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gagman

Buster Keaton

[keet-n]

Joseph Frank "Buster" Keaton (October 4 1895February 1 1966) was an Academy Award-winning American comic actor and filmmaker. Best known for his silent films, his trademark was physical comedy with a stoic, deadpan expression on his face, earning him the nickname "The Great Stone Face" (referencing the Nathaniel Hawthorne story about the "Old Man of the Mountain"). He has also been called "The Michelangelo of Silent Comedy".

Keaton's career as a performer and director is widely considered to be among the most innovative and important work in the history of cinema. He was recognized as the seventh greatest director of all time by Entertainment Weekly.

A 2002 worldwide poll by Sight and Sound ranked Keaton's The General as the 15th best film of all time. Three other Keaton films received votes in the survey: Our Hospitality, Sherlock, Jr., and The Navigator.

Biography

Early life in vaudeville

Buster Keaton was born into a vaudeville family. His father was Joseph Hallie Keaton, a native of Vigo County, Indiana. Joe Keaton owned a traveling show with Harry Houdini called the Mohawk Indian Medicine Company, which performed on stage and sold patent medicine on the side. Buster Keaton was born in Piqua, Kansas, the small town where his mother, Myra Edith Cutler, happened to be when she went into labor.

According to Keaton, in an interview that he and his wife Eleanor did with the CBC television program Telescope in 1964, Keaton acquired the nickname "Buster" at about six months of age. Keaton told interviewer Fletcher Markle that Harry Houdini happened to be present one day when the young Keaton took a tumble down a long flight of stairs without injury. After the infant sat up and shook off his experience, Houdini remarked, "That was a real buster!" According to Keaton, in those days, the word buster was used to refer to a spill or a fall that had the potential to produce injury. Thereafter, it was Keaton's father who began to use the nickname to refer to the youngster.

At the age of three, Buster began performing with his parents in The Three Keatons; the act was mainly a comedy sketch. Myra played the saxophone to one side while Joe and Buster performed on center stage. The young Keaton would goad his father by disobeying him, and the elder Keaton would respond by throwing him against the scenery, into the orchestra pit, or even into the audience. A suitcase handle was sewn into Keaton's clothing to aid with the constant tossing. The act evolved as Keaton learned to take trick falls safely; he was rarely injured or bruised on stage. Nevertheless, this knockabout style of comedy led to accusations of child abuse. Decades later, Keaton said that he was never hurt by his father and that the falls and physical comedy were a matter of proper technical execution. He claimed he was having so much fun that he would begin laughing as his father threw him across the stage. This drew fewer laughs from the audience, so he adopted his famous deadpan expression whenever he was working.

The act ran up against laws banning child performers in vaudeville. It is said that, when one official saw Keaton in full costume and makeup, and asked a stagehand how old he was, the stagehand then pointed to the boy's mother, saying "I don't know, ask his wife!" According to one biographer, Keaton was made to go to school while performing in New York, but only attended for one day. Despite tangles with the law and a disastrous tour of music halls in the UK, Keaton was such a rising star in the theater that, when his parents tried to introduce their other children into the act, he remained the focus of attention.

Keaton himself stated that he learned to read and write late, and was taught by his mother. By the time he was 21, his father's alcoholism threatened the reputation of the family act, so Buster and his mother left Joe in Los Angeles. Buster travelled to New York, where his performing career moved from vaudeville to film. Although he did not see active combat, he served in World War I, during which time his hearing became impaired.

Silent film era

In February 1917, Keaton met Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle at the Talmadge Studios in New York City, where Arbuckle was under contract to Joseph M. Schenck. Joe Keaton disapproved of films, and Buster also had reservations about the medium. During his first meeting with Arbuckle, he asked to borrow one of the cameras to get a feel for how it worked. He took the camera back to his hotel room, dismantled and reassembled it. With this rough understanding of the mechanics of the moving pictures, he returned the next day, camera in hand, asking for work. He was hired as a co-star and gag-man, making his first appearance in The Butcher Boy. Keaton later claimed that he was soon Arbuckle's second director and his entire gag department. Keaton and Arbuckle became close friends.

After Keaton's successful work with Arbuckle, Schenck gave him his own production unit, Buster Keaton Comedies. He made a series of two-reel comedies, including One Week (1920), The Playhouse (1921), Cops (1922), and The Electric House (1922). Based on the success of these shorts, Keaton moved to full-length features.

Keaton's silent films are characterized by clever visual gags and technical trickery. His writers included Clyde Bruckman and Jean Havez, but the most ingenious gags were often conceived by Keaton himself. The more adventurous ideas called for dangerous stunts, also performed by Keaton at great physical risk; during the railroad-water-tank scene in Sherlock Jr., Keaton broke his neck and did not realize it until years afterward. Comedy director Leo McCarey, recalling the freewheeling days of making slapstick comedies, said, "All of us tried to steal each other's gagmen. But we had no luck with Keaton, because he thought up his best gags himself and we couldn't steal him!"

Buster Keaton's most enduring feature-length films include Our Hospitality (1923), The Navigator (1924), Sherlock Jr. (1924), Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928), The Cameraman (1928), and most notably The General (1927).

The General, set during the American Civil War, is considered his masterpiece, combining physical comedy with Keaton's love of trains. Keaton took his crew on picturesque locations and painstakingly re-enacted an actual wartime incident, complete with epic locomotive chase. This film was Keaton's proudest achievement, but was received poorly at the time. It was too dramatic for moviegoers expecting a lightweight comedy, and reviewers thought it was "fair" and noted it only had a "few laughs." The fact that the heroes of the story were the Confederate army may have also contributed to the film's unpopularity. Later audiences have given more favorable reviews, but in its day it was an expensive misfire, and Keaton was never entrusted with total control over his movies again. His distributor, United Artists, insisted on a production manager, who monitored expenses and interfered with certain story elements. Keaton endured this treatment for two more feature films, and then exchanged his independent setup for employment at Hollywood's biggest studio, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Keaton's loss of independence as a filmmaker coincided with the coming of sound films and mounting personal problems, and his career in the early sound era was hurt as a result.

Marriages

In 1921, Buster Keaton married Natalie Talmadge, sister-in-law of his boss, Joseph Schenck, and sister of actresses Norma Talmadge and Constance Talmadge. During the first three years of the marriage, the couple had two sons, James (1922-2007) and Robert (1924-), but after the birth of Robert, the relationship began to suffer.

According to Keaton in his autobiography, Natalie turned him out of their bedroom and sent detectives to follow him to see whom he was dating behind her back. Her extravagance was another factor in the breakdown of the marriage. During the 1920s, according to his autobiography, he dated actress Kathleen Key. When he ended the affair, Key flew into a rage and tore up his dressing room. After attempts at reconciliation, Natalie bitterly divorced Keaton in 1932, taking his entire fortune and refusing to allow any contact between Keaton and his sons, whose last name she had changed to Talmadge. Keaton was reunited with them about a decade later when his older son turned 18. The failure of his marriage, along with the loss of his independence as a filmmaker, led Keaton into a period of alcoholism.

During the height of his popularity, he spent $300,000 to build a home in Beverly Hills. Later owners of the property were actors James Mason and Cary Grant. The "Italian Villa," as Keaton called it, can also be seen in the movie The Godfather, as well as in Keaton's own film Parlor, Bedroom and Bath. Keaton later said, "I took a lot of pratfalls to build that dump." James Mason later discovered numerous cans of rare Keaton films in the house in the 1950s; the films were quickly transferred to safety film before the original silver nitrate prints further deteriorated.

Keaton was at one point briefly institutionalized; however, according to the TCM documentary 'So Funny it Hurt,' Keaton managed to escape a straitjacket with tricks learned during his vaudeville days. In 1933 he married his nurse, Mae Scriven, during an alcoholic binge about which he afterwards claimed to remember nothing (Keaton himself later called that period an "alcoholic blackout"). Scriven herself would later claim that she did not even know Keaton's real first name until after the marriage. When they divorced in 1936, it was again at great financial cost to Keaton.

In 1940, Keaton married Eleanor Norris, who was 23 years his junior. She has been credited with saving his life by stopping his heavy drinking, and helped to salvage his career. The marriage lasted until his death. Between 1947 and 1954, they appeared regularly in the Cirque Medrano in Paris as a double act. She came to know his routines so well that she often participated in them on TV revivals.

Sound era and television

Keaton signed with MGM in 1928, a business decision that he would later call the worst of his life. He realized too late that the studio system MGM represented would be more restrictive than the freedom he had known, severely limiting his creative input. He would have to adhere to dialogue-laden scripts and (for the first time) would be forced to use a stunt double during some of the more dangerous scenes, as MGM wanted badly to protect its investment. He also stopped directing, but continued to perform and made some of his most financially successful films for the studio. MGM tried teaming the laconic Keaton with the rambunctious Jimmy Durante in a series of movies including The Passionate Plumber, Speak Easily, and What! No Beer? Although the two comedians never quite meshed as a team, the films proved popular.

In the first Keaton pictures with sound, he and his fellow actors would shoot each scene three times: one in English, one in Spanish, and one in either French or German. This was done before dubbing became commonplace. The actors would memorize the foreign-language scripts a few lines at time and shoot immediately after. This is discussed in the TCM documentary Buster Keaton: So Funny it Hurt, with Keaton complaining about having to shoot lousy movies not just once, but three times. His stage name in Spanish markets was Pamplinas ("Nonsense"), and his nickname became Cara de palo ("Wooden face"). cineclasico.com (Spanish) The French know him as Malec.

Keaton's last starring feature in America was What! No Beer? Behind the scenes, Keaton's world was in chaos, with divorce proceedings contributing to his alcoholism, which in turn caused production delays and unpleasant incidents at the studio. Keaton was so depleted during the filming of What! No Beer? that MGM released him, despite the film being a resounding hit. In 1934 Keaton accepted an offer to make an independent film in Paris, Le Roi des Champs-Élysées. During this period he made one other film in Europe, The Invader (released in America as An Old Spanish Custom in 1936).

Upon his return to Hollywood, he made a screen comeback in a series of 16 two-reel comedies for Educational Pictures. Most of these are simple visual comedies, with many of the gags supplied by Keaton himself. The high point in the Educational series is Grand Slam Opera, featuring Buster in his own screenplay as an amateur-hour contestant. When the series lapsed in 1937, Keaton returned to MGM as a gag writer, including the Marx Brothers films At the Circus (1939) and Go West (1940), and for Red Skelton.

In 1939, Columbia Pictures hired Keaton to star in two-reel comedies. The series ran for two years. The director was usually Jules White, whose emphasis on slapstick made most of these films resemble White's Three Stooges comedies. Keaton's personal favorite of the 10 Columbias was directed not by White but by Mack Sennett veteran Del Lord, Pest from the West (1939), a two-reel remake of Keaton's feature The Invader. Moviegoers and exhibitors welcomed Keaton's Columbia comedies, which were successful enough to be re-released again and again through the 1960s.

Keaton's personal life had stabilized with his 1940 marriage, and now he was taking life a little easier, abandoning Columbia for the less strenuous field of feature films. Throughout the 1940s Keaton played character roles in both "A" and "B" features. Critics rediscovered Keaton in 1949 and producers now hired him for bigger pictures. He guest-starred in such films as Sunset Boulevard (1950), Around the World in Eighty Days (1956), It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966). He appeared in Chaplin's Limelight (1952), recalling the vaudeville of The Playhouse. With the exception of Seeing Stars, a minor publicity film produced in 1922, Limelight was the only time in which the two giants of silent comedy would appear together on film.

Keaton had a successful series on Los Angeles television, The Buster Keaton Show (1950). An attempt to recreate the first series on film as Life with Buster Keaton (1951), which allowed it to be broadcast nationwide, was less well received, although veteran actress Marcia Mae Jones and gagman Clyde Bruckman made contributions. A theatrical feature film, The Misadventures of Buster Keaton, was fashioned from the series. Keaton said he canceled the filmed series himself because he was unable to create enough fresh material to produce a new show each week.

Keaton also appeared on Ed Wynn's variety show. At the age of 55, he successfully recreated one of the stunts of his youth, in which he propped one foot onto a table, then swung the second foot up next to it, and held the awkward position in midair for a moment before crashing to the stage floor. I've Got a Secret host Garry Moore recalled, "I asked (Keaton) how he did all those falls, and he said, 'I'll show you'. He opened his jacket and he was all bruised. So that's how he did it — it hurt — but you had to care enough not to care."

Keaton's silent films saw a revival in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1961 he starred in The Twilight Zone episode "Once Upon a Time", which included both silent and sound sequences. Keaton played time traveler Mulligan, who traveled from 1890 to 1960, then back, by means of a special helmet. Keaton also found steady work as an actor in TV commercials, including a popular series of silent ads for Simon Pure Beer in which he revisited some of the gags from his silent film days.

In 1960, Keaton returned to MGM for the final time, to participate in one of the numerous adaptations of Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Much of the film was shot on location on the Sacramento River, which doubled for the Mississippi River in Twain's original book.

In August 1960, Keaton accepted the role of mute King Sextimus The Silent in the national touring company of Once Upon A Mattress, already a successful Broadway musical. Eleanor Keaton was cast in the chorus, and during rehearsals she fielded questions directed at Buster, creating difficulties in communication. After a few days, Keaton warmed up to the rest of the cast with his "utterly delicious sense of humor", according to Fritzi Burr, who played opposite him as Queen Aggravaine. When the tour landed in Los Angeles, Keaton invited the entire cast and crew to a spaghetti party at his Woodland Hills home, and entertained them by singing vaudeville songs.

At the age of 70, Keaton suggested a piece of physical comedy for his appearance in the 1965 movie Sergeant Deadhead, in which he ran past the end of a firehose into a six-foot-high flip and crash. When director Norman Taurog balked, expressing concerns for Keaton's health, Keaton said, "I won't hurt myself, Norm, I've done it for years!"

Keaton starred in a short film called The Railrodder (1965) for the National Film Board of Canada. Wearing his traditional porkpie hat, he travelled from one end of Canada to the other on a motorized handcar, performing gags similar to those in films he made 50 years before. The film is also notable for being Keaton's last silent screen performance. The Railrodder was made in tandem with a behind-the-scenes documentary about Keaton's life and times, called Buster Keaton Rides Again — also made for the National Film Board. He played the central role in Samuel Beckett's Film (1965), directed by Alan Schneider. Keaton's last film appearance was in the musical farce A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966). He amazed the cast and crew by doing many of his own stunts in the film, although Thames Television said his ill health did force the use of a stunt double for some scenes.

Death

Keaton died of lung cancer on February 1 1966 in Woodland Hills, California, at the age of 70. He was never told that he was terminally ill, thinking that he had bronchitis. Confined to a hospital in his final days, Keaton was restless and paced the room endlessly. In a documentary on his career, his widow Eleanor told Thames Television that Keaton played cards with friends the night before he died. Eleanor herself died in 1998, also of lung cancer.

Legacy and contribution

Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd are remembered as the great comic innovators of the silent era. Keaton enjoyed Lloyd's films highly and often praised Chaplin.

Keaton has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame: 6619 Hollywood Boulevard (for motion pictures); and 6321 Hollywood Boulevard (for television).

A 1957 film biography, The Buster Keaton Story, starred Donald O'Connor as Keaton. The screenplay was vaguely based on his life, but contained many factual errors and merged his three wives into one character. Most of the story centered on his drinking problem, in the producer's attempt to imitate the success of I'll Cry Tomorrow, a sudsy biography about another alcoholic celebrity (Lillian Roth). The 1987 documentary Buster Keaton: A Hard Act to Follow, which won 2 Emmy Awards and was directed by Kevin Brownlow and David Gill, is considered a much more accurate telling of Keaton’s story.

Buster Keaton's physical comedy is cited by Jackie Chan in his autobiography documentary Jackie Chan: My Story as being the primary source of inspiration for his own brand of self-deprecating physical comedy.

Porkpie hats

Keaton designed and fabricated many of his own porkpie hats during his career. In 1964, he told an interviewer that in making the porkpie he started with a good Stetson hat and cut it down, stiffening the brim with concentrated sugar water. The hats were often destroyed during Keaton's wild movie antics; some were given away as gifts and some were snatched by souvenir hunters. Keaton said he was lucky if he used only six hats in making a film. Keaton estimated that he and his wife Eleanor made thousands of the hats during his career.

Filmography

References

Further reading

See also

External links

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