What a life. What a talent. Typical of many silent stars, Buster Keaton’s film success did not fully translate to the sound era.
The image many of us have of Keaton is the stone-faced guy doing impossible stunts in silent films or the old guy in the pork pie hat chasing girls in bikinis in those 1960s beach films.
Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker’s Life, by James Curtis, is a fascinating read. I’m surprised that the upcoming film, to be directed by James Mangold (Indiana Jones 5, Walk the Line, The Wolverine) will be based on a different book. Whatever the source material, Buster Keaton’s story is in good hands, and should be told to newer generations of film fans.
Curtis’s book is quite detailed and thoroughly researched; it is also a deep dive on the vaudeville and silent film worlds of his early life. Keaton was born to vaudeville parents who traveled the country to make a buck. He quickly became part of the act as a child, forgoing school to help the family act.
Keaton learned to perform literally in front of an audience, quick to think on his feet and to recognize how to get a laugh. The vaudeville circuit was tough, hard living and highly competitive. Audiences could be brutal and the act had to constantly evolve to stay employed. The Keaton family engaged in song, juggling, physical comedy, jokes, etc. The highlight seemed to be Keaton junior being physically tossed around the stage by Keaton senior. Yes, that’s what I said. Buster Keaton learned to roll, absorb falls and impress with his flight. I cannot quite picture the act, but it seemed impressive, and young Buster escaped serious injury. According to Curtis, Buster wore padding in his clothes and learned the art of safe stunt falling. His father even sowed a “handle” onto back of Buster’s clothing to make it easier to be launched into the air.
After serving in the First World War, young Keaton returned to the family vaudeville act, but soon went out in his own. In 1917, he joined Fatty Arbuckle’s silent film company. Within three years of working on Arbuckle films, Keaton had developed confidence in acting, writing and directing, and was offered the chance to make his own films.
The first Keaton two-reel film is the classic, One Week (1920), a a smart and funny story of a young bride and groom who purchase a self-assemble house kit. Unfortunately, some of the kit parts are switched and the resulting house becomes an ill-fitting house of cards, which gives Keaton plenty of opportunities for physical comedy as the house ends up a wreck. I saw this film recently and it’s ingenious and quite entertaining. Several of the visual gags have been stolen and appear in many comedy routines since.
In his second year as a film lead, he came up with The Playhouse (1921), another two-reeler, but what a leap forward. Keaton and his cameraman Elgin Lessley figured out how to keep parts of the film unexposed so that he could be accompany himself in the frame. In all, Keaton was 26 different characters, appearing as nine separate people onstage at the same time, and other shots of being two or more characters. Keaton in short order was not only presenting entertaining stunts, but also creatively pushed the bounds of filmmaking.
Keaton’s persona never changed much during his career. He was asked why he never smiled onscreen. He said that audiences reacted more favorably when he looked slightly surprised by a gag, and looking slightly hurt that the audience would find humor in his mishap.
In my opinion, Keaton quickly became the equal of Harold Lloyd and Charlie Chaplin, the recognized kings of physical comedy. Keaton’s films brought originality, creativity and box office success. The industry was moving from two-reelers as five reel films were becoming the feature film length. This longer format obviously required filling a lot more time with interesting material, but also learning how to pace longer films to keep audiences in their seats.
Sherlock Jr. (1924) was one of Keaton’s longer features, but after previews, he cut and cut it, until distributors complained it was too short. The film contains a film-within-the-film, a creative idea about the Keaton character being able to move from the audience into a film being shown as a dream sequence. Sherlock Jr. also contains a very inventive chase with Keaton on a driverless motorcycle, as he somehow avoids peril.
Keaton’s next film, The Navigator (1924), took place mainly on a ship and featured underwater photography, both of very novel ideas for the time. Keaton hired another director to assist him at the helm, someone experienced in directing drama, which Keaton intended to include in the film. The result was Keaton’s biggest commercial success to date. Here is a filmmaker growing with each film.
By the mid 1920s, Keaton had become an experienced filmmaker. He was signed to a film company that released his films through United Artists, the film company owned by Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, D.W. Griffith and Charlie Chaplin. Keaton actually worked for Buster Keaton Productions, a company named for him, but he owned no part of.
Keaton’s agreement gave him was a specific amount of money per film, but he called shots – most of the time. He employed writers who helped develop the stories and gags, Keaton mostly directed, sometimes with another hired director, but it was his production and he supervised the editing. The expectation was that Keaton delivered six of two-reel short films per year, but when his producers aligned with United Artists, then it changed to two five-reel films per year.
Although Keaton was the boss, he worked collaboratively with him team, and after test screenings, trimmed to the reactions of those audiences. He trusted the laughs and the fidgeting of those viewers. He tossed out great comedic gags if they did not move the story or were repetitious. Audiences were fickle in the silent era. The American public turned on Fatty Arbuckle, who was tried three times for the death of a young actress. Although acquitted, his career was essentially over.
Keaton’s last great film, the one that changed his career arc was The General (1926), a film that takes place during the Civil War.
The General, was a large budget, very serious film with big production values including building a trestle bridge to destroy with a train on it. The General was really a drama with occasional comedy, and one of Keaton’s lesser successes, although it has been hailed as one of the silent era’s greatest films. Watching it today, it’s an amazing film, but The General was the beginning of the slide for Keaton. Many felt the Civil War was not a humorous subject. Keaton was trying to evolve as a filmmaker, getting away from slapstick comedy.
Keaton would lose control over the independent nature of his films. When his current contract ran out, he went to work for MGM. He totally lost his independence and the era of silent films was passing into history.
His films were picked for him and physical comedy de-emphasized. He was given a director and MGM executives were involved in his scripts. Prior to his arrangement with United Artists, his independent films were distributed by MGM, but they had no part in production. As his feature films became more costly and complex, they were returning a smaller profit to Keaton’s backers. The move to MGM was good for them, bad for Keaton. He was even teamed with Jimmy Durante for a couple of films. MGM and Keaton were not a good match. Keaton stopped being Keaton under the studio’s corporate style of filmmaking.
Keaton’s would go through some dark years, aside from the collapse of his career, he went through two costly divorces in the 1930s, and suffered from alcoholism to the point he was institutionalized. Keaton, like his father, would struggle with the bottle most of his life. Keaton’s first wife Natalie, drained him of money during and after the marriage, and worked to remove Keaton’s two sons from his life, even changing their last name to her maiden name. It would be his much younger third wife Eleanor, who he married in 1940, revitalized both his career and life. He was in his forties when he found happiness.
He would leave MGM in a couple of years, make a few films in Europe, return Hollywood to make two-reelers again for Columbia Pictures, but it was not the same as his earlier heyday. Keaton would return to MGM several times – often as a gag writer for other comics, including the Marx Brothers – that’s where the work was. Earning $100 a week, Keaton also contributed material for Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, Red Skelton, Lana Turner and others. At night he volunteered at the Hollywood Canteen, serving coffee to soldiers and washing dishes.
Eventually, he got MGM to increase his salary to $250 a week as he began to work uncredited as a writer and director when needed. On that salary he supported his wife Eleanor, his mother, his brother’s family and his sister, as they all moved in with him and Eleanor. Keaton had a generous heart. While performing in Europe after the war, he bought food and goods at the American PX and gave them to needy folks unable to get basic items.
Keaton would be hired, terminated and rehired by MGM as regimes changed and his value in creating comedy routines was needed.
Keaton found on-camera work mostly as a supporting actor. He did a lot of cameos, including Sunset Boulevard (1950), as an old friend of Norma Desmond. The work was work.
In the 1950s, Keaton was quick to see the opportunity of television. He made two series of half-hour shows under his name for syndication; neither was a success, other than to keep his name before the public. He appeared on many other variety and talk shows, and rode the new wave of appreciation for the early film stars. Keaton also signed to tour Europe and was offered the chance to work with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. on a series for British television.
In 1961, in a specially written episode by Richard Matheson, Keaton appeared The Twilight Zone, as a man who travels in time but does not like what he experiences. Parts of the episode are intended to be silent, the only sound from a piano, like in the silent film days. It’s a marvelous program, showing of Keaton’s well-honed skills.
Keaton made three “beach” films in the last years of his life. This was part of his career resurgence, the talented, and humbled Keaton, was ready for his closeup. The beach films might have been popular, and admiring director William Asher gave him a lot freedom to create his scenes. Today, the sight of an older man chasing young girls is rather an uncomfortable image.
With his renewed fame, Keaton worked the theater, touring with plays like Merton of the Movies, and became a product pitchman. In the last decade of his life, Keaton was busy with making commercials for a variety of products and companies. It was easy money, although reportedly he hated it.
Keaton lived modestly in his later years and didn’t seem to mind it. His wife Eleanor was quoted as saying so long as he had enough money to afford the few things he enjoyed, money meant nothing. He had lived a lot of years on a fraction of what he had earned in his early career.
A lot of people prospered on Buster Keaton’s success in life, more so than the star. Keaton did not own his films like Chaplin and Lloyd. Keaton’s films were owned and controlled by others, and getting them in release many years later was a difficult, lengthy and turbulent battle. For decades, his films were not available.
Thankfully, the work and legacy of Buster Keaton was beginning to be appreciated in the later years of his life. Not only were new paid-work opportunities more plentiful, but he was honored at film festivals and tributes around the world. His original films were often in rough shape, but they were finding new audiences by people who had only seen short clips or photographs of his work.
Curtis’s book is an exhaustive read of about seven hundred pages. Keaton is the star, but Curtis gives the reader so much film and early television history. Keaton’s is a story that needs the expansive treatment to fully appreciate and absorb his life and impact on comedy, and the growth of film as a medium. Buster Keaton was a pioneer, same as Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Douglas Fairbanks, Rudolph Valentino, William S. Hart, Greta Garbo, Mack Sennett, D.W. Griffith, Mary Pickford, Fritz Lang, Clara Bow, Erich Von Stroheim, Lillian Gish, Georges Méliès and Hal Roach.
Keaton died of cancer, short of his seventieth birthday. Born in vaudeville, show business was in his blood. Stone-faced, he looked sad before the camera, as if he was deaf to the laughter coming from the adoring audiences.
In Part 2, I will take a closer look at a few of Keaton’s films.