Biography of Buster Keaton, Iconic Silent Comedian

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Actor, director, screenwriter, and producer Buster Keaton (October 4, 1895-February 1, 1966) is one of the most celebrated screen comedians of the Hollywood silent era. In addition to his popular physical comedy that served as a precursor for modern stuntwork, Keaton’s famous deadpan expression gave him the nickname “The Great Stone Face.”

Fast Facts: Buster Keaton

  • Full Name: Joseph Frank Keaton
  • Occupation: Actor, director, producer, and screenwriter
  • Born: October 4, 1895 in Piqua, Kansas
  • Died: February 1, 1966 in Los Angeles, California
  • Spouse(s): Natalie Talmadge (1921-1932), Mae Scriven (1933-1936), Eleanor Norris (1940-1966)
  • Key Roles: One Week (1920), Our Hospitality (1923), Sherlock Jr. (1924), The Navigator (1924), Seven Chances (1925), The General (1926), The Cameraman (1928), Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928)
  • Key Accomplishments: Keaton was one of the major comedy stars of the silent era and even continued his career in sound film.
  • Fun Fact: Keaton broke his neck while performing a stunt during the filming of 1924’s Sherlock Jr., but the injury was not discovered until a decade later during a doctor’s visit.

Early Life

Joseph “Buster” Keaton was born into a vaudeville family while they were on the road. His mother, Myra, and father, also named Joseph, were a comedy act named The Two Keatons in a traveling show that at one point also included famed magician Harry Houdini. By the age of three, the young Keaton had learned to take falls and joined his parents in their act, now called The Three Keatons. He earned the nickname “Buster” for his ability to take falls without injury (Keaton had sometimes claimed that Houdini gave him the nickname, though many historians believe this is a myth). In The Three Keatons, Buster was frequently tossed about by his father and learned to take his falls with a straight face in order to get more laughs. His deadpan expression became his trademark for the rest of his career. Due to his father’s increasingly erratic behavior because of excessive drinking, Keaton and his mother left the act when Keaton was 21 and moved to New York City.

Buster Keaton in Silent Film


Though he was preparing to appear on Broadway in a show titled The Passing Show of 1917, Keaton met famed silent screen comedian Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle through a mutual acquaintance. Arbuckle offered Keaton a job as an actor in his comedy shorts.

Keaton’s first film appearance was in Arbuckle’s 1917 two-reel comedy The Butcher Boy, which featured Keaton as a customer. Their next collaboration, The Rough House, was co-written, co-directed, and co-starred Keaton. Keaton would appear in a dozen more Arbuckle comedies through early 1920 (during this period Keaton’s burgeoning career was put on hold when he was drafted into the U.S. Army in World War I; he served in France).

In 1920, Keaton began starring in his own two-reel comedies for Metro Pictures starting with 1920’s One Week. Though Keaton’s professional partnership with Arbuckle ended, the two remained friends even after Arbuckle was involved in a notorious scandal after a young actress, Virgina Rappe, died after a party thrown by Arbuckle in San Francisco in September 1921. Though Arbuckle was eventually acquitted after three trials, he had difficulty finding work afterward. Keaton continued to collaborate with Arbuckle and gave him jobs behind-the-scenes.


Keaton wrote, directed, produced, and starred two-reel comedies for Metro Pictures and First National Pictures, and also made his starring feature film debut in Metro’s 1920 comedy The Saphead. Beginning with 1923’s Three Ages (a parody of D.W. Griffith’s 1916 epic Intolerance), Keaton began producing feature-length comedies for Metro Pictures (later Metro-Goldwyn and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer). Keaton hit his comedic peak during this period, releasing feature-length classics like Our Hospitality (1923), The Navigator (1924), Sherlock Jr. (1924), Go West (1925), and Seven Chances (1925). His creative peak continued with three films he released for United Artists, The General (1926), College (1927), and Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928). Despite both The General and Steamboat Bill, Jr. being regarded as two of Keaton’s finest films and featuring some of Keaton’s most famous stunts—including a train bridge collapsing in the former and a house facade falling on Keaton in the latter—, they were expensive productions and failed to turn a substantial profit at the box office.


1926: American actor Buster Keaton clinging to the front of a train in a still from the film, ‘The General,’ directed by Keaton and Clyde Bruckman.
Hulton Archive / Getty Images

MGM Contract and Later Work

After the box office failure of his United Artist films, Keaton signed a two-picture-a-year deal with MGM in 1928. At MGM, Keaton faced two challenges: first, the emergence of the sound film, and second, the strict studio production system that MGM adhered to that would rob Keaton of creative control of his projects. Keaton’s first two films made for MGM, The Cameraman (1928) and Spite Marriage (1929), would be both his last silent features and the last features that he was allowed to co-direct for over a decade (he would frequently work with director Edward Sedgwick at MGM).

While Keaton’s comedy could translate to sound film, he disliked the demands made on him by his new studio. For example, Keaton was forced to use a stuntman for his more dangerous gags and was required to film alternate foreign language versions of his “talkie” films, practically tripling his workload. Above all, Keaton no longer had final control over his scripts. In addition, Keaton’s MGM period was also unhappy because his first marriage ended in divorce in 1932. Though a series of films pairing Keaton with comedian Jimmy Durante did well at the box office, Keaton was fired by MGM during the production of 1933’s What! No Beer? because of Keaton’s increasingly acrimonious relationship with MGM over creative control of his projects and showing up to set drunk in no condition to perform.


After being fired from MGM, Keaton revitalized his career by signing with Educational Pictures in a return to two-reel comedies, half of which Keaton directed or co-directed himself. He produced 16 shorts from 1934 through 1937. After a brief return to MGM to work as a gag writer for other comedians (most notably the Marx Brothers), Keaton signed with Columbia Pictures in 1939 and made 10 two-reel comedies that were released through the end of 1941. Now in his fifties, Keaton started to mainly appear in ensemble cast features or in cameo roles in features. Most notably, Keaton appeared in (and also created gags for) in MGM’s 1949 musical In the Good Old Summertime and made memorable cameos in Sunset Blvd. (1950), Limelight (1952), It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), several “beach party” movies in 1965 and 1966, and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966). In addition, Keaton became a regular guest star on television on TV shows like The Donna Reed Show, The Twilight Zone, and Route 66, which kept him in the public eye while other former silent film stars had been long forgotten.

Keaton’s final feature film appearance in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum was released after he died of lung cancer on February 1, 1966.

Legacy

Along with Charles Chaplin, film critics consider Buster Keaton one of the premiere creative forces in silent comedy and one of Hollywood’s first auteur directors, citing many of Keaton’s 1920s productions as masterpieces of comedy.

In 1960, Keaton received an Academy Honorary Award “for his unique talents which brought immortal comedies to the screen.” That same year he was also honored with two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame: one for Motion Pictures and a second for Television.


Sources

  • McPherson, Edward. “Buster Keaton: Tempest In A Flat Hat.” Paperback, 1st Edition, Newmarket Press, 2007.
  • Keaton, Buster with Charles Samuels. “My Wonderful World of Slapstick.” Kindle Edition, Golden Springs Publishing, 2015.

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