A famous young vaudeville performer turned famous silent film actor-director, with a life full of ups and downs.
The Early Years
Joseph Frank Keaton was born on October 4, 1895, in Kansas to two itinerant comic performers, Joseph Hallie Keaton and Myra Cutler Keaton. His parents would sometimes leave him unattended at the local boarding house while they performed, or sometimes bring him to the theater and let him crawl around backstage. It was there, at the age of 6 months, that he fell down a flight of stairs but was unhurt and even delighted by the experience. Joseph’s godfather, a magician named Harry Houdini, witnessed the incident and said, “What a buster your kid took!” “Buster” quickly became little Joseph’s nickname.
At about 9 months, Buster crawled on stage while his parents were performing, and from then on, he was a part of the act. At first, his main shtick was to stand behind his father and silently imitate Dad as he performed his monologue; later, Buster became a veritable punching bag for his father, getting kicked or thrown across the stage in order to get a laugh from the audience. The act was so successful that Buster’s father got arrested for child abuse on quite a few occasions, usually getting released after a doctor’s examination showed that Buster had no broken bones or even bruises.
Buster’s entire formal education consisted of half a day of school in Jersey City, New Jersey; he was kicked out at lunch for cracking jokes and pulling pranks. For the rest of his childhood, he was taught by his mother, and also by other vaudeville performers, such as Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, who taught him to dance.
Joseph, Myra, and Buster’s act remained successful for years and eventually grew to include Buster’s two younger siblings, his brother Harry (nicknamed Jingles) and sister Louise. However, Joseph was suffering from alcoholism, and became more violent both on stage and off. Buster finally quit the act in early 1917 and was immediately signed to appear in a Broadway vaudeville show.
The Independent Films
Less than two months later, Buster met with a former vaudevillian named Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, who immediately cast Buster in a small supporting role in a short film called “The Butcher Boy.” Buster turned out to be as much of a natural movie performer as he had been on stage, doing his part in one take and enjoying the entire filmmaking process so much that he took the camera home for the night, took it apart, and put it back together to see how it worked. He got out of his vaudeville contract and worked with Arbuckle for several years, becoming his assistant director and head writer.
Buster moved on in 1920 to making his own comedy films, first two-reelers and then features, which he both directed and starred in. His output was prolific, 19 shorts and 12 full-length movies in eight years, and he quickly became one of the most famous filmmakers and stars in the world. His films were blends of slapstick, satire, fantasy, and black comedy, and they ranged from the story of a rich young man who, spurned by his love interest, winds up alone on an ocean liner drifting out to sea (“The Navigator”) to the story of a Civil War-era railroad engineer who tries to prevent Union spies from stealing his train (“The General”). He became known as “The Great Stone Face” because of the almost continual hangdog expression he wore while things were happening to him in these films.
He did almost all of his own stunts, injuring himself several times, most notably during the filming of “Sherlock, Jr.,” when he broke his neck, although the injury wasn’t discovered until years later when Buster was complaining of headaches. Filming other movies, he broke his foot, broke his nose, and almost drowned.
In Buster’s personal life during this period, he married Natalie Talmadge in 1920. She was the sister of actresses Constance and Norma Talmadge, and they and their mother Peg moved in with Buster and Natalie. After Buster had fathered two sons, an apparent joint decision by the Talmadges led to he and Natalie moving into separate bedrooms in 1924.
The Later Films
In 1928, against the advice of Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, Buster joined the studio system, going to work for MGM. He was fairly happy with the results of his first MGM film, “The Cameraman,” but then the quality began to go downhill, and Buster became disheartened quickly. MGM was known more for its epics, with very little experience in comedies, and without the creative control he’d had on his independent films, Buster was frustrated.
Eventually, he turned to alcohol, which was easy to find in Hollywood even though Prohibition was in effect. The worse the movies he was starring in got, the more he drank, and it quickly began to affect his personal life. Natalie finally divorced him in 1932, he created a scandal by marrying another woman before the divorce was final, he was forced to file for bankruptcy, and he spent a brief time in a sanitarium (where he put his vaudeville training to use and escaped from a straitjacket).
Finally, MGM fired him, although not necessarily because of his alcoholism. Buster had decided to take a strong stand and refused to work on movies he felt to be subpar, and so the firing was because he was breaking his contract.
He soon managed to quit drinking, essentially by going cold turkey, and spent much of the ‘30s and ‘40s making the occasional short film for other companies while working again for MGM, now as a gag writer. He also went back to the stage, touring the U.S. and Europe in plays including “The Gorilla” and “Once Upon a Mattress.” Meanwhile, he divorced his second wife, and married an MGM dancer named Eleanor Norris in 1940.
A cover story in Life magazine in 1949 spotlighted Buster, and a new generation began to discover his independent silent films, which played both at revival showings in movie theaters and also on the relatively new medium of television. He had two short-lived television series in the early 1950s that ran locally in Los Angeles, “The Buster Keaton Show” and “Life with Buster Keaton,” but he became more well-known for his occasional guest appearances on variety and dramatic series. The appearance that would be most frequently rerun in the years to come was a 1961 episode of “The Twilight Zone” called “Once Upon a Time,” in which he played an 1890s janitor who travels through time to the 1960s and finds that the future isn’t quite the idyllic paradise he’d imagined. The 1890s sequences in the show were done in the style of a slapstick silent movie, although that episode’s director wasn’t as good at it as Buster himself was in the 1920s.
Buster also made cameo appearances in films throughout the 1950s and 1960s, such as “Around the World in 80 Days,” “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World,” "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," and with Charlie Chaplin in “Limelight.” He also served as a consultant on a 1957 filmed biography, called “The Buster Keaton Story,” with Donald O’Connor in the title role.
Between these jobs, Buster traveled the world with Eleanor, going to film festivals and other ceremonies to receive awards and accolades.
Buster Keaton died of lung cancer on February 1, 1966, with his films still being shown worldwide.
Selected Filmography (films directed and starred in)
In 1989, “The General” was among the first 25 films named to the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry. “Sherlock, Jr.” was added to the registry in 1991, and “Cops” was added in 1997. Most if not all of the above listed films are available on DVD and videocassette.
- Internet Movie Database (imdb.com)
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