A Tribute to Buster Keaton
Although Buster Keaton was known as “the Great Stone Face,” this was a misnomer. Keaton actually had one of the most expressive faces in silent film. His reactions to the curious events around him left no doubt as to how he was feeling. Keaton just didn’t need to smile or laugh – that was the audience’s job.
Keaton was one of the silent era’s five great comedians. Only three are well remembered today: Charles Chaplin, Harold Lloyd and Keaton (the other two are Harry Langdon, whose fame was brief, and Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle whose career was ruined by scandal in 1921). Buster was the least successful financially of the “big three,” but today many people revere him above Chaplin, who was immensely popular in his time. Audiences of the 1920s found Keaton’s humor — offbeat, occasionally macabre and often surreal — hard to grasp. Ironically, those very same qualities that confounded silent filmgoers are what make Keaton’s films so popular today. Although they are still very funny, Chaplin and Lloyd’s point of views are very much of their era; Keaton’s humor is timeless.
Buster was born Joseph Frank Keaton VI on October 4, 1895, while his parents, medicine show performers, were touring the country. By the age of four, the boy – who, according to his father, was nicknamed Buster by magician Harry Houdini [although that may have been one of his father’s tall tales – ed.] – had become part of the act. The Three Keatons reached the heights of vaudeville, primarily because of the rough and tumble acrobatics performed by Buster and his dad. By 1917 the act had split up, and Keaton, now a young man of 21, went to work for Roscoe Arbuckle, who had just started up his own production company. Keaton learned everything he needed to know about comic filmmaking from Arbuckle; combined with his already finely-honed athletic abilities, he created an outstanding onscreen presence.
By 1921, Keaton had a production company himself; the first two-reeler he released, One Week, was a huge hit and one of the top grossing films of the year. He proceeded to make two-reelers for the next couple of years — nearly all of them classics — and began working on features in 1923. Many are famous for their props and tricks; in Sherlock, Jr. Keaton plays a projectionist who leaps into the movie screen to become part of the film (Woody Allen stole this idea for Purple Rose of Cairo). In The Navigator, he uses a whole steamer as a prop — and a very funny one, too. Keaton’s co-star in his greatest film, The General, is not the girl, played by Marion Mack, but a train called The General. This thrilling and hilarious film about the Civil War also features sets that are historically accurate; Keaton was a stickler for detail. Keaton’s brilliance carried on throughout the whole silent era; his next-to-last silent film, The Cameraman, is one of his very best.
Why did Keaton’s career go downhill so quickly when talkies came in? It had nothing to do with his talent. After being autonomous for most of the 1920s, he found himself under contract to MGM, a studio known for its streamlined productions. Many creative types had a hard time flourishing under the MGM machine, and Keaton was one of them. (To be fair, it is worthwhile noting that those who could play by MGM’s rules, like George Cukor, were still able to create classic films). Keaton bristled under the studio’s demands and hated the fact that no one listened to his suggestions. He drank too much and had a nervous breakdown. In 1933, the studio had had enough, and Keaton was fired. He spent the rest of the 1930s appearing in low-budget shorts and poorly-made, bargain-basement features. Other than a couple of cameo appearances, Keaton faded into oblivion for almost two decades, but a film preservationist rediscovered him, and before the end of his life in 1966, Keaton’s silent films were being seen by a new generation of filmgoers. Keaton, modest to the end, never understood what the fuss was all about. “You can’t be a genius in slap shoes and a flat hat,” he liked to say. He was wrong.
Written by Janiss Garza, editor-in-chief of All Spirit Fitness and a vintage film expert.
Many thanks to Janiss for the biographical sketch above and for her reviews listed in the Reviews section in Part III. I hope you enjoy the rest of this special tribute to Buster Keaton, originally written in 2001.
Part I: Introduction
Part III: Movie Reviews & Where to Find His Movies
Part IV: Photos, Art, and Posters