October 4, 1895– Buster Keaton
Referring to her friend Natalie Talmadge‘s marriage to Buster Keaton, screenwriter Anita Loos wrote:
“I used to think that looking across a pillow into the fabulous face of Buster Keaton would be a more thrilling destiny than any screen career.”
In his trademark rumpled suit and porkpie hat, Keaton downplayed his beauty and kept his flawless body under wraps. He was called “The Great Stone Face”, and chaos would whirl all around him while his expression showed no emotion, except through the depth of his gorgeous eyes.
He stood only 5 ft. 5 in. and his characters were often bullied by bigger, more masculine men. His defense was to keep his physicality and emotions protected under the persona of a sad-sack. It is not that difficult to think of his characters as something close to gay men before they come out, keeping their feelings and true selves hidden from the peril of a society willing to hurt them.
Keaton’s films can be taken as an allegory of the coming out process. His victory is in finally making his place in the world, not through brute strength or traditional ideas of masculinity, but through talent, tenacity, and especially, grace. He was balletic and poetic instead of strapping and coarse, his triumph is that of every little guy who ever felt powerless, disparaged, and bullied.
Did I mention that he is absolutely gorgeous? For a look at Keaton beefcake, try Battling Butler (1926), an MGM silent film with an interesting take on being tormented, albeit cloaked in comedy.
At the start of the film, Keaton is the ultimate fop. His idea of camping involves a tent with a brass bed, bearskin rug, and butler. When he tries to impress a woman by claiming to be prizefighter Battling Butler, a series of episodes trips him up in his lie, and he ends up in an actual fight against the real Battling Butler.
In the boxing ring, Battling Butler is brutal. Buster begs, ducks, cowers, and tries to escape while Battling Butler pursues him, finally cornering him and looking as if he is actually screwing Keaton against the wall.
At last, Keaton snaps with the rage of a victim turning against his abuser, and knocks out his opponent. When he realizes what has happened, Keaton is shocked at his own accomplishment. However, his victory doesn’t turn him into a bruiser; it exposes his lie to the girl, who says she prefers he not be a prizefighter anyway. Happy ending.
The closing shot is absolutely kinky. Escorting the girl through the evening crowd, Keaton is wearing nothing but a top hat, shoes, boxing trunks and gloves. He is still the dandy, but now has a proud physicality.
He was born to the stage. His parents were appearing in a show with the great magician Harry Houdini, when Keaton arrived in this world while the show was playing in Kansas. Houdini gave him his nickname. Houdini is supposed to have exclaimed: “What a buster!” when the six month old Keaton fell down a flight of stairs.
Keaton perfected his stoic look while still a child performer. Hit on the face with a broom, he would wait five or six seconds without moving a facial muscle, and then say “Ouch”. This bit always brought down the house.
In 30 films, mostly shorts, Keaton established an unforgettable character: a sad, silent, solitary little man who stood stoically against a mechanized world. Unlike Charlie Chaplin, he was never sentimental and he never resorted to anything maudlin. His strength was in his ability to survive. He displayed that perseverance not only in his comic characterizations but also in his private life, with periods of artistic triumph and frustration, from wealth to a descent into poverty and alcoholism, and near the end, a return to recognition and audience love.
In 1924, Keaton directed and starred in his first masterpiece, Sherlock Jr., where he plays a film projectionist who falls asleep at work and dreams about the world on screen. The crazy logic of Sherlock Jr. allowed Keaton to use a stream of surreal situations, where he performs his own amazing stunts. His ability to take a dramatic fall without breaking a bone is astonishing.
Just a half year later, Keaton released the film that would become his biggest box-office hit, The Navigator, a comedy about innocents caught up in war and people dwarfed by machines, beating Chaplin to the themes of some of his greatest films by several years. The Navigator has that unforgettable scene of Keaton when he launches a ship: he stands at attention on deck, resplendent in admiral’s uniform, never wavering as it sinks slowly out of sight.
Keaton’s second truly great film is The General (1926), a satire about a train engineer during the Civil War. Keaton spent nearly a million dollars on extras, battle scenes, period costumes, and dizzying stunts. It has one of the great chases in cinema history where he chases a train as it crosses a burning bridge, which collapses, plunging the locomotive and Keaton into a river.
Keaton’s films from the 1920s are visual wonders of uncommon comic scenes that anticipate surrealism before that art movement really began and his work certainly had an influence on Salvador Dalí and Luis Buñuel as they began making films. Keaton’s use of comic action and the chances to fool the eye into seeing the impossible was what made his films unique. The average full length silent film used 240 subtitles. The most Keaton ever used was 56. He was the best at conveying action through imagery.
In 1924, he spent $33,000 building a house in Beverly Hills for his new wife. But when the house was completed, Natalie, whose sisters Norma and Constance were big stars, decided that the new house was too small. So Keaton built a bigger house, with 20 rooms, including a screening room and a billiards room, and a massive outdoor staircase that lead to a gigantic swimming pool. Keaton called it the Italian Villa. It cost him $300,000. It sold last summer for $17 million.
In 1928, on the advice of his producer, Keaton signed with MGM for $33,000 a week and a percentage of the gross. In a week, he made twice what the average American made in a year. Keaton was one of the first great indie filmmakers, but his way of making films was not a good fit at the new studio. Keaton usually wrote a beginning and ending for his stories and improvised everything in the middle. He hated the films he made at MGM, they earned money, but they made him doubt his own talent and taste. That’s when he started drinking. Later, he would say that signing with MGM was the biggest mistake of his career, even titling a chapter in his memoir: The Worst Mistake of My Life.
MGM billed itself as the home to the greatest stars, but most of the actors had no power over their work, public personas, or their look. Chaplin had warned Keaton:
“They’ll ruin you helping you.”
MGM was paying Keaton the big bucks and yet seemed afraid to let him open his mouth. Talking pictures began and Keaton dropped out of sight. After 11 years of marriage, and two sons, he and Talmadge divorced in 1932. A second marriage ended in divorce in 1935. Keaton lost everything: his house, his kids, and his contract at MGM. He drank a lot. He filed for bankruptcy. The great comic star of the silent era became a wash-up.
British television rescued him from obscurity in the early 1950’s. It brought him new younger fans. He appeared on British shows and was paid handsomely.
In 1956, Paramount Pictures paid him $50,000 for the rights to The Keaton Story, a film tracing his rise from Vaudeville to Hollywood stardom, with Donald O’Connor playing the title role. He was also making $100,000 a year from doing television commercials.
Keaton used the money to buy a ranch in the San Fernando Valley. He started to get work on television series. But, it was his old silent films that put him back on top. Keaton had had his own producing company in the 1920s and he retained ownership of his old movies. He oversaw the films restoration and added musical soundtracks, but kept the original subtitles.
Keaton’s renaissance reached an artistic peak in 1966 when Film, a 22 minute silent movie he made in 1964, received a five minute standing ovation at The Venice Film Festival. An emotional Keaton wept. Film was Samuel Beckett‘s first screenplay, a story of an old, obsessed man who shuts himself up in a room to thwart fate.
Keaton left this world a few months later, taken by that damn cancer at his ranch. He was 70-years-old.
“I can’t feel sorry for myself. It all goes to show that if you stay on the merry-go-round long enough you’ll get another chance at the brass ring. Luckily, I stayed on.”