I often wonder if Joe and Myra Keaton really understood the talents that their son possessed. They had been blessed to have one of the funniest men ever as a son, and they would be able to watch has talents grow into that of an expert filmmaker.
Buster Keaton was born Joseph Frank Keaton in Kansas, October 4th, 1895. His parents were lifetime vaudeville performers who lived the life of performers and embraced their time on the stage. Buster spent his days watching his parents perform, waiting for his chance to show what he could do. It wasn’t long before Buster was a major part of the Keatons’ show, where he would thrive as “The Human Mop”. Needless to say, the abuse he was forced to endure made him hard and stoic, but perhaps without this rough beginning he never would have achieved the comic abilities that made him better than his contemporaries.
His first short films came in 1917, while working for Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. Over the next three years he would perform in 13 short films that allowed him to learn the ins and outs of the movie industry. In 1920, there was going to be a remake of the Douglas Fairbanks film, The Lamb (1915). Since the film was being re-written as a comedy, Fairbanks suggested Keaton for the role. The Saphead, as it would be called, was Keaton’s first full-length movie, and although the story wasn’t focused entirely on Keaton’s role, he is the funniest and most entertaining person in the film. Over the next three years Keaton made 20 short films that focused on him as the star. He began to include more elaborate stunts that had to be carefully planned out, and always included danger to himself. In Neighbors (1920), Keaton spends the majority of the film sitting on clotheslines, poles, and the shoulders of his friends. He is extremely physical and very funny.
By 1923, Keaton was ready to star in another full-length movie. In September of 1923, Keaton co-wrote, co-directed (with Eddie Cline), produced (with Joseph M. Schenck) and starred in Three Ages. Wallace Beery played the villain in this comic answer to D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916), where in three different time periods, man (Keaton) follows his hearts desires for the same woman (Margaret Leahy). The movie shows that although times change, love remains the same.
Two months later Keaton would release his next film, Our Hospitality (1923). After all the short films and his first two full-length movies, this is what I consider to be his first remarkable movie. It also allowed Keaton to introduce one of his other real life passions, trains. Trains always found a way to appear in Keaton’s movies, and in Our Hospitality he created a working model of the Stephenson Rocket. It is quite entertaining to see in action, and could only be outdone by the climactic ending at the waterfall. It is a brilliant film that is filled with non-stop laughs. The plot involves a long running family feud that jeopardizes Keaton’s ability to marry the woman he loves (played by his first wife, Natalie Talmadge).
After Our Hospitality, Keaton made a series of movies that will always be remembered as some of his greatest. Sherlock Jr. (1924) was Keaton’s first solo directorial movie and is widely considered one of the greatest comedies of all time. It is about a projectionist who dreams of one day becoming a famous detective. A large part of the movie takes place in a dream, and Keaton jumps through a move screen. It is one of the funniest sequences ever captured on film, and a must see for all comedy fans. It shows off his imagination and ingenuity, and also solidifies his place as one of the best directors working in Hollywood. In The Navigator (1924), Keaton finds himself and the woman he loves (Kathryn McGuire) alone on a ship that has been cast out to sea. Together they must learn to take care of themselves, after years of living a spoiled life. In Seven Chances, Keaton is to be given seven million dollars if he can be married by 7:00 that day. After his longtime girlfriend is offended he is only asking for her hand because of the money, he begins a desperate search for a bride. Keaton must escape the hundreds of woman that are chasing him throughout the city.
For the next few years, Keaton made some movies (Go West, The Battling Butler and College) that were not up to the high standards of his previous films. Although individually each one has moments that stand out, overall they don’t stack up to his previous films.
Luckily by The General (1927), Keaton was back on track. The General is without a doubt one of the greatest movies ever made. Buster Keaton shows off not only his unparalleled comedic presence, but also his directorial genius. It will forever be his crowning glory and a landmark piece of filmmaking. If you haven’t seen this movie, I would put it at the very top of your must see list.
By this point in Keaton’s career, talking movies were right around the corner and Keaton (much like other silent comedians) was concerned that he wouldn’t be able to continue making movies the same way. In 1928, he released Steamboat Bill Jr. and The Camerman. Both are marvelous movies that continue to show Keaton at his best.
Buster Keaton continued to make films for the rest of his life. Many of his talking movies lack the stoic presence that made him so funny. He made all of his greatest and best known movies in a ten year period, but still remains one of the most respected and praised filmmakers. His legacy will endure forever, thanks to his uncanny ability to make everyone laugh, regardless of their age or social status.
Today would have been Buster Keaton’s 118th birthday, and I wrote this post to express my love for him and his wonderful movies.Back to Home for More Reviews