Joseph Francis Keaton Jr. was born on October 4th 1895 in Piqua, Kansas to Joe and Myra Keaton. Joe and Myra were stage comedians and they were very successful especially with the renowned magician Harry Houdini. At one time the Keaton family was at a hotel and Keaton fell down a full flight of stairs and surprisingly he was unharmed and Houdini said 'Some Buster!' and the name stuck. Joe Keaton thought to himself it would be a good name for the boy and so he has been known like that for over 100 years. At age 4 Buster had already began acting with his parents on the stage and for several years his father did all sorts of things to Buster by throwing him all over the stage and the audiences loved it. After several years The Three Keatons as they were now known toured America until some circumstances occurred were the act was then broken up. Buster was a stage veteran at the age of 21.On one wet New York day the successful comedian and director, Roscoe Arbuckle, was walking down the street when he spotted Keaton and invited him to start in films together and so Keaton's reputation was launched forever.
Arbuckle had begun appearing in comedies in 1909 when it the comedy genre was just starting out in America and in 1913 he joined Mack Sennett's Keystone Film company as a Keystone Kop and then a talented comedian. He ranked second to Charlie Chaplin in world popularity also because they had done a few films together in 1914. Arbuckle quit the Keystone studios in 1916 and in 1917 he and producer Joe Schenck built their own studio in Hollywood. The first film Arbuckle directed at the new Comique-Paramount Studio was The Butcher Boy (1917) with Arbuckle in the lead with his side-kick Al St. John who was his nephew. Keaton later became several times more popular than St. John; however the 3 comedians worked well together in several films from 1917 to 1919.
In 1920 when the last Keaton-Arbuckle short, The Garage, was released Arbuckle moved into feature films and Schenck bought Keaton his own studio and Keaton was headed for stardom. After several feature films, Arbuckle was involved in a scandal and while he was not guilty he never returned to be the comedian he was. Keaton helped him get back into films and he did direct several films under the name of William Goodrich but Buster Keaton and Roscoe Arbuckle were best friends.
The first short film Keaton made was The High Sign but after the film was completed he was dissatisfied with the result and he needed something bigger and better to get the public's attention. So during that time Keaton assembled his production team with Eddie Cline as co-writer and co-director with strong man Joe Roberts and leading ladies Sybil Seely and Virginia Fox. The first film the public saw was the comedy sensation of the year One Week (1920) in which Keaton wrote, directed and starred. Arbuckle took a while to learn the filmmaking process but Keaton just watched Arbuckle do it and that's all there was to it. One Week remains one of Keaton's greatest short films and certainly one of his funniest. After several more comedy shorts over the years including his classics such as The Boat (1921) and his best short Cops (1922) Keaton then decided to make the step into feature films. He first made The Three Ages (1923) which was made in the same style as his shorts but the system had to be changed so that the public would like it, Keaton would have to introduce romance, simple comedy and lots more. Next he made Our Hospitality (1923) which remains one of his best silent features but not until he made The Navigator in 1924, was he regarded as one of the greats of silent comedy. The Navigator put him high on a position which many silent comedians could not reach. Chaplin had reached that point as did Lloyd and finally Keaton did.
The most famous of Keaton's comedies is Sherlock Jr. (1924) which he directed entirely himself and reviews for the films were not the best probably because Hollywood had never seen anything like it. This spectacular Keaton feature had special effects never attempted before. Sherlock Jr. (1924) has Buster working in a local moving-picture theatre where after his work hours he goes to visit his girlfriend and as usual there is a rival. Shortly after Buster falls asleep in the projection room where, in his dream, he enters the movie and with his skilled cinematographer, Elgin Lessley, Keaton made one of the greatest films of all time, but his more complex and more funnier work was still to come. Now basically making one feature film per year, Keaton made lots of money with Seven Chances (1925) and Battling Butler (1926). After those films were released Keaton's producer Joe Schenck made a heap of money and now let Keaton do his own solo project.
So in 1926 Buster Keaton made the greatest civil-war film of all time, The General. Keaton's The General remains the most famous of all silent films and certainly one of the best films of all time from any era and of any genre. Keaton took a page out of the history books adapting the American civil-war of the 1860s and delivered his best performance. With him also in the director's chair, the audience could count on a good film. After the film’s top climax sequence where a steam engine goes across a bridge where the bridge then collapses and the engine falls into the river, that scene alone was the most expensive single shot of the entire silent era, but it certainly paid off. Unfortunately, however, not with the finances. The General suffered at the box office because much of the film is not funny and many gags are in bad taste but it should be appreciated more as an epic-film.
After a couple more silent features including College (1927) and Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928) Keaton had then found out that his contract was sold to MGM. Just the thing a father-in-law would do, the father-in-law being his producer Joe Schenck. His first film with MGM was The Cameraman (1928) which in fact remains one of the best silent comedies but after the film was released Keaton never regained his independence. He made one more silent at MGM entitled Spite Marriage (1929) before the sound era arrived. MGM never gave Keaton his independence in the 1930s and the public's memory of the great stone face of the silent era was fading. He later got fired and made several low-budget shorts. Over the next 10 to 15 years his films were awful, however, a 1936 short entitled Grand Slam Opera is now ranked with Keaton's silent work and is a pleasure to watch him in his finest hour of his most miserable years of his life. After several more years of hardship, finally in 1949, Keaton's silent films were rediscovered and he was back!
Keaton had begun live television appearances and he toured with his silent films around America and Europe and the film he first showed to a new generation of the 1950s was his own personal favourite, The General (1926). After several more film appearances in the 1960s Keaton died in 1966 after completing well over 100 films. Since his death, Keaton's reputation has soared and all of his films but a few have been put on DVD and they will live forever.
:: trivia ::
- Unlike many silent movie stars, Buster was eager to go into sound considering he had a fine baritone voice with no speech impediments and years of stage experience, so dialogue was not a problem.
- Fractured his neck while filming a movie and did not learn about it till a doctor saw it years later.
- Was voted the 7th Greatest Director of all time by Entertainment Weekly, making him the highest rated comedy director. Charlie Chaplin didn't make the list.
- He was voted the 35th Greatest Movie Star of all time by Entertainment Weekly.
- Not only did Keaton do
all his own
stunts, but, when needed, he acted as a stunt double for other actors
"No man can be a genius in slapshoes and a flat hat."
"Tragedy is a close-up; comedy, a long shot."
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