Nationality: American. Born: Joseph Francis Keaton in Piqua, Kansas, 4 October 1895. Family: Married 1) Natalie Talmadge, 1921 (divorced 1933), sons: Joseph and Robert; 2) Mae Scribbens, 1933 (divorced 1936); 3) Eleanor Norris, 1940. Career: 1898–1917—beginning at the age of four, appeared with his parents, Joe and Myra Keaton, in vaudeville act billed as The Three Keatons; 1917—moved to California; 1917–20—appeared in 15 two-reelers for Comique Film Corporation, with Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle as director-actorscriptwriter, starting with first film The Butcher Boy , 1917; 1918—as member of U.S. Army, entertained troops in France; 1919—offered own production company with Metro Pictures by Joseph Schenk; 1920–23—produced 19 two-reelers; 1923–28—directed ten features for Metro, starting with The Three Ages ; 1929–31—plagued with marital problems and alcoholism, career faded during the transition from silent to sound films; 1934–39—starred in 16 comedies for Educational Pictures; 1935—became uncredited gag writer for the Marx Brothers and in the 1940s for Red Skelton's features; 1939–41—appeared in ten two-reelers for Columbia; from 1949—moved to TV to execute innovative commercials and become frequent guest in both comic and dramatic TV series; 1949—in TV series The Buster Keaton Comedy Show ; 1951—appearance with Chaplin in Chaplin's Limelight revived Keaton's career. Awards: "George Award," at first annual George Eastman Festival of Film Arts in Rochester, New York, 1956; special Academy Award, "for his unique talents which brought immortal comedies to the screen," 1959; honored at the
(two-reelers with Roscue "Fatty" Arbuckle as director-actorscriptwriter)
The Butcher Boy (as village pest); A Reckless Romeo (as a rival); The Rough House (as grocer's boy and cop); His Wedding Night (as delivery boy); Oh, Doctor! (as doctor's son); Coney Island ( Fatty at Coney Island ) (as lifeguard); A Country Hero (as the dancer)
Out West (as Bill Bullhum); The Bell Boy (as Arbuckle's assistant); Moonshine (as assistant revenue agent); Good Night, Nurse! (as the doctor/a visitor); The Cook (as the waiter and general helper)
A Desert Hero (as badman); Back Stage (as stagehand); The Hayseed (as store clerk)
The Garage ( Fire Chief ) (as garage mechanic)
(silent features with Keaton as leading actor)
The Saphead (Blaché) (as Bertie "The Lamb" Van Alstyne)
College (Horne) (as Ronald)
Steamboat Bill, Jr. (Reisner) (as Willie Canfield); The Cameraman (Sedgwick) (as Luke Shannon, + pr)
Spite Marriage (Sedgwick) (as Elmer Edgemont)
(1930s sound features with Keaton in minor and some major roles)
The Hollywood Revue of 1929 (Reisner) (as an oriental dancer)
Free and Easy ( Easy Go ) (Sedgwick) (as Elmer Butts); Doughboys ( The Big Shot ; Forward March! ) (Sedgwick) (as Elmer Stuyvesant, + pr)
Parlor, Bedroom, and Bath (Sedgwick) (as Reginald Irving, + pr); The March of Time (Reichner—not completed); Sidewalks of New York (Jules White and Zion Myers) (as Homer Van Tine Harmon, + pr)
The Passionate Plumber (Sedgwick) (as Elmer Tuttle); Speak Easily (Sedgwick) (as Professor Timoleon Zanders Post); What! No Beer? (Sedgwick) (as Elmer J. Butts); The Little King (not completed)
Le Roi des Champs Elysées ( Champ of the Champs Elysées ) (Nosseck) (as Buster Garnier/Jim Le Balafre)
The Invader ( The Intruder ; An Old Spanish Custom ) (Brunel) (as Leander Proudfoot)
(sound two-reelers for Educational Pictures starring Keaton; role as Elmer unless otherwise noted)
The Gold Ghost (Lamont) (as Wally); Allez Oop (Lamont)
Palooka from Paducah (Lamont) (as Jim); One-Run Elmer (Lamont); Hayseed Romance (Lamont); Tars and Stripes (Lamont); The E-Flat Man (Lamont); The Timid Young Man (Sennett) (as Milton)
Three on a Limb (Lamont) (as Elmer Brown); Grand Slam Opera (Lamont) (as Elmer Butts); Blue Blazes (Raymond Kane); The Chemist (Al Christie) (as Elmer Triple); Mixed Magic (Raymond Kane)
Jail Bait (Lamont); Ditto (Lamont); Love Nest on Wheels (Lamont)
(two-reeler Columbia shorts starring Keaton)
Pest from the West (Del Lord) (as American yachtsman); Mooching through Georgia (Jules White) (as Homer Cobb)
Nothing but Pleasure (Jules White) (as Clarence Plunkett); Pardon My Berth Marks (Jules White) (as Elmer Pin-feather); The Taming of the Snood ( Four Thirds Off ) (Jules White) (as a hat shop owner); The Spook Speaks (Jules White) (as magician's housekeeper); His Ex Marks the Spot ( Buster's Last Stand ) (Jules White) (as the husband)
So You Won't Squawk (Del Lord) (as Eddie); General Nuisance ( The Private General ) (Jules White) (as Peter Hedley Lamar Jr.); She's Oil Mine (Jules White) (as Buster Waters)
(feature films with Keaton in minor role, from 1939)
Hollywood Cavalcade (Cummings) (as himself)
The Villain Still Pursued Her (Edward F. Cline) (as William); Li'l Abner (Rogell) (as Lonesome Polecat); New Moon (Robert Z. Leonard) (as Prisoner "LuLu")
Forever and a Day (in sequence directed by Hardwicke) (as Dabb's assistant)
San Diego, I Love You (LeBorg) (as bus driver); Two Girls and a Sailor (Thorpe) (as Durante's son)
That's the Spirit (Lamont) (as L. M.); That Night with You (Seiter) (as Sam, the short-order cook); She Went to the Races (Goldbeck) (as bellboy)
God's Country (Tansey); El Moderno Barba Azul ( Boom in the Moon ; A Modern Bluebeard ) (Jamie Salvador) (as prisoner of Mexicans who is sent to the moon)
The Lovable Cheat (Oswald) (as Curt Bois); In the Good Old Summertime (Robert Z. Leonard) (as Hickey); You're My Everything (Walter Lang) (as waiter)
Sunset Boulevard (Wilder) (as himself)
The Misadventures of Buster Keaton (compilation of three episodes of The Buster Keaton Show TV series)
Limelight (Chaplin) (as piano accompanist); L'incantevole nemica ( Captivating Enemy ) (Gora) (bit role)
Around the World in Eighty Days (Michael Anderson) (as train conductor)
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn ( Huckleberry Finn ) (Curtiz) (as lion tamer)
Ten Girls Ago (Harold Daniels—not completed)
It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (Stanley Kramer) (as Jimmy the Crook)
Pajama Party ( The Maid and the Martian ) (Wies) (as Chief Rotten Eagle)
Beach Blanket Bingo (Asher) (as himself); How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (Asher) (as Bwana); Sergeant Deadhead ( Sergeant Deadhead the Astronaut ) (Taurog) (as Pvt. Blinken); The Man Who Bought Paradise ( Hotel Paradise ) (Ralph Nelson—for TV) (as Mr. Blore)
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (Richard Lester) (as Erronius)
Due Marines e un Generale ( War, Italian Style ) (Scattini) (as Gen. Von Kassler)
The Voice of Hollywood, Number 10 (Lewyn)
The Stolen Jools ( The Slippery Pearls ) (McGann) (as a Keystone Kop)
Hollywood on Parade (Lewyn)
La Fiesta de Santa Barbara (Lewyn)
Sunkist Stars at Palm Springs
Un Duel à Mort (as a comic duelist, + co-sc)
Film (Alan Schneider); The Railrodder (Potterton)
Paradise for Buster (Del Lord)
The Devil to Pay (Skoble) (as Diablos)
The Triumph of Lester Snapwell (James Calhoun) (title role)
The Fall Guy (Bateman) (as Mr. Goodfarmer/Mr. Badfarmer)
The Scribe (Sebert) (as newspaper reporter)
(two-reelers with Keaton in the leading role, co-directed and co-scripted by Keaton with Eddie Cline, unless otherwise noted)
One Week (as the husband); Convict 13 (as the golfer/ the victim); The Scarecrow (as roommate); Neighbors (as the boy)
The Haunted House (as bank clerk); Hard Luck (as the melancholy boy); The High Sign (as the boy); The Goat (co-d and co-sc with Mal St. Clair) (as the boy); The Boat (as the captain of the DAMFINO)
The Paleface (as Little Chief Paleface); The Playhouse (as the stage hand); Cops (as the unsuspecting victim); My Wife's Relation (as the husband); The Blacksmith (co-d and co-sc with Mal St. Clair) (as the blacksmith's assistant); The Frozen North (as the adventurer); The Electric House (as an electrical engineer); Daydreams (as the boy)
The Balloonatic (as the boy); The Love Nest (as sailor)
(silent features directed by Keaton, with Keaton as leading actor)
The Three Ages (co-d with Cline) (as the boy); Our Hospitality (co-d with Blystone) (as Willie McKay)
Sherlock, Jr. (as the theater projectionist/title role); The Navigator (co-d with Crisp) (as Rollo Treadway)
Seven Chances (as Jimmie Shannon); Go West (as Friendless, + story)
Battling Butler (Alfred Butler); The General (as Johnnie Gray)
(one-reelers directed by Keaton; sound)
Life in Sometown, U.S.A. ; Hollywood Handicap ; Streamlined Swing
The Jones Family in Hollywood (Mal St. Clair) (co-sc); The Jones Family in Quick Millions (Mal St. Clair) (co-sc)
My Wonderful World of Slapstick , with Charles Samuels, New York, 1960; rev. ed., 1982.
"What Are the Six Ages of Comedy," in The Truth about the Movies , Hollywood, 1924.
"Why I Never Smile," in Ladies Home Journal (New York), June 1926.
Interview with Christopher Bishop, in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), Fall 1958.
"Keaton: Still Making the Scene," interview with Rex Reed, in New York Times , 17 October 1965.
"Keaton at Venice," interview with John Gillett and James Blue, in Sight and Sound (London), Winter 1965.
Interview with Arthur Friedman, in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), Summer 1966.
Turconi, Davide, and Francesco Savio, Buster Keaton , Venice, 1963.
Blesh, Rudi, Keaton , New York, 1967.
Lebel, Jean-Pierre, Buster Keaton , translated by P. D. Stovin, New York, 1967.
Brownlow, Kevin, The Parade's Gone By , New York, 1968.
McCaffrey, Donald W., Four Great Comedians: Chaplin, Lloyd, Keaton, Langdon , New York, 1968.
Robinson, David, Buster Keaton , London, 1968.
Kerr, Walter, The Silent Clowns , New York, 1975.
Anobile, Richard J., The Best of Buster: The Classic Comedy Scenes Direct from the Films of Buster Keaton , New York, 1976.
Wead, George, Buster Keaton and the Dynamics of Visual Wit , New York, 1976.
Dardis, Tom, Keaton: The Man Who Wouldn't Lie Down , New York, 1979.
Benayoun, Robert, The Look of Buster Keaton , Paris, 1982; London, 1984.
Kline, Jim, The Complete Films of Buster Keaton , New York, 1993.
Edwards, Larry, Buster: A Legend in Laughter , Bradenton, Florida, 1995.
Meade, Marion, Buster Keaton: Cut to the Chase , New York, 1995.
Rapf, Joanna E., and Gary L. Green, Buster Keaton: A Bio-Bibliography , New York, 1995.
Oldham, Gabriella, Keaton's Silent Shorts: Beyond the Laughter , Carbondale, Illinois, 1996.
Keaton, Joe, "The Cyclone Baby," in Photoplay (New York), May 1927.
Review of The General , in Motion Picture Magazine , May 1927.
Agee, James, "Comedy's Greatest Era," in Life (New York), 5 September 1949.
"Gloomy Buster Is Back Again," in Life (New York), 13 March 1950.
Dyer, Peter, "Cops, Custard—and Keaton," in Films and Filming (London), August 1958.
"Keaton" issue of Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), August 1958.
Bishop, Christopher, "The Great Stone Face," in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), Fall 1958.
Baxter, Brian, "Buster Keaton," in Film (London), November/December 1958.
Robinson, David, "Rediscovery: Buster," in Sight and Sound (London), Winter 1959.
"Buster Keaton in Beckett's First Film," in New York Times , 21 July 1964.
Garcia Lorca, Federico, "Buster Keaton Takes a Walk," in Sight and Sound (London), Winter 1965.
Obituary in New York Times , 2 February 1966.
Crowther, Bosley, "Keaton and the Past," in New York Times , 6 February 1966.
McCaffrey, Donald, "The Mutual Approval of Keaton and Lloyd," in Cinema Journal (Evanston, Illinois), no. 6, 1967.
Houston, Penelope, "The Great Blank Page," in Sight and Sound (London), Spring 1968.
Maltin, Leonard, "Buster Keaton," in The Great Movie Shorts , New York, 1972.
Mast, Gerald, "Buster Keaton," in The Comic Mind , New York, 1973.
Rubinstein, E., "Observations on Keaton's Steamboat Bill, Jr. ," in Sight and Sound (London), Autumn 1975.
Everson, William, "Rediscovery: Le Roi des Champs Elysées ," in Films in Review (New York), December 1976.
Houston, Penelope, "Buster Keaton," in The National Society of Film Critics on Movie Comedy , New York, 1977.
Wade, G., "The Great Locomotive Chase," in American Film (Washington, D.C.), July/August 1977.
Denby, David, "Buster the Great," in Premiere (New York), March 1991.
Sanders, Judith, and David Lieberfeld, "Dreaming in Pictures: The Childhood Origins of Buster Keaton's Creativity," in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), Summer 1994.
Corliss, R., "Keaton the Magnificant," in Time , 9 October 1995.
Gunning, Tom, "Buster Keaton: Or the Work of Comedy in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," in Cineaste (New York), vol. 21, no. 3, 1995.
Telotte, J. P., "Keaton Is Missing," in Literature/Film Quarterly (Salisbury, Maryland), Spring 1995.
Hogue, Peter, "Eye of the Storm: Buster Keaton," in Film Comment (New York), September/October 1995.
Lane, Anthony, "The Fall Guy: Buster Keaton's Genius Turned Slapstick and Catastrophe into Comic Gold," in New Yorker , 23 October 1995.
Gunning, Tom, "Buster Keaton or The Work of Comedy in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," in Cineaste (New York), vol. 21, no. 3, 1995.
Eliot Tobias, Patricia, "A Letter from the Keaton Chronicle," in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), Winter 1995–1996.
Hawkins, Geraldine A., "Lloyd, Chaplin, & Keaton: The Big Three Have Three Big Fans," in Classic Images (Muscatine), April 1996.
Welsh, James M., in Literature/Film Quarterly (Salisbury, Maryland), October 1997.
The Buster Keaton Story , directed by Sidney Sheldon, 1957.
Sad Clowns (also known as Silents, Please ), The History of Motion Pictures film series, 1961.
Buster Keaton Rides Again , documentary directed by John Spotten, 1965.
Episode 8 ("Comedy: A Series Business") of Hollywood: A Celebration of the American Silent Film , television documentary, 1980.
Buster Keaton: A Hard Act to Follow , television documentary, 1987.
* * *
When motion picture critics began to reevaluate the comedy of Buster Keaton, he was the best-known silent screen comedian of the 1950s and early 1960s. This came about because he, more than any of his peers of the silent period, had made frequent appearances in television commercials, variety shows, and such series programs as Eddie Cantor Comedy Theatre , The Martha Raye Show , Playhouse 90 , and Route 66 . In some of the variety shows and commercials, Buster would execute some of the dangerous pratfalls that distinguished the knockabout comedy of his first film The Butcher Boy in 1917. These balletlike tumbles led early viewers to marvel at the physical comedy he had perfected in his vaudeville act with his father and mother. This sometimes resulted in an evaluation of his acting as merely physical, deadpan, and mechanical. In fact, as early as 1924, an unidentified evaluator noted in a review of Sherlock, Jr. in Exceptional Photoplays that Keaton was the "Humpty Dumpty of the screen. . . . always falling from the wall and always getting up again."
As critics attributed the essence of Keaton's comedy to a type of mechanistic theory similar to that advanced by French philosopher Henri Bergson, the views on his comic acting became oversimplified. Coupled with this was an admiration of the lack of the sentimental that appealed to the intellectuals who viewed his 1920s features. These facets of his comedy also appealed to those who revisited Keaton's work after seeing him on television in the 1950s. Nearly 40 years after an evaluation of his comedy was formulated into a reductionistic mold, Tom Gunniny repeated the same concept in a 1995 Cineaste article entitled "Buster Keaton: Or the Work of Comedy in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." In 1958 Christopher Bishop in Film Quarterly set the error of reduction in stone with the statement that Keaton "seems detached from his surroundings, uninvolved to the point of lunacy, an extraordinarily neutral figure, driven by compulsion beyond his comprehension, his behavior without source in any conscious motivation."
Such evaluations of Keaton's character and acting are quite common, and they are intended as penetrating views on the quintessence of the comedian's uniqueness in creating laughter. They fail to take into account many of the character traits that the actor uses in the development of the drama which would give dimension to the comedian's acting. In Sherlock, Jr. , for example, there are many of the obsessed, young boy characteristics that are quite fundamental to the plot and not "abstract" or lacking in "conscious motivation." Granted, Keaton utilized anesthesia of his emotion, somewhat in the manner exhibited by Harry Langdon and Stan Laurel, to create comedy of understatement. Underneath a placid exterior, burning desires existed in his character. The young, small-town movie projectionist dreams of a life as a famous detective. In the opening shot of Sherlock, Jr. , his childish enthusiasm becomes obvious as he reads with dogged intensity a book entitled How to Become a Detective .
In this scene Buster is caught reading on the job by the theater manager. With his eyes, the turn of the head, and protests of explanation by mouth movements, the comedian shows his motivation to get out of this predicament. Within ten minutes of the first reel of Sherlock, Jr. Keaton displays a variety of emotions. With hesitating arm and hand movements he shyly attempts to hold the hand of his girlfriend and present her with an engagement ring. Keaton does not smile but his eyes show his love for the young woman. When the small-town youth he portrays becomes an amateur detective, his full body comes into play as he pursues the villain of the drama. As if bent forward against a strong wind, he tails the suspect with great determination.
It is valid to compare the features of Buster Keaton's films with those of Harold Lloyd. Most of the plots and the characterizations are tied to the tradition of the genteel comedy, often involving a pursuit of some magnitude. In Sherlock, Jr. it is the goal of solving a crime; in The General it is a struggle to recover a stolen locomotive; in The Cameraman it becomes the desire to shoot a significant movie newsreel event. Each of these plots follows the Horatio Alger Jr. success story, developed along comic lines. Keaton, like Lloyd and Charles Chaplin, utilized the struggle of the little man pitted against a hostile world.
In his 12 silent film features Buster Keaton was able to provide variety in the skillful acting of broad, comic scenes or sequences and restrained, subtle, humorous character-building scenes. His acting skills in the broader portions of his features proved to be equal to the skills of Chaplin and Lloyd by handling such material. Again, using Sherlock, Jr. as an example, his dangerous race on a motorcycle to rescue his girlfriend seemed to be on the level of Harold Lloyd's "thrill comedy" that Lloyd executed climbing a skyscraper. Keaton also executed pratfalls with an agility and grace that surpassed the deftness of Chaplin and Lloyd.
An example of Keaton's ability to handle subtle, character-developing humor evolves from his departure from the portrait of a poor, young man to that of a rich, young man in the 1924 The Navigator . Since he is spoiled through pampering and money that usually will buy anything, everything has become routine. As if he were going to buy a new suit, he tells his valet that he is going to get married; he marches formally up to a young woman who is a friend of the family and asks unemotionally: "Will you marry me?" She instantly and vehemently replies, "Certainly not!" He looks blankly away from her, turns on his heels, takes his cane and hat from a servant, and leaves without another word being spoken.
The four kings of comedy of the 1920s—Chaplin, Lloyd, Keaton, and Harry Langdon—created comic characters that were distinctive. Chaplin was the lost soul, the little tramp, on the edge of society; Lloyd portrayed the eager young man struggling for success, mostly on a social plain; Langdon enacted a child-man baffled by a big world. Buster Keaton seemed to be a combination of Lloyd and Langdon. His character, like Lloyd's, struggled mightily to reach a goal. But, like Langdon, he found his environment perplexing. In a gesture used in many of his films Keaton executed an Indian-style survey of the horizon as he climbed a hill, a locomotive, or even an animal such as a cow or horse. This pose proved to be symbolic of a poor fellow lost in a broad, unknown, hostile world.
Those critics who try to apply Henry Bergson's comic theory of mechanism to his character are only looking at the facet that appeals to them. True, Keaton achieves some of his comedy by a fine-tuned, smooth working of his body, but the exclusion of other traits of his portrayal (especially his link with the genteel comedy character of the popular fiction of the day) seems to be a grievous simplification of Keaton's comedy. Furthermore, the so-called frozen face does reflect a tradition of the sad clown of the circus (Emmett Kelly, for example) handed down through the ages by the commedia dell' arte, the moonstruck Pierrot, who never smiled, creating understated, deviant emotions that audiences found so entertaining.
—Donald W. McCaffrey