The Great Stone Face

By | Oct 4, 2017

During the 1920’s Buster Keaton was one of the greatest, if not the greatest, comic actor-directors of the end of the Silent Film Era. Roger Ebert has even called him the “greatest actor-director in the history of the movies”. Keaton’s films during this decade, such as The General or The Navigator, Steamboat Bill, Jr. or Our Hospitality are still considered great comic films. His films were full of comic elements and dangerous stunts. Stunts that Keaton himself would perform.

Buster Keaton was born on October 4, 1895. His father was Joseph Hallie “Joe” Keaton a vaudeville showman and traveling show owner. Joe Keaton was the fifth man in his linage to be named Joseph and his son was the sixth. Joseph Frank Keaton probably earned his nick-name because of his talent of being able to fall without injury. The word buster often referred to a spill or a fall that had the potential to produce injury.

Buster learned early how to fall without injury and before he had turned five he was part of an act created by his father that had him tossed around the stage, against the scenery, into the orchestra pit, or even into the audience. It was also during this period that he created his deadpan, stone face expression that would become his trademark. After being thrown and brushing himself off he would look to the audience with the expression that brought laughs.

While still working in the Vaudeville Theatre in February of 1917 he meet the comic film clown Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. Even though he had had some doubts about the medium, after studying the inter workings of a movie camera he decided to join Arbuckle. The two became close friends with the two working together for a number of years.

From their friendship and work for Joseph M. Schenck, Buster Keaton was given his own production unit. It was from this unit that he worked throughout most of the 1920s. But at the end of the decade he made what he considered the worst decision he made during his life and his career. He signed a contract with MGM. The company restricted his creativity to a point where he simply did as told.

The 1930s saw problems in his personal life as well. His first wife and he divorced and he began a bout with alcoholism. By the 1940s he became more stable, but his fame was behind him. He did work continuously until his death from Lung Cancer on February 1, 1966. He worked in television during its early days creating a film series Life with Buster. He also appeared in numerous Television commercials and in a couple of the Frankie Avalon/Annette Funicello Beach movies in the mid-1960s.


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