Presented by Patricia Eliot Tobias
President, the International Buster Keaton Society

The Buster Award is presented jointly by the International Buster Keaton Society and the Iola, Kansas, Keaton Celebration.

When the child Buster Keaton was a young vaudeville star, the adult W.C. Fields was already headlining around the world. At the time, Fields performed a silent pantomime act … and Keaton was talking. He was particularly known for his imitations and a catch-phrase he invented as a small child: “I’m so sorry I fell down.”

What a difference a few years make. By the end of their careers, Fields was best known for his dialogue and Keaton for his pantomime.

These two grand masters had a lot in common, whether they were talking or performing silently:

  • Vaudeville
  • Silent and sound films
  • Juggling
  • An absurdist view of human nature
  • Both drank to excess and were part of the John Decker/Gene Fowler group
  • Physical dexterity

The list goes on.

But the main thing these two comedy geniuses had in common was an uncanny understanding of human beings and how to make them laugh.

“I always made up my own acts,” said Fields in 1926, “Built them out of my knowledge and observation of real life. I’d had wonderful opportunities to study people, and every time I went out on the stage I tried to show the audience some bit of true human nature."

“I always wanted an audience to outguess me,” said Keaton, “and then I’d double-cross ‘em.”

Both Keaton and Fields were genuinely funny men, who could create comedy on the spur of the moment.

When Fields was a guest at the immense Hearst Castle in California, he was heard to say, “Wonderful place to bring up children. You can send them out to play. They won’t come back till they’re grown.”

Keaton was once asked if he had any greater ambitions than to make people laugh. “Oh, yes,” Keaton replied. “I’d like to throw an egg into an electric fan.”

Buster Keaton said, “Comedy is serious business,” and for him it definitely was. Eleanor Keaton told me she would often find Buster on his head in the den, rehearsing. He would practice and practice and practice until some impossible stunt became second nature. We all know about the broken neck and the near-drowning. It’s obvious that Buster Keaton took his comedy very seriously. “When we made movies, we ate, dreamt and slept ‘em,” said Keaton.

He worked hard at his art, but no harder than Fields did.

In fact, Fields also said, “Comedy is serious business,” but he added “a serious business with only one purpose—to make people laugh.”

“I still carry scars on my legs from these early attempts at juggling,” he said. “I’d balance a stick on my toe, toss it into the air, and try to catch it again on my toe. Hour after hour the damned thing would bang against my shinbones. I’d work until tears were streaming down my face. But I kept on practicing, and bleeding, until I perfected the trick. I don’t believe that Mozart, Liszt, Paderewski or Kreisler ever worked any harder than I did.”

He also said: “A comic should suffer as much over a single line as a man with a hernia would in picking up a heavy barbell.”

Clearly, Fields and Keaton shared more than comedy. They shared a belief system: Making people laugh was their religion and both Keaton and Fields were devout believers.

So, for continuing to keep alive the legend of a man who took comedy as seriously as Buster Keaton did and whose mirth-making abilities—like Keaton’s—have stood the test of time, we are proud to present this year’s Buster Award to the family of W.C. Fields.

 

 
Image credit: W.C. Fields portrait derived from an image property of Jill at Golden Silents.com Used by permission.
Copyright 2005 The Damfinos: The International Buster keaton Society