There are many names that shine when you think of silent movies. Buster Keaton (1895 – 1966) is certainly one of them. But he was not always a star. In fact, his star shown brightest for only a few years in his long acting career of over 150 titles.
Joseph Frank Keaton started acting at age three in his parents’ vaudeville act, often appearing on bills with Harry Houdini (1974 – 1926), who may or may not have given young “Buster” his nickname. From what I have read, it was a tough act for Buster, who was tossed about and manhandled on stage in the act in search of laughs. He took all the punishment, and always came up with his stone face in the end, a trait he never lost. His father’s problem with alcohol finally ended the act, and I hope it was before Buster was seriously injured.
His first small part in film came in a 1917 short, The Butcher Boy, starring rotund comic Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle (1887 – 1933). The two became fast friends and, over the next several years, would appear in over 20 films together.
Keaton took second billing (or lower) to Fatty in many of these early films. But he also was a writer and director for some of them. In 1920, Keaton received top billing in the short film, One Week. His first feature-length picture, The Saphead, was released the same year.
Shortly after that, Arbuckle fell into legal troubles that ended his acting career, but Buster was off and running. 1920 to 1929 would be his finest decade.
Of the best, we have The Navigator (1924), Sherlock Jr. (1924), The General (1926), and Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928). I have previously written about The General, which is considered one of the best examples of silent film. And Steamboat Bill, Jr. would inspire Walt Disney to make the first Mickey Mouse talkie, Steamboat Willie, also in 1928.
In many instances, silent film stars would lose their glow with the advent of sound films. This was not the case with Buster Keaton, but he declined nonetheless. His many personal problems–including a stormy 11-year marriage to actress Natalie Talmadge–led to a drinking problem. His move from independent filmmaking to MGM, which cost him creative control, deepened Buster’s depression.
By 1940 he was in his third marriage, this time to Eleanor Norris (1918 – 1998), who is credited with helping Buster end his drinking so he could get some work. His movie career continued, but he would never be a big star again. He had many small appearances in great films such as In the Good Old Summertime (1949), Sunset Boulevard (1950), and Limelight (1952), playing memorably alongside fellow silent comedy icon Charlie Chaplin.
After growing up watching old Buster Keaton two-reelers on television, I was pleased to see him in It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963) with the greatest comedy cast ever assembled for a movie. He belonged in that film, and even at age 68 he still had his screen charm and the ability to play a physical part.
Keaton also found some television work, but he was misplaced in Beach Blanket Bingo and How to Stuff a Wild Bikini, both in 1965 with Annette Funicello. His final film was A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966) starring Zero Mostel and Phil Silvers.
Keaton’s huge house in Hollywood was purchased by James Mason, and Mason found a treasure trove of Buster’s old nitrate films in a hidden closet. Luckily Mason knew these films were important, and he made sure they were preserved for us to enjoy.
That’s quite a story about one of the greatest silent movie stars, who overcame adversity and–partly of necessity–became a wonderful Bit Actor.
Allen Hefner has been interested in movies since an early age, attending the Keswick Theatre in Glenside, PA for every Saturday Matinee during his youth, when 50 cents bought you a two-reeler (usually The Three Stooges or Laurel and Hardy), a few cartoons, and a feature film. As a member of The Sons of the Desert,he was privileged to enjoy the company of many film buffs, and to meet many stars of the past. Write to him anytime at firstname.lastname@example.org and visit Bit Part Actors.