"He was by his whole style and nature so much the most deeply 'silent' of the silent comedians that even a smile was as deafeningly out of key as a yell... No other comedian could do as much with the dead-pan. He used this great, sad, motionless face to suggest various related things; a one track mind near the track’s end of pure insanity; mulish imperturbability under the wildest of circumstances; how dead a human being can get and still be alive; an awe-inspiring sort of patience and power to endure, proper to granite but uncanny in flesh and blood."
— James Agee
magazine (5 September 1949)
"No man can be a genius in slapshoes and a flat hat."
— Buster Keaton
Joseph Frank "Buster" Keaton, Jr. (1895-1966), was the original Stoic
, also known as The Great Stone Face
. Possibly the toughest man in show business history; during one film shoot, he broke his neck
and continued with the day's shooting.
Buster literally grew up on stage as part of the Three Keatons, one of the roughest acts in vaudeville. Their most famous shtick was when Pa Joe Keaton would react to Buster's mischief by literally throwing him around the stage and occasionally into the orchestra pit or the audience — once, Joe threw Buster at hecklers who made the mistake of criticizing the saxophone playing of Myra Keaton, Joe's wife. Oh, and did we mention that they started this act when Buster was three years old
Eventually, when the act's fortunes declined and Joe got too drunk and disorderly to work with safelynote
, Buster Keaton struck out on his own. He got into film with his good friend, Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle
, then one of the top comedy movie stars. Following Fatty's tragic fall from grace, Keaton formed his own production company, starring in and directing some of the most innovative comedy films of his day. From this period, his full-length film The General
is still considered one of the best silent films ever made. He was also never afraid of new technology: for instance, for a major silent movie star at the dawn of sound films, he wanted
to get into them right away. After his company was dissolved, Keaton signed a contract with MGM
. The best of his MGM films are the silents The Cameraman
and Spite Marriage
. He then began making sound pictures in which he was often teamed with Jimmy Durante
Unfortunately, stress from repeated clashes with MGM management, the loss of his independence and artistic control, and a divorce from his first wife, Natalie Talmadge (in which she was awarded sole custody of their two sons), caused Keaton's drinking to develop into outright alcoholism. During the 1930s, Keaton slipped from the spotlight. He made two-reel comedies for low-budget outfits like Educational Pictures and Columbia Pictures (the latter has since become a major film production and distribution company), and worked for MGM as a gag man (where he mentored Lucille Ball
before she got her break as a television comedienne and worked as a gagman for the Marx Brothers
' At The Circus
). At one point he was institutionalized because of his drinking. He wed one of his nurses, Mae Scriven, possibly during an alcoholic blackout; the relationship ended disastrously
(among other things, she stole his dog and sold it
Things turned around for Keaton in the 1940s. He met and married his third wife, Eleanor Norris, who helped him get his drinking under control and sometimes worked as his partner in comedy routines. This led to Buster's engagement at France's Cirque Medrano, where he drew enthusiastic audiences. A 1949 article by James Agee in LIFE
magazine (see quote above) renewed interest in Keaton, and his career picked up: he starred in a short-lived TV series; guest-starred on other shows, including The Twilight Zone
, Route 66
, and Candid Camera
; appeared in many commercials; and performed memorable cameos and supporting roles in such films as In The Good Old Summertime
, Sunset Boulevard
(playing himself), Around the World in Eighty Days
, Charlie Chaplin
, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World
, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
, and Beach Blanket Bingo
. He lived to see his silent films preserved,(including some supposedly lost films actor James Mason
found in a house that Keaton previously owned) and reintroduced for a new generation, and received a Career Oscar.
A partial filmography:
Recurring tropes in Keaton's films:
- Adorkable: His characters are often sold on their endearing ineptitude. And really, just look at his expression(s).
- Affectionate Parody
- All Just a Dream
- Amusing Injuries
- Bookcase Passage
- By Wall That Is Holey: Trope Codifier. Keaton didn't invent it, but the gag will always be linked to him.
- Chase Scene
- Clothing Damage
- The Comically Serious
- The Cutie: Look at the picture of him above and tell us you wouldn't want to give him a hug.
- The Danza: Keaton, in many of the shorts.
- Doom It Yourself
- Dream Sequence
- Earn Your Happy Ending
- Epic Fail
- Evil Is Bigger: Keaton, who was five-and-a-half feet tall, often cast much larger actors as his rivals or nemeses.
- Fake Rabies: Buster Keaton runs frantically from a dog that ate a cream pie in "The Scarecrow."
- From Bad to Worse
- Iconic Outfit: The Hat. The title-page and chapter-heading illustrations of his "as-told-to" autobiography, My Wonderful World of Slapstick, are a drawing of his eyes and The Hat. Just his eyes and The Hat.
- Played with in Steamboat Bill, Jr.: Steamboat Bill (Sr.) is looking for his son, Willie (played by Buster), whom he hasn't seen in years, at the train station, with only the information that Willie will be wearing a white carnation. He goes up to a man bent down to fiddle with his luggage, such that only the hat and a white carnation is visible, whom he assumes to be his son, only to find that the man is black. The second time is when he's having Willie try on new hats at the haberdasher's. Every other hat that Willie tries on is a variation of the similar-looking boater (larger, and typically straw), which his father continues to veto. One hat that gets vetoed harder than the rest by his father is a miniature derby, placed rakishly on Willie's head a la Charlie Chaplin. When the trademark porkpie hat does appear, Buster sees it in the mirror and quickly ditches it, as seen here.
- In Our Hospitality, Keaton plays an early-1800s dandy - riding an early, bumpy train, he keeps hitting the ceiling and crushing his top hat down past his eyes. He finally takes it off and replaces it with his usual flat hat.
- The Klutz
- Large and in Charge: See Evil Is Bigger, above.
- Le Parkour: Even before David Belle!
- Literal Ass Kicking
- Love Triangle
- Mistaken Identity
- The Pratfall: Keaton worked hard to perfect his technique, and it showed.
- Railroad Tracks of Doom
- Rube Goldberg Device
- The Stoic
- Thirteen Is Unlucky
- Took a Level in Badass
- Trap Door
- Undercrank (used sparingly)
Buster Keaton Shout Outs in fiction:
- A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum: Buster Keaton played the role of the blind old man Erronius in the screen version. It was one of his last movie roles. He was dying of cancer. He did his own stunts. He was Awesome. Unfortunately, there was one stunt he couldn't do: The jogging through the chariot race scene was too strenuous for him and had to be done by a stunt double. So the only time he was ever doubled was his last stunt on his last film. Reportedly the entire cast and crew were in tears
- Several Jackie Chan movies imitate Keaton's stunts almost shot for shot.
- Most instances of By Wall That Is Holey are based on Keaton's famous stunt in Steamboat Bill, Jr.
- There's a good one in the episode "The One Where They Build a House" of Arrested Development, in which the character involved is actually named Buster (and looks a little bit like Keaton, as well).
- The Goodies did an episode that was part silent-film parody, including an ersatz Buster. When the Goodies have a wall fall on them and are saved by the window, they don't even notice and leave — then the Buster lookalike comes into the scene, looks around, and takes out a small notebook to write a note to himself before leaving.
- During the barn-raising shot of the music video for "Weird Al" Yankovic's "Amish Paradise," The front wall frame falls on Al in this fashion.
- In the Romantic Comedy Benny & Joon, the character played by Johnny Depp, Sam, is introduced reading the book The Look of Buster Keaton, wears an outfit reminiscent of Buster's, and performs Keatonesque bits of silent comedy.
- The eponymous character played by Peter Boyle in The X-Files episode "Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose" is named after a writer/director who worked with Buster Keaton (and committed suicide with a gun he'd borrowed from Keaton), while Detectives Cline and Havez are references to other Keaton collaborators, writer/director/actor Edward F. Cline and writer Jean C. Havez.
- In DC Specials Series #15, the story "Death Strikes at Midnight and Three" is about a race between the Batman and the Gotham mob to find a blind accountant willing to testify against the gangster who employed him. The accountant's hiding place — a theater showing Buster Keaton films (he reasoned that no one would look for a blind man at a silent movie).
- Hatabō ("Flag Boy"), a recurring character in Fujio Akatsuka's manga series Osomatsu-kun, is based on Buster Keaton.
- Bleu Finnegan, the main character of Blue Monday, is a Buster Keaton fan.
- Batman: The Brave and the Bold: In the episode "Emperor Joker!", one of The Joker's mooks is a huge, muscular version of Keaton (the overall effect, given Keaton's square-jawed, unsmiling face, is a bit like a caricature of Boris Karloff as the ''Frankenstein's monster.)
- In 1632, the first movie the uptimers share with the downtimers once they get the TV station up and running is The General. While the people who run the studio want Rebecca Abarbanel to explain the film's plot beforehand, she refuses because "Keaton's comedy is timeless". She's right.
- In Stephen King's novel Needful Things, Castle Rock's First Selectman, Danforth Keeton, is nicknamed "Buster". It's also his Berserk Button.
- In Ian Fleming's novel Diamonds Are Forever, there's a scene where James Bond and Tiffany Case escape from a gangster's lair via a railroad handcar. At one point she tells him, "That was quite an exit. Like something out of an old Buster Keaton film."
- An All in the Family episode opens with the Bunkers and Stivics returning home from seeing a Buster Keaton film at a revival house. Significantly, it's depicted as one of the rare activities that Archie and Mike enjoy equally.