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Buster Keaton Edit Profile

also known as Joseph Francis Keaton

actor , Film director

Buster Keaton was an American actor and film director.

Background

Keaton, Buster was born on October 4, 1896 in Pickway, Kansas, United States. Son of Joe and Myra Keaton.

Education

Attended educational public schools.

Career

The General is not only a comedv but a genuinely heroic film. Buster’s troubles with trains in that film are based on Keaton’s own inquisitive interest in machinery. It was a matter of art that his own handymans fascination was translated on film into a Quixotic bewilderment with machinery. That illustrates the character of the dreamer so brilliantly revealed in his masterpiece, Sherlock Jr., about a cinema projectionist who dreams his way into a movie. Only an artist aware of the complex appeal to fantasy in cinema could have conceived Sherlock Jr., the most philosophically eloquent of silent comedies.

The best films antedate the tragedy of his life and thereby make irrelevant the question of whether his art and his terrible decline were connected. In his book on Keaton, Rudi Blesh chose to describe that ruin as a Keaton scenario that Buster accepted with calm, self-destructive passivity. The truth seems to me more confused. Keaton provoked his own disaster, partly because he was a sketchy businessman, partly because the screen character was far from his real personality. Offscreen he seems to have been brash, noisy, and impulsive. That may rule out the neatness of Bleshs interpretation, but it adds to our idea of Keaton as an artist capable of inventing a screen character.

Keaton was the son of a vaudeville partnership; he entered the family act at the age of three and stayed with it nearly twenty years. It was in 1917 that he joined Fatty Arbuckle at Comique and played a string of shorts directed by Fatty: The Butcher Boy (17); Rough House (17); His Wedding Night (17); The Bell Boy (18); Goodnight Nurse (18); Moonshine (18); The Cook (18); A Desert Hero (19); Backstage (19); A Country Hero (19); The Garage (19). He moved to Metro and made more shorts, as his own director, as well as one feature, The Sapheacl (20, Winchell Smith). In 1923, he made the first of his sequence of features, The Three Ages, and married Natalie Tal- madge, the sister-in-law of Joseph Schenck.

Schenck managed Keaton. They produced films together for MGM to distribute, until in 1926 Schenck joined United Artists. Keaton had to tag along and The General. College (27, James Home), and Steamboat Bill Jr. (28, Charles Reisner) were made for UA. Was the appearance of separate directors a foreshadowing of w hat was to happen? In 1928, Joseph Schenck calmly transferred Buster to his brother Nicholas Schenck at MGM. It seems that Keaton was arbitrarily cut off from the revenue of his earlier films and sold into the unsympathetic hands of a giant coqvoration.

With Joseph Schenck he had had his own unit, and his ideas had been allowed to flower by trial and error as films went along. MGM wanted complete, plot-heavy scripts in advance, proper schedules, and safe men to supervise Keaton. The arrangement foundered. If, as he said later, Keaton had predicted that, then he ought to have extricated himself when there was still time. MGM, equallv, should have been more generous to his proven working methods, if only because he was a major money-spinner and one of the few silent comedians stimulated bv sound.

Perhaps the studio disliked independence per se, perhaps they marked Keaton down as representative of a bygone age, but it is also true that Keaton cracked personally. He drank heavily and his marriage broke up. His films at MGM deteriorated steadily: The Cameraman (28, Edward Sedgwick); Spite Marriage (29, Sedgwick); Free and Easy (30, Sedgwick); Doughboys (30, Sedgwick); Speak Easily (31, Sedgwick); Sidewalks of New York (31, Mlies White and Zion Myers); Parlor, Bedroom and Bath (32, Sedgwick); The Passionate Plumber (32, Sedgwick); and What, No Beer? (33, Sedgwick). In 1933, he was divorced and fired by MGM; he was also seriously injured in a fall incurred during an alcoholic stupor.

He never recovered. He went to Europe for two films—Le Boi cles Champs-Eltjsees (34, Max Nosseck) and An Old Spanish Custom (35, Adrian Brunei), but needed frequent treatment and recu¬peration. From 1934—47 he made some comedy shorts for Educational; and between 1939—41 he did the same at Columbia. But he worked mainly thereafter as gagman or bit part actor, a ravaged version of the angelic Pierrot he had been: he worked on the stories ol The Jones Family in Hollywood (39, St. Clair) and The Jones Family in Quick Millions (39, St. Clair); contributed gags for Bed Skelton to Bathing Beauty (44, George Sidnev), Neptune's Daughter (49, Edward Buzzell), and A Southern Yankee (49, Sedgwick); and appeared in San Diego I Love You (44, Reginald Le Borg); That Night With You (45, William A. Seiter); to Mexico for El Moderno Barba Azul (46, Jaime Salvador); You 're My Everything (49, Walter Lang); In the Good Old Summertime (49, Robert Z. Leonard); The Lovable Cheat (49, Richard Oswald); playing bridge (a game he loved) in Sunset Boulevard (50, Billy Wilder); Limelight (52, Chaplin); Around the World in SO Days (56, Michael Anderson); It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (63, Stanley Kramer); The Rail- rodder (65, Gerald Potterton), a Canadian short in homage to his 1920s character; Film (65, Alan Schneider), a turgid exercise derived from Samuel Beckett; and A Futon Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (66, Richard Lester).

Membership

Served as sergeant major Rainbow Division, World War.

Personality

Keaton strikes a chord with the world of post-1960 that was not heard when his greatest films were made. It has been argued, with justice, that his films are “beautiful,” which means that their com¬edy is expressed in photography that is creative, witty, and excited by the appearance of things. That sounds obvious, but most eomedv films of the silent era did little more than film the comedian’s “act.” Even Chaplin tended to plonk the camera in a good seat in the stalls. But in Keaton's films there is an extraordinary use of space in the jokes that is faithfully and beautifully recorded: Go West is a masteqnece of the moving camera; in The Navigator the ship is a deserted, and nearly haunted, house. The General has the topographical vividness of an Anthony Mann film; and that dissolve in Seven Chances from a church empty but for Buster to one crowded out with hopeful women is typical of Keaton’s instinct for interiors. It remains something of a puzzle as to how far that design was conscious. Nothing suggests such thoughtful talent among Keaton’s various collaborators: but nothing significantlv detracts from the visual consistency of the films from The Three Ages to The General; and yet descriptions of Keaton on set, and the storv of his ruin, seem to indicate a haphazard working style that put great strains on those different codirectors.

Perhaps the explanation is Keaton’s pleasure in authenticity and the way in which his own supercilious screen persona dominated the direction. Unlike Chaplin, who tended to reinvent the world of Victorian melodrama, and unlike those comics who merely dressed up vaudeville routines, Keaton conceived of films as specifically American. In this, he seems to have had the notion of parodying current American cinema and an awareness of American landscape more usual in the Western. The General, Our Hospitality, Go West, and Steamboat Bill Jr. are all fond evocations of period and place. Similarly, the railroad in The General is real and the trains maneuvers credible and dangerous. It is well known that Keaton performed personally in scenes that involved considerable risk. In Our Hospitality there is the waterfall sequence, while in Sherlock Jr. Keaton had a fall that, years later, it was discovered, had broken his neck. Such physical peril did not make him a slapstick artist. On the contrary, his reactions when threatened were untheatrical and near mystical in his haughtv recognition of a malign fate and the deadpan that might honorably confront it.

That is what strikes us today as the most admirable thing about Keaton: the serene capacity for absorbing frustration and turning a blind eve to fear and failure. If Chaplins films are always working toward self-centered pathos, Keaton never disguises the element of absurdity in a lone romantics dealings with the world. Those repeated attempts by directors and producers to make Keaton smile on screen were contrary not just to the screen persona of a commercial property but to Keatons knowledge that there never was or would be much to smile at.

Few people ever recognized that Keaton's impassivity was to save him from crying. In maudlin, self-reflective close-up, Chaplin wept in crises. Keaton is the more profound artist because he was not beguiled into comfort by his own self- pity. He saw that the conscientious, humorless hero he played must prove himself by facing frustrations and disasters without ever cracking.

Connections

Married Natalie Talmadge (divorced August 1932).; married second, Mae Scriven, October 1933. Children: Joseph, Robert.

father:
Joe Keaton

mother:
Myra Keaton

spouses:
Natalie Talmadge

Mae Scriven

children:
Joseph Keaton

Robert Keaton