Buster Keaton (1895–1966)
Actor | Writer | Director
Born: October 4, 1895 in Piqua, Kansas, USA
Died: February 1, 1966 (age 70) in Los Angeles, California, USA
When at six months of age he tumbled down a flight of stairs unharmed, he was given the name "Buster" by Harry Houdini who, along with W.C. Fields, Bill Robinson ("Bojangles"), Eddie Cantor and Al Jolson shared headlines with "The Three Keatons": Buster, his father Joe Keaton and mother Myra Keaton. Their act, one of the most dangerous in vaudeville, was about how to discipline a prankster child. Buster was thrown all over the stage and even into the audience. No matter what the stunt, he was poker-faced. By the time Buster turned 21, however, his father was such a severe alcoholic that the stunts became too dangerous to perform and the act dissolved. He first saw a movie studio in March 1917 and, on April 23, his debut film, Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle's The Butcher Boy (1917), was released. He stayed with Fatty through 15 two-reelers, even though he was offered much more to sign with Fox or Warner Bros. after returning from ten months with the U.S. Army (40th Infantry Division) in France. His first full-length feature, The Saphead (1920), established him as a star in his own right. By the middle of 1921 he had his own production company--Buster Keaton Productions--and was writing, directing and starring in his own films. With a small and close team around him, Keaton created some of the most beautiful and imaginative films of the silent era. The General (1926), his favorite, was one of the last films over which he had artistic control. In 1928 he reluctantly signed with MGM after his contract with independent producer Joseph M. Schenck expired. MGM quickly began to enforce its rigid, mechanized style of filmmaking on Keaton, swamping him with gag writers and scripts. He fought against it for a time, and the compromise was initially fruitful, his first film for MGM--The Cameraman (1928)--being one of his finest. However,with his creativity becoming increasingly stifled he began to drink excessively, despondent at having to perform material that was beneath him. Ironically, his films around 1930 were his most successful to date in terms of box-office receipts, which confirmed to MGM that its formula was right. His drinking led to a disregard for schedules and erratic behavior on the MGM lot, and a disastrous confrontation with Louis B. Mayer resulted in him being fired. The diplomatic producer Irving Thalberg attempted to smooth things over but Keaton was past caring. By 1932 he was a divorced alcoholic, getting work where he could, mostly in short comedies. In 1935 he entered a mental hospital. MGM rehired him in 1937 as a $100-a-week gag writer (his salary ten years before was more than ten times this amount). The occasional film was a boost to this steady income. In 1947 his career rebounded with a live appearance at Cirque Medrano in Paris. In 1952 James Mason, who then owned Keaton's Hollywood mansion, found a secret store of presumably lost nitrate stock of many of Buster's early films; film historian and archivist Raymond Rohauer began a serious collection/preservation of Buster's work. In 1957 Buster appeared with Charles Chaplin in Limelight (1952) and his film biography, The Buster Keaton Story (1957), was released. Two years later he received a special Oscar for his life work in comedy, and he began to receive the accolades he so richly deserved, with festivals around the world honoring his work. He died in 1966, age 70.
|Eleanor Keaton||(28 July 1940 - 1 February 1966) (his death)|
|Mae Elizabeth Scrivens||(8 January 1933 - 4 October 1935) (divorced)|
|Natalie Talmadge||(31 May 1921 - 25 July 1932) (divorced) (2 children)|
Trade Mark (4)
Pork pie hat, slapshoes, deadpan expression
His films contain elaborate gadgets of his own devising
Used the camera to help comedy, e.g. to create effect of rocking boat in beginning of The Boat (1921).
Small and slight frame
Unlike many silent movie stars, Buster was eager to go into sound considering he had a fine baritone voice with no speech impediments and years of stage experience, so dialogue was not a problem.
Following his death, he was interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Los Angeles, California.
Pictured on one of ten 29¢ US commemorative postage stamps celebrating stars of the silent screen, issued 27 April 1994. Designed by caricaturist Al Hirschfeld, this set of stamps also honored Rudolph Valentino, Clara Bow, Charles Chaplin, Lon Chaney, John Gilbert, Zasu Pitts, Harold Lloyd, Theda Bara and the Keystone Kops.
Fractured his neck while filming Sherlock Jr. (1924) and did not learn about it until a doctor saw X-rays of his neck during a routine physical examination many years later.
Died quietly at home, in his sleep, shortly after playing cards with his wife.
He was already quite ill with the cancer that would eventually kill him by the time he made his last completed film, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966). He used a stunt double in this film, as well as most of the films he made as an MGM contract player. Before signing with MGM in 1928, he had performed all of his own stunts, and even doubled for cast members in his own films, as in Sherlock Jr. (1924), where he played both himself, riding on the handlebars of a motorcycle, and the man who falls off the back of it.
His mother was of British/German ancestry, and his father was of Scottish/Irish ancestry.
Because most of his childhood was spent in vaudeville with his parents, he had few peers. However, he enjoyed a more regular childhood during his family's annual summer getaways to an Actor's Colony on Lake Michigan in Muskegon, MI. In fact, the city of Muskegon has erected a historical marker to note his stomping ground.
First married Mae Scriven in Mexico on January 1, 1932 before his divorce from Natalie Talmadge was final, then again legally in 1933.
He became an alcoholic when he his career collapsed around 1930, only kicking his habit and regaining his self-esteem when he married Eleanor Norris (Eleanor Keaton), his wife from 1940 until his death in 1966.
Was voted the 7th Greatest Director of all time by Entertainment Weekly, making him the highest rated comedy director. Charles Chaplin didn't make the list.
Biography in: John Wakeman, editor. "World Film Directors, Volume One, 1890-1945". Pages 523-531. New York: The H.W. Wilson Company, 1987.
He was voted the 35th Greatest Movie Star of all time by Entertainment Weekly.
When he married Natalie Talmadge, the Talmadge family was one of the great acting dynasties in both theater and film, and the gossip in Hollywood was that Keaton married her to gain respect in the industry, a rumor he never quite lived down during his peak. Ironically, Keaton is now a film legend, while most people would be hard-pressed to answer who the Talmadges are.
Not only did Keaton do all his own stunts, but, when needed, he acted as a stunt double for other actors in the films.
He often surrounded himself with tall and heavy-set actors in his films, typically as his antagonist, to make his character seem to be at as much of a physical disadvantage as possible. The similarly diminutive Charlie Chaplin (Charles Chaplin) also did this.
The three top comedians in silent-era Hollywood were Keaton, Charles Chaplin and Harold Lloyd. All three produced, controlled and owned their own films. Keaton was convinced to sell his studio and films to MGM in the 1920s, while Chaplin and Lloyd retained ownership of their films. Chaplin and Lloyd became wealthy, while Keaton endured years of financial and personal problems.
In one scene in Sherlock Jr. (1924), filmed at a train station, Keaton was hanging from a tube connected to a water basin. The water poured out and washed him on to the track, fracturing his neck. This footage appears in the released film.
Was named the 21st Greatest Actor on The 50 Greatest Screen Legends List by the American Film Institute
Was hearing-impaired since 1918, after serving in Germany fighting World War I.
Met Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle for the first time strolling down Broadway in New York City. Arbuckle was with Keaton's old vaudeville acquaintance Lou Anger, who introduced them. Arbuckle immediately asked Keaton to visit the Colony Studio, where he was set to begin a series of comedies for Joseph M. Schenck. The famous comedy team was born.
Loved to play baseball. He would sometimes play between takes on the movie set. Furthermore, for the annual Hollywood charity baseball game for Mt. Sinai Hospital in the 1930s, he always led the comedians' team and developed comedy business on field with his writers.
Said he learned everything about moviemaking and comedy from Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle.
The Navigator (1924) was his most successful movie by gross revenue.
There is much legend regarding the conception of his nickname, Buster. Many attribute the name to the legendary Harry Houdini, who was the partner of Joe Keaton (Buster's father) in the medicine-show group "Kathleen Marownen", after he saw a young Buster fall down a set of stairs without any injury. Others have said that it was Joe who conceived the name after he saw Buster's accident, while still others say that Joe Keaton fabricated the incident for a good story to tell on vaudeville. Which of these stories is actually true is unknown.
He and his parents formed an acrobatic group called "The Three Keatons" in his early youth.
Wanted to become an engineer as a child.
His performance as Johnny Gray in The General (1926) is ranked #34 on Premiere Magazine's 100 Greatest Performances of All Time (2006).
His last film work was The Railrodder (1965), but because it was such a short film it was released before other movies, like A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966), which had completed filming before "The Railrodder".
Is mentioned in the song "Cinéma" by Paola Del Medico.
When he was three years old he got his right index finger caught in a clothes wringer and it was crushed and had to be amputated at the first knuckle. The injury is most clearly visible in The Garage (1920), when Keaton steadies Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle's head with his right hand while wiping oil off his face with his left.
He died the same day as his The Stolen Jools (1931), Speak Easily (1932) and Sunset Boulevard (1950) co-star Hedda Hopper.
In 1952 while remodeling his home, James Mason discovered several reels of Keaton's "lost" films (Mason had purchased Keaton's Hollywood mansion) and immediately recognized their historical significance. He took upon himself the responsibility for their preservation.
He is believed to be the first person to use "Buster" as a name, and popularized its usage ever after.
Keaton was one of the few actors who welcomed the advent of sound films. He knew his character didn't need dialog, but he looked forward to sound effects. "When somebody goes boom, they really go *boom*" he once said.
Keaton, Charles Chaplin and Stan Laurel all referred to their screen characters as "The Little Fellow".
A baseball fanatic, Keaton not only held games between takes, but also incorporated it into applications for employment. According to legend, two of the questions on the application he used to hire actors read "Are you a good actor?" and "Are you a good baseball player?" Anyone who answered "Yes" to either had a job with Keaton.
He appears in four of the American Film Institute's 100 Funniest Movies: The General (1926) at #18, It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963) at #40, Sherlock Jr. (1924) at #62 and The Navigator (1924) at #81.
Broke his ankle while filming The Electric House (1922) when he slipped on the escalator and was still recovering from it when he made The Play House (1921) in which his stunts were considered to be tamer than usual.
Ex-son-in-law of Margaret Talmadge.
On a whim Keaton took crew member Edward Brophy and used him in a comedy role in The Cameraman (1928). That decision launched Brophy on his own notable comedy career.
Acting mentor to comedienne Lucille Ball.
He was awarded two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for Motion Pictures at 6619 Hollywood Blvd. and for Television at 6321 Hollywood Blvd.
Most biographers overlook his appearance on the ABC-TV variety show The Hollywood Palace (1964). At the end of the first winter-spring season, series producers Nick Vanoff and William O. Harbach scheduled the show's host Gene Barry with guest stars Keaton and Gloria Swanson to appear together in a comedy sketch. Keaton was at that time appearing in It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963). Bringing famous Hollywood film stars onto the show was the producers' main goal. Getting Swanson and Keaton on the show was considered a coup and an opportunity to promote the film. The sketch starred Swanson as Cleopatra and Keaton as Marc Antony, staged on a stepped Roman platform terrace surrounded by a 20-inch-high parapet wall and Roman columns, with the pair falling in love. It was written by Joe Bigelow and Jay Burton, but director Grey Lockwood encouraged Swanson and Keaton to contribute any bits, routines and ideas that they wanted to, which they did. On the first day of rehearsal Swanson was on the stage, gazing up at the lighting fixtures overhead. She asked for lighting director Jack Denton to come to the stage, which he did, and Swanson began pointing out how she wanted which lights to focus on her and Keaton during the sketch--side light, key light, back light, which color gels to use, etc. Denton made sure that all of her suggestions were implemented. Keaton's idea was that the sketch should end with "Antony" and "Cleopatra" sitting on the parapet wall bench, join hands, raising their legs high and falling backwards out of sight over the wall. He and Swanson rehearsed the fall several times, and did the stunt themselves when it came time to actually shoot the scene for the show.
Contributed gags (uncredited) to the Red Skelton film A Southern Yankee (1948). No one could figure out a simple, yet funny way to get Aubrey out of the house when he was being held captive by the angry dog. Buster , employed by MGM as a roving gag man, was called to the set, looked at the set up, and came up with the idea of removing the door hinges and letting the dog in as Aubrey got out. The most famous gag in the movie took him all of five minutes to devise. Some of the other gags he contributed were some he'd done himself years earlier.
David Jason is one of his biggest fans, and claims to channel him whenever he did his own stunts. He was quite honored when the Daily Mirror compared them.
Perhaps as a result of an accident that crushed his right index finger at age three, he developed the ability to use his right hand for certain tasks and his left hand for others. He wrote left-handed but played the ukulele right-handed. When he played baseball (his favorite sport), he threw right-handed and batted left-handed.
A heavy smoker for most of his life, he was diagnosed with lung cancer during the first week of January 1966 after a month-long coughing bout, but he was never told that he was terminally ill or that he had cancer, as his doctors feared that the news would be detrimental to his health. Keaton thought that he was recovering from a severe case of bronchitis. Despite his failing health, he was active and walking about almost until the day he died.
Personal Quotes (25)
No man can be a genius in slapshoes and a flat hat.
Tragedy is a close-up; comedy, a long shot.
I gotta do some sad scenes. Why, I never tried to make anybody cry in my life! And I go 'round all the time dolled up in kippie clothes--wear everything but a corset . . . can't stub my toe in this picture nor anything! Just imagine having to play-act all the time without ever getting hit with anything!
[Asked by a reporter at an MGM premiere, "Are you happy to be here?"] Of course, I got off location for this!
What used to get my goat at MGM were comedians like The Marx Brothers or [Bud Abbott] and [Lou Costello], who never worried about the script or the next scene. My God, we ate, slept and dreamed our pictures.
Is Hollywood the cruelest city in the world? Well, it can be. New York can be like that, too. You can be a Broadway star here one night, and something happens, and then you're out--nobody knows you on the street. They forget you ever lived. It happens in Hollywood, too.
The first thing I did in the studio was to want to tear that camera to pieces. I had to know how that film got into the cutting room, what you did to it in there, how you projected it, how you finally got the picture together, how you made things match. The technical part of pictures is what interested me. Material was the last thing in the world I thought about. You only had to turn me loose on the set and I'd have material in two minutes, because I'd been doing it all my life.
They say pantomime's a lost art. It's never been a lost art and never will be, because it's too natural to do.
[on his time working as an uncredited gag writer for The Marx Brothers at MGM] It was an event when you could get all three of them on the set at the same time. The minute you started a picture with the Marx Brothers you hired three assistant directors, one for each Marx brother. You had two of 'em while you went to look for the third one and the first two would disappear.
Think slow, act fast.
Silence is of the gods; only monkeys chatter.
[on the differences between his and Charles Chaplin's characters] Charlie's tramp was a bum with a bum's philosophy. Lovable as he was, he would steal if he got the chance. My little fellow was a working man and honest.
All my life, I have been happiest when the folks watching me said to each other, "Look at the poor dope, will ya?".
Not long ago, a friend asked me what was the greatest pleasure I got from spending my whole life as an actor. There have been so many that I had to think about that for a moment. Then I said, "Like everyone else, I like to be with a happy crowd.".
Dumb show is best for screen people, if they must appear in public.
I've had few dull moments [in my life] and not too many sad and defeated ones. In saying this, I am by no means overlooking the rough and rocky years I've lived through. But I was not brought up thinking life would be easy. I always expected to work hard for my money and to get nothing I did not earn. And the bad years, it seems to me, were so few that only a dyed-in-the-wool grouch who enjoys feeling sorry for himself would complain.
Only things that one could imagine happening to real people, I guess, remain in a person's memory.
When I've got a gag that spreads out, I hate to jump a camera into close-ups. So I do everything in the world I can to hold it in that long-shot and keep the action rolling. Close-ups are too jarring on the screen, and this type of cut can stop an audience from laughing.
Half of our scenes, for God's sakes, we only just talked over. We didn't actually get out there and rehearse 'em. We would just walk through it and talk about it. We crank that first rehearsal. Because any thing can happen--and generally did . . . We used the rehearsal scenes instead of the second take.
[on the advent of sound in the movies] In every picture it got tougher. They'd laugh their heads off at dialogue written by all your new writers. They were joke-happy. They didn't look for action; they were looking for funny things to say.
I always want the audience to out-guess me, and then I double-cross them.
A comedian does funny things. A good comedian does things funny.
[on why he did all his own stunts] Stuntmen don't get laughs.
Pop made me the featured performer of our act when I was five. There were dozens of other family acts in vaudeville at the turn of the century, but none of the children in them was featured as early as that. Many of those kids were very talented, and their parents were as eager as mine to give them the same head start in show business that I was getting. The reason managers approved of my being featured was because I was unique, being at that time the only little hell-raising Huck Finn type boy in vaudeville. The parents of the others presented their boys as cute and charming Little Lord Fauntleroys. The girls were Dolly Dimples types with long, golden curls. I doubt that any kid actor had more attempts made to save him [by civic do-gooders] than did our Little Buster. The reason of course was our slam-bang act. Even people who most enjoyed our work marvelled when I was able to get up after my bashing, crashing, smashing sessions with pop.
Railroads are a great prop. You can do some awful wild things with railroads.
|Le roi des Champs-Élysées (1934)||$15,000|
|Palooka from Paducah (1935)||$2,500|
|One Run Elmer (1935)||$2,500|
|Hayseed Romance (1935)||$2,500|
|Tars and Stripes (1935)||$2,500|
|The E-Flat Man (1935)||$2,500|
|The Timid Young Man (1935)||$2,500|
|Three on a Limb (1936)||$2,500|
|Grand Slam Opera (1936)||$2,500|
|Blue Blazes (1936)||$2,500|
|The Chemist (1936)||$2,500|
|Mixed Magic (1936)||$2,500|
|Jail Bait (1937)||$2,500|
|Love Nest on Wheels (1937)||$2,500|
|Sunset Blvd. (1950)||$1,000|