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By Ken Lashway


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1920's Buster Keaton 5x7 Fan PhotoHe came to be known as ‘The Great Stoneface’ for the impassive, stoic demeanor he seemingly always maintained on-screen, whether a hurricane swirled around him or a house was falling on him. The subtle irony of his films was that this calm exterior belied the extraordinary mental and physical agility seething just below the surface, and in an entertainment career that lasted virtually his entire life, Buster Keaton demonstrated both talents in ways that continue to amaze, amuse, and delight.

He was literally born into show business on October 4, 1895 as Joseph Frank Keaton, the son of two traveling performers, Joseph and Myra Keaton, and he quickly acquired the famous nickname in a manner which could have been scripted in Hollywood. When just a few months old, he tumbled down an entire flight of stairs, and was retrieved unhurt at the bottom by his astounded godfather, Harry Houdini, who was traveling with the same show as the Keatons. Houdini remarked that the toddler had taken quite a fall, or ‘buster’, and was a tough little fellow indeed. Young Keaton was destined to take many more ’busters’ on stage and in films, but happily most of them were not of this same impromptu variety.

It was only natural that young Buster be included in the family act, since entertainment dominated the lives of his parents, and so it happened that he began appearing on stage with them at roughly the age of three. He took to it like a fish to water, and in short order, he was winning praiseworthy reviews in many of the cities where the Keatons appeared. He developed a knack for doing impressions of celebrities, and for very physical comedy - frequently he was used by his parents as a kind of living prop on stage, where he might be tossed about, or run over, or take acrobatic pratfalls. This became such a big part of The Three Keatons’ act that it drew the attention of the Gerry Society, which monitored treatment of minors, as well as Sarah Bernhardt herself. As a result, in some cities Buster was not allowed to perform, and his parents were even arrested several times for apparent abuse of the young performer. However, when Buster’s parents weren’t forced to defend their on-stage treatment of him, the young comedian was taking advantage of the talents of those entertainers he toured with. He was soon writing jokes, and delivering them with impeccable timing and precision to appreciative audiences. But his acquired skills didn’t end there - from Houdini, Buster learned to do magic tricks, from ’Bojangles’ Robinson he learned to dance, and from other performers he learned how to sing and play several musical Ghiradelli's Chocolate Buster Keaton Cardinstruments. In short, his vaudeville career provided him with a wealth of experience and talent he would later draw on when writing and directing movies.

By the time he reached the age of 21, Buster Keaton was an acknowledged star ofBuster Keaton pinback button from the 1970's Vaudeville, and The Three Keatons had become a very successful act - but it was clearly time for Buster to move on. His father’s alcoholism had become progressively worse, and he was no longer up to the rigors of touring life, and Buster himself was ready for new challenges. By coincidence, at this time he met just the person who could help him make the leap to another comedic level, one Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle. Arbuckle was an ex-vaudevillian himself, who had gone on to star in film comedy, and he recognized that the talents of Buster Keaton were well-suited to films. After making three films with Arbuckle, Keaton became his co-director as well as his only writer - and this was just the beginning of his meteoric rise to film stardom. During the period from 1920 to 1928, Buster made 31 shorts and feature films, all of which are acknowledged by critics to be superior to anything else being done at the time - and it must be kept in mind that this period included many works by Charlie Chaplin.

This was the period where Keaton made some of the great comic classics of all time, including ‘The General’, ‘Steamboat Bill’, ‘Our Hospitality’, and ‘Sherlock Jr.’. Buster did his own stunts in these films, and it is little short of incredible what has been captured on film in the way of his risk-taking. In ‘Our Hospitality’, he nearly drowned during a sequence where he is whisked away by rapids; in ‘Sherlock Jr.’, he actually broke his neck in a scene where he is knocked to the ground by a waterspout while running along the topside of a moving train. Perhaps the most spectacular stunt scene he ever filmed was during ’Steamboat Bill’. In the aftermath of a hurricane which has moved through, Buster is standing in front of the lone wall of his home left standing, and viewers see that this wall will also fall - but Buster has his back to it. The wall does pitch forward, and the open space of a window frame falls precisely over Buster as the wall tumbles to the ground all around him. Keaton had made precise measurements beforehand of course, to anticipate where the open window would be, and marked his spot on the ground accordingly. There was nothing faked about the filming of the final scene though - the wall fell over the top of Buster right on cue, without him so much as batting an eyelash before the camera.

Throughout these films, others did receive mention in the credits, but it was unquestionably Buster Keaton who was the creative genius behind 1931 Buster Keaton Hansom Jasmatzi Cigarette Cardthem all. His fertile imagination dreamed up all the comedy scenes, his athletic body carried out all the arduous 1928 Wills Buster Keaton Tobacco Cardphysical requirements, and his astute directorial presence organized the story elements into a cohesive whole that never failed to delight fans and impress critics. Unfortunately, these films and these years were to be the zenith of Keaton’s film career. In 1928, he made a decision which has been universally regarded as disastrous - he was lured away from making his own films and signed on with Metro Goldwyn Mayer. In doing so, he sacrificed all the artistic freedom he had enjoyed thus far, and was never again free to make the kind of movies he wanted, or the kinds of scenes he thought were funny.

Buster never liked any of the films made for MGM, and went on to appear in lower-profile films for Columbia Pictures during the period from 1933-1949. He also took on small movie parts and some television parts in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s, but he never again achieved the brilliance of his earlier work. He always said in his later years that the move to MGM was the worst mistake he had ever made, because he was never allowed to follow his own comedic instincts as he had earlier. It is truly a pity for all movie-goers that this is so, because it was Keaton’s instincts which had guided the production of movies like ’The General’, still considered one of the greatest films of all time. Keaton’s pre-MGM work is proof positive that he was one of the masters of comedy, and while it is regrettable that his most productive and creative phase did not last longer, it is also true that his best works are a great gift to the world of movies
Ken Lashway is a freelance writer from New York. Buster Keaton is Ken's second feature for us--next issue he takes a quick break from the Comedy Corner to bring you a piece on Johnny Weissmuller.  After that little break the Comedy Corner shall return to The Movie Profiles & Premiums Newsletter with a Harold Lloyd profile.

Other Buster Keaton Pages:

A Tribute to Buster Keaton A tribute to "The Great Stone Face," a pioneer in silent film and physical comedy, and an inspiration to both directors and comedians who followed him.