Buster Keaton

Template:Infobox Biography Joseph Frank Keaton VI (October 4, 1895February 1, 1966), always known as Buster Keaton, was a popular and influential American silent-film comic actor and filmmaker. His trademark was physical comedy with a stoic, deadpan expression on his face, earning him the nickname The Great Stone Face. His innovative work as a director made basic contributions to the development of the art of cinema.

A 2002 world-wide poll by Sight and Sound ranked Keaton's The General as the 15th best film of all time. Three other Keaton films received votes in the survey: Our Hospitality, Sherlock, Jr., and The Navigator. [1] (http://www.bfi.org.uk/sightandsound/topten/index.html)


Early life in vaudeville

Keaton was born into the world of vaudeville. His father, Joseph Hallie Keaton, and Harry Houdini owned a travelling show called the Mohawk Indian Medicine Company, which performed on stage and sold patent medicine on the side. Keaton was born in the town of Piqua (peek-WAY), Kansas, the small town where his mother, Myra Edith Cutler, happened to go into labor. The boarding house in which he was born was later destroyed by a tornado. Currently on this site is a memorial plaque, and nearby is a small power plant that maintains a one-room Keaton museum. Piqua is so small that the annual Buster Keaton Celebration is held in nearby Iola, Kansas.

Keaton credited Harry Houdini, who was his godfather, with dubbing him "Buster" after seeing him, at the age of six months, tumble down a flight of stairs without injury. At the time, the word "buster" either meant "bronco-buster" or a fall. It was only after Keaton was nicknamed the word became a name — one example of this early use is the comic strip character Buster Brown.

At the age of three, he began performing with his parents as The Three Keatons; the storyline of the act was how to raise a small child. Myra played the saxophone to one side while Joe and Buster performed on center stage. Buster would goad Joe by disobeying him, and Joe would respond by throwing Buster against the scenery, into the orchestra pit, or even into the audience. The act evolved as Buster learned to take trick falls safely. He was rarely injured or bruised on stage. Nevertheless, this knockabout style of comedy led to accusations of child abuse. Decades later, Keaton said that he was never abused by his father and that the falls and physical comedy were a matter of proper technical execution. In fact, Buster would have so much fun, he would begin laughing as his father threw him across the stage. This drew fewer laughs from the audience, so Buster adopted his famous dead-pan expression whenever he was working.

The act ran up against laws banning child performers in vaudeville. When one official saw Buster in full costume and make-up, he asked a stage-hand how old that performer was. The stage-hand shrugged and pointed to Buster's mother. "I don't know," he said, "ask his wife!" Despite tangles with the law and a disastrous tour of the English Music Halls, Buster was a rising star in the theater, so much so that even when Myra and Joe tried to introduce Buster's siblings into the act, Buster remained the central attraction.

By the time Buster was 21, Joe's alcoholism threatened the reputation of the family act, so Buster and Myra left Joe in Los Angeles. Myra returned to their summer home in Michigan, while Buster travelled to New York, where his performing career moved from vaudeville to film.

Silent film era

In February 1917 Keaton met Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle at the Talmadge Studios in New York City, where Arbuckle was under contract to Joseph M. Schenck. He was hired as a co-star and gag-man. Keaton later claimed that he was soon Arbuckle's second director and his entire gag department. Keaton and Arbuckle became close friends, a bond that would never break, even after Arbuckle was embroiled in the scandal that cost him his career and his personal life.

After Keaton's successful work with Arbuckle, Schenck gave him his own production unit, The Keaton Studio. He made a series of two-reel comedies, including One Week (1920), Cops (1922), The Electric House (1922), and The Playhouse (1921). Based on the success of these shorts, he graduated to full-length features. These films made Keaton one of the most famous comedians in the world. At the time, he was perhaps the third most popular comedian in America behind Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd.

His film-making style employs editing and framing techniques that are more closely aligned with modern sensibilities than the melodrama of other films of the day. His style of comedy and humor has been called timeless, in contrast to other silent comedians whose approaches are more rooted in their own era.

His most enduring feature-length films include Our Hospitality (1923), The Navigator (1924), Sherlock, Jr. (1924), The Cameraman (1928), Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928), and The General (1927). The last film, set during the American Civil War, is considered his masterpiece, combining physical comedy with Keaton's love for trains. Unfortunately, many of his most acclaimed films performed poorly in the box office due to their sophistication—audiences had a difficult time seeing Buster as a cinematic artist of considerable ambition.

In addition, the technical side of filmmaking fascinated him and he was forward thinking enough to want to produce sound films when they began to become technically practical and popular. The fact that he had a good voice and years of stage experience promised an easier adjustment than Chaplin's silent Tramp character, whom Chaplin thought could not survive sound.


In 1921, he married Natalie Talmadge, sister-in-law of his boss, Joe Schenck, and sister of actresses Norma Talmadge and Constance Talmadge. After the birth of their second son, the marriage began to suffer. According to Keaton's autobiography, Natalie turned him out of the bedroom and sent detectives to follow him to see whom he was dating behind her back. In 1932, Natalie divorced him, taking his entire fortune, and refusing to allow contact between Keaton and his sons. Keaton was reunited with them about a decade later.

In 1933, Buster married Mae Scriven, his nurse during an alcoholic binge that he remembered nothing about afterward. When they divorced in 1936, she took half of everything they owned — half of each dining set, half of each table and chair set, half of the books, and even Buster's favorite St. Bernard, Elmer.

In 1940, Buster married Eleanor Norris, who was 23 years younger than he. She saved his life and helped salvage his career. All their friends advised them against it, but the marriage lasted until Buster's death. Between 1947 and 1954, Buster and Eleanor appeared regularly in the Cirque Medrano in Paris, in a highly-regarded doubles act.

Sound era and television

Keaton's filmmaking unit was acquired by MGM in 1928, a business decision that Keaton regretted ever afterwards. He was forced to enter the ranks of the studio system, working at the MGM studios in a more restrictive environment that he had previously worked in. He had difficulty adapting to the studio system and lapsed into alcoholism. His career declined within a few years, and he spent most of the 1930s in obscurity, working as a gag writer for various MGM films, particularly those of the Marx Brothers—including A Night at the Opera (1935), At the Circus (1939), and Go West (1940);and various films of Red Skelton.

He made appearances in films, including Sunset Boulevard (1950), It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963), and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966). He had a brief cameo in Charlie Chaplin's late film Limelight (1952). For ten minutes, Keaton and Chaplin share the screen for the only time in their careers, playing two aging former vaudeville stars trying to recapture a bit of glory, decades after both Chaplin's and Keaton's fame had peaked — though Keaton remarks, "If one more person tells me this is just like old times, I swear I'll jump out the window."

He had two back-to-back television series, The Buster Keaton Show (1950) and Life With Buster Keaton (1951). Despite their popularity, he cancelled the programs because he could not create enough material to produce a new show each week. He also found steady work as an actor for TV commercials, but he largely believed that he had been forgotten. His classic silent films saw a revival in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Shortly before he died, Keaton starred in a short film called The Railrodder (1965) for the National Film Board of Canada, in which he returned to the classic deadpan style that he had known during the peak of his career in the 1920s. He also played the central role in Samuel Beckett's only film project, Film (1965).


Buster contracted lung cancer after years of smoking. His wife and doctors let him believe that he had contracted chronic bronchitis and he was never told that he was dying. Why exactly they did this is uncertain, but it is clear that Keaton required others to manage his daily living. Since his condition was already terminal when it was diagnosed, perhaps they were concerned that if he had been told, he would have stopped working. Performing before a camera or a live-audience was what Buster enjoyed most, apart from model trains. Buster Keaton is interred in the Forest Lawn - Hollywood Hills Cemetery in Los Angeles, California.

Legacy and contribution

Buster Keaton, Chaplin, and Lloyd are remembered as the great comic innovators of the silent era. Many regard Keaton as the superior filmmaker of the three, although Keaton never made such comparisons. He enjoyed Lloyd's films highly and often praised Chaplin for his genius.

Keaton has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame: 6619 Hollywood Boulevard (for motion pictures); and 6321 Hollywood Boulevard (for television). In 1994, he appeared on a United States postage stamp designed by caricaturist Al Hirschfeld.

Many actors and filmmakers were influenced by Keaton, including Alec Guinness, Peter Sellers, Blake Edwards, and Jackie Chan.



External links

de:Buster Keaton es:Buster Keaton eo:Buster KEATON fr:Buster Keaton it:Buster Keaton nl:Buster Keaton ja:バスター・キートン fi:Buster Keaton sv:Buster Keaton


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