Reviewing Buster Keaton’s Filmography (1895-1966)

Joseph Frank “Buster” Keaton was born into a family of touring vaudevillians. His father had toured with Harry Houdini and sold snake-oil medicine on the side, as well. From a young age, Buster developed a knack for entertaining audiences with his popular physical stumbling antics –in fact his nickname “Buster” apparently was derived from an incident in which he tumbled down a flight of stairs and a nearby bystander remarked it was “a real buster!” He was called the “little boy who can’t be damaged” as he was often tossed about the stage in a harsh brand of knockabout comedy that nearly got his father arrested on several occasions.

However, Keaton’s father was also an alcoholic and so the act soon fell apart. In time, Keaton served in the American Expeditionary Forces in France during World War I, and after the war he joined up with fellow New York comedian Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, who was under contract with Joseph M. Schenck at the time. They starred in a string of 14 short films together before Keaton relocated to Los Angeles along with the rest of the film industry. Throughout the 1920s, Buster Keaton starred in a variety of delightful slapstick comedies –he often wore a pork pie hat and his deadpan gaze quickly earned him the moniker “the great stone face.” Ever the engineer, Buster Keaton was entranced by the mechanics of film-making. He would often take apart cameras to learn about how they worked. In addition, Keaton was enamored by all manner of newfangled machinery, from cars and boats to trains and airplanes. His scripts were short and improvised with gags being created on the spot, and this often led to increasingly risky and expensive stunts in his movies.

In the mid-1920s, he began making feature length films, mostly at his own direction, with films like Our Hospitality (1923), The Navigator (1924), Sherlock Jr. (1924), Seven Chances (1925), The General (1926), and Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928). The special effects and gags featured in this string of movies remains astoundingly innovative even by today’s standards, however his magnum opus, The General, was an expensive flop which sadly cost him the trust of United Artists (his distributor). Despite the advice of his fellow comedians Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, Keaton made the fateful decision to sign with MGM (a deal he would later regard as the “worst mistake” of his life). The first film to come out of this ill-fated partnership, The Cameraman (1928), wound up being a terrific installment but it unquestionably lacked the magic of his earlier style.

Sadly, after signing with MGM, Buster Keaton was slowly reduced to a background character as he lost control over his movies. Additionally, his marriage to Natalie Talmadge ended in a tempestuous separation as she was often extravagantly spending Keaton’s money, demanding a lavish lifestyle and at the same time, Keaton’s career was waning. By 1932, she left Keaton, and forced their two sons to change their last names so as not to associate with their father. Keaton was forced to sell his Beverly Hills palace (which he had initially bought to serve Talmadge’s demands). He engaged in several affairs and descended into a troubling spiral of alcoholism. While out on a binge one night, he married Mae Scriven, a woman who did not even know his first name (they divorced shortly thereafter). In 1940, he married again for the third and final time to Eleanor Norris. This time it was a happy marriage that lasted until his death. Thankfully, Buster Keaton had a late career “third act” revival which saw a reappraisal of his wonderful silent films. Orson Welles dubbed him the greatest of the silent clowns, with much praise heaped on The General. Keaton later appeared in such classics as Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950), and Limelight (1952) alongside his friend Charlie Chaplin, as well as It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), and the classic Twilight Zone episode “Once Upon a Time.” As a lifelong smoker, the great stone face finally met his end succumbing to lung cancer in 1966 at the age of 70.

My Reviews of Buster Keaton’s Essential Filmography:

Other Notable Appearances:

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