Born on October 4, 1895, Joseph “Buster” Keaton was thrown, literally, into the family business. His father, Joseph Keaton and mother, Myra Cutler, were both travelling performers. At one point they were even part of a travelling medicine show co-owned between Joseph Keaton and the one and only Harry Houdini. Buster’s role in the show was to get tossed around get up unscathed.
Buster recounts these days in interviews and explains how he got his nickname as well as how he developed his “dead pan” style. Both come early on in his life and can be attributed to his work in the medicine show as well as vaudeville. On his nickname, Keaton’s claim is that Houdini gave him the moniker “Buster” after witnessing Keaton recover from falling down stairs at 6 months old. After that, the name just stuck.
Keaton developed his trademark dead pan style, later coining the nickname “the great stone face”, while in the vaudeville and medicine show circuits. Keaton explains, “…as a kid, growing up with an audience. I had simply learned that I was the type of comic that if I laughed at what I did, the audience didn’t. And the more seriously I took my work, or whatever I had done, the bigger laughs I got. Well, by the time I was something like 9 or 10 years old it was mechanical for me to work without smiling.”
It is easy to see that Keaton grew up using his body for physical comedy. The way that Keaton effortlessly maneuvers himself around his stunts could only be done by a natural stuntman with the tricks ingrained in his DNA. Given the showman that he is, I am sure these tales are only partial truths. Nonetheless, it is an interesting origin story for who would become one of the greatest filmmakers of all time.
Keaton’s characters were never conniving or driven by ill-intent. Most of the situations that his characters find themselves in are due to him either making simple mistakes driven by good intentions or deserved retribution. This allows his characters to be sympathetic and relatable.
Arbuckle & Keystone
Keaton would stay in vaudeville acts until 1917, when Roscoe Arbuckle would introduce him to films. Arbuckle was already under contract with Keystone, and recruited Keaton while he was trying to stay busy during some down time on stage. Arbuckle had recognized him from his act and invited him to take part in his next film that was coming up.
The first Keaton film would be The Butcher Boy (1917). Keaton’s role was small, limited to a gag revolving around getting stuck in molasses in various ways, a pie fight, and a chase at the end of the film. However, it would kick off a legendary career.
Keaton would go on to film 14 short films with Roscoe Arbuckle, always as a supporting cast member and not the star. Keaton’s roles were not insignificant though and he tended to have a large amount of screen time. Some of these films included: Oh Doctor!, Coney Island, Out West, The Bell Boy, and Back Stage.
Each film has at least one good gag from Keaton. Sometimes they are grand in the form of him throwing his body around in a fight. Sometimes it is just a subtle goof that just hits the mark. For example, there is a gem in The Bell Boy where he is cleaning a window of a telephone booth.
Back Stage (1919)
An honorable mention here is Back Stage, released in September of 1919. In the film, Keaton plays a stagehand along side his regular cast: Roscoe Arbuckle and Al St. John. After a series of silly events derail the scheduled playhouse show, they must put on a show of their own. What results is a mishap after mishap ending in a comedic success that the audience was not expecting.
A gag takes place that will follow Keaton for about 10 years, the falling wall gag. When Arbuckle is on stage serenading the assistant, played by Molly Malone, when Keaton accidently breaks the supports holding up the fake wall. Luckily, Arbuckle is standing in the exact location of an open window on the false wall and is left unscathed. This bit will show up again in One Week a year later and famously in Steamboat Bill Jr.. Except in Steamboat Bill Jr., the wall is dangerously big and almost kills Keaton.
One Week, The Playhouse, and Buster Keaton Productions
Film producer and friend, Joseph M. Schenck, had been a producer on several of Keaton’s films with Arbuckle. After Keaton’s success with Arbuckle, he began to star in films of his own. This can be attributed to Schenck and Metro Pictures giving Keaton the crew and support to make it happen.
The Saphead (1920)
Keaton’s first film outside of Arbuckle’s shadow was The Saphead. The Saphead marked Keaton’s first starring role, but did not mark his directorial debut. Although, with the success of The Saphead, Keaton was given more resources to both star and direct in his own short films. This led to the release of two dozen short films over the following two years.
One Week (1920)
The first being One Week, a short film following newlyweds as they build their first home. The only problem is a rejected suitor swaps the numbers on the build-a-house kit. Leading to the antics, gags, and stunts that have since become synonymous with Keaton.
There are a few noteworthy items tied to One Week. To start, it was Keaton’s directorial debut and his starring debut in a short film. Keaton had co-directed films with Arbuckle, but he was always second chair. He was able to run the show in this one. He would also star in Saphead, released a month later, but One Week marked his starring debut.
Keaton actually sustained injuries during the filming of One Week. Keaton injured himself while running out of a second story door to nothing and falling to the ground. The stunt was planned, but the fall’s injuries were not.
As noted above, there is a recycled bit in One Week, from a film a year earlier starring Arbuckle. This time, the wall is not a stage set piece, but a wall section of a house. While not as dangerous or monumental as a similar stunt in Steamboat Bill Jr., it is still skillfully executed.
There is also a 4th wall breaking scene, where Keaton’s costar, Sybil Seely, drops the soap outside of the tub and hand comes from off screen to censor her for us. The scene itself is short, but does the trick in terms of further highlighting Keaton’s willingness to think outside of the box.
—- Entire One Week Film —-
The Play House (1921)
Another interesting film to come out of this period in Keaton’s career is The Playhouse. The first six minutes of the film, every role is played by Keaton. Everything from the audience member buying a ticket to a show, the entire orchestra and conductor, the audience (featuring women, elderly, and children). Unfortunately it also features him wearing black face… This continues until he wakes from his nightmare in his bed.
Keaton’s character, the young man, in Cops is unable to escape a path that gets him deeper and deeper into trouble. The film starts with a shot of him behind bars, suggesting that he is in prison. We quickly find out that he is not in prison, but behind the gate of his love interest. She does not want to be with him unless he can prove that he can be a successful businessman, i.e. prove that he can support her.
His trouble begins when he tries to give a wallet back to a gentleman that has dropped it while waiting for a cab. The man assumes that Keaton’s character was instead trying to steal the wallet and takes it back ungratefully. The man then falls when getting into the cab and the young man takes his wallet while helping him up. It is revealed that the man was actually a police officer and marks the first instance of the young man wronging the police force in what will become an escalating and growing hoard against him.
The young man then gets swindled for the funds that he took from the police officer and ends up being conned into taking the belongings of another police officer and unwittingly throwing a bomb into a police parade. All of these events are done with the intent of being honest and savvy, however each get him closer to his own downfall.
I the end he is able to outrun the police only to be turned away by his love interest. Defeated, he goes back to the police station and is immediately captured. The final title card shows a tombstone with Keaton’s hat resting on the corner.
The Frozen North (1922)
After Arbuckle was arrested, there were those that supported him and those that didn’t. Keaton and Chaplin famously stood up for their friend and spoke out against he allegations. However, there were other famous Hollywood players that spoke out against him. One actor that stood out against him was William S. Hart, a star in the western film genre.
Arbuckle ended up writing a film that spoofed Hart’s characters and poked fun at his acting. Keaton bought the film and starred in it as the spoof of William S. Hart. Hart’s characters were based on honor and integrity and his films were crafted to be as realistic and true to the west as he could make them. So a film about a bad thief, murderer, and wife beater played by an actor using fake tears, was not something he supported.
Keaton went on to make a few more short films through the beginning of 1923, The Electric House, Day Dreams, Balloonatic, and The Love Nest. By September of 1923, he would be putting out his first Feature length film as a director, Three Ages. Over the next five years, Keaton would release ten feature films. Keaton had creative control over the filmmaking process and arguable 7 of the 10 films are some of the classic comedy films of all time. This stretch of filmmaking is incredible and shows how ingenious Keaton was before his creativity was stifled.
…in an extraordinary period from 1920 to 1929, he worked without interruption on a series of films that make him, arguably, the greatest actor-director in the history of the movies.Roger Ebert, November 10, 2002. https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-the-films-of-buster-keaton.
Three Ages (1923)
Keaton’s Three Ages marks the beginning of a string of some of the most influential comedy feature films in movie history. Three Ages is a spoof of D.W. Griffith‘s Intolerance, where multiple stories unfold over the course of different historical eras. For D.W. Griffith, Intolerance marked the decline of his career. Whereas, Three Ages would mark the start of Keaton’s greatest successes.
Instead of telling various tales around intolerance, Keaton’s Three Ages tells to stories of three men trying to win the heart of their woman of interest. Each story filled with gags and Keaton’s quest to win a lovers heart, as we would see as the through-line of most of his films.
There are a couple comedic highlights that I enjoyed throughout Three Ages: The first is Keaton’s character riding on the back of a dinosaur in the beginning of the prehistoric age. I was caught off guard by the sequence as I had not seen much in the way of special effects (that kind at least) in Keaton’s films.
Riding the Dinosaur
The second sequence that stood out for me was when Keaton’s character begins shaving after watching a woman continue to put on makeup at their table in a restaurant. It is already funny how she is continuing to put her make up on, instead of being both ready beforehand or quick and respectful to her tablemate. However, Keaton takes it to a new level when he busts out the shaving supplies and starts shaving at the table.
Keaton shaving at dinner
Between 1923 – 1928, Keaton would release classic films like: Our Hospitality, Sherlock Jr., The Navigator, Seven Chances, The General, Steamboat Jr., and The Cameraman. All of these were created in an environment where Keaton had full control of the story and execution. With the exception of The Cameraman, where Keaton had to collaborate more with other members of MGM. Once he made the move to MGM, he lost this control and ultimately his ability to infuse his genius into his films.
Our Hospitality (1923)
The first of Keaton’s films to come out after Three Ages, was Our Hospitality. In Our Hospitality, Keaton was able to take his success with Three Ages and continue down the path of feature films. I read that Three Ages was designed to be released as three separate short films in the event that it failed as a feature. I am not sure if that is true, but Our Hospitality shows that Metro Pictures was not afraid to let Keaton continue making films.
The story is like a southern state take on Romeo and Juliet. Two rival families with hate a generation old, are forced to work out their differences when a young man, Keaton, unknowingly falls for the daughter of the rival family and ends up at her house. The young lady’s father and brothers find out about the young man and confront him. However, due to the rule of southern hospitality, the young man is safe while in the house.
Our Hospitality does not have as many gags or stunts as we would expect from Keaton, however some are sprinkled throughout the film. All of which culminate to the climactic sequence down a rapid river and off a waterfall. Keaton did succeed however, in showing how his antics can be woven into a feature length narrative. The continued success with Our Hospitality allowed Keaton to keep his ship moving on to his next project, Sherlock Jr.
Sherlock Jr. (1924)
I was surprised to read that Sherlock Jr. was not a box office success. Sherlock Jr. is possibly my favorite Buster Keaton film. Not only is it full of some of his best gags, it is also a testament to his novel ingenuity behind the camera and in the editing room.
The film follows Keaton as he portrays a projectionist, and janitor, for a theater that day dreams of being a crime solver, a sherlock jr. As usual, Keaton is playing a character that is also after the heart of a young lady. He scrapes some money together, in a very Keaton way, and buys a gift for the young lady. His rival in the film, the local sheik, outplays Keaton in the wooing department. However, the sheik is also a thief that frames Keaton.
Keaton begins to use his detective skills to follow the shiek, but ends up blowing his cover and getting trapped in a train car. Keaton ended up hurting himself badly while escaping the train car. He uses the spigot at a water stop to belay himself down. However, the rushing water from the spigot violently forces him to the ground. Keaton was thrown to the ground by the rushing water and hit his neck on the train tracks. It would not be until a decade later that a doctor would inform him of the fractured vertebrae.
The projectionist goes back to work after losing the trail of the sheik. He falls asleep while running the projector and a dream sequences commences that begins with a double exposure of the projectionist sleeping and a second shot of him waking up and standing up superimposed over one another. His walking dream version of himself walk into the film that is being projected and becomes a multidimensional character within the film in the film.
What follows is a creative sequence where the projectionist is trapped within each scene that plays in the film and is perpetually on the edge of danger as each scene transitions. The film within the film displays some unique film editing and creative stunts, performed by Keaton.
Keaton was not happy with the reception to Sherlock Jr. and quickly transitioned to his next film, The Navigator. It is amazing just how quickly Keaton was able to turn these films around and begin something new. Keaton was able to release Sherlock Jr. in May of 1924 and then find out about a ship for sale, talk his producer/friend/relative, Joseph Schenck, into purchasing it for $25,000, write and film a movie, edit it, and release it in October of 1924. Accomplishing that timeline in five months is exhausting just thinking about it.
The Navigator (1924)
The Navigator had more success than Sherlock Jr. in the box office. However, I did not think it matched its predecessor. The fact that it was filmed on a decommissioned ship and had sequences filmed underwater is cool, but it did not draw me in the way that Sherlock Jr., Our Hospitality, or The General did. There are definitely some well executed gags and pratfalls. And not only by the main star, Keaton, but well executed by his costar, Kathryn McGuire.
There was a scene in the final seconds of the film that I know I will be referencing later down the road. When Rollo (Keaton) and Betsy (McGuire) are finally saved by the submarine, she gives him a kiss. The act causes Rollo to faint on the mechanism that stabilizes the sub and the ship begins spiraling. This causes the room to spin, but the camera stays stationary.
It only took Keaton another five months to turn around his next picture, Seven Chances. For this one, it was Schenck that initiated the process by purchasing the rights to the play of the same name by Roi Cooper Megrue. Keaton took that story and was able to turn it around into one of the earliest examples of the romantic comedy in film.
Seven Chances (1925)
Seven Chances circles around one simple premise. Jimmy Shannon, played by Keaton, will inherit 1 million dollars if he is married by 7 pm on his 27th birthday. It just so turns out that the day he receives the letter is the day of his 27th birthday. He completely botches the proposal to his girlfriend and she breaks up wit him. Now with hours to go he must attempt to court, just about, any woman he can find. What ensues is one of the earliest forms of the romantic comedy.
Both his business partner and his lawyer, played by Snitz Edwards, try to help him in finding a suitable partner. All of the women snub his attempts. That is until they find out that he is to become a millionaire. Once the word is out, the film transitions into the regular sequence of a Buster Keaton or Chaplin movie. The chase sequence.
As usual, Keaton is able to keep the pacing and action steadily moving forward. His character is driven by a specific goal and he has no time to waste. It is easy to see how he could personify these typical character of his. His focus and determination that is expressed in his films, mirrors what he was doing on the other side of the camera to make all of these films a reality.
Go West (1925)
Eight months later, Keaton would place himself in a setting that we had seen him in only in short films. The west. Go West has a vibe similar to that of City Slickers, that would come out 67 years later. A slapstick comedy surrounding someone that is completely unfamiliar with how to handle themselves on a ranch and turns around and saves the day. They both even have the main character fall in “love” with the cow and do what ever it takes to save it and bring it home.
In Go West, the cow’s name is “brown eyes” and Keaton’s character, Friendless, is the desperately poor transient turned wannabe cowboy. Friendless starts off having to sell of the last of his failing business and trying to start fresh in New York. With no luck in New York, Friendless goes west. When he arrives he finds himself on a ranch trying to fit in as a ranch hand. The plot soon transitions to Friendless building a relationship with Brown Eyes and Friendless’ attempts to save the cow from being sold to the slaughter house.
What ensues is what we have learned to expect from a Keaton film. A determined, unrelenting character that is clever and daring in his pursuit to accomplish his goal. He will do what ever it takes to save the cow and in the end prove that he has what it takes to make it on his own. I also could not help but notice that the ending sequence is reminiscent of the ending sequence in Blazing Saddles. It was the way that the cattle run amok throughout the town and unsuspecting city goers are forced to flee, combined with the juxtaposition of the rough and rowdy ranch cattle and the orderly urban area. In Blazing Saddles we are instead presented with the rough and rowdy western film genre as a whole interrupting everything from a 30’s style musical, film studio food court, and other contemporary situations that go to the nth degree of contrast.
Battling Butler (1926)
Keaton would work on two films over the next year, Battling Butler and The General. The General would be the film that Keaton would be inevitable be most remembered for, however Battling Butler came out first and ended up being his second highest grossing film, just behind The Navigator.
It is a little odd that Battling Butler is a relatively unknown film, when compared to The General. Battling Butler had more success than most of Keaton’s other films and had some interesting shooting techniques around the boxing matches. It must have just been overshadowed by the fact that The General bombed so hard when it came out and then its resurgence later cast Battling Butler aside.
An interesting note about Battling Butler is the fact that Martin Scorsese drew inspiration from it for his film Raging Bull. The fighting sequences, specifically the last one, captured the tone and grit behind fighting that Scorsese did not find in other films.
The General (1926)
The General is likely Keaton’s most attributed film. However, when it came out it was a flop. A flop that was so big it changed the trajectory of his career. The film did not earn as much as it cost to make and received bad reviews due to the subject matter being a civil war comedy. It would not be for decades later until people would revisit it and give it the acclaim it has today.
The General is a fast paced comedy with some spectacular feats in it, from riding on the cowcatcher and throwing large pieces of lumber to blowing up a bridge while a train passes over it. It had several technical and daring achievements, but it also white washes the confederacy.
The film is based on a real life story about James Andrews. He was a civilian Union spy that helped commandeer a confederate train, with the help of Union Army men, and bring it north. While headed north, they destroyed track, bridges, and telegraph lines. The confederate army eventually caught up to them and executed many members of the raid, including Andrews himself.
The fact that Keaton took that story and swapped the roles of each army speaks volumes. It speaks to what he thought the majority of his viewers’ political stance was and to the influence of the lost cause of the confederacy rhetoric.
The General can be used as a great example of ingenuity, camera framing, pacing, technical difficulties of the stunts, and more. However, it is hard to separate that from the subject matter and the effort taken to rewrite the story and history.
Keaton was stripped of his creative liberty after this film, due to how bad it did in the box office and to losing Schenck so much money. It is unfortunate that Keaton’s inspirational five year stretch of incredible filmmaking would have to come to an end in this manner. Keaton would still go on to make films, but the walls were closing in on Keaton quickly.
Keaton began working on College right after the release of The General. The idea was to capitalize on the popular genre. The film follows Ronald (Keaton), the high school valedictorian, as he graduates from high school and transitions to college. He ends up going to the same college as his love interest, however she is with the high school jock. Keaton tries his hand at any sport he can in an effort to win her over. In the end it is with the help of the college dean, Snitz Edwards, that Ronald is able to prove his manliness and inevitably save her from harms way.
The most noteworthy scene that stuck out to me was towards the beginning when Ronald is giving his valedictorian speech on the ‘curse of athletics’. During the speech, Ronald sways back and forth with his feet firmly planted in place. The same kind of movement that Michael Jackson makes in Smooth Criminal.
Schenck was not thrilled with the poor response to The General and began to limit Keaton’s creative control. This can be seen in the director credit going to James W Horne, even though Keaton and crew claimed Keaton was the lead director on set (Curtis, 2022). On top of that, Harry Brand was given a “supervisor” credit. Brand had been in the industry for awhile and knew Keaton back from the Arbuckle days. However, Keaton was not a big fan of him and an even lesser fan of the superfluous “supervisor” credit.
The likely rationale behind pulling the director credit and adding in the supervisor credit was for Schenck to save face and show the audience that Keaton was not fully in control. Keaton’s success must not have been as lucrative as you would expect if Schenck was going to these lengths to distance Keaton from his own films. Obviously The General was not a success, but a change this drastic must have gone beyond just one film.
Schenck restricted Keaton’s control during College by having other directors and personnel manage him. The end of filming on College would mark the moment that Schenck would tell Keaton that he was not going to be driving his own films anymore (Curtis, 2022). It was apparently cheaper and more rewarding to fund a dramatic picture instead of a comedic one, and in the end money wins.
Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928)
The last film that Keaton made before moving over to MGM, was Steamboat Bill Jr. This film has a similar vibe to the films he had been making for over a decade. Keaton was still being restricted in terms of his control over the film, a characteristic of his last film College.
James Curtis describes one example of how Keaton was restricted on this film. The original plot was suppose to surround a large flood and not a windstorm. Schenck was nervous that there would be backlash due to recent disasters at the time and pushed Keaton to think of something else. The gags surrounding the windstorm would become famous, but I wonder what kinds of ideas Keaton had planned for his flood based film.
Keaton plays his typical role of an individual in an unfamiliar setting. A fish out of water. He travels south from Boston to meet his dad for the first time. His father is less than impressed with his city attire and lack of boat keeping skills.
The budding romance between Will Jr. (Keaton) and Kitty King (Byron) is stifled by their fathers’ feud. The feud and the clashing personalities between Senior and Junior cause Junior to be sent home. At the same time Will Sr. ends up in jail after a spit with his rival, John James King (McGuire). Junior comes in to attempt to break him out, in an effort to win his father’s love.
Junior breaks out his father in typical Keaton tradition, a mixture of comic ingenuity, happenstance, misunderstanding, and luck. The moment that he is successful, he gets caught himself. This is when the most memorable aspects of the film begin.
A large storm rolls in that quickly turns into a hurricane level windstorm. What unfolds has to be the most comprehensive list of gags to use with wind as the driving force. Keaton places himself on and under a bed that gets pushed around like it is a car, he flies into the river on a tree like it is a kit, and of course we get the famous stunt where he narrowly avoids death by standing in such a way that he fits through a window on a building wall as it comes crashing to the ground.
This is a stunt that Keaton had done several times in years past, like: Arbuckle’s film Backstage and an early Keaton film, One Week.
The MGM Years
Keaton signed a deal with MGM in 1928 that would cement his role in the film industry as an actor instead of the auteur. His films would be big hits in the box office, however they would not bring him the same level of satisfaction as his independently made films. His run with MGM would last for five years, ending in 1933.
Before watching these films and reading up on them, I had thought that his career was over because he did not convert well over to talkies. I did not realize that his films were popular and financially successful. It appears that MGM let him go due to his excessive drinking, likely a result of the turmoil in his marriage and his restricted role in the film industry. It is also the same year that his long-time friend Roscoe Arbuckle died…
The Cameraman (1928)
The Cameraman was Keaton’s first project after signing the two year contract with MGM. The concept was Keaton’s and MGM let him have a little more control in its creation than the rest of the films on the contract. MGM brought on director Edward Sedgwick to direct it. The film was successful and a hit at the box office.
The film is a good blend of Keaton’s heyday films and what would come from MGM. The clumsy cameraman (Keaton) is doing whatever it takes to win the heart of an MGM secretary (Marceline Day). His antics provide the general vibe of Keaton films over the previous decade. Although, the antics are restrained in terms of no huge budget destruction or long chase sequences. The film instead focuses more on the development between the characters and the story. The stunts and gags come second.
One sequence that really stood out, and was a laugh out loud riot for my five year old son, was the dressing room scene.
Spite Marriage (1929)
Edward Sedgwick’s Spite Marriage is a good example of the rom-com genre and follows a similar formula to what we see today. The only missing pieces would be Keaton’s stunts and a chase sequence. Without those aspects, it is clear that Keaton moved in the direction of a typical actor than a stunt guru. With that said, Keaton has a knack for the role since he has been the rom com king for almost a decade up to this point.
***More to come when I watch movies from the 30’s***
Curtis, James. Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker’s Life. Alfred A. Knopf, 2022.