In 1895, Joseph “Buster” Keaton was born into a traveling family of actors that performed in vaudeville roadshows across America alongside popular performers such as Harry Houdini. Though originally from Kansas, the Keatons become rooted in Michigan around 1907 when his father founded the Actors Colony in Muskegon where they returned every summer. It’s here where the annual Buster Keaton Film Festival still takes place every fall, produced by the International Buster Keaton Society (known as “The Damfinos”), and it was here where this specific double-feature was conceived.
Last fall I saw these films screened to a packed house inside Muskegon’s Frauenthal Center, where they were also accompanied by a historic Barton Organ, and it was unlike any other movie experience I’ve ever had. The theater was filled with gasps, applause, “oh”s “ah”s and “aw”s, and most obviously, roars of laughter. It was not just snickering laughter by an audience that felt obligated, but an uncontrollable, deep level of laughter that was triggered by our most inane, unmitigated reflexes.
Buster Keaton produces laughter that erupts from the pit of your stomach as long as you allow it. On-screen he is sympathetic, relatable, and his physical feats matched with the incomparable “Great Stone Face” allows him to uniquely play dual comedic roles of the “straight man” as well as the stooge, wrapping a classic comedy team into a singular force of nature. And he was also so extremely willing to put his body on the line for the sake of a joke that you can’t help but be impressed. You almost feel as if you have no other choice but to laugh, just to release the tension you feel after witnessing stunts performed at his caliber of precision and perfection.
Keaton’s expressed a level of talent with enough comfort to make it seem second nature because his career in physical comedy and entertainment started at such a very early age. The story of how he received the name “Buster” has grown into a mythology itself, but it typically goes that when he was a young infant he took a fall down a flight of stairs and remained uninjured, inspiring an onlooker to laugh and exclaim that he was a “regular Buster” (term for a physical comedian/stuntman). As to who actually said it is uncertain, but the phrase has been attributed to a family friend George Pardey as well as Houdini.
As the family moved and performed, they began to regularly use their son’s indestructible talents and he was eventually billed as “The Little Boy Who Can’t Be Damaged”. A suitcase handle was even sewn into his pants so that he may be thrown across the stage with ease. Though young Keaton learned better tricks to take a fall without injury, it didn’t stop authorities from accusing the family of child abuse. But since young Buster was able to prove that he didn’t have any bruises or broken bones, no charges were ever made.
He began his film career with comedian Fatty Arbuckle, making his debut in The Butcher Boy in 1917. From that moment they become a comedic team that would make 14 more shorts with Keaton acting as assistant director and primary “gag man”. Once Buster split to make One Week, Arbuckle’s career was on the decline though today he is still remembered most prominently for his partnership with Keaton as well as a mentor of Charlie Chaplin, whose “roll dance” in The Gold Rush was inspired (or some might say stolen) by a bit from Arbuckle’s film The Rough House.
Though Keaton’s role as a Hollywood star began to diminish after The Cameraman, he never stopped working, appearing in Chaplin’s Limelight as well as taking memorable roles in The Twilight Zone, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum in the 1960s. He traveled back to Michigan and spent time in Muskegon as late as 1949, writing in his autobiography “My Wonderful World of Slapstick” that his time there were “the best summers of my life.”
He died in 1966 at the age of 70, but like Chaplin and his mustache, one can’t have a pork pie hat and not think of the film legend. He inspired comedians and filmmakers for decades to come, such as Orson Welles, Mel Brooks, Peter Bogdanovich, and even Jackass star Johnny Knoxville. Though the official “Buster Keaton Day” has been declared as June 16, we’re getting a head start this Sunday with two spectacular features to keep his memory alive all year round.
This Sunday, don’t miss a special screening of TWO silent comedies from the one-and-only Buster Keaton, presenting his short film ‘One Week’ followed by ‘The Cameraman’ with live organ accompaniment from Andrew Rogers! Two timeless films that bookend the career of one of the funniest and most inventive filmmakers of all time.
In 2005 and 2008 respectively, both The Cameraman and One Week were deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and added to the National Film Registry. Released in 1920, One Week was Keaton’s first film to be made on his own, and 1928’s The Cameraman was Keaton’s first film with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer though widely considered to be his last truly original and creative work.
One Week is the story of two newlyweds that receive a “build-your-own-home” kit as a wedding present, which includes a series of numbered boxes for owners to construct their own house within one week. The physical comedy that ensues is impressive, especially considering the practical set design and stunt work. Keaton not only performed everything on his own, including a stunt that involved running at full speed out of a two-story window, but also built a real off-kilter house on top of a turntable so that it may move and spin 360 degrees. Today, not only is Keaton’s physicality timeless, but the situational comedy feels even more real as we can all empathize with the experience and frustration of assembling IKEA furniture.
In The Cameraman, Keaton plays a photographer that decides to try his hand at filmmaking to impress Sally, a secretary in the newsreel department at MGM. A comedy of errors ensues, especially when the pressure heats up as he learns there is a rival filmmaker also vying for the attention of Sally. Though seemingly at the top of his game at this point, as a new property acquired by MGM his power became limited and his role in production was respectively reduced, even being forced to use a stuntman in select scenes as well as allow Edward Sedgwick to come on board and direct. However, midway through filming, Sedgwick’s inexperience as a director allowed Keaton to jump back in and take the reigns of the set.
Though the film was hit and declared by MGM to be a “perfectly constructed comedy”, Keaton would only film three more movies with MGM before being fired and moving overseas to make independent films once again. As the sound era took over Hollywood, Keaton’s stone-faced physical comedy no longer held the same weight in comparison to the wit and banter that audio allowed, especially relative to some of his contemporaries like Charlie Chaplin who excelled with these new potentials.
But today, where the dialogue and banter of some of Chaplin’s work feel dated, the physical comedy of Keaton feels just as fresh as it did in the 1920s and will surely leave you smiling and laughing out loud. It’s why we are celebrating the life and career of this iconic filmmaker 100 years later.
Written by Nick Alderink
Sources and further interesting reads:
- “About Buster” – The International Buster Keaton Society
- “Peter Bogdanovich: ‘I missed my chance to tell Buster Keaton he was a genius – now I’m telling the world” Peter Bogdanovich as told to Pamela Hutchinson of The Guardian
- Daniel Eagan’s film essay ‘One Week’ for the Library of Congress
- Variety’s 1927 review of ‘The Cameraman‘
- Slant Magazine’s Moden Review of ‘The Cameraman‘