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Buster Keaton tumbling to fame

Tumbling to Fame, by Malcolm H. Oettinger — originally published in Picture-Play Magazine, December 1920

If you’re a “big-time” vaudeville devotee you’ll remember “The Three Keatons.” You may not remember the name, but, if you ever saw them, you couldn’t forget the big comedy Irishman who used to pick up his five-year-old son by the back of the coat collar and hurl him across the stage into the middle of the back drop.

The animated football, known as “Buster” Keaton, and now grown up, is being featured in a new set of comedies about to be released by Metro. It was an easy step from the rough-and-tumble work of the vaudeville stage to screen comedies, and Buster is quite satisfied with the career for which he began in his infancy, for his first public appearance as a member of “The Three Keatons” was when, at the age of six weeks, he was carried onto the stage on a tray by his father! And Pa Keaton didn’t wait any longer than necessary to begin making more vigorous use of his young son and heir as comedy material.

“I’ve simply been brought up being knocked down,” said the scion of the Keaton family, when I recently met him at the studio. “Pop’s idea of comedy was to throw me through every backdrop on the Keith circuit, and I’ll bet I’ve taken more punishment in the way of being used as a human mop than Bat Nelson, Ad Wolgast, and Jim Jeffries combined. The funny part of it is that I like it. Last month I did my first — and only –straight part in ‘The Henrietta‘ — the Bertie part — and between you and me, it was a bore. There weren’t any falls, and for me a picture without falls is as bad as Niagara in the same fix.”

Keaton really prefers slapstick to straight comedy.

“It’s harder work than the ‘dressed-up drama,’ but I get a much bigger kick out of it. I don’t act, anyway. The stuff is all injected as we go along. My pictures are made without script or written directions of any kind. We simply figure out enough story to build sets around, then we pull our gags and ‘quick stuff’ in the set as we happen on the ideas. After we feel that we’ve shot enough to make about six pictures, we assemble it, rip out whatever is left of the ’story’–and make one picture out of what’s left. That means an enormous lot of work. This picture with the trick scaffold in it that I’m working on now is called, ‘It’s a Cinch!‘ But take it from me, the title-writer is a liar.  It ISN’T!”

Buster tumbled into the movies by way of the Arbuckle chuckle foundry, where he fitted in harmoniously with Roscoe and jumping Al St. John. Then Fatty eased into what Pa Keaton’s boy calls the “dressed-up” drama, and the young knockabout comic sought other fields. “Vaudeville has given you all of this acrobatic training,”

I said. “Tell me–what have the movies given you?”

“A touring car and a cottage smothered in flowers!”


Computer nerd by day, professional clown on evenings and weekends (Raynbow), who combines the two by maintaining a bunch of websites dedicated to the history and performances of clowning, such as Free Clown Skits, and comedy such as Best Clean Funny Jokes.
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