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Keaton, Buster

KEATON, Buster



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 screening of Film, written by Samuel Beckett, at the Venice Film Festival, 1965. Died: Of lung cancer in Woodland Hills, California, 1 February 1966.


Films as Actor:


(two-reelers with Roscue "Fatty" Arbuckle as director-actorscriptwriter)

1917

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)

1918

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)

1919

A Desert Hero (as badman); Back Stage (as stagehand); The Hayseed (as store clerk)

1920

The Garage (Fire Chief) (as garage mechanic)


(silent features with Keaton as leading actor)

1920

The Saphead (Blaché) (as Bertie "The Lamb" Van Alstyne)

1927

College (Horne) (as Ronald)

1928

Steamboat Bill, Jr. (Reisner) (as Willie Canfield); The Cameraman (Sedgwick) (as Luke Shannon, + pr)

1929

Spite Marriage (Sedgwick) (as Elmer Edgemont)


(1930s sound features with Keaton in minor and some major roles)

1929

The Hollywood Revue of 1929 (Reisner) (as an oriental dancer)

1930

Free and Easy (Easy Go) (Sedgwick) (as Elmer Butts); Doughboys (The Big Shot; Forward March!) (Sedgwick) (as Elmer Stuyvesant, + pr)

1931

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)

1932

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)

1934

Le Roi des Champs Elysées (Champ of the Champs Elysées) (Nosseck) (as Buster Garnier/Jim Le Balafre)

1936

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)

1934

The Gold Ghost (Lamont) (as Wally); Allez Oop (Lamont)

1935

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)

1936

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)

1937

Jail Bait (Lamont); Ditto (Lamont); Love Nest on Wheels (Lamont)


(two-reeler Columbia shorts starring Keaton)

1939

Pest from the West (Del Lord) (as American yachtsman); Mooching through Georgia (Jules White) (as Homer Cobb)

1940

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)

1941

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)

1939

Hollywood Cavalcade (Cummings) (as himself)

1940

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")

1943

Forever and a Day (in sequence directed by Hardwicke) (as Dabb's assistant)

1944

San Diego, I Love You (LeBorg) (as bus driver); Two Girls and a Sailor (Thorpe) (as Durante's son)

1945

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)

1946

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)

1949

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)

1950

Sunset Boulevard (Wilder) (as himself)

1951

The Misadventures of Buster Keaton (compilation of three episodes of The Buster Keaton Show TV series)

1952

Limelight (Chaplin) (as piano accompanist); L'incantevole nemica (Captivating Enemy) (Gora) (bit role)

1956

Around the World in Eighty Days (Michael Anderson) (as train conductor)

1960

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Huckleberry Finn) (Curtiz) (as lion tamer)

1962

Ten Girls Ago (Harold Daniels—not completed)

1963

It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (Stanley Kramer) (as Jimmy the Crook)

1964

Pajama Party (The Maid and the Martian) (Wies) (as Chief Rotten Eagle)

1965

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)

1966

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (Richard Lester) (as Erronius)

1967

Due Marines e un Generale (War, Italian Style) (Scattini) (as Gen. Von Kassler)


(miscellaneous shorts)

1929

The Voice of Hollywood, Number 10 (Lewyn)

1931

The Stolen Jools (The Slippery Pearls) (McGann) (as a Keystone Kop)

1933

Hollywood on Parade (Lewyn)

1935

La Fiesta de Santa Barbara (Lewyn)

1936

Sunkist Stars at Palm Springs

1950

Un Duel à Mort (as a comic duelist, + co-sc)

1965

Film (Alan Schneider); The Railrodder (Potterton)


(industrial films)

1952

Paradise for Buster (Del Lord)

1960

The Devil to Pay (Skoble) (as Diablos)

1963

The Triumph of Lester Snapwell (James Calhoun) (title role)

1965

The Fall Guy (Bateman) (as Mr. Goodfarmer/Mr. Badfarmer)

1966

The Scribe (Sebert) (as newspaper reporter)

Films as Actor and Director:


(two-reelers with Keaton in the leading role, co-directed and co-scripted by Keaton with Eddie Cline, unless otherwise noted)

1920

One Week (as the husband); Convict 13 (as the golfer/ the victim); The Scarecrow (as roommate); Neighbors (as the boy)

1921

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)

1922

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)

1923

The Balloonatic (as the boy); The Love Nest (as sailor)


(silent features directed by Keaton, with Keaton as leading actor)

1923

The Three Ages (co-d with Cline) (as the boy); Our Hospitality (co-d with Blystone) (as Willie McKay)

1924

Sherlock, Jr. (as the theater projectionist/title role); The Navigator (co-d with Crisp) (as Rollo Treadway)

1925

Seven Chances (as Jimmie Shannon); Go West (as Friendless, + story)

1926

Battling Butler (Alfred Butler); The General (as Johnnie Gray)

(one-reelers directed by Keaton; sound)

1938

Life in Sometown, U.S.A.; Hollywood Handicap; Streamlined Swing



Other Films:

1939

The Jones Family in Hollywood (Mal St. Clair) (co-sc); The Jones Family in Quick Millions (Mal St. Clair) (co-sc)



Publications


By KEATON: book—


My Wonderful World of Slapstick, with Charles Samuels, New York, 1960; rev. ed., 1982.

By KEATON: articles—

"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.


On KEATON: books—

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.


On KEATON: articles—

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.


On KEATON: films—

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

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Keaton, Buster

KEATON, Buster



Nationality: American. Born: Joseph Francis Keaton in Piqua, Kansas, 4 October 1895. Military Service: Served in U.S. Army, France, 1918. Family: Married 1) Natalie Talmadge, 1921 (divorced 1932), two sons; 2) Mae Scribbens, 1933 (divorced 1935); 3) Eleanor


Norris, 1940. Career: Part of parents' vaudeville act, The Three Keatons, from 1898; when family act broke up, became actor for Comique Film Corp., moved to California, 1917; appeared in 15 tworeelers for Comique, 1917–19; offered own production company with Metro Pictures by Joseph Schenk, 1919, produced 19 two-reelers, 1920–23; directed ten features, 1923–28; dissolved production company, signed to MGM, 1928; announced retirement from the screen, 1933; starred in 16 comedies for Educational Pictures, 1934–39; worked intermittently as gag writer for MGM, 1937–50; appeared in 10 two-reelers for Columbia, 1939–41; appeared on TV and in commercials, from 1949; Cinémathèque Française Keaton retrospective, 1962. Died: Of lung cancer, in Woodland Hills, California, 1 February 1966.



Films as Director and Actor:

1920

One Week (co-d, co-sc with Eddie Cline); Convict Thirteen (co-d, co-sc with Cline); The Scarecrow (co-d, co-sc with Cline)

1921

Neighbors (co-d, co-sc with Cline); The Haunted House (co-d, co-sc with Cline); Hard Luck (co-d, co-sc with Cline) The High Sign (co-d, co-sc with Cline); The Goat (co-d, co-sc with Mal St. Clair); The Playhouse (co-d, co-sc with Cline); The Boat (co-d, co-sc with Cline)

1922

The Paleface (co-d, co-sc with Cline); Cops (co-d, co-sc with Cline); My Wife's Relations (co-d, co-sc with Cline); TheBlacksmith (co-d, co-sc with Mal St. Clair); The FrozenNorth (co-d, co-sc with Cline); Day Dreams (co-d, co-sc with Cline); The Electric House (co-d, co-sc with Cline)

1923

The Balloonatic (co-d, co-sc with Cline); The Love Nest (co-d, co-sc with Cline); The Three Ages; Our Hospitality (co-d)

1924

Sherlock Jr. (co-d); The Navigator (co-d)

1925

Seven Chances; Go West (+ story)

1926

Battling Butler; The General (co-d, co-sc)

1927

College (no d credit)

1928

Steamboat Bill Jr. (no d credit); The Cameraman (no d credit, pr)

1929

Spite Marriage (no d credit)

1938

Life in Sometown, U.S.A.; Hollywood Handicap; Streamlined Swing



Other Films:

1917

The Butcher Boy (Fatty Arbuckle comedy) (role as village pest); A Reckless Romeo (Arbuckle) (role as a rival); The Rough House (Arbuckle) (role); His Wedding Night (Arbuckle) (role); Oh, Doctor! (Arbuckle) (role); Fatty at Coney Island (Coney Island) (Arbuckle) (role as husband touring Coney Island with his wife); A Country Hero (Arbuckle) (role)

1918

Out West (Arbuckle) (role as a dude gambler); The Bell Boy (Arbuckle) (role as a village pest); Moonshine (Arbuckle) (role as an assistant revenue agent); Good Night, Nurse! (Arbuckle) (role as the doctor and a visitor); The Cook (Arbuckle) (role as the waiter and helper)

1919

Back Stage (Arbuckle) (role as a stagehand); The Hayseed (Arbuckle) (role as a helper)

1920

The Garage (Arbuckle) (role as a garage mechanic); TheRound Up (role as an Indian); The Saphead (role as Bertie "the Lamb" Van Alstyne)

1922

Screen Snapshots, No. 3 (role)

1929

The Hollywood Revue (role as an Oriental dancer)

1930

Free & Easy (Easy Go) (role as Elmer Butts); Doughboys (pr, role as Elmer Stuyvesant)

1931

Parlor, Bedroom & Bath (pr, role as Reginald Irving); Sidewalks of New York (pr, role as Tine Harmon)

1932

The Passionate Plumber (pr, role as Elmer Tuttle); SpeakEasily (role as Professor Timoleon Zanders Post)

1933

What! No Beer! (role as Elmer J. Butts)

1934

The Gold Ghost (role as Wally); Allez Oop (role as Elmer); LeRoi des Champs Elysees (role as Buster Garnier and Jim le Balafre)

1935

The Invader (The Intruder) (role as Leander Proudfoot); Palookah from Paducah (role as Jim); One-Run Elmer (role as Elmer); Hayseed Romance (role as Elmer); Tars &Stripes (role as Elmer); The E-Flat Man (role as Elmer); The Timid Young Man (role as Elmer)

1936

Three on a Limb (role as Elmer); Grand Slam Opera (role as Elmer); La Fiesta de Santa Barbara (role as one of several stars); Blue Blazes (role as Elmer); The Chemist (role as Elmer); Mixed Magic (role as Elmer)

1937

Jail Bait (role as Elmer); Ditto (role as Elmer); Love Nest onWheels (last apearance as Elmer)

1939

The Jones Family in Hollywood (co-sc): The Jones Family inQuick Millions (co-sc); Pest from the West (role as a traveler in Mexico); Mooching through Georgia (role as a Civil War veteran); Hollywood Cavalcade (role)

1940

Nothing but Pleasure (role as a vacationer); Pardon My BerthMarks (role as a reporter); The Taming of the Snood (role as an innocent accomplice); The Spook Speaks (role as a magician's housekeeper); The Villain Still Pursued Her (role); Li'l Abner (role as Lonesome Polecat); His Ex Marks theSpot (role)

1941

So You Won't Squawk (role); She's Oil Mine (role); GeneralNuisance (role)

1943

Forever and a Day (role as a plumber)

1944

San Diego, I Love You (role as a bus driver)

1945

That's the Spirit (role as L.M.); That Night with You (role)

1946

God's Country (role); El Moderno Barba azul (role as a prisoner of Mexicans who is sent to moon)

1949

The Loveable Cheat (role as a suitor); In the Good OldSummertime (role as Hickey); You're My Everything (role as butler)

1950

Un Duel a mort (role as a comic duellist); Sunset Boulevard (Wilder) (role as a bridge player)

1952

Limelight (Chaplin) (role as the piano accompanist in a music hall sketch); L'incantevole nemica (role in a brief sketch); Paradise for Buster (role)

1955

The Misadventures of Buster Keaton (role)

1956

Around the World in Eighty Days (role as a train conductor)

1960

When Comedy Was King (role in a clip from Cops); TheAdventures of Huckleberry Finn (Curtiz) (role as a lion tamer)

1963

Thirty Years of Fun (appearance in clips); The Triumph of Lester Snapwell (role as Lester); It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (Kramer) (role as Jimmy the Crook)

1964

Pajama Party (role as an Indian chief)

1965

Beach Blanket Bingo (role as a would-be surfer); Film (role as Object/Eye); How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (role as Bwana); Sergeant Deadhead (Taurog) (role as Private Blinken); The Rail-rodder (role); Buster Keaton Rides Again (role)

1966

The Scribe (role); A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (Lester) (role as Erronius)

1967

Due Marines e un Generale (War, Italian Style) (role as the German general)

1970

The Great Stone Face (role)




Publications


By KEATON: book—


My Wonderful World of Slapstick, with Charles Samuels, New York, 1960; revised edition, 1982.

By KEATON: articles—

"Why I Never Smile," in The Ladies Home Journal (New York), June 1926.

Interview with Christopher Bishop, in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), Fall 1958.

Interview with Herbert Feinstein, in Massachusetts Review (Am-herst), Winter 1963.

Interview with Kevin Brownlow, in Film (London), no. 42, 1965.

"Keaton: Still Making the Scene," interview with Rex Reed, in NewYork 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.

Interview with Christopher Bishop, in Interviews with Film Directors, edited by Andrew Sarris, New York, 1967.

"'Anything Can Happen—And Generally Did': Buster Keaton on His Silent Film Career," interview with George Pratt, in Image (Rochester), December 1974.

Articles from the 1920s reprinted in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), January 1979.


On KEATON: books—

Pantieri, José, L'Originalissimo Buster Keaton, Milan, 1963.

Turconi, Davide, and Francesco Savio, Buster Keaton, Venice, 1963.

Coursodon, Jean-Pierre, Keaton et Compagnie: Les Burlesquesaméricaines du 'muet,' Paris, 1964.

Oms, Marcel, Buster Keaton, Premier Plan No. 31, Lyons, 1964.

Blesh, Rudi, Keaton, New York, 1966.

Lebel, Jean-Pierre, Buster Keaton, New York, 1967.

Brownlow, Kevin, The Parade's Gone By, New York, 1968.

McCaffrey, Donald, Four Great Comedians, New York, 1968.

Robinson, David, Buster Keaton, London, 1968.

Denis, Michel, "Buster Keaton," in Anthologie du Cinéma, vol. 7, Paris, 1971.

Coursodon, Jean-Pierre, Buster Keaton, Paris, 1973.

Kerr, Walter, The Silent Clowns, New York, 1975.

Anobile, Richard, editor, The Best of Buster, New York, 1976.

Wead, George, Buster Keaton and the Dynamics of Visual Wit, New York, 1976.

Moews, Daniel, Keaton: The Silent Features Close Up, Berkeley, California, 1977.

Wead, George, and George Ellis, The Film Career of Buster Keaton, Boston, 1977.

Dardis, Tom, Keaton: The Man Who Wouldn't Lie Down, New York, 1979.

Benayoun, Robert, The Look of Buster Keaton, Paris, 1982; Lon-don, 1984.

Coursodon, Jean-Pierre, Buster Keaton, Paris, 1986.

Kline, Jim, The Complete Films of Buster Keaton, Secaucus, New Jersey, 1993.

Rapf, Joanna E., and Gary L. Green, Buster Keaton: A Bio-Bibliography, Westport, Connecticut, 1995.

Edwards, Larry, Buster: A Legend in Laughter, Bradenton, Flor-ida, 1995.

Meade, Marion, Buster Keaton: Cut to the Chase, New York, 1995.

Oldham, Gabriella, Keaton's Silent Shorts, Carbondale, Illinois, 1996.

Horton, Andrew, editor, Buster Keaton's "Sherlock Jr.," Cambridge and New York, 1997.


On KEATON: articles—

Brand, Harry, "They Told Buster to Stick to It," in Motion PictureClassic (New York), June 1926.

Keaton, Joe, "The Cyclone Baby," in Photoplay (New York), May 1927.

Saalschutz, L., "Comedy," in Close Up (London), April 1930.

Agee, James, "Great Stone Face," in Life (New York), 5 Septem-ber 1949.

Kerr, Walter, "Last Call for a Clown," in Pieces at Eight, New York, 1957.

Agee, James, "Comedy's Greatest Era," in Agee on Film, New York, 1958.

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 (Lon-don), Winter 1959.

Beylie, Claude, and others, "Rétrospective Buster Keaton," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), April 1962.

Buñuel, Luis, "Battling Butler [College]," in Luis Buñuel: AnIntroduction, edited by Ado Kyrou, New York, 1963.

Lorca, Federico García, "Buster Keaton Takes a Walk," in Sight andSound (London), Winter 1965.

Crowther, Bosley, "Dignity in Deadpan," in The New York Times, 2 February 1966.

Sadoul, Georges, "Le Génie de Buster Keaton," in Les LettresFrançaises (Paris), 10 February 1966.

Benayoun, Robert, "Le Colosse de silence," and "Le Regard de Buster Keaton," in Positif (Paris), Summer 1966.

McCaffrey, Donald, "The Mutual Approval of Keaton and Lloyd," in Cinema Journal (Evanston), no. 6, 1967.

Rhode, Eric, "Buster Keaton," in Encounter (London), Decem-ber 1967.

Houston, Penelope, "The Great Blank Page," in Sight and Sound (London), Spring 1968.

Villelaur, Anne, "Buster Keaton," in Dossiers du Cinéma: CinéastesI, Paris, 1971.

Maltin, Leonard, "Buster Keaton," in The Great Movie Shorts, New York, 1972.

Gilliatt, Penelope, "Buster Keaton," in Unholy Fools, New York, 1973.

Mast, Gerald, "Keaton," in The Comic Mind, New York, 1973.

Sarris, Andrew, "Buster Keaton," in The Primal Screen, New York, 1973.

"Keaton Issue" of Avant-Scène du Cinéma (Paris), February 1975.

Cott, Jeremy, "The Limits of Silent Film Comedy," in Literature/Film Quarterly (Salisbury, Maryland), Spring 1975.

Rubinstein, E., "Observations on Keaton's Steamboat Bill Jr.," in Sight and Sound (London), Autumn 1975.

"Special Issue," Castoro Cinema (Firenze), no. 28, 1976.

Everson, William, "Rediscovery: Le Roi des Champs Elysees," in Films in Review (New York), December 1976.

Wade, G., "The Great Locomotive Chase," in American Film (Washington, D.C.), July/August 1977.

Valot, J., "Discours sur le cinéma dans quelques films de Buster Keaton," in Image et Son (Paris), February 1980.

Gifford, Denis, "Flavour of the Month," in Films and Filming (London), February 1984.

"Buster Keaton," in Film Dope (London), March 1984.

Sight and Sound (London), Spring 1985.

Cazals, T., "Un Monde à la démesure de l'homme," in Cahiers duCinéma (Paris), March 1987.

Sweeney, K.W., "The Dream of Disruption: Melodrama and Gag Structure in Keaton's Sherlock Junior," in Wide Angle (Balti-more), vol. 13, no. 1, January 1991.

Sanders, J., and D. Lieberfeld, "Dreaming in Pictures: The Childhood Origins of Buster Keaton's Creativity," in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), vol. 47, no. 4, Summer 1994.

Gebert, Michael, "The Art of Buster Keaton," in Video Watchdog (Cincinnati), no. 20, 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.

Tibbetts, John C., "The Whole Show: The Restored Films of Buster Keaton," in Literature/Film Quarterly (Salisbury, Maryland), vol. 23, no. 4, October 1995.


* * *

Buster Keaton is the only creator-star of American silent comedies who equals Chaplin as one of the artistic giants of the cinema. He is perhaps the only silent clown whose reputation is far higher today than it was in the 1920s, when he made his greatest films. Like Chaplin, Keaton came from a theatrical family and served his apprenticeship on stage in the family's vaudeville act. Unlike Chaplin, however, Keaton's childhood and family life were less troubled, more serene, lacking the darkness of Chaplin's youth that would lead to the later darkness of his films. Keaton's films were more blithely athletic and optimistic, more committed to audacious physical stunts and cinema tricks, far less interested in exploring moral paradoxes and emotional resonances. Keaton's most famous comic trademark, his "great stone face," itself reflects the commitment to a comedy of the surface, but attached to that face was one of the most resiliently able and acrobatic bodies in the history of cinema. Keaton's comedy was based on the conflict between that imperviously dead-pan face, his tiny but almost superhuman physical instrument, and the immensity of the physical universe that surrounded them.

After an apprenticeship in the late 1910s making two-reel comedies that starred his friend Fatty Arbuckle, and after service in France in 1918, Keaton starred in a series of his own two-reel comedies beginning in 1920. Those films displayed Keaton's comic and visual inventiveness: the delight in bizarrely complicated mechanical gadgets (The Scarecrow, The Haunted House); the realization that the cinema itself was an intriguing mechanical toy (his use of split-screen in The Playhouse of 1921 allows Buster to play all members of the orchestra and audience, as well as all nine members of a minstrel troupe); the games with framing and composition (The Balloonatic is a comic disquisition on the surprises one can generate merely by entering, falling out of, or suppressing information in the frame); the breathtaking physical stunts and chases (Daydreams, Cops); and the underlying fatalism when his exuberant efforts produce ultimately disastrous results (Cops, One Week, The Boat).

In 1923 Keaton's producer, Joseph M. Schenck, decided to launch the comic star in a series of feature films, to replace a previously slated series of features starring Schenck's other comic star, the now scandal-ruined Fatty Arbuckle. Between 1923 and 1929, Keaton made an even dozen feature films on a regular schedule of two a year—always leaving Keaton free in the early autumn to travel east for the World Series. This regular pattern of Keaton's work—as opposed to Chaplin's lengthy laboring and devoted concentration on each individual project—reveals the way Keaton saw his film work. He was not making artistic masterpieces but knocking out everyday entertainment, like the vaudevillian playing the two-a-day. Despite the casualness of this regular routine (which would be echoed decades later by Woody Allen's regular one-a-year rhythm), many of those dozen silent features are comic masterpieces, ranking alongside the best of Chaplin's comic work.

Most of those films begin with a parodic premise—the desire to parody some serious and familiar form of stage or screen melodrama, such as the Civil War romance (The General), the mountain feud (Our Hospitality), the Sherlock Holmes detective story (Sherlock Jr.), the Mississippi riverboat race (Steamboat Bill Jr.), or the western (Go West). Two of the features were built around athletics (boxing in Battling Butler and every sport but football in College), and one was built around the business of motion picture photography itself (The Cameraman). The narrative lines of these films were thin but fast-paced, usually based on the Keaton character's desire to satisfy the demands of his highly conventional lady love. The film's narrative primarily served to allow the film to build to its extended comic sequences, which, in Keaton's films, continue to amaze with their cinematic ingenuity, their dazzling physical stunts, and their hypnotic visual rhythms. Those sequences usually forced the tiny but dexterous Keaton into combat with immense and elemental antagonists—a rockslide in Seven Chances; an entire ocean liner in The Navigator; a herd of cattle in Go West; a waterfall in Our Hospitality. Perhaps the cleverest and most astonishing of his elemental foes appears in Sherlock Jr. when the enemy becomes cinema itself—or, rather, cinematic time and space. Buster, a dreaming movie projectionist, becomes imprisoned in the film he is projecting, subject to its inexplicable laws of montage, of shifting spaces and times, as opposed to the expected continuity of space and time in the natural universe. Perhaps Keaton's most satisfyingly whole film is The General, virtually an extended chase from start to finish, as the Keaton character chases north, in pursuit of his stolen locomotive, then races back south with it, fleeing his Union pursuers. The film combines comic narrative, the rhythms of the chase, Keaton's physical stunts, and his fondness for mechanical gadgets into what may be the greatest comic epic of the cinema.

Unlike Chaplin, Keaton's stardom and comic brilliance did not survive Hollywood's conversion to synchronized sound. It was not simply a case of a voice's failing to suit the demands of both physical comedy and the microphone. Keaton's personal life was in shreds, after a bitter divorce from Natalie Talmadge. Always a heavy social drinker, Keaton's drinking increased in direct proportion to his personal troubles. Neither a comic spirit nor an acrobatic physical instrument could survive so much alcoholic abuse. In addition, Keaton's contract had been sold by Joseph Schenck to MGM (conveniently controlled by his brother, Nicholas Schenck, head of Loew's Inc., MGM's parent company). Between 1929 and 1933, MGM assigned Keaton to a series of dreary situation comedies—in many of them as Jimmy Durante's co-star and straight man. For the next two decades, Keaton survived on cheap two-reel sound comedies and occasional public appearances, until his major role in Chaplin's Limelight led to a comeback. Keaton remarried, went on the wagon, and made stage, television, and film appearances in featured roles. In 1965 he played the embodiment of existential consciousness in Samuel Beckett's only film work, Film, followed shortly by his final screen appearance in Richard Lester's A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.


—Gerald Mast

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Buster Keaton

Buster Keaton

Buster Keaton (1895-1966) was one of the best known and most respected of the silent film comedians. Dubbed "The Great Stone Face" for his stoic demeanor, he wrote, directed and produced many of his films in the 1920s and 1930s. An innovator behind the camera as well as in front of it, Keaton was lauded for his sometimes dangerous brand of physical comedy and impeccable comic timing.

Joseph Frank Keaton was born on October 4, 1895, in Piqua, Kansas. He was the eldest of three children, including a younger brother and sister, born to two vaudevillians, Joseph Hallie Keaton and Myra Cutler. Shortly after his son's birth, Joseph Keaton changed his son's name to Joseph Francis Keaton. He received the nickname "Buster" while still an infant. Allegedly, Keaton suffered a nasty fall, but displayed a nonchalant reaction to it. This was witnessed by the magician Harry Houdini (or, some say, actor George Pardey), who christened the hearty boy Buster.

Child Vaudeville Star

Keaton's parents appeared in vaudeville as "The Two Keatons," but were not particularly successful. Their son began appearing on stage with them as early as nine months of age. By the time he was three, Keaton had become part of his parents' act, renamed "The Three Keatons." Although forces opposed to child labor tried to keep him off the stage, Keaton soon became an integral part of the show. In the physical comedy routines performed with his father, Keaton became an expert at pratfalls and developed an impassive face that delighted audiences. His talent led the family to New York City and, in 1909, to an appearance in London.

Luredinto Film

By 1917, Joseph Keaton had developed severe problems with alcohol and the family's act was dissolved. Their routine had relied on physical prowess and exact timing, and required reliable performers. The break brought new opportunities for Keaton. He was soon offered a role in a Broadway show, The Passing Show of 1917, for the princely sum of $250 per week. A chance meeting with comedian Rosco "Fatty" Arbuckle led him to break that contract. Keaton was convinced to star in a short film with Arbuckle, called The Butcher Boy (1917). Arbuckle also wrote and directed this film. Keaton soon discovered that his brand of comedy, especially his deadpan facial expressions, worked very well on film. The only time he ever laughed on screen was in an Arbuckle movie, Fatty at Coney Island (1917).

Keaton appeared in 14 Arbuckle shorts between 1917 and 1919, including His Wedding Night (1917) and The Bell Boy (1918). His film career was briefly interrupted by military service during World War I. He was drafted by the United States Army in 1918, and served for over a year with the 40th Infantry in France. After returning to the U.S. in 1919, Keaton appeared in several more Arbuckle short films such as A Country Hero (1919). In 1920, Keaton made his first full-length feature, The Saphead, playing the straight man, Bertie "The Lamb" Van Alstyne.

Directed First Films

In 1920, Arbuckle left Comique Films for Paramount. Keaton became the new head of the company, which was owned by Joseph Schenck (who later became Keaton's brother in law). Like Arbuckle before him, Keaton began directing films that he appeared in. His first directorial effort, The High Sign, was a short that apparently did not work very well. It was not released until 1921. Keaton found his footing with his next film, One Week (1920), which focused on the tribulations of a do-it-yourself house. Behind the camera, Keaton worked with a co-director, Eddie Cline, with whom he collaborated several times. Though this was a partnership, Cline later acknowledged that Keaton did much of the work.

Keatan balanced his work in front and behind the camera very well. Peter Hogue wrote in Film Comment, "Keaton is astonishing not only for what he does as an actor within the frame, but also for what he does with frame in relation to the actor. Much more thoroughly than Chaplin, he managed a near-perfect, and highly expressive, harmony between the roles of performer and filmmaker." This equilibrium came into play with The Playhouse (1921), which he also wrote and directed with Cline. Keaton played every role in the movie, which was set in a theater. He was every member of the audience as well as every performer. In one sequence, Keaton even danced with himself. He appeared on screen simultaneously nine times. The innovative special effects he developed for The Playhouse made him an early leader in the field. He also began using a moving camera, at a time when many of his peers continued to use stationary ones.

On May 31, 1921, Keaton was married time to Natalie Talmadge. Her sister, Norma Talmadge, was married to Joseph Schenck, owner of Comique Films the company that Keaton managed. They eventually had two sons, Joseph and Robert. Because of Keaton's success, and a notorious scandal involving Arbuckle, Comique Films was renamed Buster Keaton Productions. Keaton, however, did not own any part of the company. With complete artistic control, he developed his own working methodology and made about two pictures per year.

By 1923, Keaton was making full-length features. His first was a parody of the famous D.W. Griffith film Intolerance (1916), entitled The Three Ages. In Our Hospitality (1923), a film about a mountain feud, Keaton shot both a novel train scene and waterfall scene on location. Two of his best films were made in 1924. The first was Sherlock Jr., in which a daydreaming projectionist who longs to be a detective becomes part of the movie he is showing. It marked the first time that a character walks off a movie screen and into "real life." As usual, Keaton performed all of his own stunts. In this film, he broke his neck, but did not discover it until ten years later. Keaton's other 1924 film, The Navigator, was shot on an ocean liner and directed with Donald Crisp.

Keaton had a hard time capturing the promise of Sherlock Jr. over the next few years. While his films were technically and creatively interesting, they were either critical or box office failures. Still, he continued to find new situations in which to put his long-suffering face. In Seven Chances (1925), he faces a rockslide. In Go West (1925), he is stared down by a herd of cattle. Battling Butler (1926), a boxing movie, was a commercial success. Though The General (1926) was successful in retrospect, at the time it was critically derided. The General was a Civil War romance, that featured many impressive chase scenes and one very expensive special effects shot. Keaton spent $42,000 on sending a train into a burning bridge. In College (1927), Keaton was engaged in every athletic sport except football, but it was a disappointment.

Keaton made Steamboat Bill Jr., his last film with Buster Keaton Productions, in 1928. While the movie had an impressive tornado sequence and an interesting topic (a Mississippi riverboat race) which pleased critics, Steamboat Bill Jr. was not a commercial success. After this failure, Schenck sold his contract to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), where his son, Nicholas, just happened to be in charge. Keaton had never paid much attention to the business side of the film industry, and he paid a hefty price. He lost creative control of his pictures, and, like his father before him, developed a nasty drinking problem. While the first project he did for MGM ( The Cameraman in 1928) was rather good, as was his last silent film (Spite Marriage in 1929), Keaton's career was in decline.

Several factors, other than the loss of creative control, contributed to Keaton's downward spiral in the late 1920s and early 1930s. The arrival of the sound era in 1929 did not work in his favor because of his voice. He had his sound debut in The Hollywood Revue of 1929, then made eight more films under his Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer contract. None of them were very good. He was forced to make several films as a straight man to Jimmy Durante, including Free and Easy (1930). Keaton's contract with MGM was ended in 1933.

Keaton suffered from several personal crises as well. He and Natalie Talmadge divorced on bitter terms in 1932. Two years later she changed their sons' last name to Talmadge. Keaton had a short-lived second marriage with Mae Elizabeth Scriven, a nurse, hairstylist and playwright. They were married in Mexico on January 1, 1932, before his divorce was final; then again legally in 1933. By 1935, this second marriage had ended in divorce.

Keaton managed to get his drinking under control by 1934, after a short time in Europe where he appeared in several films including Le roi des Champs-Elyses (1934). That same year, he was put under contract by Educational Films and returned to making shorts. One of the best of this era was Grand Slam Opera. After the company shut its doors in 1937, Keaton was re-signed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, but only as a gagman. He directed three short films in 1938. The following year, United Artists hired Keaton; he made ten shorts in the next two years.

Keaton married for the final time in 1940. His third wife was a dancer named Eleanor Ruth Norris. Keaton supported himself throughout the 1940s by appearing on stage in Europe and the United States, and writing gags for MGM and 20th Century-Fox.

In 1949, Keaton appeared on television for the first time. He would return often. The medium revitalized his career. In addition to appearing in numerous commercials (including one for Alka-Seltzer), Keaton made many guest appearances in both comedies and dramas. He appeared on shows such as Playhouse 90, Route 66, and The Twilight Zone. Keaton had two shows of his own, including The Buster Keaton Comedy Show (1949) and The Buster Keaton Show from 1950 until 1951. Caryn James wrote in The New York Times, "Keaton's television appearances are warm and enduring. They are the work of a man who, after decades of obscurity, found a way to perpetuate his comic images by embracing a new medium." He continued to appear on television until his death.

Keaton returned to film by the 1950s. In 1950, he played himself in Sunset Boulevard. Two years later, he appeared with Charlie Chaplin for the only time in Limelight. Other significant film appearances included Around the World in 80 Days (1956), It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963), A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966), and War Italian Style (1966). In 1965, Keaton appeared in a short film written and shot by French existentialist playwright Samuel Beckett entitled simply Film.

On February 1, 1966, Keaton died of lung cancer in Woodland Hills, California. He was 70 years old. An unnamed author of Keaton's obituary in Variety, wrote, "The secret to his lasting success as a master comedian was his universally recognized character—the unhappy, doleful fall guy to whom 'everything' happened. He ran to meet misfortune and never failed to make connections. Keaton was the world's whipping boy and made the world love him for it."

Further Reading

American National Biography, edited by John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, Oxford University Press, 1999.

International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers-3: Actors and Actresses, third edition, edited by Amy L. Unterburger, St. James Press, 1997.

International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers-2: Directors, third edition, edited by Laurie Collier Hillstrom, St. James Press, 1997.

Thomson, David, A Biographical Dictionary of Film, third edition, Alfred A. Knopf, 1994.

American Heritage, September 1995, p. 92.

Cineaste, Summer 1995, p. 14.

Film Comment, September-October 1995, p. 20.

The New York Times, October 6, 1996.

Time, October 9, 1995, p. 81.

USA Today Magazine, May 1995, p. 96; May 1997, p. 81.

Variety, February 2, 1966. □

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Keaton, Buster

Buster Keaton (Joseph Francis Keaton), 1895–1966, American movie actor, b. Piqua, Kans. Considered one of the greatest comic actors in film history, Keaton used his considerable acrobatic skills, which he had developed as a child in vaudeville, in many silent comedies in which he portrayed a deadpan hero who survived against incredible odds. Among these movies are The Navigator (1924), The General (1926), and Steamboat Bill Junior (1927). He made a comeback as a supporting actor in such films as Sunset Boulevard (1959), Limelight (1952), and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966).

See biographies by R. Blesh (1960), M. Meade (1995), and E. McPherson (2005); J. E. Rapf, Buster Keaton: A Bio-Bibliography (1995); J. Kline, The Complete Films of Buster Keaton (2003); studies by G. Wead and G. Lellis (1977), G. Oldham (1996), and R. Knopf (1999).

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"Keaton, Buster." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 23 Jun. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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"Keaton, Buster." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved June 23, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/keaton-buster

Keaton, Buster

Keaton, Buster (1895–1966) US comic silent-film actor and director. Our Hospitality (1923), Seven Chances (1925) and The General (1926) are pre-eminent among the ten full-length features he released before 1928.

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