Biography of Buster Keaton

Biography of Buster Keaton (October 4, 1895 – February 1, 1966)

(courtesy of’s biography of Buster Keaton)

Joseph Frank Keaton Jr. (October 4, 1895 -€“ February 1, 1966), always known as Buster Keaton, was a popular and influential 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”. His work as a performer and director is widely regarded to be some of the most innovative and important work in the history of cinema.

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.

Buster Keaton’s Early life in vaudeville

Buster Keaton was born into the world of vaudeville. His father, Joseph Hallie Keaton, a native of Vigo County, Indiana known in the show business world as Joe Keaton, and Harry Houdini owned a traveling show called the Mohawk Indian Medicine Company, which performed on stage and sold patent medicine on the side. Keaton was born in Piqua (PICK-way), Kansas, the small town where his mother, Myra Edith Cutler, happened to go into labor.

At the age of three, he began performing with his parents as The Three Keatons; the storyline of the act was how to raise a small child. Myra played the saxophone to one side while Joe and Buster performed on center stage. Buster would goad Joe by disobeying him, and Joe would respond by throwing Buster against the scenery, into the orchestra pit, or even into the audience. The act evolved as Buster 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 abused by his father and that the falls and physical comedy were a matter of proper technical execution. In fact, Buster would have so much fun, he would begin laughing as his father threw him across the stage. This drew fewer laughs from the audience, so Buster adopted his famous dead-pan expression whenever he was working.

The act ran up against laws banning child performers in vaudeville. When one official saw Buster in full costume and make-up, he asked a stage-hand how old that performer was. The stage-hand shrugged and pointed to Buster’s mother. “I don’t know,” he said, “ask his wife!” Despite tangles with the law and a disastrous tour of the English Music Halls, Buster was a rising star in the theater, so much so that even when Myra and Joe tried to introduce Buster’s siblings into the act, Buster remained the central attraction.

By the time Buster was 21, Joe’s alcoholism threatened the reputation of the family act, so Buster and Myra left Joe in Los Angeles. Myra returned to their summer home in Muskegon, Michigan, while Buster traveled to New York, where his performing career moved from vaudeville to film.

Buster Keaton in the Silent film era

In February 1917 Keaton met Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle at the Talmadge Studios in New York City, where Arbuckle was under contract to Joseph M. Schenck. He was hired as a co-star and gag-man. Keaton later claimed that he was soon Arbuckle’s second director and his entire gag department. Keaton and Arbuckle became close friends, a bond that would never break, even after Arbuckle was embroiled in the scandal that cost him his career and his personal life.

After Keaton’s successful work with Arbuckle, Schenck gave him his own production unit, The Keaton Studio. 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, he graduated to full-length features. These films made Keaton one of the most famous comedians in the world. At the time, he was perhaps the third most popular comedian in America behind Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd.

Ernest Torrence (Steamboat Bill) and Buster Keaton (Steamboat Bill Jr.) picking out a "manly" hat
Ernest Torrence (Steamboat Bill) and Buster Keaton (Steamboat Bill Jr.) picking out a “manly” hat

His most enduring feature-length films include Our Hospitality (1923), The Navigator (1924), Sherlock Jr. (1924), The Cameraman (1928), Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928), and The General (1927). The last film, set during the American Civil War, is considered his masterpiece, combining physical comedy with Keaton’s love for trains. Unfortunately, many of his most acclaimed films performed poorly at the box office due to their sophistication — audiences had a difficult time seeing Buster as a cinematic artist of considerable ambition.

In addition, the technical side of filmmaking fascinated him and he was forward thinking enough to want to produce sound films when they began to become technically practical and popular. The fact that he had a good voice and years of stage experience promised an easier adjustment than Chaplin’s silent Tramp character, who could not survive sound. Sadly, Keaton’s loss of independence as a filmmaker coincided with the coming of sound films and his mounting personal problems, and his full potential in the early sound era was never realized.

Buster Keaton’s Marriages

Natalie and Buster Keaton - marriage

In 1921, he married Natalie Talmadge, sister-in-law of his boss, Joe Schenck, and sister of actresses Norma Talmadge and Constance Talmadge. The couple had two sons, James and Robert, during the first three years of the marriage, 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. She also spent enormous sums of money. During the 1920s, as per his autobiography, he dated actress Kathleen Key, and upon ending the affair, Key flew into a rage tearing up his dressing room. In 1932, Natalie bitterly divorced Keaton, taking his entire fortune and refusing to allow any contact between Keaton and his sons. Keaton was reunited with them about a decade later. The traumatic failure of his marriage, along with the loss of his independence as a filmmaker, led Keaton into a period of alcoholism.

In 1933, Buster married Mae Scriven – his nurse, during an alcoholic binge that he claimed to remember nothing about afterwards (Keaton himself later called that period an “alcoholic blackout”). When they divorced in 1936, she took half of everything they owned — half of their dining-room set, half of each table and chair set, half of their books – and Buster’s favorite St. Bernard, Elmer.

Circus Medrano poster for Buster Keaton
Circus Medrano poster for Buster Keaton

In 1940, Buster married Eleanor Norris, who was 23 years his junior. She saved his life and helped to salvage his career. All of their friends advised them against marrying, but the marriage lasted until his death. Between 1947 and 1954, Buster and Eleanor appeared regularly in the Cirque Medrano in Paris, in a highly-regarded doubles act. Eleanor died in 1998.

Buster Keaton in the Sound era and television

Keaton’s filmmaking unit was acquired by MGM in 1928, a business decision that Keaton regretted ever afterwards. He was forced to enter the ranks of the studio system, working at the MGM studios in a more restrictive environment that he had previously worked in. He stopped directing, but continued to perform and made some of his most financially successful films for the studio, including Parlor, Bedroom and Bath (1931), and Speak Easily (1932). After his MGM star contract was terminated he was re-employed as a gag writer for various MGM films, particularly those of the Marx Brothers — including A Night at the Opera (1935), At the Circus (1939), and Go West (1940); and various films of Red Skelton.

During this period Buster Keaton also starred in two series of short films made for Educational Pictures and Columbia Pictures (the latter were directed and written by Del Lord), which received little attention at the time, and made a film in Paris entitled Le Roi des Champs-Élyses (1934).

He guest-starred in such films as Sunset Boulevard (1950), It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963), and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966), and appeared in Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight (1952), recalling the vaudeville of The Playhouse.

Buster Keaton in the Twilight Zone episode, Once Upon a Time

He had two back-to-back television series, The Buster Keaton Show (1950) and Life With Buster Keaton (1951). (Despite their popularity, he canceled the programs because he was unable to create enough material to produce a new show each week). He also found steady work as an actor in TV commercials. His classic silent films saw a revival in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In 1961 he starred in The Twilight Zone episode Once Upon a Time, which had both silent and sound scenes. Keaton starred in a wonderful, short SILENT film, ( His last ) called The Railrodder (1965) for the National Film Board of Canada. Wearing his traditional porkpie hat, he travelled from one end of Canada to the other on a motorised “hand-car”, performing gags similar to those in films he made 50 years before. The Railrodder was made in tandem with a documentary about Keaton’s life, cinema style and the creation of The Railrodder called Buster Keaton Rides Again – also made for the National Film Board. He played the central role in Samuel Beckett’s Film (1965), directed by Alan Schneider.

Keaton lived to see the rediscovery of his great silent films in his later years, and his recognition as one of the great geniuses of cinema.

Buster Keaton’s Legacy and contribution

Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, and Harold Lloyd are remembered as the great comic innovators of the silent era. Keaton was undoubtedly the most innovative filmmaker of the three, although Keaton never made such comparisons. He enjoyed Lloyd’s films highly and often praised Chaplin for his genius.

Keaton has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame: 6619 Hollywood Boulevard (for motion pictures); and 6321 Hollywood Boulevard (for television). In 1994, he appeared on a United States postage stamp designed by caricaturist Al Hirschfeld.

Many actors and filmmakers were influenced by Keaton, including Alec Guinness, Peter Sellers, Blake Edwards, Jackie Chan and Stephen Chow.

Tom Green credited Keaton for the inspiration for the “Falling House” scene in Freddy got Fingered.

Trivia about Buster Keaton

  • During the railroad water tank scene in Sherlock Jr. Keaton broke his neck and did not realize it until years afterward.

Filmography of Buster Keaton

  • The Butcher Boy (1917)
  • The Rough House (1917)
  • His Wedding Night (1917)
  • Oh Doctor! (1917)
  • Coney Island (1917)
  • A Country Hero (1917)
  • Out West (1918)
  • The Bell Boy (1918)
  • Moonshine (1918)
  • Good Night, Nurse! (1918)
  • The Cook (1918)
  • Back Stage (1919)
  • The Hayseed (1919)
  • The Garage (1919)
  • One Week (1920)
  • The Round-Up (1920) (uncredited)
  • The Saphead (1920)
  • Convict 13 (1920)
  • The Scarecrow (1920)
  • Neighbors (1920)
  • The Boat 1921
  • The Haunted House (1921)
  • Hard Luck (1921)  …. Suicidal Boy
  • The Playhouse (1921)
  • The Paleface (1922)
  • The Frozen North (1922)
  • The Electric House (1922)
  • Cops (1922)
  • Daydreams (1922)
  • The Balloonatic (1923)
  • The Love Nest (1923)
  • Three Ages (1923)
  • Our Hospitality (1923)
  • Sherlock Jr. (1924)
  • The Navigator (1924)
  • Seven Chances (1925)
  • The Iron Mule (1925) (uncredited)
  • Go West (1925)
  • Battling Butler (1926)
  • The General (1927)
  • College (1927)
  • Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)
  • The Cameraman (1928)
  • Spite Marriage (1929)
  • Free and Easy (1929)
  • Doughboys (1930)
  • The Slippery Pearls (1931)
  • Parlor, Bedroom and Bath (1931)
  • The Sidewalks of New York (1931)
  • Casanova wider Willen (1931)
  • Plombier amoureux, Le (1932)
  • The Passionate Plumber (1932)
  • Speak Easily (1932)
  • What! No Beer? (1933)
  • The Gold Ghost (1934)
  • Allez Oop (1934)
  • Le Roi des Champs-Élysées (1934)
  • The Invader (1935)
  • One Run Elmer (1935)
  • Hayseed Romance (1935)
  • Tars and Stripes (1935)
  • The E-Flat Man (1935)
  • The Timid Young Man (1935)
  • Three on a Limb (1936)
  • Grand Slam Opera (1936)
  • Blue Blazes (1936)
  • The Chemist (1936)
  • Mixed Magic (1936)
  • Jail Bait (1937)
  • Ditto (1937)
  • Love Nest on Wheels (1937)
  • Pest from the West (1939)
  • Mooching Through Georgia (1939)
  • Nothing But Pleasure (1940)
  • Pardon My Berth Marks (1940)
  • The Taming of the Snood (1940)
  • New Moon (1940) (uncredited)
  • The Spook Speaks (1940)
  • The Villain Still Pursued Her (1940)
  • Li’l Abner (1940)
  • His Ex Marks the Spot (1940)
  • So You Won’t Squawk (1941)
  • General Nuisance (1941)
  • She’s Oil Mine (1941)
  • Forever and a Day (1943)
  • San Diego I Love You (1944)
  • That’s the Spirit (1945)
  • That Night with You (1945)
  • She Went to the Races (1945) (uncredited)
  • God’s Country (1946)
  • Easy to Wed (1946)
  • Moderno Barba Azul, El (1946)
  • Colmillo de Buda, El (1949)
  • The Lovable Cheat (1949)
  • You’re My Everything (1949)
  • In the Good Old Summertime (1949)
  • Sunset Boulevard (1950)
  • Excuse My Dust (1951) (uncredited)
  • Paradise for Buster (1952)
  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1960)
  • Limelight (1952)
  • It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963)
  • Pajama Party (1964)
  • The Railrodder (1965)
  • How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (1965)
  • Sergeant Dead Head (1965)
  • Film (1965)
  • A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966)

Buster Keaton Books

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