The following article is republished from Uncle John's Ahh-Inspiring Bathroom Reader.
Any list of the greatest movie comedians has to include Buster Keaton. Never heard of him? You don’t know what you’re missing. Here’s the story of one of Hollywood’s comic treasures.
THE GREAT STONE FACE
Today’s filmmakers have nearly a century of histories to build on. But that wasn’t always the case -in thee early days of Hollywood, directors had to invent their craft as they went along. How do you film a romantic scene? A car chase? An Old West shootout? An invasion from Mars? Somebody had to do it first -and they had to figure it out for themselves.
WHAT MADE HIM DIFFERENT
* Before Keaton, the standard practice for filming a comedian was to set up a camera in a fixed position and then have them perform in front of it, just as they had performed before live audiences in vaudeville. Keaton made the camera his partner in the action of storytelling, instead of just a passive, immobile recorder of events.
* In his silent short film The Playhouse (1921), for example, Keaton figured out how to film a dream sequence where he plays every role in a vaudeville theater- the orchestra members, the performers onstage, and all the men and women in the audience. Nine characters on screen at the same time, and all of them played by Buster Keaton himself.
* In his 1924 film Sherlock, Jr., Keaton plays a movie theater projectionist who -literally- walks into the movie screen and becomes a participant in the film being shown there.
* Audiences were thrilled with Keaton’s work -and so were filmmakers. They went to see his movies over and over again, just to try to figure out how he filmed his scenes.
* Like Chaplin and Lloyd, Keaton routinely risked his life performing virtually all his own stunts. He nearly drowned while filming a river scene in Our Hospitality (1923) when a safety line broke, and he actually broke his neck filming a scene in Sherlock, Jr. (1924), when he fell onto a railroad track while dangling from a water tower. Both of these scenes were used in the final films. (Keaton didn’t even realized he’d broken his neck until 11 years later, when he finally got around to having it X-rayed.)
* Keaton had a very distinctive onscreen persona- he never smiled on camera. His legendary “Great Stone Face” was something that dated back to his childhood in vaudeville. “If I laughed at what I did, the audience didn’t,” he told an interviewer in the 1960s. “The more serious I turned the bigger laugh I could get. So at the time I went into pictures, that was automatic. I didn’t even know I was doing it.”
IN THE BEGINNING
Keaton spent nearly his entire life in show business, first in vaudeville, then in film and television. He was born Joseph Frank Keaton, Jr. in Piqua, Kansas, on October 4, 1895, while his parents were performing in a traveling medicine show with magician Harry Houdini. His father, Joe Keaton, Sr. was a dance and acrobatic comic; his mother Myra played the saxophone.
Joe Jr. got his nickname from Houdini, following an accident in a hotel when he was only six months old. “I fell down a flight of stairs,” Keaton told an interviewer in 1963. “They picked me up… no bruises, didn’t seem to hurt myself, and Houdini said, ‘That’s sure a Buster.’” (In vaudeville, pratfalls were known as “busters.”)
The name stuck and so did Buster’s ability to survive accidents. Family legend also has it that he lost his right index fingertip (true), nearly lost an eye (unknown), and was sucked out of hotel room by a cyclone (unlikely) in three separate incidents all on the same day. True or not, three-year-old Buster got into enough trouble backstage that his parents decided the safest thing to do was to put him in the act, so they could keep an eye on him while they were working.
SO THAT’S WHY THEY CALL IT SLAPSTICK
It wasn’t long after they added little Buster to the act that they realized he was getting all the laughs. So they reworked the act. In one skit, Joe would demonstrate how to make children obey their parents while Buster tripped his dad up and hit him with a broom. Joe would pretend to lose his temper and then hit, kick, or throw little Buster all over the stage -into the scenery, into the orchestra pit, and even into the audience- using a hidden suitcase handle and a harness sewn into Buster’s costume. The Keaton’s billed their son as “The Human Mop” and “The Little Boy Who Can’t Be Damaged.”
SCHOOL OF HARD KNOCKS
Keaton claimed that in all his years of performing in vaudeville, he was rarely if ever injured during the act. It seemed violent, but he’d learned at an early age how to perform pratfalls and other stunts without getting hurt. “I learned the tricks so early in life that body control became a pure instinct with me,” he remembered. Still, the Keatons had to hustle to stay one step ahead of child welfare groups, who kept trying to have the act shut down.
“The law read that a child cannot do acrobatics, walk a wire, can’t juggle, a lot of those things, but there was nothing in the law that said you can’t kick him in the face or throw him through a piece of scenery,” Keaton explained. “On that technicality, we were allowed to work, although we’d get called into court every other week.”
ON TO HOLLYWOOD
The Three Keatons toured until 1917. By then Joe, drinking heavily, really was starting to beat the 21-year-old Buster onstage. The act split up and Buster got a job as an actor in film comedian Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle’s studio.
Say what you will about Buster’s “abusive” childhood, but when he walked into Arbuckle’s studio for the first time at the age of 21, he had more than 17 years of experience performing pratfalls two shows a day, six days a week. He was a master of physical comedy and improvisation, someone perfectly suited to make his mark in the movie business.
Arbuckle knew it, too. He let Keaton perform in a movie called The Butcher Boy his first day at the studio. And Keaton- already wearing his trademark flat porkpie hat- was such a polished performer that he filmed his scene in just one take.
WHAT GOES UP…
After just two more films, Keaton was promoted to assistant director and soon after that he was writing and co-starring in Arbuckle’s films. The two made 12 short comedies together between 1917 and 1920. When Arbuckle left to work in full-length feature comedies, Keaton inherited his studio, and after making a single introductory feature-length film called The Saphead, he began directing and starring in his own movies. These were the films that established Keaton as a star in his own right, and one of Hollywood’s most brilliant comedic talents.
He made 19 comedy shorts between 1920 and 1923, including The Boat (1921), Cops (1922), and The Electric House (1922) which are considered some of his finest work. In 1923 he switched to feature films, making ten in five years, including Three Ages (1923), Sherlock, Jr. (1924), The Navigator (1924), and The General (1926).
…MUST COME DOWN
Ironically, the film that is now considered his greatest masterpiece and one of the finest film comedies ever made, The General, ruined Keaton’s career as an independent filmmaker. The film was based on an actual incident that took place during the Civil War, when Northern raiders stole a Confederate train called The General. Keaton plays the Southern engineer who tried to steal it back.
Keaton shot the film on location in Oregon using real locomotives and more than 400 members of the Oregon National Guard. It was one of the most expensive silent films at the time and though it is now considered a classic, it flopped after its release. So did Keaton’s next film, College (1927). Those two failures forced his distributor, United Artists, out of the independent film distribution business altogether.
Keaton then made what he would later call “the worst mistake of my career” when he closed his film studio and signed with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1928. Keaton, 34, was at the height of his creative powers and had 45 films to his credit. He didn’t realize it at the time, but his creative career was largely over.
FROM BAD TO WORSE
Buster’s first movie with MGM, The Camerman (1928), is considered one of his greatest films. But MGM reneged on its promise to give Keaton creative control and proceeded to stick him in one terrible picture after another.
It was at this point that Keaton’s life -both onscreen and off- began to fall apart. As his career plummeted, he began drinking heavily; his long-troubled marriage fell apart and in the subsequent divorce he lost custody of his two sons. By the time he started working on the ironically titled What, No Beer? (1933), he was drinking more than a bottle of whiskey a day and was frequently too drunk to show up for work. MGM sent him to an alcohol rehabilitation clinic more than once, but he continually relapsed and in February 1933, the studio fired him. He would never star in another major Hollywood film; he was only 37.
AS SEEN ON TV
It took Keaton years to get his drinking under control, but he never gave up. Whenever he was sober enough to work, he did. Between 1934 and 1949, he appeared in three foreign films and more than 20 low-budget films he called “cheaters” because they were slapped together in three or four days. They were the worst films of his career.
Still, because the “cheaters” were produced by Columbia Pictures, they got wide distribution, and that helped Keaton get small parts in feature films. And that helped him get his first television appearance -on The Ed Wynn Show in 1947- at a time when many other film stars were shunning the new medium. He landed his own TV show in Los Angeles the following year, all the while continuing to act in feature films.
Remember, this was before movie channels, VCRs, and DVD players made it possible to view old movies, so it may be difficult to imagine how important these TV and film appearances were to reviving Keaton’s popularity. He was the only silent film star still working regularly; other greats like Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd were largely unknown to younger audiences because their best films had not been seen in movie theaters for more than 20 years.
Not so with Keaton: by the early 1950s, he was popping up regularly on TV and in films, and this regular exposure helped to generate new interest in his old silent films. As they were restored and rereleased they played to huge adoring audiences.
Keaton died from lung cancer in 1966 at the age of 70. By then he’d won an honorary Academy Award and had lived to see his reputation reestablished as one of the legends of the silent screen.
Even if you’ve never seen any of Buster Keaton’s silent classics, you may have seen some of his cameo appearances. Look for him in the following films:
* Sunset Boulevard (1950). Gloria Swanson plays Norma Desmond, a faded silent screen star who takes in a down-on-his-luck screenwriter played by William Holden. Keaton is one of the “wax works” -the old Hollywood stars who play bridge at Desmond’s house.
* Limelight (1952). Charlie Chaplin plays a washed-up music hall clown who tries to revive his career; Keaton is his piano-playing sidekick.
* Pajama Party (1964). Fourth of the “Beach Party” movies starring Annette Funicello. Keaton plays an Indian chief named Rotten Eagle.
* A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966). Keaton’s last major cameo. His character Erronius spends much of the film going from horse to horse collecting mare’s sweat for a love potion.
This article is reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Ahh-Inspiring Bathroom Reader.
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