With Bartine Burkett, filming "The
High Sign", 1920.
broke that contract less than two months later, following a chance
meeting with ex-vaudevillian and film comic Roscoe "Fatty"
Arbuckle. He appeared in his first film, The Butcher Boy,
that same day in a scene that was shot with no retakes, a remarkable
film debut. Keaton, always fascinated by gadgets, got permission
to take the movie camera home, where he dismantled it and put it
back together to learn how it worked. He recognized in the movie
camera the ultimate toy, and gave up stardom and $250 a week for
supporting role status and $40 a week.
|Roscoe Arbuckle is a patient...
||Buster is a quack doctor, assisted by
Al St. John (a very disorderly orderly)...
||Alice Lake is another patient...
|Above: the original
Comique team in "Goodnight, Nurse!", 1918.
After making just three films, he became
Arbuckle's assistant director and soon his entire writing staff,
his salary increasing accordingly, until he was soon making almost
as much as he would have on Broadway. Keaton's
contributions are noticeable almost immediately, his subtler and
more sophisticated humor standing out in bas relief from the broader
slapstick of the Arbuckle style. His close friendship with Arbuckle,
whom he considered his mentor, lasted until Arbuckle's sudden death
in 1933, despite the tragic scandal destroying Arbuckle's career
Following a brief army stint as a cryptographer
and entertainer on the back lines of France in World War I, Keaton
was, in his own words, "back from the back" (his "career
at the rear") and was making his own two-reelers in Charlie
Chaplin's old studio in California starting in 1920. His unique
and dramatically visual style was evident right from the beginning
in his first short films The High Sign and One Week.
"No movie actor ever had a faster rise to stardom than Buster
Keaton, " noted Eddie Cline, one of his co-directors, in 1957.
"In less than two years, he was famous all over the world."
His best friend Roscoe Arbuckle did not fare
as well. While Buster was becoming world famous, Arbuckle was felled
by a tragedy that would change Hollywood forever. The gentle Arbuckle
was arrested for raping and murdering a young actress, Virginia
Rappé, who died after attending a party given by Roscoe in San Francisco.
Following three manslaughter trials that received an inordinate
amount of sensationalized, damaging and often inaccurate publicity,
Arbuckle was completely cleared.
Unfortunately and unfairly, Hollywood and
the public still rose up against him and his career was ruined.
The end of Arbuckle's career at age 34 foreshadowed the end of Keaton's
control over his films just a few years later, at age 33. The Arbuckle
case, plus a couple of other scandals at the same time, encouraged
Hollywood to develop stricter guidelines for the personal behavior
of its stars, including a "morals clause" in all contracts,
and to develop censorship for the films.
Meanwhile, Keaton's career continued to soar.
Within three years, he was making two feature films a year, films
that would forever ensure his reputation. Although his films were
never as popular in their day as those of his nearest rivals Charlie
Chaplin or Harold Lloyd, Keaton was undoubtedly an important and
From 1920 to 1928, Buster Keaton made 19
short films and 12 features, all with his distinctive styleunlike
anything seen before on the screen. Critics agree that even the
worst films, such as the shorts Neighbors or My Wife's Relations,
are technically superior to the best movies being made by almost
anyone else at the timeChaplin
included. For Keaton comprehended, far more than anyone else, the
potential of that marvelous toy, the camera, and with comprehension
came a new kind of comedy.
Keaton and Margaret Leahy in
"Three Ages", 1923, Keaton's epic
spoof of D.W. Griffith's "Intolerance".
Keaton did more than slapstick. He had a
wry wit, a deft touch for satire, breathtaking acrobatic ability
and an innate and delicate touch with both black comedy and fantasy.
Where his contemporaries pointed the camera at funny people doing
funny things, Keaton made the camera his partner and developed a
new comic vocabulary with it.
The best of his work, which means most of
his work, has a timeless quality that has made Keaton probably the
only remaining silent film artist other than Chaplin who can still
draw big crowds and attract new followers. His films are timeless
and convulsively funny, they engage both the audience's emotions
and its intellect. Keaton's characters are sympathetic, his plots
immediately involving, his stunts astounding and his gags clever
Keaton performed almost all of his own stuntsand
with his vaudeville upbringing, that's not surprising. He
knew how to fall, and he took particular pride in his physical accomplishments
in front of the camera.
Accidents happened on occasion, although
friends later said that Keaton seemed impervious to physical pain.
During the shooting of The Electric House (1921), his slapshoe got
stuck in an escalator and crushed his foot. While he was recuperating,
under doctor's orders not to do anything strenuous, Keaton made
The Playhousea stunning experiment
in special effectsbut also a
film in which he performs an extended dance. Keaton apparently did
not consider dancing to be strenuous.
On Our Hospitality (1923), he almost drowned
in a river sequence. On The General (1926), he was knocked unconscious
by a cannon. On the Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1927) set, he broke his
nose (playing baseball), and the most remarkable of all, he broke
his neck shooting a scene for Sherlock Jr. (1924). In the scene,
he runs along the top of a train and then grabs a waterspout. Water
gushes down on the track and Buster is obscured for a moment. During
that moment, he was forced by the pressure of the water down onto
the tracks, where he hit his neck. But if you watch the film closely,
you see Buster get up and run offstill
in the same take. It was years before he discovered what had given
him those awful headaches.
His most famous filmcertainly
the one of which he was proudestwas
The General, made in 1926. Based on a true Civil War story, The
General is the Keaton film most modern audiences are familiar with.
It is essentially a dramatic story of Northern spies who steal a
Confederate train but are thwarted by one determined manthe
train's engineer, played by Buster. As much action-suspense as comedy,
The General's humor comes from its view of human behavior.
Scenes from "The General", 1926.
The General has long been praised as one
of the greatest films ever made; it was one of the first to be included
in the Library of Congress for the National Film Registry as part
of the National Film Preservation Act.
His other silents range from the intimate,
personal films like The Cameraman to the epic, like Our Hospitality,
to the absurd and surrealistic, like The Playhouse and Sherlock
Jr. Some of the films depend on astounding special effects for their
magic; others on Keaton's own remarkable physical acrobatics; still
others on their unique view of human beings trying to live in a
Buster Keaton's sphinx-like face is to
be seen at the Capitol this week in a nautical film-farce, called
'The Navigator,' wherein his wildest emotions are reflected by
an occasional upward turn of his right eyebrow. Now and again
the Keaton eyes evince a suggestion of life, but his lips barely
budge. To have a contrast to this comedian's placidity of countenance,
we had only to look at those watching this picture. Mouths were
wide open in explosions of laughter and eyes sparkled with merriment
. . . . Mr. Keaton deserves untold credit for his originality
in thinking up most of the funny scenes.
(The New York Times, October 13, 1924).
Keaton was the main creative force behind
his silent film work. A gifted writer, director, technician and
performer, he was unquestionably a visionary. Yet he always gave
on- and off-screen credit to others, once mocking (in his landmark
short The Playhouse) his more egotistical colleagues like Thomas
H. Ince and Charlie Chaplin, who hogged credit for everything.
Clyde Bruckman, co-writer of several of the
best films and some of the Columbia shorts and television work,
confirmed this modesty: "I could tell you and so could [writer]
Jean Havez if he were alive that those wonderful stories were ninety
percent Buster's. I was often ashamed to take the money, much less
the credit." Keaton's modesty about his work is partially responsible
for the surprising fact that much of his influence on American humor
and on filmmaking has been overlooked.
Buster with first wife Natalie in the
only film they made together:
the charming "Our Hospitality", 1923.
In 1920, during this highly productive period,
he had married Natalie Talmadge, sister of movie stars Constance
and Norma Talmadge. Natalie has been described by
several who knew her and apparently didn't like her as a congenial
"lump," whose goals in life consisted primarily of entertaining
Hollywood's elite and shopping. She reputedly spent approximately
$900 a week on clothesapproximately
one-third of Buster's salaryand
insisted that Buster and their children move into larger and larger
homes, eventually settling in what they called "the Italian
Villa," a movie-star mansion that may have been beyond Buster's
From the beginning of the
union, the Talmadge family, dominated by the strong-willed Peg Talmadge,
virtually resided with young Keaton and his bride, dictating the
direction the marriage would go. In 1924, following the birth of
two sons to whom Buster was devoted, the Talmadge women en masse
casually informed 29-year-old Keaton that he was no longer welcome
in Natalie's bed.
"Having got our two boys
our first three years, frankly, it looked as if my work was done,"
he reported with sardonic humor years later. "I was ruled ineligible.
Lost my amateur standing. They said I was a pro. I was moved into
my own bedroom." Surprisingly, the marriage lasted another
nine years before it collapsed with a loud noise in the disastrous
year of 1932.
Although Keaton would always
claim he had loved Natalie, he eventually admitted: "I know
of no woman in the world who could have taken me from Natalieexcept