Joseph Frank "Buster" Keaton (October 4, 1895 February 1, 1966) was an American comedian, actor, director, writer, and producer who is generally ranked alongside Charlie Chaplin in the pantheon of silent-era movie comedy. Keaton was the original Stoic (also known as "The Great Stone Face"), and possibly the toughest man in show business history; during one film shoot, he broke his neck and continued with the day's shooting. Indeed, according to a popular urban legend, one Keaton himself actually cited as fact, Harry Houdini gave him his nickname when he was an infant; he had seen the young Keaton fall down a flight of stairs, and then easily getting back up again like nothing had happened, to which Houdini should have exclaimed "That was sure a buster!"
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. Charlie Chaplin warned him against signing beforehand, and Keaton would indeed later came to seriously regret this decision, repeatedly calling it not just the biggest mistake of his career, but his life. 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.note
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 Sunset Boulevard (playing himself), Around the World in 80 Days (1956), Charlie Chaplin's Limelight, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. He even collaborated with avant-garde playwright Samuel Beckett on an unusual project called Film.
He lived to see his silent films preserved (including some supposedly lost films that actor James Mason found in a house that Keaton had previously owned) and reintroduced for a new generation, and received an Honorary Lifetime Achievement Academy Award.
He died from lung cancer at the age of 70. Funnily enough, his death was an inversion of Secretly Dying; he thought he was recovering from bronchitis, and everyone knew he was dying except him. (Don't ask us how that happened...)
His life story is told in the three-part documentary series Buster Keaton: A Hard Act to Follow.
Short films (partial filmography):
- Coney Island (1917)
- The Garage (1920)
- One Week (1920)
- Convict 13 (1920)
- Neighbors (1920)
- The Scarecrow (1920)
- The Haunted House (1921)
- Hard Luck (1921)
- The High Sign (1921)
- The Goat (1921)
- The Playhouse (1921)
- The Boat (1921)
- The Paleface (1922)
- COPS (1922)
- My Wife's Relations (1922)
- The Blacksmith (1922)
- The Love Nest (1923)
- The Railrodder (1965)
Features (partial filmography)
- Three Ages (1923)
- Our Hospitality (1923)
- Sherlock, Jr.note (1924)
- The Navigator (1924)
- Seven Chances (1925)
- Go West (1925)
- Battling Butler (1926)
- The General (1926)
- College (1927)
- The Cameraman (1928)
- Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)
- Spite Marriage (1929)
- Free and Easy (1930)
- Doughboys (1930)
- Sidewalks of New York (1931)
- Sunset Boulevard (1950) (cameo)
- Limelight (1952)
- Around the World in Eighty Days (1956)
- The Twilight Zone, episode "Once Upon a Time" (1962)note
- It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) (cameo)
- Beach Blanket Bingo (1965)
- How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (1965)
- A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966)
Recurring tropes in Keaton's films:
- Affectionate Parody
- All Just a Dream: Used as a framing device in ''Sherlock, Jr.". Unlike most examples, it's made explicit upfront.
- Amusing Injuries
- Badass Adorable: No matter how much of a Butt-Monkey he appears, he still can kick ass and is not afraid of a ridiculously dangerous situation. In The Cameraman he stands in the middle of a gang fight to shoot news material on it and provokes the gangsters to get better pictures.
- Bookcase Passage
- Butt-Monkey: Keaton's characters are constantly pushed around, bullied, mocked, and intimidated by men and laughed off or ignored by attractive women, even in his own films.
- By Wall That Is Holey: Trope Codifier. Keaton didn't invent it, but the gag will always be linked to him.
- Chase Scene: A Keaton trademark, his masterpiece The General is essentially one long chase scene. And his many foot chases reveal that in his younger, fitter days Keaton was a world-class sprinter, fast enough to make normal scenes look undercranked.
- Clothing Damage
- The Comically Serious: Most of Keaton's humor comes from him stoically and pragmatically dealing with increasingly ridiculous situations.
- Cool Train: Keaton loved trains, likely from growing up on them travelling from vaudeville house to vaudeville house. His masterwork, The General, is the story of a young confederate desperate to retrieve his cool train after it has been stolen by union forces. Worthy of an honourable mention is the small motorized railcar or "speeder" Buster uses to cross Canada in The Railrodder.
- Determinator: Many of his characters and the man himself.
- Doom It Yourself: One Week is about a pair of newlyweds attempting to assemble a prefabricated house, not realizing Buster's rival has re-labelled all of the boxes.
- Dream Sequence
- Dull Surprise: This is normally a bad thing, but Keaton turned it into comedy gold by using it as his stock reaction to utter catastrophe. His "talkie" projects also used his mellow, low pitched voice for this effect, being perfect for delivering deadpan retorts.
- Earn Your Happy Ending: Again, both in front of and behind the camera.
- Epic Fail: And some of them are truly epic, like the train falling through the bridge in the climax of The General.
- 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."
- Frameup: several Keaton films rely on this device to kick start the plot
- From Bad to Worse: Keaton's shorts mostly relied on seemingly small incidents building to an over-the-top climax
- Iconic Outfit: His pork-pie hat, simply referred to as "The Hat". Actually, it was a result of Keaton having originally wanted to wear pork-pie straw hats in his films, but he soon discovered that they were simply too fragile to survive the stunts and slapstick he performed. So instead, he created a more durable imitation, by modifying a fedora. 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.
- Keaton made his own hats by modifying store-bought hats using readily available materials, like sugar water to stiffen the brim. He had to because he typically lost them or gave them away by the dozens.
- The Klutz
- Large and in Charge: See Evil Is Bigger, above.
- Le Parkour: Even before David Belle!
- Literal Ass-Kicking: He even had a signature kick learned from his father, Joe
- Love Triangle: in many of his films
- Made of Iron: A Real life example with Keaton, where from childhood he was carrying out stunts and physical gags that would require three times a man's normal strength and stamina.
- One stunt involving a water tower broke his neck... and he thought it was a simple sprain, until years later at a doctor's check-up.
- Mistaken Identity
- The Pratfall: Keaton worked hard to perfect his technique, and it showed.
- Railroad Tracks of Doom: Subverted, then played straight, at the climax of ''One Week"
- Rube Goldberg Device
- Self-Deprecation: His short stature is frequently brought up as a laughing point, even in his own films. In Seven Chances, he's laughed off and ridiculed by every woman he asks to marry him, apart from his sweetheart.
- The Stoic: Known as "the great stone face", Keaton created a persona of an average everyman coping stoically as the world goes insane around him. Ironically his very stoicism allowed him to portray great emotions with small expressions. But this was just his onscreen persona; Keaton was highly animated in real life.
- Stunt Double: Keaton not only did his own stunts but also served as a stunt double for other actors, sometimes in his own films, as in Sherlock Jr, where he played the lead and one of the riders. He used a stunt double when he was making films for MGM and in his last film role as Erronius in the film version of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. His illness necessitated in the use of a stunt double, though he did improvise pratfalling after running headfirst into a tree branch.
- 13 Is Unlucky
- Took a Level in Badass
- Trap Door
- Undercrank (used sparingly)
- Very Loosely Based on a True Story: Keaton's masterpiece The General is based on an actual incident from the American Civil War. Keaton's renaissance in the early 60's may have inspired Disney to make a dramatic feature more closely based on the same incident.
- Vocal Dissonance: People who expect him to have a rather high or soft voice are surprised to find that his voice (in his rare talkie roles) is rather deep and gravelly, much more than is expected from a man of his stature. Granted it complimented his deadpan acting, allowing him to continue the role as The Stoic even through dialogue.
- When He Smiles: He is infamous or his forever stoic or forlorn expression, so the rare times you get so much as a glimpse of a smile from him, it's naturally a heartwarming sight.
- The Woobie: Invoked. A good portion of the characters he plays are guys who just can't seem to catch a break, and he's so good at looking like a kicked puppy he's essentially made it an art form. It makes you wanna laugh at his misfortune, then give the poor guy a big hug.
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 in his last film role. He had to use a stunt double for much of the film because he was terminally ill with cancer, but he did improvise pratfalling upon running into a tree branch.
- Several Jackie Chan movies imitate Keaton's stunts almost shot for shot. Chan was a huge fan as a kid, thanks to America's silent movies being easier to understand without speaking English.
- 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.
- The Busby Berkeley Number at the end of Jackass Number Two ends with Johnny Knoxville doing this stunt. Which is immediately subverted as he is taken out by a surprise wrecking ball out of nowhere.
- 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 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.
- In The Phantom Menace, some of Jar-Jar Binks' antics, particularly during the Battle of Naboo, were modeled after Keaton's films, such as The General. Rian Johnson would later cite his work as a stuntman as a frame of reference to how he approached BB-8's "stunts" in The Last Jedi, many of which were done practically.
- In the end of The Fall, Alexandria recounts various dangerous and legendary stunts as she imagines them all to be Roy; some of Keaton's most memorable stunts are showcased in the montage, and the movie ends with a scene from Three Ages.
- The main character of the Academy Award winning animated short The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore is patterned after Keaton, with the opening hurricane sequence being a direct shout out to Steamboat Bill, Jr..
- The film John Wick: Chapter 2 opens with a shot of some classic Keaton stunts projected onto a building wall, as an homage to the kind of dedicated stunt work that would help forge that movie and set the tone for what to expect in terms of action.