The Rise and Fall of a Pioneer

When Joseph Frank Keaton was just six months old, he slipped down a wooden ladder. Like a champ, Little Keaton immediately stood up with neither pain nor shock. Incidentally, a friend of Keaton’s parents, Harry Houdini, was there to witness it. Houdini picked him up and gave him a charming little nickname, Buster. The word “buster” is meant for something so substantial that it makes it easy to break something. Without knowing it then, 20 years from this occurrence, Keaton would embark on an incredible film career in which he would do things not far from that nickname’s meaning.

Buster Keaton had two vaudevillian parents who had a relatively successful show featuring acrobatic acts, magic, opera, and so on. When Keaton was 3 years old, he got his first taste of show business when his parents started including him in their act. The show is called “The Three Keatons,” where their performance style is described as Knockabout.

Knockabout is an old-fashioned style of comedy that involves exaggerated physical humor and mock violence. In the show, Keaton was often thrown many times by his parents. Hence, since little, Keaton had learned to get thrown and fall with safety. Keaton’s parents even attached a handle to Keaton’s back to help them toss and catch him throughout the show.

The US Government perceives this type of Knockabout shows as something that promotes violence, exploits, and abuses children. Consequently, there were frequent occurrences of government checks. However, Keaton has always been able to show the authorities that he is free from any sort of injuries or bruises, so his parents can be free out of any trouble. Nevertheless, children’s involvement in Vaudeville shows ended up being banned nationwide. But without stopping, Keaton and his parents continued their act despite it making them breaking the law.

Due to his family’s dedication to vaudevillian show-business, Keaton never received a formal education. It is said that Keaton only attended less than a day of school. On his first day, during recess, to reveal his showman self, Keaton performed a little one-man show in front of the other students. This miniature show was deemed a disturbance and too unimportant by the school. Therefore, Keaton was immediately expelled in less than a day.

In the year 1917, his father’s alcoholism made the family show fell apart. With no more familial attachments, Keaton and his mother moved to Hollywood to find a future there. In sunny Hollywood, Keaton met another ex-vaudevillian performer named Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, who recently became one of the most acclaimed comedic actors in Hollywood. Not long after their meeting, Keaton decided to begin his transition to a whole new medium.

Keaton’s film career began that same year. Coincidentally, besides being an actor, Arbuckle was also a director with a lengthy contract to make two-reeler films for producer Joseph M. Schenck. Although at first, Keaton had reasonable doubts about the new medium. To look further, Keaton asked to borrow a small film camera belonging to Arbuckle. Later that night, Keaton disassembled and reassembled the camera to find out exactly how a camera operates. Keaton becomes fascinated with its technology and the complexities of its engineering. The next day Keaton returned to Arbuckle and asked for a job opening.

Arbuckle hired Keaton as an actor and gag writer. The Butcher Boy (1917), directed by Arbuckle, marks Keaton’s first experience as a film performer. In that two-wheeler film, Keaton played a supporting role while Arbuckle played the lead, and for the next few years, Keaton had himself a job as an actor and gag writer in 14 films directed by Arbuckle. In this partnership, Keaton and Arbuckle became close friends.

In 1920, Arbuckle migrated his film career to make feature-length films. With this, Schenck, Arbuckle’s now-former producer, inherited his entire production staff to Keaton. Within a few years, Keaton began producing his own short films. Keaton went on to make numerous two-wheelers independent from Arbuckle. From his very first, One Week (1920), which is now considered one of Keaton’s best short films, to Cops (1922) and The Electric House (1922), which Keaton wrote, directed and starred in. Hardly 3 years after making these two-wheeler films, Like Arbuckle, Keaton rose through the ranks and started making feature-length films. His first feature film was Three Ages (1923), a parody of D.W Griffith’s classic epic drama, Intolerance (1916).

Keaton’s hallmark is his revolutionary stunt work. He was mainly known as a naturally-born daredevil who’s willing to fall, get beaten, and do astonishingly dangerous things for the sake of a film. Keaton claims that he never refused to perform a stunt, however precarious. In fact, he was often hired to be a stunt double for other not-so-brave actors. Keaton’s other trademark was his “Great Stoneface”; this is because every time he performs something dangerous such as dropping from a building or nearly getting hammered by a speeding train, his face was always expressionless.

In 1924, Keaton released the film Sherlock Jr. (1924). At the time of its release, the film surprisingly received mixed reviews from critics. Several publications, such as The New York Times and Photoplay, actually praised it for being refreshing and innovative. Yet, several publications like Variety called this film unoriginal and oddly “had too many stunts.” Nevertheless, Sherlock Jr. is now known as one of the most brilliant films of all time. In its All-Time 100 Best Movies list in 2005; Time Magazine notes to the film as;

“a great example of American minimalism — simple objects and movement manipulated in casually complex ways to generate a steadily rising gale of laughter. The whole thing is only 45 minutes long, not a second of which is wasted…”

For Sherlock Jr., Keaton broke his neck after a torrent full of water was poured on him from a tower. However, due to his seeming immunity to feeling pain, he didn’t notice the broken neck until years afterward. A now legendary scene from Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928) requires Keaton to stand still in a small space when a giant wall of a two-story house fell around him. The stunt necessitated unbelievable precision, the walls of this house weighed around 1,500 kg, and the tiny window where he stood were only a few inches around Keaton’s body.

Keaton was undeniably a pioneer in visual comedy. He could put an exciting and entertaining story entirely in a visual form. Most directors in that time prefer to use title cards in their films as a substitute for dialogue. However, Keaton’s uniqueness lies in his preference to stay away from the trend and focuses on telling stories through visual language.

Keaton’s celebrated films include The Navigator (1924), Seven Chances (1925), The Cameraman (1928), and The General (1926). With the film The General (1926), Keaton endured unfavorable reactions from the public. Although now considered Keaton’s masterpiece, it was deemed too deviated from Keaton’s earlier works at its release. Because the film tells a machinist story during the American Civil War, the audience considered the film too dramatic for Keaton. Because of its then-controversial theme, critics also questioned Keaton’s intentions for making a movie about war.

Because it didn’t sell particularly well, United Artists, the film’s distributor, began distrusting Keaton’s films’ future. Due to the conflict, Keaton left United Artists and joined Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1928. Note that MGM was the largest film studio in Hollywood of that era.

At the beginning of his MGM years, everything went exceptionally well. MGM gave Keaton complete creative control over his films. On the behind the scenes of The Cameraman (1928), his first film with MGM, a conflict ensued between Keaton and Lawrence Weingarten, the film producer. A big argument broke out in front of the crew after Weingarten referred to Keaton as a child. Notwithstanding the dispute behind the scenes, The Cameraman was a triumph. It was loved and praised by audiences and critics alike. Now considered one of Keaton’s best works. Keaton’s second film with MGM, Spite Marriage (1929), also received high-grade responses from critics and viewers despite the conflicts behind the scenes. This time, the dispute arose when Keaton’s ambition to make the film a talkie was not followed by MGM because they considered it too expensive and problematic.

At the start of the sound era, the relationship between Keaton and MGM continued to deteriorate. All of Keaton’s films with MGM after The Cameraman and Spite Marriage did not involve Keaton in any creative field. Free and Easy (1930), Doughboys (1930), Sidewalks of New York (1931), and Speak Easily (1932) only involved Keaton as a performer. Nowadays, Keaton films with MGM are regarded to have dull storylines, one-dimensional characters, and low-quality jokes. Even though these movies made big bucks, Keaton later mentioned that joining MGM was the single biggest mistake he had ever made.

Frustrated by his own career path, similar to what his father possessed when he was young, grew Keaton’s inherent problem with alcoholism. His issues with alcoholism led to a sudden firing from MGM. This firing also triggered Keaton’s personal life, when not long after, Natalie Talmadge, Keaton’s beautiful wife, divorced him after 11 years of marriage. Followed by Keaton’s estrangement from his son and his abrupt bankruptcy.

After his separation from MGM and his multitude of personal problems, Keaton’s career never returned to its original state. For decades Keaton has tried to improve his broken reputation in Hollywood. Keaton only received minor roles in cheesy two-reel films and small productions in countries like Mexico and France. He also briefly worked at Columbia and Educational Pictures but was only able to make short films that were not successful.

Nearly 20 years later, the public got introduced to Keaton again through his minor role in Billy Wilder’s film Sunset Boulevard (1950) and Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight (1952). Because he’s a hard worker, he made over $ 100,000 a year doing dozens of television commercials. In 1959 Keaton was awarded an Honorary Academy Award for “his unique talent which brings timeless comedy to the screen.”

In the early 1960s, Keaton’s career on the big screen was limited to cameos and special appearances. Never playing the lead role in Hollywood, Keaton starred in films produced outside of the US, such as The Railrodder (1965) in Canada and Film (1965) in Ireland. One year later, On February 1, 1966, Keaton died of lung cancer at Woodland Hills, California.

Essentially, Buster Keaton is a timeless artist. Of his 19 films, which are relatively few, he managed to use the medium of film in his own astonishingly unique way. He adopted the skills he acquired from his vaudevillian theater days and transcended them into a distinctive film style that’s almost impossible to imitate. However, apart from Keaton’s genius, there is always someone who was highly mistreated. MGM demolished Keaton’s creativity which resulted in the utter collapse of his professional and personal life.

Not only strong in film, but Keaton is also strong in life. Although not what it was before, Keaton was able to return and have formed a new place in Hollywood. Until today, his artistry has inspired many filmmakers such as Gene Kelly, Wes Anderson, Bill Murray, the Coen brothers, Sofia Coppola, and Jackie Chan.

His career spans six decades with timeless films that continue to be admired by everyone. For many, his “Stone Face” reminds us of the fragile yet extraordinary thing we call life. More than 50 years after his passing, Buster Keaton’s films are as hilarious, poignant, and relevant as they were in their time.

An aspiring filmmaker and film writer based in Indonesia. Start a conversation with me through my e-mail: