Buster Keaton (October 4, 1895 - February 1, 1966) was an American comic actor and filmmaker. He was best known for his silent films, in which his trademark was physical comedy with a consistently stoic, deadpan expression, earning him the nickname "The Great Stone Face."
Keaton was recognized as the seventh-greatest director of all time by Entertainment Weekly. In 1999, the American Film Institute ranked Keaton the 21st-greatest male actor of all time. Critic Roger Ebert wrote of Keaton's "extraordinary period from 1920 to 1929, when he worked without interruption on a series of films that make him, arguably, the greatest actor-director in the history of the movies." Orson Welles stated that Keaton's The General is the greatest comedy ever made, the greatest Civil War film ever made, and perhaps the greatest film ever made. A 2002 worldwide poll by Sight & Sound ranked Keaton's The General as the 15th best film of all time. Three other Keaton films received votes in the magazine's survey: Our Hospitality, Sherlock, Jr., and The Navigator.
Early life in vaudevilleKeaton was born Joseph Frank Keaton into a vaudeville family. He was named "Joseph" to continue a tradition on his father's side he was sixth in a line bearing the name Joseph Keaton and "Frank" for his maternal grandfather, who disapproved of the parents' union. Later, Keaton changed his middle name to "Francis". His father was Joseph Hallie "Joe" Keaton, a native of Vigo County, Indiana. Joe Keaton owned a traveling show with Harry Houdini, the Mohawk Indian Medicine Company, which performed on stage and sold patent medicine on the side. Buster Keaton was born in Piqua, Kansas, the small town where his mother, Myra Edith Cutler, happened to go into labor.
According to a frequently-repeated story, which may be apocryphal, Keaton acquired the nickname "Buster" at about eighteen months of age. Keaton told interviewer Fletcher Markle that Harry Houdini happened to be present one day when the young Keaton took a tumble down a long flight of stairs without injury. After the infant sat up and shook off his experience, Houdini remarked, "That was a real buster!" According to Keaton, in those days, the word "buster" was used to refer to a spill or a fall that had the potential to produce injury. After this, it was Keaton's father who began to use the nickname to refer to the youngster. Keaton retold the anecdote over the years, including during a 1964 interview with the CBC's Telescope.
At the age of three, Keaton began performing with his parents in The Three Keatons. He first appeared on stage in 1899 in Wilmington, Delaware. The act was mainly a comedy sketch. Myra played the saxophone to one side, while Joe and Buster performed on center stage. The young Keaton would goad his father by disobeying him, and the elder Keaton would respond by throwing him against the scenery, into the orchestra pit, or even into the audience. A suitcase handle was sewn into Keaton's clothing to aid with the constant tossing. The act evolved as Keaton learned to take trick falls safely; he was rarely injured or bruised on stage. This knockabout style of comedy led to accusations of child abuse, and occasionally, arrest. However, Buster Keaton was always able to show the authorities that he had no bruises or broken bones. He was eventually billed as "The Little Boy Who Can't Be Damaged," with the overall act being advertised as "'The Roughest Act That Was Ever in the History of the Stage." Decades later, Keaton said that he was never hurt by his father and that the falls and physical comedy were a matter of proper technical execution. In 1914, Keaton told the Detroit News:
The secret is in landing limp and breaking the fall with a foot or a hand. It's a knack. I started so young that landing right is second nature with me. Several times I'd have been killed if I hadn't been able to land like a cat. Imitators of our act don't last long, because they can't stand the treatment.
Keaton claimed he was having so much fun that he would sometimes begin laughing as his father threw him across the stage. Noticing that this drew fewer laughs from the audience, he adopted his famous deadpan expression whenever he was working.
The act ran up against laws banning child performers in vaudeville. It is said that, when one official saw Keaton in full costume and makeup and asked a stagehand how old he was, the stagehand then pointed to the boy's mother, saying, "I don't know, ask his wife!" According to one biographer, Keaton was made to go to school while performing in New York, but only attended for part of one day. Despite tangles with the law and a disastrous tour of music halls in the United Kingdom, Keaton was a rising star in the theater. Keaton stated that he learned to read and write late, and was taught by his mother. By the time he was 21, his father's alcoholism threatened the reputation of the family act, so Keaton and his mother, Myra, left for New York, where Buster Keaton's career swiftly moved from vaudeville to film.
Although he did not see active combat, he served in World War I, during which time he suffered an ear infection that permanently impaired his hearing.
Silent film eraIn February 1917, Keaton met Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle at the Talmadge Studios in New York City, where Arbuckle was under contract to Joseph M. Schenck. Joe Keaton disapproved of films, and Buster also had reservations about the medium. During his first meeting with Arbuckle, he asked to borrow one of the cameras to get a feel for how it worked. He took the camera back to his hotel room, dismantled and reassembled it. With this rough understanding of the mechanics of the moving pictures, he returned the next day, camera in hand, asking for work. He was hired as a co-star and gag man, making his first appearance in The Butcher Boy. Keaton later claimed that he was soon Arbuckle's second director and his entire gag department. Keaton and Arbuckle became close friends.
In 1920, The Saphead was released, in which Keaton had his first starring role in a full-length feature. It was based on a successful play, The New Henrietta, which had already been filmed once under the title "The Lamb" with Douglas Fairbanks playing the lead. It is said to have been Fairbanks that recommended Keaton to take up the role for the remake five years later.
After Keaton's successful work with Arbuckle, Schenck gave him his own production unit, Buster Keaton Comedies. He made a series of two-reel comedies, including One Week (1920), The Playhouse (1921), Cops (1922), and The Electric House (1922). Based on the success of these shorts, Keaton moved to full-length features. Keaton's writers included Clyde Bruckman and Jean Havez, but the most ingenious gags were often conceived by Keaton himself. Comedy director Leo McCarey, recalling the freewheeling days of making slapstick comedies, said, "All of us tried to steal each other's gagmen. But we had no luck with Keaton, because he thought up his best gags himself and we couldn't steal him!" The more adventurous ideas called for dangerous stunts, also performed by Keaton at great physical risk. During the railroad water-tank scene in Sherlock Jr., Keaton broke his neck when he fell against a railroad track, but did not realize it until years afterward. A scene from Steamboat Bill Jr. required Keaton to run into the shot and stand still on a particular spot. Then, the facade of a two-story building toppled forward on top of Keaton. Keaton's character emerged unscathed, thanks to a single open window which passed directly over him. The stunt required precision, because the prop house weighed two tons, and the window only offered a few inches of space around Keaton's body. The sequence became one of the iconic images of Keaton's career.
The film critic David Thomson later described Keaton's style of comedy: "Buster plainly is a man inclined towards a belief in nothing but mathematics and absurdity ... like a number that has always been searching for the right equation. Look at his face as beautiful but as inhuman as a butterfly and you see that utter failure to identify sentiment." Gilberto Perez describes "Keaton's genius as an actor to keep a face so nearly deadpan and yet render it, by subtle inflections, so vividly expressive of inner life. His large deep eyes are the most eloquent feature; with merely a stare he can convey a wide range of emotions, from longing to mistrust, from puzzlement to sorrow."
Aside from Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928), Keaton's most enduring feature-length films include Our Hospitality (1923), The Navigator (1924), Sherlock Jr. (1924), Seven Chances (1925), The Cameraman (1928), and The General (1927). The General, set during the American Civil War, combined physical comedy with Keaton's love of trains, including an epic locomotive chase. Employing picturesque locations, the film's storyline reenacted an actual wartime incident. Though it would come to be regarded as Keaton's proudest achievement, the film received mixed reviews at the time. It was too dramatic for some moviegoers expecting a lightweight comedy, and reviewers questioned Keaton's judgment in making a comedic film about the Civil War, even while noting it had a "few laughs". The fact that the heroes of the story were from the Confederate side may have also contributed to the film's unpopularity.
It was an expensive misfire, and Keaton was never entrusted with total control over his movies again. His distributor, United Artists, insisted on a production manager who monitored expenses and interfered with certain story elements. Keaton endured this treatment for two more feature films, and then exchanged his independent setup for employment at Hollywood's biggest studio, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM). Keaton's loss of independence as a filmmaker coincided with the coming of sound films (although he was interested in making the transition) and mounting personal problems, and his career in the early sound era was hurt as a result.
MarriagesIn 1921, Keaton married Natalie Talmadge, sister-in-law of his boss, Joseph Schenck, and sister of actresses Norma Talmadge and Constance Talmadge. During the first three years of the marriage, the couple had two sons, James (1922-2007) and Robert (1924-2009), but after the birth of Robert, the relationship began to suffer.
According to Keaton's autobiography, Natalie turned him out of their bedroom and sent detectives to follow him to see whom he was dating behind her back. Her extravagance was another factor in the breakdown of the marriage. During the 1920s, according to his autobiography, he dated actress Kathleen Key. When he ended the affair, Key flew into a rage and tore up his dressing room.
After attempts at reconciliation, Natalie divorced Keaton in 1932, taking his entire fortune and refusing to allow any contact between Keaton and his sons, whose last name she had changed to Talmadge. Keaton was reunited with them about a decade later when his older son turned 18. The failure of his marriage, along with the loss of his independence as a filmmaker, led Keaton into a period of alcoholism.
During the height of his popularity, Keaton spent $300,000 to build a 10,000-square-foot (930 m2) home in Beverly Hills, which was later owned by James Mason and Cary Grant. Keaton's "Italian Villa" can be seen in Keaton's film Parlor, Bedroom and Bath. Keaton later said, "I took a lot of pratfalls to build that dump." Mason found numerous cans of rare Keaton films in the house in the 1950s; the films were quickly transferred by Raymond Rohauer to safety film before the original cellulose nitrate prints further deteriorated.
Keaton was at one point briefly institutionalized; however, according to the TCM documentary So Funny it Hurt, Keaton escaped a straitjacket with tricks learned during his vaudeville days. In 1933, he married his nurse, Mae Scriven, during an alcoholic binge about which he afterwards claimed to remember nothing (Keaton himself later called that period an "alcoholic blackout"). Scriven herself would later claim that she didn't know Keaton's real first name until after the marriage. When they divorced in 1936, it was again at great financial cost to Keaton.
In 1940, Keaton married Eleanor Norris (1918-1998), who was 23 years his junior. She has been credited with saving his life by stopping his heavy drinking, and helped to salvage his career. The marriage lasted until his death. Between 1947 and 1954, they appeared regularly in the Cirque Medrano in Paris as a double act. She came to know his routines so well that she often participated in them on TV revivals.
Sound era and televisionKeaton signed with MGM in 1928, a business decision that he would later call the worst of his life. He realized too late that the studio system MGM represented would severely limit his creative input. For instance, the studio refused his request to make his early project, Spite Marriage, as a sound film and after the studio converted, he was obliged to adhere to dialogue-laden scripts. For the first time, Keaton was forced to use a stunt double during some of the more dangerous scenes, as MGM wanted badly to protect its investment. He also stopped directing, but continued to perform and made some of his most financially successful films for the studio. MGM tried teaming the laconic Keaton with the rambunctious Jimmy Durante in a series of films, The Passionate Plumber, Speak Easily, and What! No Beer? The latter would be Keaton's last starring feature. The films proved popular. (Thirty years later, both Keaton and Durante had cameo parts in It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World.)
In the first Keaton pictures with sound, he and his fellow actors would shoot each scene three times: one in English, one in Spanish, and one in either French or German. The actors would phonetically memorize the foreign-language scripts a few lines at time and shoot immediately after. This is discussed in the TCM documentary Buster Keaton: So Funny it Hurt, with Keaton complaining about having to shoot lousy movies not just once, but three times. His stage name in Spanish markets was Pamplinas ("Nonsense"), and his nickname was Cara de palo ("Wooden face").
Behind the scenes, Keaton's world was in chaos, with divorce proceedings and alcoholism contributing to production delays and unpleasant incidents at the studio. Keaton was so depleted during the production of 1933's What! No Beer? that MGM released him after the filming was complete, despite the movie being a resounding hit. In 1934, Keaton accepted an offer to make an independent film in Paris, Le Roi des Champs-elysees. During this period, he made one other film in Europe, The Invader (released in America as An Old Spanish Custom in 1936).
Educational PicturesUpon Keaton's return to Hollywood, he made a screen comeback in a series of 16 two-reel comedies for Educational Pictures. Most of these are simple visual comedies, with many of the gags supplied by Keaton himself. The high point in the Educational series is Grand Slam Opera, featuring Buster in his own screenplay as an amateur-hour contestant. When the series lapsed in 1937, Keaton returned to MGM as a gag writer, including the Marx Brothers films At the Circus (1939) and Go West (1940), and providing material for Red Skelton. He also helped and advised Lucille Ball in her comedic work in movies and television.
Columbia PicturesIn 1939, Columbia Pictures hired Keaton to star in ten two-reel comedies, running for two years. The director was usually Jules White, whose emphasis on slapstick made most of these films resemble White's Three Stooges comedies. Keaton's personal favorite was the series' debut entry, Pest from the West, a shorter, tighter remake of Keaton's little-viewed 1935 feature The Invader; it was directed not by White but by Mack Sennett veteran Del Lord. Moviegoers and exhibitors welcomed Keaton's Columbia comedies, proving that the comedian had not lost his appeal. However, taken as a whole, Keaton's Columbia shorts rank as the worst comedies he made, an assessment he concurred with in his autobiography. The final entry was She's Oil Mine, and Keaton swore he would never again "make another crummy two-reeler." He stuck to his word, and the Columbia entries would be his final starring series for any movie studio.
1940s and feature filmsKeaton's personal life had stabilized with his 1940 marriage, and now he was taking life a little easier, abandoning Columbia for the less strenuous field of feature films. Throughout the 1940s, Keaton played character roles in both "A" and "B" features. Critics rediscovered Keaton in 1949 and producers occasionally hired him for bigger "prestige" pictures. He had cameos in such films as In the Good Old Summertime, Sunset Boulevard (1950), Around the World in Eighty Days, and It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Keaton was given more screen time in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966). He also appeared in a comedy routine about two inept stage musicians in Charlie Chaplin's Limelight (1952), recalling the vaudeville of The Playhouse. With the exception of Seeing Stars, a minor publicity film produced in 1922, Limelight was the only time in which the two would ever appear together on film.
In 1949, comedian Ed Wynn invited Keaton to appear on his CBS comedy-variety show, The Ed Wynn Show, which was televised live on the West Coast; kinescopes were made for distribution of the programs to other parts of the country since there was no transcontinental coaxial cable until September 1951.
1950s and televisionIn 1950, Keaton had a successful television series, The Buster Keaton Show, which was broadcast live on a local Los Angeles station. An attempt to recreate the first series on film as Life with Buster Keaton (1951), which allowed the program to be broadcast nationwide, was less well-received. A theatrical feature film, The Misadventures of Buster Keaton, was fashioned from the series. Keaton said he canceled the filmed series himself because he was unable to create enough fresh material to produce a new show each week. Keaton also appeared on Ed Wynn's variety show. At the age of 55, he successfully recreated one of the stunts of his youth, in which he propped one foot onto a table, then swung the second foot up next to it, and held the awkward position in midair for a moment before crashing to the stage floor. I've Got a Secret host Garry Moore recalled, "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."
Unlike his contemporary Harold Lloyd, who kept his movies from being televised (and therefore became lesser known to today's audiences), Keaton's periodic television appearances helped to revive interest in his silent films in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1954, Keaton played his first television dramatic role in "The Awakening", an episode of the syndicated anthology series Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Presents.
On April 3, 1957, Keaton was surprised by Ralph Edwards for the weekly NBC program This Is Your Life. The half hour program, which also promoted the release of the biographical film The Buster Keaton Story with Donald O'Connor, summarized Keaton's life and career up to that point.
In December 1958, Keaton was a guest star as a hospital janitor who provides gifts to sick children in a special Christmas episode of The Donna Reed Show on ABC. The program was titled "A Very Merry Christmas". He returned to the program in 1965 in the episode "Now You See It, Now You Don't". The 1958 episode has been included in the DVD release of Donna Reed's television programs.
In August 1960, Keaton accepted the role of mute King Sextimus the Silent in the national touring company of Once Upon A Mattress, a successful Broadway musical. Eleanor Keaton was cast in the chorus, and during rehearsals, she fielded questions directed at her husband, creating difficulties in communication. After a few days, Keaton warmed up to the rest of the cast with his "utterly delicious sense of humor", according to Fritzi Burr, who played opposite him as his wife Queen Aggravaine. When the tour landed in Los Angeles, Keaton invited the entire cast and crew to a spaghetti party at his Woodland Hills home, and entertained them by singing vaudeville songs.
In 1960, Keaton returned to MGM for the final time, playing a lion tamer in a 1960 adaptation of Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Much of the film was shot on location on the Sacramento River, which doubled for the Mississippi River setting of Twain's original book.
In 1961, he starred in The Twilight Zone episode "Once Upon a Time", which included both silent and sound sequences. Keaton played time traveler Mulligan, who traveled from 1890 to 1960, then back, by means of a special helmet.
Keaton also found steady work as an actor in TV commercials, including a popular series of silent ads for Simon Pure Beer in which he revisited some of the gags from his silent film days. In 1963, Keaton appeared in the episode "Think Mink" of ABC's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington sitcom, starring Fess Parker.
In 1964, Keaton appeared with Joan Blondell and Joe E. Brown in the final episode of ABC's circus drama, The Greatest Show on Earth, starring Jack Palance. That same year, he appeared on Lucille Ball's CBS television show, The Lucy Show, in an episode ("A Day in the Park") filmed in color but initially televised in black and white; this featured him sitting on a park bench, reading a newspaper, which he gradually unfolded into a huge, single sheet. Harvey Korman played a policeman in the scene.
At the age of 70, Keaton suggested that, for his appearance in the 1965 film Sergeant Deadhead, he run past the end of a firehose into a six-foot-high flip and crash. When director Norman Taurog balked, expressing concerns for Keaton's health, Keaton said, "I won't hurt myself, Norm, I've done it for years!" Keaton also starred in three other movies for American International Pictures (Beach Blanket Bingo, Pajama Party, and How to Stuff a Wild Bikini).
Keaton starred in a short film called The Railrodder (1965) for the National Film Board of Canada. Wearing his traditional porkpie hat, he travelled from one end of Canada to the other on a motorized handcar, performing gags similar to those in films he made 50 years before. The film is also notable for being Keaton's last silent screen performance. The Railrodder was made in tandem with a behind-the-scenes documentary about Keaton's life and times, called Buster Keaton Rides Again, also made for the National Film Board. He played the central role in Samuel Beckett's Film (1965), directed by Alan Schneider. In 1966, he played a secondary role in Due Marines e un Generale in Italy. Keaton's last film appearance was in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966). He amazed the cast and crew by doing many of his own stunts, although Thames Television said his ill health did force the use of a stunt double for some scenes.
DeathKeaton died of lung cancer on February 1, 1966, in Woodland Hills, California. Despite being diagnosed with the terminal illness in January 1966, he was never told that he was terminally ill, and thought that he had bronchitis. Confined to a hospital during his final days for treatment, Keaton was restless and paced the room endlessly. In a British television documentary on his career, his widow Eleanor told producers of Thames Television that Keaton was up out of bed and moving around, and even played cards with friends who came to visit at their house the day before he died. Eleanor Keaton died in 1998, from emphysema and lung cancer, aged 80.
Influence and legacyKeaton has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame: 6619 Hollywood Boulevard (for motion pictures); and 6321 Hollywood Boulevard (for television).
A 1957 film biography, The Buster Keaton Story, starred Donald O'Connor as Keaton. The screenplay, by Sidney Sheldon (who also directed the film), was vaguely based on his life, but contained many factual errors and merged his three wives into one character. Most of the story centered on his drinking problem, in the producer's attempt to imitate the success of I'll Cry Tomorrow, a sudsy biography about another alcoholic celebrity (Lillian Roth). The 1987 documentary, Buster Keaton: A Hard Act to Follow, which won two Emmy Awards and was directed by Kevin Brownlow and David Gill, is considered a much more accurate telling of Keaton's story.
In 1994, caricaturist Al Hirschfeld penned a series of silent movie stars for the United States Post Office, including Rudolph Valentino and Keaton. Hirschfeld said that modern film stars were more difficult to depict, that silent film comedians such as Laurel and Hardy and Keaton "looked like their caricatures."
Keaton's physical comedy is cited by Jackie Chan in his autobiography documentary Jackie Chan: My Story as being the primary source of inspiration for his own brand of self-deprecating physical comedy.
Paul Merton often stated on his show Silent Clowns how influential and hilarious Buster Keaton was to fellow comedians.
Keaton designed and fabricated many of his own pork pie hats during his career. In 1964, he told an interviewer that in making the pork pie, he started with a good Stetson hat and cut it down, stiffening the brim with concentrated sugar water. The hats were often destroyed during Keaton's wild movie antics; some were given away as gifts and some were snatched by souvenir hunters. Keaton said he was lucky if he used only six hats in making a film. Keaton estimated that he and his wife Eleanor made thousands of the hats during his career.
Photograph Hand Color Tinted by artist Margaret A. Rogers.