A Guest Blogger Shares His Thoughts on Buster Keaton

Buster KeatonThere 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 bitactors@gmail.com and visit Bit Part Actors.

  • Anonymous.

    There were only two genuine artists in the history of Hollywood movies. Chaplin was the first. Keaton was the second. That’s it.

  • Allen Hefner

    I agree that Chaplin and Keaton were artists. I think you will find many people who feel that there have been numerous other artists in the cinema over the years. Each genre has had a standard set early in the history of movie making, and that standard is continuously being pushed ahead.

    Look at science fiction. In 1902, Georges Melies set the standard with A Trip to the Moon. That movie doesn’t hold up well today as a serious sci-fi movie, but without doubt Melies was an artist.

    Enter Ray Harryhausen, an artist at stop motion cinematography. He was the best, but CG effects, have changed the business, and artists like Lukas and Spielberg have taken over. I would go as far as to say that they were greatly influenced by Melies and Harryhausen.

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  • parson

    There is only one word for Buster Keaton: amazing. Hard to believe there was only one comment from anonymous about Buster Keaton. I heard his films were also an inspiration for Jackie Chan, a practitioner of outrageous stunts and physical comedy in much the same way as Keaton and both took incredible chances with their health and welfare and paid the price for it. I have the utmost respect for both and both have made me laugh myself silly at times.

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  • masterofoneinchpunch

    “… always came up with his stone face in the end, a trait he never lost.”

    This is a bit of a misnomer because for the 14 shorts (13 extant) he did with Roscoe Arbuckle he applied a whole range of facial styles from crying to wide-grin laughing.

    I think it is important to watch the Educational shorts from the 1930s (in a nice Kino DVD edition) to further understand his career. Some of them are quite good, though many are a step down from his hey day (though I appreciate them more than the Columbia shorts which are also available on DVD).