"He was by his whole style and nature so much the most deeply 'silent' of the silent comedians that even a smile was as deafeningly out of key as a yell...No other comedian could do as much with the dead-pan. He used this great, sad, motionless face to suggest various related things; a one track mind near the track’s end of pure insanity; mulish imperturbability under the wildest of circumstances; how dead a human being can get and still be alive; an awe-inspiring sort of patience and power to endure, proper to granite but uncanny in flesh and blood."
—James Agee, LIFE magazine (5 September 1949)
"No man can be a genius in slapshoes and a flat hat."
Joseph Frank "Buster" Keaton, Jr. (1895-1966), was the original Stoic, also known as The Great Stone Face. Possibly the toughest man in show business history; during one film shoot, he broke his neck and continued with the day's shooting.
Buster literally grew up on stage as part of the Three Keatons, one of the roughest acts in vaudeville. Their most famous shtick was when Pa Joe Keaton would react to Buster's mischief by literally throwing him around the stage and occasionally into the orchestra pit or the audience -- once, Joe threw Buster at hecklers who made the mistake of criticizing the saxophone playing of Myra Keaton, Joe's wife. Oh, and did we mention that they started this act when Buster was three years old?
Eventually, when the act's fortunes declined and Joe got too drunk and disorderly to work with safely, Buster Keaton struck out on his own. He got into film with his good friend, Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, then one of the top comedy movie stars. Following Fatty's tragic fall from grace, Keaton formed his own production company, starring in and directing some of the most innovative comedy films of his day. From this period, his full-length film The General is still considered one of the best silent films ever made. He was also never afraid of new technology: for instance, for a major silent movie star at the dawn of sound films, he wanted to get into them right away. After his company was dissolved, Keaton signed a contract with MGM. The best of his MGM films are the silents The Cameraman and Spite Marriage. He then began making sound pictures in which he was often teamed with Jimmy Durante.
Unfortunately, stress from repeated clashes with MGM management, the loss of his independence and artistic control, and a divorce from his first wife, Natalie Talmadge (in which she was awarded sole custody of their two sons), caused Keaton's drinking to develop into outright alcoholism. During the 1930s, Keaton slipped from the spotlight. He made two-reel comedies for low-budget outfits like Educational Pictures and Columbia Pictures (the latter has since become a major film production and distribution company), and worked for MGM as a gag man (where he mentored Lucille Ball before she got her break as a television comedienne and created the famous stateroom sequence in the Marx Brothers' A Night at the Opera). At one point he was institutionalized because of his drinking. He wed one of his nurses, Mae Scriven, possibly during an alcoholic blackout; the relationship ended disastrously (among other things, she stole his dog and sold it).
Things turned around for Keaton in the 1940s. He met and married his third wife, Eleanor Norris, who helped him get his drinking under control and sometimes worked as his partner in comedy routines. This led to Buster's engagement at France's Cirque Medrano, where he drew enthusiastic audiences. A 1949 article by James Agee in LIFE magazine (see quote above) renewed interest in Keaton, and his career picked up: he starred in a short-lived TV series; guest-starred on other shows, including The Twilight Zone, Route 66, and Candid Camera; appeared in many commercials; and performed memorable cameos and supporting roles in such films as In The Good Old Summertime, Sunset Boulevard (playing himself), Around the World in Eighty Days, Charlie Chaplin's Limelight, It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and the American International Pictures "Beach" movies starring Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello. He lived to see his silent films preserved and reintroduced for a new generation, and received a Career Oscar.
Recurring tropes in Keaton's films:
- Adorkable: His characters are often sold on their endearing ineptitude. And really, just look at his expression(s).
- Affectionate Parody
- All Just a Dream
- Amusing Injuries
- Bookcase Passage
- By Wall That Is Holey: Keaton didn't invent it, but the gag will always be linked to him.
- Chase Scene
- Clothing Damage
- The Comically Serious
- The Danza: Keaton, in many of the shorts.
- Doom It Yourself
- Dream Sequence
- Earn Your Happy Ending
- Epic Fail
- Evil Is Bigger: Keaton, who was five-and-a-half feet tall, often cast much larger actors as his rivals or nemeses.
- Fake Rabies: Buster Keaton runs frantically from a dog that ate a cream pie in "The Scarecrow."
- It Got Worse
- The Klutz
- Large and In Charge: See Evil Is Bigger, above.
- Le Parkour
- Literal Ass-Kicking
- Love Triangle
- Memetic Outfit: The Hat. The title-page and chapter-heading illustrations of his "as-told-to" autobiography, My Wonderful World of Slapstick, are a drawing of his eyes and The Hat. Just his eyes and The Hat.
- Played with in Steamboat Bill, Jr.: Steamboat Bill (Sr.) is looking for his son, Willie (played by Buster), whom he hasn't seen in years, at the train station, with only the information that Willie will be wearing a white carnation. He goes up to a man bent down to fiddle with his luggage, such that only the hat and a white carnation is visible, whom he assumes to be his son, only to find that the man is black. The second time is when he's having Willie try on new hats at the haberdasher's. Every other hat that Willie tries on is a variation of the similar-looking boater (larger, and typically straw), which his father continues to veto. One hat that gets vetoed harder than the rest by his father is a miniature derby, placed rakishly on Willie's head a la Charlie Chaplin. When the trademark porkpie hat does appear, Buster sees it in the mirror and quickly ditches it, as seen here.
- In Our Hospitality, Keaton plays an early-1800s dandy - riding an early, bumpy train, he keeps hitting the ceiling and crushing his top hat down past his eyes. He finally takes it off and replaces it with his usual flat hat.
- Mistaken Identity
- The Pratfall: Keaton worked hard to perfect his technique, and it showed.
- Railroad Tracks of Doom
- Rube Goldberg Device
- The Stoic
- Thirteen Is Unlucky
- Took a Level In Badass
- Trap Door
- Under Crank (used sparingly)
Tropes in Keaton's Life
- Abusive Parents: He performed on stage with his parents in vaudeville. Part of their act was a slapstick number where the little boy was beaten and thrown around and off the stage. Keaton kept a straight, expressionless face for the Rule of Funny. These vaudeville acts greatly influenced his stoic persona throughout his career. Despite the obvious effect his upbringing had on his personality, Keaton never said anything negative about his parents.
- Buster actually got his stage name after falling down a flight of stairs at the age of a few months, getting up unharmed. Harry Houdini (yes, that Harry Houdini) said it was "quite a buster," meaning a fall.
- Clark Kent Outfit: The man was an athlete under those baggy suits. Just watch any film in which he loses his shirt and/or pants.
- Determinator: His stunts were perhaps the most physically demanding in the business. During the filming of Sherlock Jr., Keaton was hanging from a water tower when the water turned on (planned, but at higher pressure than he had expected), knocking Keaton to the train tracks below and breaking his neck. He learned about the injury years later during a routine visit with his doctor.
- Earn Your Happy Ending: He fought his way back from obscurity, alcoholism and depression. In his later years he was happily married, owned a nice suburban home, was working steadily (until ill health made it impossible), and had received a standing ovation at the 1965 Venice Film Festival.
- Fingore: When he was a child, the tip of Keaton's right index finger was crushed in a clothes-wringer, necessitating its amputation.
- Le Parkour: In his heyday, Buster had custom reinforced drapes in his house, the Italian Villa, that he would swing on at parties.
- Missing Episode: Barely averted. The renewed interest in Keaton's silent work in the 1950s happened just in time. If it had occurred a few years later, the nitrate negatives of his earlier films would probably have disintegrated. Instead, they were transcribed.
- Rail Enthusiast: No surprise if you're familiar with some of the train gags in his films.
- Red Oni, Blue Oni: Blue to Charlie Chaplin. Or his character.
- Rube Goldberg Device: Creating these was a lifelong hobby of Keaton's.
- Rule of Three
- His father claimed that one eventful day, when Buster was three years old, he:
- got a finger caught in a clothes-wringer, necessitating its partial amputation;
- tried to knock a peach from a tree with a stone and hit himself in the head;
- got sucked out through the open window of his boardinghouse room by a tornado.
- He was married three times.
- The Stoic: The Keatons realized that they got more of a rise out of the audience when Buster didn't smile or laugh during their act, so they taught Buster his famous deadpan.
- A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum: Buster Keaton played the role of the blind old man Erronius in the screen version. It was one of his last movie roles. He was dying of cancer. He did his own stunts. He was Awesome.
- Several Jackie Chan movies imitate Keaton's stunts almost shot for shot.
- Most instances of By Wall That Is Holey are based on Keaton's famous stunt in Steamboat Bill, Jr.
- There's a good one in the episode "The One Where They Build a House" of Arrested Development, in which the character involved is actually named Buster (and looks a little bit like Keaton, as well).
- The Goodies did an episode that was part silent-film parody, including an ersatz Buster. When the Goodies have a wall fall on them and are saved by the window, they don't even notice and leave -- then the Buster lookalike comes into the scene, looks around, and takes out a small notebook to write a note to himself before leaving.
- In the Romantic Comedy Benny and Joon, the character played by Johnny Depp, Sam, is introduced reading the book The Look of Buster Keaton, wears an outfit reminiscent of Buster's, and performs Keatonesque bits of silent comedy.
- The eponymous character played by Peter Boyle in The X-Files episode "Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose" is named after a writer/director who worked with Buster Keaton (and committed suicide with a gun he'd borrowed from Keaton), while Detectives Cline and Havez are references to other Keaton collaborators, writer/director/actor Edward F. Cline and writer Jean C. Havez.
- In DC Specials Series #15, the story "Death Strikes at Midnight and Three" is about a race between the Batman and the Gotham mob to find a blind accountant willing to testify against the gangster who employed him. The accountant's hiding place -- a theater showing Buster Keaton films (he reasoned that no one would look for a blind man at a silent movie).
- Hatabō ("Flag Boy"), a recurring character in Fujio Akatsuka's manga series Osomatsu-kun, is based on Buster Keaton.
- Bleu Finnegan, the main character of Blue Monday, is a Buster Keaton fan.
- Batman the Brave And The Bold: In the episode "Emperor Joker!", one of The Joker's mooks is a huge, muscular version of Keaton (the overall effect, given Keaton's square-jawed, unsmiling face, is a bit like a caricature of Boris Karloff as the Frankenstein monster.)
- In 1632, the first movie the uptimers share with the downtimers once they get the TV station up and running is The General. While the people who run the studio want Rebecca Abarbanel to explain the film's plot beforehand, she refuses because "Keaton's comedy is timeless". She's right.
- In Stephen King's novel Needful Things, Castle Rock's First Selectman, Danforth Keeton, is nicknamed "Buster". It's also his Berserk Button.
- In Ian Fleming's novel Diamonds Are Forever, there's a scene where James Bond and Tiffany Case escape from a gangster's lair via a railroad handcar. At one point she tells him, "That was quite an exit. Like something out of an old Buster Keaton film."
- An All in The Family episode opens with the Bunkers and Stivics returning home from seeing a Buster Keaton film at a revival house. Significantly, it's depicted as one of the rare activities that Archie and Mike enjoy equally.
- Speaking of safety, Keaton repeatedly stated in interviews that he never suffered an injury as a result of being thrown; their act was designed to look improvised and violent, but in reality was quite planned and controlled.
- At 45 minutes, this film is too long to be classified as a "short," yet falls well short of feature length.