Sunday, October 4, 2015

The 120th Anniversary of Buster Keaton's Birth

It was 120 years ago today, on October 4 1895, that legendary actor, director, screenwriter, and stuntman Buster Keaton was born. Arguably he was one of the first true auteurs in the history of film. He not only wrote and directed in his own films, but acted in them and performed his own stunts as well. Indeed, he was one of the earliest film actors to take up directing. From 1920 to 1929 he wrote and directed some of the greatest movies ever made.

Buster Keaton was born Joseph Frank Keaton in Piqua, Kansas to a family of vaudeville performers. His mother and father were Myrna and Joe Keaton, who began performing together in medicine shows and on vaudeville shortly after their marriage in 1894. As to how young Joseph Frank Keaton earned his nickname "Buster", Buster Keaton said that when he was eighteen months old he took a tumble down a flight of stairs without being hurt. Harry Houdini was present when this happened and remarked, "That was a real buster!"--at the time "buster" being slang for a fall that could produce a serious injury. Afterwards Joe Keaton began referring to his son as "Buster" and the nickname stuck. Whether the story was true or not, Buster Keaton was known as "Buster" from an early age.

When Buster Keaton was three years old he joined his mother and father on stage as part of "The Three Keatons". The Keatons' style of comedy was very physical, and often involved Joe Keaton throwing young Buster Keaton about the stage. There were those who actually thought the Keatons were guilty of child abuse. What they did not realise is that young Buster had been trained to land in such a way so that he would not be injured. Unfortunately Joe Keaton's alcoholism would eventually lead to the break up of The Three Keatons. Buster Keaton and his mother Myrna left the act and moved to New York. During World War I Buster Keaton served with the 40th Infantry Division of the United States Army in France.

In 1917 Buster Keaton was performing in the stage show The Passing Show of 1917. One day he visited Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle at the Talmadge Studios in New York City. Ultimately the meeting resulted in Buster Keaton making his film debut in Mr. Arbuckle's short "The Butcher Boy". Roscoe Arbuckle and Buster Keaton proved to be a good team, and Mr. Keaton appeared in 14 Roscoe Arbuckle shorts from 1917 to 1920.  It was in 1917 that Mr. Keaton made his debut as a director on the short "The Rough House". It also marked his first credit as a screenwriter as well.  The Saphead  in 1920 gave Buster Keaton his first starring role in a feature film debut.

The success of The Saphead launched Buster Keaton on his career as a lead actor in comedy films. Beginning in 1920 he starred in several short films, many of which he also directed and wrote. The year 1923 would see the release of the first feature film that Buster Keaton wrote, directed, and produced, as well as played the lead. Three Ages would mark the beginning of what could be considered the height of Buster Keaton's career. Over the next few years he starred in, directed, and wrote some of his best known films:  Our Hospitality (1923), Sherlock Jr. (1924), The Navigator (1924), Go West (1925), The General (1926), Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928), and The Cameraman (1928). Not only were many of the films Buster Keaton made during this period considered among his very best, but many of them are also counted among the greatest films ever made.

Indeed, The General is often counted not only as Buster Keaton's greatest film, but also among the greatest film comedies of all time. Unfortunately at the time of its release The General received mixed reviews. Worse yet, it did poorly at the box office, barely recouping its $750,000 budget. Sadly, the end result of the failure of The General was that Buster Keaton would never again be trusted with total control over his productions. For his next two films, College (1927) and Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928), Mr. Keaton's distributor United Artists insisted on the presence of a production manager who would keep track of the budget and could even tamper with plot elements. Afterwards Buster Keaton signed with MGM where his first film was The Cameraman (1928). It was in 1930 that Mr. Keaton made the transition to sound with the film Free and Easy.

Sadly, the early Sound Era would not prove to be a good one for Buster Keaton. While MGM allowed Mr. Keaton some degree of creative control over The Cameraman, afterwards Mr. Keaton found himself severely restricted by the studio system. Indeed, most of the sound films Buster Keaton made at MGM were directed by Edward Sedgwick rather than himself. At the same time that Buster Keaton found himself stifled creatively, his personal life was coming apart at the seams as well. By the time of  his last feature with MGM, What! No Beer? in 1933, he was going through a very messy divorce. Here it must be pointed out that contrary to popular belief, the sound films that Buster Keaton made at MGM were very successful at the box office. That having been said, Buster Keaton himself was not happy with them and following What! No Beer! MGM and Buster Keaton parted ways.

After leaving MGM Buster Keaton starred in the French film Le Roi des Champs-Élysées (1934), which was never released theatrically in the United States. Beginning in 1934 he made a series of short subjects for Educational Pictures that lasted until 1937. Starting in 1935 Mr. Keaton served as a gag writer on various MGM features, including the Marx Brothers films A Night at the Opera (1935) and At the Circus (1939), as well as various films in the "Jones Family" series. In 1936 he starred in the British feature comedy The Invader (1935).  In 1939 he began starring in a series of short subjects for Columbia Pictures that lasted until 1941.

The Forties would see Buster Keaton return to American feature films, although he played character roles rather than the lead roles he once did. He appeared in such films as The Villain Still Pursued Her (1940) and Li'l Abner (1940), and made cameos in such films as In the Good Old Summertime (1949) and Sunset Boulevard (1950). The late Forties would see Mr. Keaton's Silent Era work rediscovered by critics and film historians. Ultimately this would result in Buster Keaton having more visibility in the Fifties than he had for much of the Thirties and Forties. Quite simply, Buster Keaton appeared frequently on television.

Buster Keaton made his television debut in 1949 in the live television special The Buster Keaton Comedy Show, aired locally in California. In 1950 he starred in his own show, The Buster Keaton Show. The Buster Keaton Show aired live on Los Angeles Station KTTV. He subsequently appeared in a filmed TV series,  Life with Buster Keaton, which debuted in 1951.

Buster Keaton was a frequent guest star on television in the Fifties and Sixties. He appeared on such shows as Rheingold Theatre, Lux Video Theatre, Playhouse 90, The Ed Sullivan Show, What's My Line, I've Got a Secret, The Twilight Zone, Route 66, Burke's Law, and The Donna Reed Show. He also appeared in several television commercials throughout the two decades, including ones for Alka Seltzer, Ford, Jeep, Milky Way candy bars, Northwest Orient Airlines, Pure Oil, Simon Pure Beer, and United States Steel.

Of course, Buster Keaton also continued to appear in feature films. He had a significant role in fellow silent film legend Charlie Chaplin's film Limelight (1952). He had cameos in such films as Around the World in 80 Days (1956), The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1960), and It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963). He actually had somewhat more substantial roles in some of the "Beach Party" movies and related films, including appearances in Pajama Party (1964), Beach Blanket Bingo (1965), How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (1965), and Sergeant Deadhead (1965). He also had substantial roles in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966) and Due marines e un generale (1966--released under the title War Italian Style in English).  Sadly, the two films would be his last appearances on film. Buster Keaton died of lung cancer n February 1 1966. He was 70 years old.

Alongside Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton is regarded as one of the three great comic actors of the Silent Era. What is more, he is also one of the Silent Era's great auteurs. At a time when many actors only acted in films, Buster Keaton wrote, directed, and produced his movies as well as acted in them. What is more, Buster Keaton's films could be truly epic in scope, with set pieces one might not expect from a comedy. In Steamboat Bill Jr. a building literally fell down around him. In The General  he actually crashed a train. Indeed, with The General it can be argued that Buster Keaton invented a subgenre now well known to filmgoers, the action comedy.

That having been said, the appeal of Buster Keaton's films go well beyond sometimes impressive set pieces and incredible stunts (something he also shared in common with contemporary Harold Lloyd). Nearly all of Buster Keaton's films centred on an underdog who in the end, through sheer perseverance, if nothing else, emerges victorious. In Sherlock, Jr. he played a poor movie projectionist accused of theft. In Seven Chances he played the junior partner of a brokerage firm that was on the edge of bankruptcy. In The General he played a train engineer, rejected by the military, who must rescue a train stolen by the Union Army.  While there can be no doubt that audiences enjoyed (and still enjoy) the spectacle of Buster Keaton's films, much of their appeal perhaps rest with the fact that they portray characters who appear to have little chance of success, but who succeed through hard work and perseverance. Quite simply, Buster Keaton's films centre on the victory of the average man.

One hundred and twenty years after his birth Buster Keaton remains one of the best known figures from the Silent Era and one of the few who is still known to individuals who are not fans of classic film. He certainly had a huge impact on film. As mentioned earlier, he virtually invented action comedy with The General. He had an influence on such diverse artists as  Jacques Tati and Jackie Chan. Today, when many of his contemporaries have been forgotten, Buster Keaton is still regarded as both one of the greatest comic actors of all time and one of the greatest directors of all time.

No comments: