Buster Keaton was only twenty-two years-old but already a seventeen-year veteran of the stage when he walked out on the family vaudeville act. What had begun as knockabout comedy with father, Joe, throwing son, Buster, around the stage had become a few-holds-barred onstage battle between an increasingly angry-drunk father and full-grown, conflicted son. Buster had lost the joy of performing, but he had no idea how to extricate himself from the situation. Enter Myra, the third, saxophone-playing member of The Three Keatons, Buster’s mother, and Joe’s at-wit’s-end wife. She grabbed Buster, boarded a train, and left Joe at a Los Angeles stage door without so much as a goodbye. Myra went to Michigan to live with family. Buster continued on to New York to try his luck as a solo act.
Years later, his memory tinged with nostalgia, Buster recalled only the good years performing with his father: “But sweet Jesus, our act! What a beautiful thing it had been. That beautiful timing we had–beautiful to see, beautiful to do. The sound of the laughs, solid, right where you knew they would be…but look what happened, standing up and bopping each other like a cheap film. It couldn’t last that way.” [Stevens 59]
It couldn’t last that way. Nothing gold can stay.
Joe Keaton didn’t have to become an angry drunk, but their run as The Three Keatons would have ended eventually, right? How many years could audiences warm to such naked violence? In what new direction were they prepared to take their act? Vaudeville itself was fast becoming moribund.
After vaudeville, after abandoning his pa, Buster Keaton “cast his lot with the pictures,” as he said. His second act in show business, both behind and in front of the camera, was even more celebrated than his first, yet it too “couldn’t last.” It, too, ended abruptly, unhappily, and after about the same number of years.
In the standard telling, it was chance that led Buster to Roscoe Arbuckle’s East 48th Street studio in the spring of 1917. On the other hand, everything in Buster’s life seemed to lead to that moment. Everything in the entertainment industry was undoubtedly tilting toward the movies. On the fateful April day, Roscoe was shooting scenes for his latest two-reeler, The Butcher Boy. He put Buster in overalls and placed him in front of the camera–then sent him sprawling to the floor with a sack of flour to the face. After the shoot, Roscoe showed him how to take apart the camera and examine how it worked.
Buster was hooked.
He said later that he was smitten with the movies from the start, “with the cameras, with the rushes, the action, the slam-bang–with all of it.” [Curtis 90] He ripped up the stage contract he had just signed (taking a two hundred dollar a week pay cut, or $250 if you count what he had been making as part of the Three Keatons) and joined Roscoe’s team. Within a few months, Buster became Roscoe’s de facto assistant. A few years later, when Roscoe was hired to make feature films (at a million dollars a year), he left Buster in charge of what became Buster Keaton Studio. Over the next seven years, the former vaudevillian would direct and act in eighteen comedy shorts (two-reelers) and ten features (five to seven reels). “My god,” Buster said many years later, “when we made pictures, we ate, slept, and dreamed them.” [Sweeney 161]
By 1920, movie-making was entering its adolescence. The make-it-up-as-you-go style was giving way to institutionalized predictability. Once skeptical audiences were becoming greedy for ever more celluloid entertainment. Into this environment, Buster Keaton, not much older than an adolescent himself, kept Hollywood’s youthful spirit alive. He and the team he assembled worked hard and played hard. Under pressure to crank out a new comedy short every six weeks, each one filled with upward of a hundred gags, they found ways to keep the work light-hearted and fun. Buster played gags of screen almost as much as he did on. He made everyone–actors, productions staff, cameramen–fell part of a team. Said Clyde Bruckman, one of his writers, “Buster was a guy you worked with–not for. …With Bus you belonged.” [Stevens 202]
For an entertainer raised on live performance, nothing mattered to Buster as much as keeping the performance fresh. He accomplished that by something he called “un-rehearsing.” If the cues started to be picked up “too sharp” and the flow became too “mechanical,” Buster knew it was time to un-rehearse: “We generally did that by going out and playing a coupla innings of baseball or somethin’. Come back in and someone’d say, ‘Now what did I do then?’ and I’d say, ‘I don’t know. Do what you think best and then go ahead and shoot.’ That’s un-rehearsing a scene.” [Curtis 157]
Scripts were loose agglomerations of ideas, works constantly in progress, the product of a gaggle of gagmen, more suggestive than directive. The story might be headed in one directions “as written,” but take a sharp turn in another as a result of events in the filming. “That’s the interesting thing about comedies,” Buster said. “You can never tell how they are going to turn out.” [Curtis 331]
This make-it-up-as-you-go style could take some getting used to for someone new to the team. Three Ages leading lady Margaret Leahy described how they had planned a dramatic scene in advance. Keaton would walk out the door, turn and wave goodbye, while Leahy would look away, indignant. As it happened, Buster changed his mind in the middle of filming. Instead of leaving, he turned back, threw his hat on the floor, took Margaret in his arms, and gave her a big kiss. She had no need to act indignant then! Released from his embrace, she took up a vase from the table and smashed it on the floor. “The director shouted: ‘Good girl–hold it–hold it. Get out, Buster, quick….” Nothing could have been more believable to the audience than her exasperation at that moment. [Curtis 226]
For all his improvising and un-rehearsing, Buster was actually a perfectionist and —–ly exacting in his expectations. He would retake scenes as many times as it took to get them right. By his account, he kept only twenty percent of the film he shot in the final picture. [Curtis 156] In one scene in Three Ages, in which a caveman hurls a papier-mache boulder at Buster who bats it back to bean the caveman on the head, Buster insisted it be done with one camera in one take: no trickery. It took seventy-six takes to capture the one scene to his satisfaction. [Curtis 227] Several years later, in The General, he filmed a night scene under rain and wind machines, six hours a night for three weeks until they finally got it right. His leading lady, Marion Mack, recalled how “each night we got soaked to the skin. It’s a wonder we didn’t catch pneumonia.” 
Buster took a beating performing the very physical comedy in his films. Cutaways, he felt, would undermine the magic of his storytelling. Whether it was riding a log down a raging river (Our Hospitality), swinging from torn awnings to descend from a third story window (My Wife’s Relations), or, most hair-raising of all, having an entire house’s façade crash around him (Steamboat Bill, Jr.), Buster performed his own stunts. (Except the scene that involved pole vaulting into a second story window, a feat that would have required weeks of training.) Buster had years of experience taking a beating on the vaudeville stage. He knew better than anyone how to take a fall. Yet, so hazardous was his brand of comedy that he suffered many scrapes, bruises, and even broken bones.
Buster “loved the process of making films, the mechanics, and the problem-solving.” [Curtis 169] By 1924, the complexity of his films was demanding much problem-solving, indeed. That year he built a story for The Navigator around a 220-pound diver’s suit and a 370-foot ocean liner he and his team had rented. The next year, he ran a couple hundred head of cattle through the streets of Los Angeles for the climactic scenes of Go West. For The General in 1926, he had a Civil War-era railroad bridge constructed just so he could film it being blown up as a locomotive crossed over. (At $40,000 it was the most expensive scene shot to date.)
Buster embraced the technology of modern cinema, and he did much to advance the technical art of filmmaking. Yet, his personal style of leadership was becoming outdated. Hollywood was institutionalizing, systematizing, consolidating, and Buster had been too focused on his own niche to notice the seachange. So, he was taken by surprise when his boss and benefactor, Joe Schenk (pronounced /skenk/), informed him that Buster Keaton Studio would be dismantled, and Buster’s contract was being sold to the newly formed behemoth of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. At M-G-M, Joe’s brother Nick offered him a significant pay rise, three thousand dollars a week, but could not guarantee him artistic control. The days of the Buster Keaton method of movie making were over.
Buster called the move to M-G-M the worst decision of his life. Indeed, both Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, Hollywood’s other comedic stars, had warned him against the move. Unlike them, he didn’t own his own studio; he had no obvious way to hold on to his independence. The money at M-G-M was attractive; the security it promised was appealing. But, in the end, Buster made the move to M-G-M mostly for lack of a better option. He trusted that Joe Schenk knew best in sending him to work for his brother. Unfortunately, Nick lived up to his nickname, “Skunk.”
Buster unwittingly ruffled feathers in his new studio. His first director resented his knowledgable input. Company executives decried his improvisational style: “How can we budget the picture if you don’t follow the script?” [Curtis 356] Buster didn’t realize it at first, but M-G-M was stripping him of his identity as a filmmaker and reducing him to a mere actor. Even so, on his first film there, his directorial input was not insignificant. Due to his influence, the final version of The Cameraman included a whopping three hundred and ninety-five added (unscripted) scenes, including some of the funniest scenes in the movie.
Buster would never again make a picture as genuinely funny. So many executives and writers were pumping him with ideas, he said, he began to question his own abilities. Worse, the joy of artistic creation drain away. [Keaton 208] This was a new experience for the thirty-three-year-old who had known nothing but success and a steadily rising star for twenty-eight years. Unequipped by temperament to deal with this adversity, Buster turned his anger inward. He turned bitter. Like his father before him, he turned to the bottle.
It should be noted that Buster was not a failure in standard, objective terms. At M-G-M, he made more money, personally, than he ever had. His movies–talkies, no longer silent–made more money for M-G-M than his silents had for Joe Schenk. (The entirely forgettable Doughboys made a profit of $160,000, several times more than The General. [Curtis 401]) Neither money nor fame could buy happiness in this case. As James Curtis explains in perhaps the central sentence of his entire book, “Keaton needed to work for reasons entirely apart from the matter of income–the filmmaking for him had become as necessary as breathing and that he couldn’t imagine life without it.” [Curtis 345]
It is tempting to blame the studio system for Buster’s demise, to make him out as a victim of America’s burgeoning corporatism. The accusation is not false. Neither is it fully explanatory. Buster had spent almost thirty years working in unfettered artistic independence: in the family vaudeville business, alongside the collaborative Roscoe Arbuckle, and under the hands-off guardianship of Joe Schenk. This left him vulnerable to a rude awakening when confronted with the rapid changes of 1920s America. Buster’s near-tragic downfall was in many ways just a mid-life crisis (thirty-five for him being fifty for the rest of us), albeit a more extreme and public one than the rest of ours. The difficulty Buster and the rest of us face is living in history, where life presents us with an ever-shifting target: Just when we think we have it figured out, the world has changed–and, we realize, we, ourselves, have changed, too.
For Buster, when the world changed beyond what he was prepared to cope with, it nearly ended tragically. But he survived his descent into alcoholism just as his father had before him. (Where Joe had used religion to pull himself out, Buster relied on will power and, eventually, the support of a truly loving third wife.) His third act in show business, his longest and least intense, gave him new satisfactions. Though he fell off the wagon a few times, Buster Keaton found real happiness in the final decades of his life.
It is tempting, too, to ask “what if.” What if Buster Keaton had had another twenty or thirty years as a filmmaker? How many more comic gems would we now have to enjoy? It is a temptation we should resist. Dana Stevens tells us of Chaplin’s own difficulties adapting to “modern times,” as it were. In the thirties, he made just two movies and neither used the sound technology that was already years old in its adoption. One of those movies, Modern Times, and another one early in the forties, The Great Dictator, were praised but also criticized for their didacticism. His final movie, about a music hall comedian’s passage to irrelevance, was Chaplin’s naked professional lament. As Stevens puts it, “Limelight seems at once so confessional and so equivocatingly self-serving that it’s hard to get past its autobiographical elements and judge it purely as a work of art.” [Stevens 334] Meanwhile, Harold Lloyd made the transition to sound smoothly, but was out of the laugh business by 1938 (though he did act in one more film in 1947). For his part, Buster went on to appear in dozens of film cameos, commercials, and TV shows, from Ed Sullivan to The Twilight Zone. He mentored Lucille Ball and toured in European circuses.
Asking “what if” is pointless.
In 1949, twenty years after the advent of the talkies, Life magazine’s hard-living critic, James Agee wrote a paean to the comedies of his youth. These silent pictures were by then entering obscurity, moldering in studio vaults, unseen by anyone born after 1930. Agee’s article, “Comedy’s Greatest Era,” reminded an older generation of a time of innocence they had all but forgotten; it sparked the imagination of a younger generation who yearned to know first-hand what they had missed. In the article Agee dubbed Buster The Great Stone Face, adding with poetic grandiosity “Keaton’s face ranked almost with Lincoln’s as an early American archetype; it was haunting, handsome, almost beautiful, yet it was irreducibly funny.” [Agee] It is hard to overstate the influence of Agee’s words on the reach of Keaton’s legacy into the twenty-first century.
Of three great silent comedians from this era, Keaton is held in the highest regard among the hipster set, domestically and around the world. In France, he is known affectionately as Malec, in Poland, Zbysco; Iceland, Glo-Glo, Spain, ——-. [Curtis 5] The stoic melancholy with which his onscreen character accepts life’s absurdity give his movies a modernist edge. Stevens asks us to compare Keaton with Scott Fitzgerald and Hart Crane: “Like them he was formally innovative, inclined to puncture social pretension, and given to making art that was, in a uniquely 1920s way, sardonic and romantic at once.” [Stevens 137] His movies were downright Keatonesque.
Keaton himself would have had none of this talk. The man who benefitted from but one day (or there about) of formal education understood nothing of modernism as an artistic movement, nor did he have any artistic intentions when he created his films. He aimed simply to entertain. When critic Robert Sherwood claimed his films (along with Chaplin’s and Lloyd’s) “approximate art,” Buster demurred. “I never realized that I was doing anything but trying to make people laugh…. I never took extravagant praise seriously because neither I, my director, nor my gag men were writers in any literary sense.” [Dardis]
In the end, it is hardly more apt to call Buster Keaton a comic genius than it is to call him a tragic victim of the studio system. Reading about the entirety of his life in Curtis and Stephens this summer left me with the impression most of all of Keaton’s humanity, that he was just a man.
He was born, it is true, with innate talents that were nurtured from the earliest age by hands-on (and by his father’s hand-upside-the-head) experience. He developed his own brand of deadpan physical comedy and went on to produce films of high originality, seven of which have been entered into the National Film Registry. But what really set, and sets, Keaton apart in my mind was his exceptional ability to find and maintain joy in his work. That work–in essence, creating ways to make people laugh–was of the most grueling, all-consuming kind. Yet, Keaton loved it, thrived on it. He continually strove for excellence yet never abandoned the playfulness on which his ingenuity was built. Passion and fulfillment are what we all (many of us) say we want in our careers. So few of us actually attain it.
It takes more than grit or smarts. It takes the good fortune of being in the right place at the right time (in history) and being able to take advantage of it. For seven inimitable years, Keaton found the sweet spot where he made hard work and hard play go hand in hand, not just for him but for his entire team. In my mind, that was Keaton’s true genius.
Curtis, James. Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker’s Life. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2022.
Stevens, Dana. Camera Man: Buster Keaton, The Dawn of Cinema, and the Invention of the Twentieth Century. New York: Atria Books, 2022.
Dardis, Tom. Keaton: The Man Who Wouldn’t Lie Down. Brisbane, Australia: Limelight, 2004.
Keaton, Buster (with Charles Samuels). My Wonderful World of Slapstick. Lebanon, Indiana: Da Capo Press, 1982.
Sweeney, Kevin W. Buster Keaton: Interviews. Oxford: University Press of Mississippi, 2007.