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Buster Keaton - Star of the Month
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Buster Keaton

Buster Keaton - Sundays in October

He was known as the "Great Stoneface," even though he was anything but expressionless. His famous deadpan face spoke volumes about his constant struggle to survive in an increasingly mechanized 20th century world. When that world went a little mad, all Buster Keaton could do was stare and try to accept or outwit the madness. Along with Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, Keaton was a titan in the world of silent film comedy. His rise from vaudeville trouper to a filmmaking artist is a story matched in dramatic scope only by his fall into obscurity, alcoholic despair and a heroic third act that saw him feted by the Motion Picture Academy with an Honorary Oscar® in 1960.

Joseph Frank Keaton was born October 4, 1895 in Piqua, Kansas to vaudeville performers Joe and Myra Keaton. The baby Keaton was supposedly given the 'Buster' moniker by family friend and fellow vaudevillian Harry Houdini, after he saw Keaton take a fall down a flight of stairs, a story that some Keaton scholars think is apocryphal. Nevertheless, Buster was soon an integral part of Joe and Myra's struggling vaudeville act, now known as the Three Keatons. The basic gist of Buster's part in the act was to engage in all sorts of roughhousing with his father on stage. Sometimes, Frank would literally throw the young Buster off the stage and into the paying audience. This would stun the customers, not because of the borderline abuse the boy was taking, but because he would survive it with no apparent harm. This physical comedy, and the ability to walk away from a corporal wreck, would inform much of Keaton's later work in film.

After staying with the Three Keatons for nearly 20 years, Buster moved on to what would become his life's work. In March 1917, in New York, Buster met silent film comedian Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle. It was a fortuitous meeting for all-Buster made a close, life-long friend, and Fatty introduced Buster to moviemaking. Under Arbuckle's guidance and a contract with the Comique Film Corporation, the 21-year-old Keaton appeared in his first film, The Butcher Boy (1917), a two-reeler Arbuckle comedy released April 23, 1917. After a few more films and a brief stint in the Army (he was drafted and shipped to France during World War I), Keaton returned to Arbuckle and continued his apprenticeship. The films Keaton and Arbuckle made together were rough, quick, and not formally innovative, but they were funny, profitable and they gave Keaton a forum to hone his own skills as a performer and to observe the workings of the action behind the camera. Keaton was a quick study and was soon striking out on his own as an independent filmmaker with Arbuckle's full blessing.

Under contract with Joseph Schenck, Keaton embarked on an eight-year journey into Hollywood heights, creating some of the greatest two-reel and feature-length comedies ever made. Along with a stable of co-directors, writers and actors, Keaton made such technical marvels as The Play House (1922) and Sherlock Jr. (1924), sly social commentaries - Cops (1922) and My Wife's Relations (1922), Hollywood spoofs - The Frozen North (1922) and The Three Ages (1923), and absolute masterpieces - One Week (1920), Our Hospitality (1923), The Navigator (1924), The General (1927), and Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928).

Even though his films were made with a machine-like precision, a disciplined eye for character, composition and action, and an affable on-set working relationship with cast and crew, Keaton's films were not commercial successes, especially compared to the films of Harold Lloyd which were almost always box office hits. In contrast to that other comic genius, Chaplin, Keaton was a very poor businessman, so any money that he earned was not wisely invested or managed. Thus, when Joseph Schenck sold Keaton's contract to MGM in 1928, just as the silent era was closing, Buster had no choice but to give up his relative autonomy to Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg. MGM was a colossal studio, and it knew how to make movies. It just didn't know how to co-exist with an independent filmmaker of Keaton's stature, let alone a comedy director. After two silent films for MGM, The Cameraman (1928) and Spite Marriage (1929), it was time for Keaton to graduate to talkies. It was a challenge Keaton looked forward to, and indeed, he had a suitable voice for sound films. But it wasn't his voice that was the problem. It was Keaton's style of comedy that just couldn't conform to the rigid demands of MGM studios.

The 1930s was a disastrous decade for Keaton. His sound features for MGM were abysmal, both financially and critically, and his marriage to former actress Natalie Talmadge was an even bigger disaster. By the time it ended in divorce in 1932, Keaton had slipped into alcoholic despair, having lost his wife, his sons (Natalie legally changed the names of his two sons from "Keaton" to "Talmadge"), his creative freedom, his wealth and eventually his job. He was fired from MGM on February 2, 1933. While spending several years starring in low-budget shorts for Educational Pictures and Columbia Studios, Keaton also began behind-the-camera work as a gag writer and part-time director at MGM, of all places. He worked off and on at MGM until 1950, creating comedy routines for the Marx Brothers, Lucille Ball, Red Skelton and others.

Finally, on May 29, 1940, Keaton made a happy decision: he married Eleanor Norris, a twenty-one-year-old dancer. Their marriage lasted until his death. Even though Keaton continued to battle alcoholism for the rest of his life, his steady marriage provided a bedrock on which he re-started his career as a supporting actor in feature films (Beach Blanket Bingo [1965], A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum [1966]) and as a fixture on many television series, talk shows and commercials. More importantly, by the late 1940s, Keaton's silent films were "re-discovered." The French revered Keaton for his surrealist eye, while influential film critic James Agee wrote an article in Life called "Comedy's Greatest Era" which revived and championed Keaton's reputation. The Venice Film Festival honored him in September 1965, for which he received a tumultuous standing ovation. Buster Keaton died of lung cancer at his home in California on February 1, 1966. He was 70. To learn more, visit The International Buster Keaton Society.

* Titles in bold will air on TCM in October

by Scott McGee

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