Posted: 7/16/01
© 2001 Filmmonthly.com

The Lyric Poet Of The Silent Screen:
A Profile of Buster Keaton

by Chris Wood

A portrait of The Great Stoneface, a rare comic genius.


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Listed as number 35 over all, by Time-Life Magazine, in an August 1999 publication of the top 100 actors of the century, Buster Keaton, a vaudevillian roots performer, with more than 60 years in the entertainment business of a 70 year life, (his first appearance on stage at age 3) is responsible for 37 short and 12 feature films, as an actor, writer, technician and director, but more importantly, for setting the standard of excellence and creativity so high, that many are still trying to match his level of genius in physical comedy and general innovation in the film industry.

"What a creative genius, what an inventor," Jim Carrey (The Truman Show, The Grinch) began, "A guy like that, you just sit back and say, okay, I'll never get there!"

Keaton, as a director, relied on action, more than the subtitles shown in silent pictures, using as little as 23 in one feature length film, while the industry's standard could be as many as 240 at times. Charlie Chaplin came in just shorter with 21. "Charlie Chaplin and I would have a friendly contest: Who could do the feature film with the least subtitles?" Keaton said, in a 1960 interview with Studs Terkel.

Buster's stunts were second to none, making audiences laugh at these comical death-defying feats. "What Keaton did physically, is actually quite startling when you discover that he did all of his own stunts," Kevin Spacey (LA Confidential, American Beauty) stated, "The famous one is when the house falls. He had to stand on a mark. I'm told it was a nail, (and) if he moved an inch to one side he would have been crushed to death,' Spacey finished.

It was also his classic deadpan stare, sad look, and other facial features, compared to that of a young Abraham Lincoln, which won over memorable audience appeal. "For me its Buster Keaton's face, with maybe his little hat on," Geena Davis (The Long Kiss Goodnight, Thelma & Louise) said. "It's being able to look into his eyes and see that sad face."

But aside from his stunts, dry expression, and physical comedy, as a director, his vision and stories kept audiences leaning forward, looking into that big silver screen. "There are moments in many of his [Buster Keaton's] movies that are just poetic," Billy Crystal said. "In doing silent movies, no one had done this yet!" Crystal finished, referring to a scene in Sherlock Jr. (1924), where Buster's character mimics what he sees in a romantic movie kiss scene to his leading-lady-love interest.

Born, Joseph Frank "Buster" Keaton, on October 4, 1895, to Joseph Hallie and Myra Culter Keaton, Vaudevillian performers, Buster had anything but a normal upbringing, always being on the move from town to town. This became a problem early on, because, while his parents were out on stage, little Buster was off to the side, with no one paying him any mind. It was said that when he was only a few months old, Buster nearly suffocated to death after being shut in a costume trunk while Joseph and Myra were performing. On several occasions, his mother would run off stage, after she saw her son take a tumble, pick him back up, and then run back out on cue. Joe and Myra would later have 2 more children -Harry and Louise.

With more lives than a cat, Buster lived through one disaster after another. On one particular day, when he was 3, Buster was said to have gotten his finger caught in a clothes ringer, losing lost part of it, to have been hit by a brick he threw that ricocheted off a tree, and to actually have been sucked out a window by a cyclone, only to be set down safely, a few blocks away (apparently 3 was not his lucky number).

In a logical way, this is how the accident-prone Keaton obtained his well-known nickname, given to him by none other than the famous escape artist Harry Houdini, Buster's Godfather, when Keaton fell down a flight of steps. "What a buster your kid took!" Houdini said after the fall. The nickname became the first ever usage of Buster as a name.

Soon after, Buster started to become incorporated in the Keaton's act, mimicking his father behind his back, only then to be tossed or kicked across the stage by his father. It started as an excuse to keep an eye on him, but very quickly Buster became the focus of the entertainment and audience approval. He had a remarkable sense of timing and comedy early on. In truth, Joe and Myra's act was not very popular prior to Buster's involvement.

But the attention that the act was receiving became a bit of a double-edged sword, due to how believable it was, and because of Buster's age. On many occasions, the Keaton's had to flee from the Gerry Society, an organization that enforced child labor laws. In 1899, when Buster was just 4, he and his father auditioned for Tony Pastor (a legendary showman at the time) in New York, but Buster was not able to perform because the Gerry Society had struck. It was reported that Buster cried at being excluded from the show

So Buster's "official" professional debut was not until Wednesday, October 17, 1900, (more than 101 years ago) at the Dockstader's Theater in Wilmington, Delaware. William Dockstader, owner, was said to have been so impressed with the performance that he offered an extra 10 dollars for Buster's services if he would appear in the evening show as well as the matinees. Their act was named "The Three Keatons," with credit to the name from Houdini. For the next 17 years the Keaton's would tour the United States, with Buster as the highlight of the show, receiving impressive reviews. "The boy accomplishes everything attempted naturally, taking a dive into the backdrop that almost any comedy acrobat of more mature years could watch with profit," as written in a March 12, 1910 edition of Variety.

The education that Buster acquired along the way was that of a show biz education, and not one of the academic sort. He only attended a half day of school, in Jersey City, NJ, and his mother, who only had a third grade education, was said to have tutored him as well as she could. Although Buster was not an academic scholar, he did learn how to sing, dance, play the piano and ukulele, juggle, do magic, write gags, and parody, with the likes of Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, and Harry Houdini as his teachers.

Again, through the years, the price of the Keaton's success came not without its problems, especially from the Gerry Society, and police, who were in constant pursuit, claiming mistreatment of Buster. "We used to get arrested every other week - that is, the old man would get arrested," Buster said.

Their act got the reputation of being the roughest in the history of the stage, but later in Buster's childhood, his father's alcohol abuse turned violent off stage too, and the young man was said to have needed to defend himself on several occasions. However, in interviews, Buster made it a point to subdue the accusations: "The funny thing about our act, is that Dad gets the worst of it, although I'm the one who apparently receives the bruises," Buster said, in a 1915 interview with the Detroit News.

By the time Buster turned 21, his father's problem was no longer bearable, and Buster began pursuing his own career, with he and his mother deserting Joe somewhere in California. But, instead of a solo act, he partnered up with Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, an ex-vaudevillian and film comic, making movies.

It was during this time that Buster became fascinated with the film camera and how it worked. He suddenly gave up his $250 a week paycheck as the star, and took supporting roles for $40 per week so he could work behind the camera, and became an assistant director on three of Arbuckle's films.

Then, after a brief period of time in the army as a cryptographer and entertainer on the back lines of WW I, Buster started making his own 2 reeler's, using Charlie Chaplin's old studio in California in 1920. His unique and dramatically visual style was very apparent right from the start with his first 2 short films, The High Sign, and One Week. And the public took note. "In less than 2 years, he was famous all over the world," Ed Cline, one of his co-directors in 1957, said of Keaton.

In just three years after his solo work began, Keaton was making 2 feature films a year. From 1920-28, Buster made 19 short films and 12 features, which all, even the ones given poor ratings, were technically superior to just about all the best movies being made at the time.

Why was Keaton's comedy so much more impressive than others at that time? Part of it had to do with originality, and his innovation in using the camera. "He was doing stuff that was surreal," Richard Dreyfus (Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind). In one film, Keaton was being tossed up to the second floor window of a house by a group of men holding a large tablecloth. He would go up to the window, and then plummet back down into the tablecloth. Each time he went up, he would hold up an umbrella above his head, which, of coarse, would do nothing to slow his descent. However in postproduction, he ran that portion of the film at half speed, thus giving the impression that when he was at the peak of the toss upwards, the umbrella held him, almost floating, for just a moment. This gave the picture a cartoonish feel, and left audiences wondering, "How'd he do that?"

Also, Keaton preformed all of his own stunts, and is still held in the highest regards by one of today's top stuntman/actors. "I just want that one day, when I retire, that people will still remember me like they remember Buster," Jackie Chan said in an interview.

Like any stuntman, Keaton was not without mishaps and accidents during filming and he suffered from many breaks and bends that come with the job. During the shooting of The Electric House (1921), his slap shoe got stuck in an escalator and crushed his foot. While filming The General (1927), he was knocked unconscious by a cannon, and the most remarkable of all, was during Sherlock Jr. (1924), when he broke his neck. In the scene, he runs along the top of a train, grabs a waterspout, and then water gushes out and Buster is hidden for an instant. But, during this moment, the water forced him down on the track where he hit his neck. Oddly enough, during that same take, he gets up and runs off the track. Years later he discovered the medical emergency, and the cause of some painful headaches.

The most famously known of his films, is The General, which is based on a true Civil War story. Northern spies steal a Confederate train, but are opposed by one determined man. This is Buster's character in the picture, which is the train's engineer. The film offers as much action, as it does comedy. The General was one of the first films to be included in the Library of Congress for the National Film Preservation Act.

Despite being the creative force behind all of his pictures, writing, directing, acting, and a gifted technician, Buster was not one let his ego get in the way, and always gave credit to the on and off screen participants. He even mocked the other 2 big names, at the time (Charlie Chaplin and Thomas H. Ince), in his film The Playhouse (1921), because they often hogged credit for everything. "I could tell you that those wonderful stories were 90% Buster's," Clyde Bruckman, co-writer of several of Keaton's films, said. "I was often ashamed to take the money, much less the credit." It has been stated that this modesty is generally why Keaton's influence on American humor and on filmmaking has been overlooked.

Also, when Buster began his solo career as a filmmaker, he was married to Natalie Talmadge, the sister of 2 movie star sisters - Constance and Norma. She was not highly regarded by those who knew her, and was known to spend outrageous sums of money shopping - $900 per week, which was 1/3 of Buster's weekly salary at the time. Two boys came of the marriage, and not much else. By 1932 the marriage collapsed and she filed for divorce.

During the latter of the marriage, in 1928, Buster made a crucial mistake. "Against my better judgment I let Joe Schenck (a "high-up" at MGM at the time) talk me into giving up my own studio to make pictures at the booming Metro Goldwyn Mayer lot in Culver City," Keaton said.

Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd discouraged this decision. "They'll warp your judgment. You'll get tired of arguing for things you know are right," Chaplin, according to Keaton, told him.

Chaplin was correct, and MGM forced their views on how to make a movie on Buster, which destroyed his career by stifling his creative nature. His first film under MGM, The Cameraman (1928), was still up to the same standards as his previous work, but the struggle behind the camera doesn't show.

After that, his arguments seemed pointless, with MGM just taking footage without asking Keaton, and then using it. This drove him to the bottle, and he hit it hard, as it is apparent in What No Beer?, and Sidewalks of New York. "I started to drink, and that's when I blew it," Keaton said, referring to giving up his disagreements with the studio, and just going along with their ideas.

However, despite how MGM handled things, if Keaton had signed on with another studio, he may have suffered from the same problems. In addition, despite the credibility that the films Buster made independently receive, back then, although popular, they did not make enough to cover the costs of an independent filmmaker.

Buster's drinking got worse, nearing his father's level, and in 1932, during the time Natalie was filing for divorce, Buster got married to his second wife, while under the influence. Also, during this time he was forced to declare bankruptcy, and owed the IRS $28,000 in back taxes. Finally, MGM fired him for unreliability, after he refused to work on what he referred to as "inferior films."

In 1934, Buster was forced to stay in a sanitarium and be confined to a straight jacket, in an attempt to cease his alcohol abuse. However, according to one report, Houdini showed the child Buster his secret, and Buster allegedly escaped from the straight jacket, got out of the institution, and eventually started on the road to recovery, with only the help of his family and family doctor.

Now that the "talkies" had taken over, a question as to whether Buster would ever work again was a constant, and although the genius he showed between 1920-28 could not be recreated, Buster Keaton, in the 1940's, right through the early 1960's, still functioned well in comedy. Early in 1941 he went back to acting on the stage, and took a part in a play called The Gorilla. "He gave an audience that was alternately amused and amazed a flash of his formed comic genius," an unknown newspaper quote reviewing his performance.

A year earlier, Keaton made the third time a charm when he married contract dancer, Eleanor Norris, who was 23 years to his 44. This marriage lasted 26 years until Buster died of cancer in 1966 at the age of 70.

Although he has been gone for more than 35 years, Keaton's accomplishments will never be forgotten. For example: Between 1920-28, Keaton made a total of 19 short films and 11 features, which he directed, wrote, and stared in. That feat has never been toppled, and most likely, never will.

Keaton is also an inspiration to legendary filmmakers like Frank Capra (Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, It's a Wonderful Life), Orson Wells (Citizen Kane), and Mel Brooks (The History of the World Part I, Blazing Saddles), in addition to actors and comedians like Dick Van Dyke and Jackie Chan.

And at the turning of a century, where the first completely virtual motion picture is being released, there are those who believe that if Buster were around today, he wouldn't miss a beat. "I think if Keaton were alive in the year 2000, he would still be sensational. I think he would have worked just as well, maybe even better, in color. He was inventive," Mel Brooks said in an interview.

References:

· Title is a direct quote from Marion Meade, a Buster Keaton Biographer (Cut to the Chase) from Time-Life Magazine, August 1999.

· Quotes from Jim Carrey, Kevin Spacey, Geena Davis, Billy Crystal, and Richard Dryfus are from the American Film Industry's (AFI's) Top 100 Actors Special shown in 1999.

· Web site www.busterkeaton.com

Chris Wood is a freelance writer, film lover and student living in The Big Apple.

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