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Buster Keaton

Buster Keaton (born Joseph Frank Keaton, October 4, 1895 – February 1, 1966) was an American silent film comic actor and filmmaker. His trademark was physical comedy with a stoic, deadpan expression on his face, earning him the nickname "The Great Stone Face" (referencing the Nathaniel Hawthorne story about the "Old Man of the Mountain").

Keaton's career as a performer and director is widely considered to be among the most innovative and important work in the history of cinema. He was recognized as the seventh greatest director of all time by Entertainment Weekly.

A 2002 world-wide poll by Sight and Sound ranked Keaton's The General as the 15th best film of all time. Three other Keaton films received votes in the survey: Our Hospitality, Sherlock, Jr., and The Navigator.
Keaton was born into a vaudeville family. His father was Joseph Hallie Keaton, a native of Vigo County, Indiana, known in the show business world as Joe Keaton. Joe Keaton owned a traveling show with Harry Houdini called the Mohawk Indian Medicine Company, which performed on stage and sold patent medicine on the side. Buster Keaton was born in Piqua, Kansas, the small town where his mother, Myra Edith Cutler, happened to be when she went into labor.

According to Keaton, in an interview that he and his wife Eleanor did with the CBC television program Telescope in 1964, Keaton acquired the nickname "Buster" at about six months of age. Keaton told interviewer Fletcher Markle that Harry Houdini happened to be present one day when the young Keaton took a tumble down a long flight of stairs without injury. After the infant sat up and shook off his experience, Houdini remarked, "That was a real buster!" According to Keaton, in those days, the word buster was used to refer to a spill or a fall that had the potential to produce injury. Thereafter, it was Keaton's father who began to use the nickname to refer to the youngster.[3] Despite Keaton's story, however, Houdini did not begin touring with the Keatons until Buster Keaton was well beyond infancy.

At the age of three, Buster began performing with his parents in The Three Keatons; the act was mainly a comedy sketch. Myra played the saxophone to one side while Joe and Buster performed on center stage. The young Keaton would goad his father by disobeying him, and the elder Keaton would respond by throwing him against the scenery, into the orchestra pit, or even into the audience. A suitcase handle was sewn into Keaton's clothing to aid with the constant tossing. The act evolved as Keaton learned to take trick falls safely. He was rarely injured or bruised on stage. Nevertheless, this knockabout style of comedy led to accusations of child abuse. Decades later, Keaton said that he was never hurt by his father and that the falls and physical comedy were a matter of proper technical execution. He claimed he was having so much fun that he would begin laughing as his father threw him across the stage. This drew fewer laughs from the audience, so he adopted his famous deadpan expression whenever he was working.

The act ran up against laws banning child performers in vaudeville. It is said that, when one official saw Keaton in full costume and makeup, and asked a stagehand how old he was, the stagehand then pointed to the boy's mother, saying "I don't know, ask his wife!" According to one biographer, Keaton was made to go to school while performing in New York, but only attended for one day. Despite tangles with the law and a disastrous tour of music halls in the UK, Keaton was such a rising star in the theater that, when his parents tried to introduce their other children into the act, he remained the focus of attention.

Keaton himself stated that he learned to read and write late, and was taught by his mother. By the time he was 21, his father's alcoholism threatened the reputation of the family act, so Buster and his mother left Joe in Los Angeles. Buster travelled to New York, where his performing career moved from vaudeville to film. Although he did not see active combat, he served in World War I, during which time his hearing became impaired
February 1917, Keaton met Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle at the Talmadge Studios in New York City, where Arbuckle was under contract to Joseph M. Schenck. Joe Keaton disapproved of films, and Buster also had reservations about the medium. During his first meeting with Arbuckle, he asked to borrow one of the cameras to get a feel for how it worked. He took the camera back to his hotel room, dismantled and reassembled it. With this rough understanding of the mechanics of the moving pictures, he returned the next day, camera in hand, asking for work. He was hired as a co-star and gag-man, making his first appearance in The Butcher Boy. Keaton later claimed that he was soon Arbuckle's second director and his entire gag department. Keaton and Arbuckle became close friends.

After Keaton's successful work with Arbuckle, Schenck gave him his own production unit, Buster Keaton Comedies. He made a series of two-reel comedies, including One Week (1920), Cops (1922), The Electric House (1922), and The Playhouse (1921). Based on the success of these shorts, Keaton moved to full-length features.

Keaton's silent films are characterized by clever visual gags and technical trickery. His writers included Clyde Bruckman and Jean Havez, but the most ingenious gags were often conceived by Keaton himself. The more adventurous ideas called for dangerous stunts, also performed by Keaton at great physical risk; during the railroad-water-tank scene in Sherlock Jr., Keaton broke his neck and did not realize it until years afterward. Comedy director Leo McCarey, recalling the freewheeling days of making slapstick comedies, said, "All of us tried to steal each other's gagmen. But we had no luck with Keaton, because he thought up his best gags himself and we couldn't steal him!"

Buster Keaton's most enduring feature-length films include Our Hospitality (1923), The Navigator (1924), Sherlock Jr. (1924), Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928), The Cameraman (1928), and especially The General (1927).

The General, set during the American Civil War, is considered his masterpiece, combining physical comedy with Keaton's love of trains. Keaton took his crew on picturesque locations and painstakingly re-enacted an actual wartime incident, complete with epic locomotive chase. The handsome film was Keaton's proudest achievement, but was misunderstood at the time. It was too dramatic for moviegoers expecting a lightweight comedy, and reviewers totally missed the point, noting that the picture was only "fair" with "few laughs." Later audiences have recognized the film's true merits, but in its day it was an expensive misfire, and Keaton was never entrusted with total control over his movies again. His distributor, United Artists, insisted on a production manager, who monitored expenses and interfered with certain story elements. Keaton endured this treatment for two more feature films, and then exchanged his independent setup for employment at Hollywood's biggest studio, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Keaton's loss of independence as a filmmaker coincided with the coming of sound films and mounting personal problems, and his full potential in the early sound era was never realized.

In 1921, Buster Keaton married Natalie Talmadge, sister-in-law of his boss, Joseph Schenck, and sister of actresses Norma Talmadge and Constance Talmadge. During the first three years of the marriage, the couple had two sons, James (1922-2007) and Robert (1924-), but after the birth of Robert, the relationship began to suffer.

According to Keaton in his autobiography, Natalie turned him out of their bedroom and sent detectives to follow him to see who he was dating behind her back. Her extravagance was another factor in the breakdown of the marriage. During the 1920s, according to his autobiography, he dated actress Kathleen Key. When he ended the affair, Key flew into a rage and tore up his dressing room. After attempts at reconciliation, Natalie bitterly divorced Keaton in 1932, taking his entire fortune and refusing to allow any contact between Keaton and his sons, whose last name she had changed to Talmadge. Keaton was reunited with them about a decade later when his older son turned 18. The failure of his marriage, along with the loss of his independence as a filmmaker, led Keaton into a period of severe alcoholism.

During the height of his popularity, he spent $300,000 to build a 10,000-square-foot home in Beverly Hills. Later owners of the property were actors James Mason and Cary Grant. The "Italian Villa," as Keaton called it, can also be seen in the movie The Godfather, as well as in Keaton's own film Parlor, Bedroom and Bath. Keaton later said, "I took a lot of pratfalls to build that dump." It was James Mason who later discovered numerous cans of rare Keaton films in the house; the films were quickly transferred to safety film before the original silver nitrate prints further deteriorated.

Keaton was institutionalized for alcohol abuse. In 1933 he married his nurse, Mae Scriven, during an alcoholic binge about which he afterwards claimed to remember nothing (Keaton himself later called that period an "alcoholic blackout"). Scriven herself would later claim that she did not even know Keaton's real first name until after the marriage. When they divorced in 1936, it was again at great financial cost to Keaton.

In 1940, Keaton married Eleanor Norris, who was 23 years his junior. She has been credited with saving his life by stopping his heavy drinking, and helped to salvage his career. The marriage lasted until his death. Between 1947 and 1954, they appeared regularly in the Cirque Medrano in Paris as a double act. She came to know his routines so well that she often participated in them on TV revivals.

Keaton signed with MGM in 1928, a business decision that he would later call the worst of his life. He realized too late that the studio system MGM represented would be more restrictive than the freedom he had known, severely limiting his creative input. He would have to adhere to dialogue-laden scripts and (for the first time) would be forced to use a stunt double during some of the more dangerous scenes, as MGM wanted badly to protect its investment. He also stopped directing, but continued to perform and made some of his most financially successful films for the studio. MGM tried teaming the laconic Keaton with the rambunctious Jimmy Durante in a series of movies including The Passionate Plumber, Speak Easily, and What! No Beer? Although the two comedians never quite meshed as a team, the films proved popular.

In the first Keaton pictures with sound, he ...


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