“Tragedy is a close-up; comedy is a long shot.”
— Buster Keaton
Joseph Frank Keaton IV was born on this day in Piqua, Kansas, USA in 1895. Today is the 117th anniversary of his birth.
Keaton’s parents were vaudeville actors and he joined their act at age three. He got his nickname, Buster, when he fell down a flight a stairs and landed at Harry Houdini‘s feet. The magician picked him up and handed him to his mother saying “What a buster.”
Physical comedy and slapstick was part of the family act — redubbed “The Three Keatons” when Buster became a permanent fixture. The little boy was
knocked over, thrown through windows, dropped down stairs, and essentially used as a living prop. It was this training in vaudeville that prepared him for the fast-paced slapstick comedy of the silent movies. [American Masters: Buster Keaton]
Keaton later noted that “It was the roughest knockout act that was ever in the history of the theater.” [Buster Keaton.biography] He knew how to land and never got hurt from the onstage antics as “the little boy who can’t be damaged,” he enjoyed flying about the stage so much that he would giggle when his father tossed him about. But when he realized that the audience liked the heightened sense of danger, Buster developed his famous “deadpan face.”
Buster moved to Hollywood at 22 and began to work with Fatty Arbuckle. His first film was The Butcher Boy in 1917. Arbuckle was already an established comedian and he became Keaton’s mentor. Keaton earned $40 a week for his work with Arbuckle, and the two worked together until 1920 when Keaton was confident enough to go it alone.
Here’s the classic “hat” scene from Steamboat Bill, Jr...
He did all his own stunts — instructing the cameras to keep rolling “no matter what” until he yelled “cut” or he died. And he didn’t use special effects.In another scene from Steamboat Bill, Jr. Keaton stands outside a dilapidated house. The front of the house (a 2 ton facade) falls on him, and he happens to be standing where an open window lets him escape injury. It is not a very big window (there is a much bigger on right next to him) and it must have taken both a lot of mathematics and a lot of courage to do the stunt, but it made for some movie magic…
The General is considered one of the greatest silent films ever made now, but when it came out the reception was tepid. It resulted in Keaton’s switch to MGM studios, something he regretted for the rest of his career. Keaton thought The General was his greatest movie, and the public, eventually, came around to his point of view. In 1989 the National Film Registry added The General to its list. Roger Ebert named the film the #1 greatest film of the silent era.
MGM let him make one more truly classic “Buster style” film, The Cameraman in 1928, but then MGM lowered the boom and took away his creative control. How sweet is this scene from the Cameraman?
With the studio calling the shots Keaton became just another comic actor. He had a number of hits in the 30’s, many of them with Jimmy Durante at his side, but he lacked the stoic charm and the ownership of his previous movies. He worked on Marx Brothers and Red Skelton movies — uncredited — and did what he could to make a living.In 1950 he played himself as a member of the “waxworks” in Billy Wilder‘s Sunset Boulevard and then in 1953 he was in Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight. Interest in his old movies revived and he started to make television appearances. Paramount made a movie about his life, The Buster Keaton Story starring Donald O’Connor.
“…By the 1960s, his films were returning to the theaters and he was being hailed as the greatest actor of the silent era.” [American Masters: Buster Keaton]
He was given an Honorary Academy Award “for his unique talents which brought immortal comedies to the screen” in 1960.
Keaton passed away on February 1, 1966. He was suffering from Cancer.