Before films had audio like they do today, they were known as “silent films” due to their lack of dialogue and sound effects. Before the audio technology developed in the 1920s, silent films would be accompanied by a live orchestra that played alongside the footage, and title cards were used to display character dialogue, so audiences knew what was happening. One such star of this era was Buster Keaton.
An American actor, comedian, director, screenwriter and stunt performer, he was known for his physical comedy, which he performed with a deadpan expression. From 1920 to 1929, he starred in a series of films that gave him the reputation of one of the greatest actor-director in cinema history. Here’s a look at the life, career and legacy of Buster Keaton.
Keaton was born Joseph Frank Keaton in 1895 in Piqua, Kansas. He gained the nickname of Buster at the age of 18 months when an actor friend of his father’s, George Pardey, witnessed the child take a tumble down a flight of stairs without injury. It is said when Keaton shook off the incident, Pardey remarked, “He’s a regular buster!” Keaton’s father continued to use the nickname from that point on.
Keaton’s father owned a travelling show with Harry Houdini, so it was no surprise Keaton was drawn into the world of theatre. He performed alongside his parents from the age of three in a show known as The Three Keatons. The act was mainly comedy that involved Keaton goading his father until he would throw him into the scenery, the orchestra pit, or the audience. Keaton learned how to trick fall safely and was rarely injured on stage. Accusations of child abuse were made, but Keaton was always able to show he had sustained no injuries, and he became known as “The Little Boy Who Can’t Be Damaged”.
Keaton enjoyed the act and would laugh when being thrown, but noticed this led to the audience laughing less, so he adopted a deadpan expression while performing that he would eventually become known for. When Keaton was 21, he was a rising star in theatre, but his father’s alcoholism threatened the reputation of his family’s act, so he moved to New York with his mother to star in films.
Keaton was sceptical of the film medium, but in 1917 he met Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, who asked him to start acting in films produced by Joseph M. Schenck. Keaton was a natural in his first film, The Butcher Boy and was instantly hired. He borrowed a camera so he could learn how it worked and become Arbuckle’s second director.
Keaton appeared in 14 Arbuckle shorts until 1920, and they became good friends. In 1920 he starred in his first full-length feature, The Saphead, and Schenck gave him his own production unit, Buster Keaton Productions. He made a series of comedies before moving to full-length features.
Keaton would perform dangerous stunts putting himself at significant risk, like when he broke his neck during the filming of Sherlock Jr. (though he did not realise this until years afterwards). One of the most memorable moments of his career was the façade of a two-storey building toppling forward onto him, leaving him unscathed due to a single open window.
He went on to make more films, but misfired with The General which, while now considered his greatest achievement, was not well received at the time, and led to him not being trusted with total control over his films. His distributor insisted on a production manager to monitor story elements. Keaton made two more films then exchanged his production company for employment at Metro-Goldwyn Mayer (MGM). This coincided with the introduction of sound into films.
Signing with MGM in 1928 was something Keaton would later call the worst mistake of his life. MGM limited his creative input and was forced to use a stunt double during dangerous scenes, as they wanted to protect their investment. He did make successful films during this time, with some pictures having to be shot three times with the actors doing one in English, Spanish, and one in either French or German. However, Keaton considered these films “lousy”, resenting having to shoot the films not just once, but three times.
Keaton became so demoralised that MGM fired him despite producing films that were hits. In 1934 he made an independent film in Paris and another in England. He made a comeback with two-reel comedies for Educational Pictures and then later returned to MGM as a gag writer.
In 1939, he starred in 10 comedies for Columbia Pictures using slapstick and farce. In the 1940s, he went back to working on feature films, accepting various character roles and making cameo appearances in more prestigious pictures.
In 1949 he appeared on a television comedy-variety show and was offered his own show on the back of it in 1950. Life with Buster Keaton tried to recreate the first series on film and included his silent-era contemporaries and wife in various appearances. Keaton later cancelled the show because he felt unable to create enough fresh material for a new show each week.
He had sporadic television appearances in the 1950s and 1960s to help revive interest in silent films, and in 1954 he re-released his films. He made more television appearances and found steady work in TV commercials. He returned to MGM briefly for one last film and starred in more pictures. In 1965 he made a short film where he wore his traditional pork pie hat, which he would become known for.
His last film commercial appearance was in 1966 with A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. He performed many of his own stunts, though his ill health forced him to use a stunt double for some scenes.
Keaton received an Academy Honorary Award in 1959 and has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Six of his films are preserved in the National Film Registry, making him one of the most honoured filmmakers on that list.
Many big names in cinema sing Buster’s praises and consider him to have had a significant impact on their own work. Keaton designed his own pork pie hats during his career that were often destroyed during his filming antics. He estimated that he and his wife had made thousands of them during his career.
Buster Keaton died in 1966, aged 70, but he is remembered for his deadpan, slapstick humour, considered to be “the greatest of all the clowns in the history of cinema” by Orson Welles.