"Chaplin appropriated film to his own image. Lloyd manipulated it with an architect's knowledgability. Keaton preferred to function as its conscience. While others were using film to point at themselves or their deviltries, Keaton pointed in the opposite direction: at the thing itself. He insisted that film was film. He insisted that silent film was silent." -- Walter Kerr.
Born on this day in 1895 in Piqua, Kansas, the son of traveling medicine show performers, Keaton was performing comedy almost as soon as he could walk. His nickname is said to have come from Harry Houdini, who saw Keaton take a spill down some stairs at the age of 6 months and laugh delightedly upon reaching the bottom (as in, "that was quite a buster your boy just took").
Keaton's ability to take a pratfall became the basis of his early comedy, as his father Joe Keaton threw his hapless son around the medicine show stage like a rag doll while Keaton maintained what would become his famous deadpanned face. Soon he became the star attraction of his parents' act, and he enabled the family to break from the small-time to the better houses of the vaudeville circuit. When Buster reached majority, the family act broke up (at that time his father seemed incapable of having anything but a violent relationship with his son, either on or off the stage), and Buster began to headline on his own.
Very soon thereafter, however, Keaton met movie comedian Fatty Arbuckle, then one of the most popular silent screen stars, and began to support him in various two-reel comedies, beginning with The Butcher Boy (1917). While most silent comedy was distinguished by its frenetic pace and overemphatic gesture, Keaton's quiet, unhurried style immediately asserted itself on the screen. Even with his stoic expression, he managed to convey much more about what he was thinking than the grimacing, mugging comedians who populated the silents at the time. He also showed himself to be a wildly resourceful, logical character, someone who could take adversity and bend it to his will.
Near the end of 1917, Arbuckle moved his film company to California, and Keaton went with him, interrupting his film education with a brief stint in World War I. In 1920, Keaton was offered his own picture deal at Metro just as Arbuckle was jumping to Paramount. From 1920 to 1923, Keaton directed and starred in 19 short comedies, including the classics One Week (1920) and Cops (1922). In 1921, he married Natalie Talmadge, the least famous of the Hollywood Talmadge sisters, and moved into a grand Hollywood mansion. Natalie starred with Keaton in his first feature masterpiece, Our Hospitality (1923) in which he combined his penchant for athletic gags (such as swinging across a waterfall to rescue Natalie just as her canoe goes over the edge) with a compelling period atmosphere and a subconscious critique of his real-life relationship with his Hollywood in-laws, as his character in the film becomes the target of the family of his beloved. (Keaton ended up being chewed up and spit out by the Talmadges in due course, his marriage to Natalie breaking up in 1932.)
In Sherlock, Jr. (1924), Keaton plays a movie projectionist who dreams himself into the movie screen (a theme reworked by Woody Allen in Purple Rose of Cairo, 1984), and added to his smart, physical gags a series of special effect gags -- seamless background changes without apparent cuts -- which dazzled Hollywood tekkies; critics claim that the science of special effects didn't catch up to what Keaton achieved with inferior technology until the 1980s. His next film, The Navigator (1924), is thought to be second only to The General (1926) in exposing Keaton's greatness.
In The General, often considered one of the greatest American films ever made, Keaton plays a Southern engine driver who gets rejected by the Confederate Army and by his girl (Marion Mack). When his girl and his train are kidnapped by the Union, he pursues them, rescues them and is commissioned as a Confederate officer. Like Our Hospitality, Keaton endows the film with a beautiful period sense (many critics compare his pictorial sensibilities to those of Civil War photographer Mathew Brady), but it is Keaton's delicate engineering sense and integration of plot structure and gags which leaves audiences in awe: every gag propels the plot with linear economy.
Keaton continued to make great silent comedies as the talkies arrived (Steamboat Bill, Jr., 1928; The Cameraman, 1928; and Spite Marriage, 1929), but his comedy did not translate well to the early sound period, despite 8 sound features made for MGM made between 1929 and 1933. He rapidly went from Hollywood stardom to a couple of decades of alcoholism and poverty row short films. He appeared in cameo roles in Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard (1950, playing bridge with Erich von Stroheim) and in Charlie Chaplin's Limelight (1952, in which utters the famous line, "If anyone else says it's like the old times, I'll jump out the window."), and sold his biography to MGM for a regrettable biopic starring an inadequate Donald O'Connor, The Buster Keaton Story (1957).
Although during the 1920s, Keaton's comedy was considered second-best to Chaplin's, as Keaton approached the end of his life he not enjoyed a resurgence of popularity, and since then a number of critics have labored to show that Keaton was the superior director and the more inventive comedian. He died on February 1, 1966.
Labels: Silent Film