown about by a cyclone, for instance, as he was in Kansas at the age of two and one-half. And his father in more than one film was his father, Joe Keaton, and the bride he plucked off the ledge near the waterfall was indeed his bride of two years, Natalie Talmadge Keaton...'
Keaton above and below: The young man who was a silent film dynamo. And below, the older fellow who was trying to make ends meet.
[Above: Chief Rotten Eagle from Pajama Party, 1964]
Buster Keaton, born Joseph Frank Keaton in Paqua, Kansas, October 4, 1895, between shows that his parents were performing in. He was onstage at the age of 9 months, and at the age of five was a regular part of his parents vaudeville act. Buster Keaton claimed that his nickname "Buster" came from Harry Houdini, who, after seeing the (then) child actor take a fall down a flight of steps without any damage, exclaimed "That's sure a buster!"
By the age of 21, Buster Keaton was a successful headliner in vaudeville, but had taken up an interest in working in the newly born medium of movies.
Buster is sometimes referred to as "Old Stone Face."
Original Page Friday, March 21, 2008 | Updated May 2012
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