Today is the birthday of Buster Keaton. He was born in 1895 in Piqua, Kansas. He didn’t live there, his parents were just passing through. They were both vaudeville performers and his father, Joe Keaton, was part owner, along with Harry Houdini, of a travelling show called the Mohawk Indian Medicine Company. Buster was christened Joseph, but was given the nickname Buster by Houdini at the age of eighteen months after he fell downstairs without hurting himself.
By the age of two, Buster was appearing alongside his parents on stage. By four, he was on a salary and they had become ‘The Three Keatons’. Their act was an extraordinarily violent one. Buster played the part of a child who goaded his father by disobeying him mimicking him and generally getting in his way. In response, his father would kick him all around the stage and throw him against the scenery, into the orchestra pit, even into the audience. Buster had a suitcase handle sewn into the back of his costume to make him easier to throw. By the time he was seven or eight their act was known as ‘The Roughest Act That Was Ever in the History of the Stage.’ There was a great deal of concern about the treatment Buster received on stage and his parents were frequently arrested and accused of child abuse. But Buster had learned how to take a fall and was rarely injured. He was able to show the authorities that he had no bruises or broken bones. In fact he enjoyed being thrown around. He said at first he laughed as his father tossed him through the air, but he soon noticed that this drew fewer laughs from the audience. He got a much better response if he remained stone-faced and stoic about the whole thing. This is probably where he first acquired the deadpan expression for which he was later famous.
Although the act was fun for Buster in his childhood, it became less so as he grew older. His father began to drink a great deal which made him volatile and unpredictable both on stage and off. When he was twenty-one he and his mother, Myra, left Joe and moved to New York. Buster worked for a little while on stage in New York, but one day he went along with a friend to Roscoe Arbuckle’s new movie studio on East 48th Street. He immediately landed a part in Roscoe’s film ‘The Butcher Boy’ as ‘man buying molasses’. Straight away Buster was fascinated by everything about film. That night he took one of the cameras home, took it all apart to see how it worked and put in back together again before morning.
Buster became part of the regular cast. He made lots of two reelers with Roscoe and soon became co-director with him. In 1920 their producer, Joe Schenck, moved Arbuckle into feature length films and gave Buster his own production unit. He quickly began to make his own feature length films and, although he had a team of writers, the best gags were usually his. His best ideas often involved dangerous stunts which Buster would perform himself. In one of his most famous scenes the entire side of a two story house falls on him. He survives because he is directly below a single open window in the façade. The stunt required him to be standing in exactly the right spot. With only a few inches of clearance on either side, it required precision and nerves of steel. You can see the clip here. He doesn’t even flinch. That façade weighed two tons.
His most famous and now most critically acclaimed film ‘The General’ was not especially well received at the time. It was an epic and extremely expensive film which was based on an actual incident during the Civil War. Some thought it was a bit too serious, it was not the lightweight comedy that they had come to expect from Buster Keaton. Others thought that it was a bit off to make a comedy about the Civil War. The mixed reception received by ‘The General’ led to Buster’s loss of artistic control over his films. It was this and the invention of sound that caused him to become deluded. What he had enjoyed about being an independent film maker was the ability to come up with a script that, although it had a definite beginning and end, would be largely ad-libbed. He felt that scenes often lost something when they were rehearsed over and over and often used the rehearsal takes rather than a practised scene in the final cut. Trying to make films under the direction of rigid bosses who were dealing with enormous sums of money and expensive sets was difficult for him. He said: “The minute you’re not flexible that way, the desire to originate and ad-lib, as they call it, is gone. You’ve lost that.” When he signed with MGM in 1928, he was forced to use a stunt double. This was absolutely not what Keaton was about. Much of the joy of his films comes from seeing him attempt something completely reckless and being amazed by that.
Keaton slid into alcoholism,was sacked by MGM and, in 1935, briefly institutionalised. Here, he reputedly managed to escape from a straitjacket. He was eventually rehired by MGM in 1937 and worked as a gag man but he fell rather into obscurity. In 1952 the actor James Mason moved into Buster’s former Hollywood home and found a secret stash of his films, which were presumed lost. The fragile nitrate films were preserved and interest in his early work was revived. I’m happy to say that he lived long enough to see his genius recognised. ‘The General’ in an excellent film and appears on many lists of All-Time Greats. Any film you’ve ever seen where someone runs over the roof of a moving train owes something to this film. If you haven’t seen it, you definitely should. Failing that, take a look at this short that he made in 1921 called ‘The Goat‘. Go on, it’s only twenty-three minutes.