A Week to Remember: Buster Keaton

Keith Chaffee, Librarian, Collection Development,
Buster Keaton in the General

Buster Keaton was born on October 4, 1895. Keaton was one of the great silent film comedians, known for his daring and innovative stuntwork.

Keaton was born in Kansas, not because anyone in his family lived there, but because that’s where his parents happened to be at the time. They were traveling vaudevillians, part of a company owned by Keaton’s father and his partner, Harry Houdini. (Yes, that Harry Houdini.) The Keaton Houdini Medicine Show Company offered stage performances in the theater and sold bottles of patent “medicine” outside.

Keaton was only three years old when he joined his parents on stage. As “The Three Keatons,” the family specialized in violently boisterous comedy. Comic bits often centered on Buster’s disobedience or misbehavior, for which his father would punish him by literally hurling him around the stage; the boy had a suitcase handle sewn into his stage outfits for easier grabbing and tossing. Such a violent act occasionally led to accusations of child abuse, and Keaton’s father was even arrested a few times. But Keaton had a natural gift for trick falls, and got better at them as he got older; he was able to be thrown and land without injury, and charges of abuse were usually dismissed when Keaton showed that he had no bruises or broken bones. In fact, Keaton seemed to enjoy being thrown about the stage and laughed with pleasure as he flew through the air. That stopped when he realized that he got bigger laughs from the audience when he didn’t laugh himself, and that led to the development of the deadpan facial expression for which he would become well known.

In 1917, Keaton met silent film comedian Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, who hired him to act and to write physical gags for his movies. Keaton and Arbuckle made more than a dozen short films together, most of which are gathered in two streaming collections at Kanopy (volume 1, volume 2). Keaton was given his own production unit in 1920 and began starring in his own films. He wrote, directed, and starred in nineteen short films over the next three years, then moved on to feature films.

Feature films of the 1920s were shorter than we’d expect a movie to be today, and the ten features Keaton made between 1923 and 1928 are between 45 and 75 minutes long. These are the classic films for which Keaton is best known, and feature some of his most elaborate and dangerous comic stunts. Steamboat Bill, Jr. features what is probably Keaton’s most famous stunt: The front of a building falls forward to where Keaton stands; the open window passes over him with only inches of clearance on all sides. The building facade weighed two tons, and had Keaton been off his mark even slightly, he could have been seriously injured or killed.

three movies by Buster Keaton

Keaton’s features were more artistically ambitious than the usual slapstick of the era. Our Hospitality was praised for the skill with which the comedy was integrated into a real story, and for the attention to accurate period detail. Keaton’s 1926 film The General is now widely considered to be his masterpiece, noteworthy for a series of dangerous stunts Keaton performs on a moving train. In its day, the film received mixed reviews; some thought that there was too much drama and not enough comedy, and there were questions about whether it was appropriate to set a comedy during the Civil War. But its reputation has grown with time; in 1989, it was part of the first group of movies inducted into the Library of Congress National Film Registry. Two other Keaton films from this era—Sherlock Jr. and The Navigator—have also been inducted into the Registry.

The 1930s were a difficult decade for Keaton, both personally and professionally. Two marriages ended in divorce; he struggled with alcoholism; and he was briefly institutionalized (at one point, escaping from a straitjacket using tricks he’d learned from his father’s old partner, Harry Houdini). He began the decade working for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, where he was very unhappy. The studio required him to use a stuntman for some of his more dangerous scenes. The sound era began while Keaton was at MGM, and he had to film his movies in multiple languages, learning the French and German dialogue phonetically, one scene at a time. Keaton’s first three films for MGM, including The Cameraman (another National Film Registry title) and Free and Easy (his first sound film) are gathered in The Buster Keaton Collection, along with the documentary So Funny It Hurt.

Keaton returned to short films in the late 1930s, making films for Educational Pictures and for Columbia Pictures. Audiences seemed to enjoy them, but Keaton thought they were his worst work. He particularly disliked the Columbia shorts, which were closer in style to the very broad slapstick of the Three Stooges.

Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, Keaton mostly played smaller movie roles. He appeared in Charlie Chaplin’s 1952 Limelight, the only time the two silent comedy titans ever worked together. He was hired for the 1949 movie In the Good Old Summertime specifically to create a bit of physical comedy in which a violin would be destroyed; he came up with a fine bit, and when the director realized that no one could possibly do the bit as well as Keaton, Keaton got the role.

In the 1950s, Keaton also moved into television, starring in The Buster Keaton Show, which aired live in Los Angeles; it changed its name to Life with Buster Keaton and moved to film in order to reach a national audience. But the show didn’t last very long; Keaton found it difficult to create enough material for a new show every week. In 1961, he starred in the Twilight Zone episode “Once Upon a Time,” playing an 1890s janitor who travels through time to the 1960s; the 1890s scenes were filmed in the style of silent movies, with no dialogue and a saloon-piano soundtrack, and Keaton recreated some of the stunts from his early films.

He made one last silent short in 1965; The Railroader was a comic travelogue made by the National Film Board of Canada. In the same year, he starred in Film, a rarely-seen experimental short film written by Samuel Beckett (the 2015 documentary Notfilm looks at the production of Film). Keaton made his final film appearance in the adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, amazing his co-stars by doing most of his own stunts at the age of 70.

Near the end of his life, Keaton was interviewed by radio and television host Garry Moore. Moore later said, "I asked (Keaton) how he did all those falls, and he said, 'I'll show you'. He opened his jacket and he was all bruised. So that's how he did it—it hurt—but you had to care enough not to care."

Keaton received an honorary Academy Award in 1960 in recognition of his contributions to film. He died of lung cancer on February 1, 1966. Keaton’s 1960 memoir is called My Wonderful World of Slapstick (e-book); Marion Meade’s biography is Buster Keaton: Cut to the Chase (e-book | print).

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