Joseph Frank Keaton on October 4, 1895, in Piqua, Kansas.
Buster Keaton was one of the best known and most respected
of the silent film comedians. Dubbed "The Great Stone
Face" for his stoic demeanor, he wrote, directed and
produced many of his films in the 1920s and 1930s. An innovator
behind the camera as well as in front of it, Keaton was lauded
for his sometimes dangerous brand of physical comedy and impeccable
was the eldest of three children, including a younger brother
and sister, born to two vaudevillians, Joseph Hallie Keaton
and Myra Cutler. Shortly after his son's birth, Joseph Keaton
changed his son's name to Joseph Francis Keaton. He received
the nickname "Buster" while still an infant. Allegedly,
Keaton suffered a nasty fall, but displayed a nonchalant
reaction to it. This was witnessed by the magician Harry
Houdini (or, some say, actor George Pardey), who christened
the hearty boy Buster.
parents appeared in vaudeville as "The Two Keatons,"
but were not particularly successful. Their son began appearing
on stage with them as early as nine months of age. By the
time he was three, Keaton had become part of his parents'
act, renamed "The Three Keatons." Although forces
opposed to child labor tried to keep him off the stage,
Keaton soon became an integral part of the show. In the
physical comedy routines performed with his father, Keaton
became an expert at pratfalls and developed an impassive
face that delighted audiences. His talent led the family
to New York City and, in 1909, to an appearance in London.
1917, Joseph Keaton had developed severe problems with alcohol
and the family's act was dissolved. Their routine had relied
on physical prowess and exact timing, and required reliable
performers. The break brought new opportunities for Keaton.
He was soon offered a role in a Broadway show, The Passing
Show of 1917, for the princely sum of $250 per week. A chance
meeting with comedian Rosco "Fatty" Arbuckle led
him to break that contract. Keaton was convinced to star
in a short film with Arbuckle, called The Butcher Boy (1917).
Arbuckle also wrote and directed this film. Keaton soon
discovered that his brand of comedy, especially his deadpan
facial expressions, worked very well on film. The only time
he ever laughed on screen was in an Arbuckle movie, Fatty
at Coney Island (1917).
appeared in 14 Arbuckle shorts between 1917 and 1919, including
His Wedding Night (1917) and The Bell Boy (1918). His film
career was briefly interrupted by military service during
World War I. He was drafted by the United States Army in
1918, and served for over a year with the 40th Infantry
in France. After returning to the U.S. in 1919, Keaton appeared
in several more Arbuckle short films such as A Country Hero
(1919). In 1920, Keaton made his first full-length feature,
The Saphead, playing the straight man, Bertie "The
Lamb" Van Alstyne.
1920, Arbuckle left Comique Films for Paramount. Keaton
became the new head of the company, which was owned by Joseph
Schenck (who later became Keaton's brother in law). Like
Arbuckle before him, Keaton began directing films that he
appeared in. His first directorial effort, The High Sign,
was a short that apparently did not work very well. It was
not released until 1921. Keaton found his footing with his
next film, One Week (1920), which focused on the tribulations
of a do-it-yourself house. Behind the camera, Keaton worked
with a co-director, Eddie Cline, with whom he collaborated
several times. Though this was a partnership, Cline later
acknowledged that Keaton did much of the work.
balanced his work in front and behind the camera very well.
Peter Hogue wrote in Film Comment, "Keaton is astonishing
not only for what he does as an actor within the frame,
but also for what he does with frame in relation to the
actor. Much more thoroughly than Chaplin, he managed a near-perfect,
and highly expressive, harmony between the roles of performer
and filmmaker." This equilibrium came into play with
The Playhouse (1921), which he also wrote and directed with
Cline. Keaton played every role in the movie, which was
set in a theater. He was every member of the audience as
well as every performer. In one sequence, Keaton even danced
with himself. He appeared on screen simultaneously nine
times. The innovative special effects he developed for The
Playhouse made him an early leader in the field. He also
began using a moving camera, at a time when many of his
peers continued to use stationary ones.
May 31, 1921, Keaton was married time to Natalie Talmadge.
Her sister, Norma Talmadge, was married to Joseph Schenck,
owner of Comique Films the company that Keaton managed.
They eventually had two sons, Joseph and Robert. Because
of Keaton's success, and a notorious scandal involving Arbuckle,
Comique Films was renamed Buster Keaton Productions. Keaton,
however, did not own any part of the company. With complete
artistic control, he developed his own working methodology
and made about two pictures per year.
1923, Keaton was making full-length features. His first
was a parody of the famous D.W. Griffith film Intolerance
(1916), entitled The Three Ages. In Our Hospitality (1923),
a film about a mountain feud, Keaton shot both a novel train
scene and waterfall scene on location. Two of his best films
were made in 1924. The first was Sherlock Jr., in which
a daydreaming projectionist who longs to be a detective
becomes part of the movie he is showing. It marked the first
time that a character walks off a movie screen and into
"real life." As usual, Keaton performed all of
his own stunts. In this film, he broke his neck, but did
not discover it until ten years later. Keaton's other 1924
film, The Navigator, was shot on an ocean liner and directed
with Donald Crisp.
had a hard time capturing the promise of Sherlock Jr. over
the next few years. While his films were technically and
creatively interesting, they were either critical or box
office failures. Still, he continued to find new situations
in which to put his long-suffering face. In Seven Chances
(1925), he faces a rockslide. In Go West (1925), he is stared
down by a herd of cattle. Battling Butler (1926), a boxing
movie, was a commercial success. Though The General (1926)
was successful in retrospect, at the time it was critically
derided. The General was a Civil War romance, that featured
many impressive chase scenes and one very expensive special
effects shot. Keaton spent $42,000 on sending a train into
a burning bridge. In College (1927), Keaton was engaged
in every athletic sport except football, but it was a disappointment.
made Steamboat Bill Jr., his last film with Buster Keaton
Productions, in 1928. While the movie had an impressive
tornado sequence and an interesting topic (a Mississippi
riverboat race) which pleased critics, Steamboat Bill Jr.
was not a commercial success. After this failure, Schenck
sold his contract to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), where his
son, Nicholas, just happened to be in charge. Keaton had
never paid much attention to the business side of the film
industry, and he paid a hefty price. He lost creative control
of his pictures, and, like his father before him, developed
a nasty drinking problem. While the first project he did
for MGM (The Cameraman in 1928) was rather good, as was
his last silent film (Spite Marriage in 1929), Keaton's
career was in decline.
factors, other than the loss of creative control, contributed
to Keaton's downward spiral in the late 1920s and early
1930s. The arrival of the sound era in 1929 did not work
in his favor because of his voice. He had his sound debut
in The Hollywood Revue of 1929, then made eight more films
under his Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer contract. None of them were
very good. He was forced to make several films as a straight
man to Jimmy Durante, including Free and Easy (1930). Keaton's
contract with MGM was ended in 1933.
suffered from several personal crises as well. He and Natalie
Talmadge divorced on bitter terms in 1932. Two years later
she changed their sons' last name to Talmadge. Keaton had
a short-lived second marriage with Mae Elizabeth Scriven,
a nurse, hairstylist and playwright. They were married in
Mexico on January 1, 1932, before his divorce was final;
then again legally in 1933. By 1935, this second marriage
had ended in divorce.
managed to get his drinking under control by 1934, after
a short time in Europe where he appeared in several films
including Le roi des Champs-Elyses (1934). That same year,
he was put under contract by Educational Films and returned
to making shorts. One of the best of this era was Grand
Slam Opera. After the company shut its doors in 1937, Keaton
was re-signed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, but only as a gagman.
He directed three short films in 1938. The following year,
United Artists hired Keaton; he made ten shorts in the next
two years. Keaton married for the final time in 1940. His
third wife was a dancer named Eleanor Ruth Norris. Keaton
supported himself throughout the 1940s by appearing on stage
in Europe and the United States, and writing gags for MGM
and 20th Century-Fox.
1949, Keaton appeared on television for the first time.
He would return often. The medium revitalized his career.
In addition to appearing in numerous commercials (including
one for Alka-Seltzer), Keaton made many guest appearances
in both comedies and dramas. He appeared on shows such as
Playhouse 90, Route 66, and The Twilight Zone. Keaton had
two shows of his own, including The Buster Keaton Comedy
Show (1949) and The Buster Keaton Show from 1950 until 1951.
Caryn James wrote in The New York Times, "Keaton's
television appearances are warm and enduring. They are the
work of a man who, after decades of obscurity, found a way
to perpetuate his comic images by embracing a new medium."
He continued to appear on television until his death.
returned to film by the 1950s. In 1950, he played himself
in Sunset Boulevard. Two years later, he appeared with Charlie
Chaplin for the only time in Limelight. Other significant
film appearances included Around the World in 80 Days (1956),
It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963), A Funny Thing Happened
on the Way to the Forum (1966), and War Italian Style (1966).
In 1965, Keaton appeared in a short film written and shot
by French existentialist playwright Samuel Beckett entitled
February 1, 1966, Keaton died of lung cancer in Woodland
Hills, California at the age of 70.