Known for his mind-blowing stunts, his pork-pie hat and his dead-pan expression (I`ve yet to find a photo of him with a smile), Buster Keaton, born Joseph Frank Keaton on October 4th, 1895 in Piqua Kansas, was, in my opinion, one of the most influential people in the film industry at it`s infancy. His popularity in comedy second only to Charlie Chaplin.
His parents, Joe and Myra Keaton, were Vaudevillian comedians with their own act, in which Buster was a part of as early as of the age of four.
It was at that age, early in the career of his parents, they traveled around with a medicine show which included a certain friend of theirs we all know as Harry Houdini. It was Mr. Houdini who was at the origin of Buster`s name when the boy fell down a flight of stairs and the magician was said to remark to the lad`s father that that was a buster of a fall. Mr. Keaton liked that so much that the name stuck. How cool is that?
Although Buster had an older brother and sister, it appears that he was the only child of the family to participate in the show and apparently it was quite a rough and tumble show, with Buster participating in the stunts even a a young age.
The three Keatons continued to touring the circuits until Mr. Keaton`s alcoholism became too problematic and Buster, at the age of 21 and already a seasoned performer, decided to stop the show.
It was at this point that he was discovered by the famous actor and director Roscoe Arbuckle, who went by the nickname Fatty. He cast Buster in his upcoming short film The Butcher Boy (1917). This would be the first of 149 films in which he appeared and the beginning of a fast friendship with Mr. Arbuckle which ended with the latter`s sudden death in 1933. He stood by his friend when in 1921, Arbuckle was tried three times (the first two trials ending in a hung jury) for the murder of Virginia Rappe. Although not convicted, he suffered such a blow to his reputation that his business fell apart and he went totally broke. Keaton offered to testify on his behalf at the risk of his own budding career and would later help his friend out financially and by sending some directing work his way.
In 1920, before all this tragedy befell Mr. Arbuckle, he decided to take on feature length films at the behest of Paramount, and passed his studio down to Keaton who began producing his own works. He produced several successful shorts, notably One Week (1920), The Boat (1921) and Cops (1922).
It was a year later, in 1921, through a business partner of Arbuckle, that Keaton met and subsequently married Natalie Talmadge on the 31st of May. Their marriage lasted eleven years and they had two sons, Buster Keaton Jr. and Bob Talmadge. The reason behind the last name of the youngest was because after the divorce, Natalie changed the last names of the boys and denied Keaton access to them. Only ten years later, when they had reached adulthood, did the boys renew their relationship with their father.
In 1923, Keaton decided to move to feature length films also, beginning with Three Ages (1923). At the top of his game, Keaton produced two features a year. He followed Three Ages with Our Hospitality (1923), The Navigator and Sherlock Jr. (1924) and The General (1926), breaking ground with special effects in Sherlock Jr. His father Joe and his wife Natalie starred in several of his films.
Although Keaton considered The General one of his best achievements, his audience didn`t agree. They preferred his comedies rather than dramas despite the expense and special effects, most notably a train falling into a river after the collapse of the bridge.
He made a few more silent films before the talkies arrived, including College (1927), Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928) and The Cameraman also in 1928 and his first film under MGM Spite Marriage (1929) which he would have preferred with sound but was over ruled by the studio.
Trouble on the horizon
It was with MGM that Keaton produced his first sound film Hollywood Revue of 1929 (1929) but according to Keaton, signing with MGM was to be his greatest regret. He was not allowed his own production unit and they continually reduced his creative input.
It was at this point in his life that his first wife Natalie filed for divorce, not only taking away his sons but the home he had built as well. All this turmoil would affect his health and he followed in his father`s alcoholic footsteps. He became depressed, violent and erratic and MGM finally decided to put an end to his contract in 1933. His last starring feature that year was What, No Beer? with Jimmy Durante. He had teamed up with Mr. Durante on two previous films in 1932: The Passionate Plumber and Speak Easily. They would again be reunited in the 1963 It`s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World.
While in treatment for his alcoholism that he met a nurse by the name of Mae Scrivens. They would marry in 1932 but it would be a short-lived relationship that ended in divorce in 1935.
It was 1936 before he was to produce his next film Grand Slam Opera and considering all the problems he was having in his personal life, it was considered as one of his best performances.
In 1939 Columbia hired Keaton to star in ten two-reel movies and although he favored Pest From The West, the first of the series, according to his biography My Wonderful World of Slapstick, he regarded, as a whole, these Columbia shorts as his worst work, vowed to never again make any more of these ‘crummy two-reelers’ and stuck to his word.
The Later Years
Although he kept relatively busy during the 1940`s, it was after a minor role in the 1949 film Good Old Summertime that interest in Keaton`s work was revitalized. This spawned a flurry of interviews, television appearances, film roles and world tours which kept him quite occupied for the rest of his life. He played with Charlie Chaplin in the 1952 film The Limelight. The only other film in which they played together was the 1922 movie Seeing Stars. His last film was A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum in 1963.
His third and last marriage in 1940 at the age of 45 was to Eleanor Norris. She was his faithful companion until his death on February 1st 1966 from lung cancer at the age of 71.