[Reader-list] Short piece on Buster Keaton's life from nytimes
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Thu Oct 4 22:02:02 IST 2001
On Oct 4, 1895, Buster Keaton was born.
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Buster Keaton, 70, Dies on Coast; Poker-Faced Comedian
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
ollywood, Feb. 1--Buster Keaton, the poker-faced comic
whose studies in exquisite frustration amused two
generations of movie audiences, died of lung cancer
today at his home in suburban Woodland Hills. His age
Someone once remarked of Buster Keaton that he looked
like the kind of man that dogs kick.
A mournful little fellow sad-faced as a basset,
usually wearing a saucer-brimmed porkpie hat,
oversized suit and floppy bow tie, Joseph Francis
Keaton stood with Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd as
one of the three great clowns of the silent screen.
In 30 or more films, mostly two-reelers, filled with
pratfalls and custard pie slapstick, Buster Keaton
established an unforgettable character--the sad and
silent loner who persevered stoically against a
Unlike Mr. Chaplin, he was never sentimental and he
never resorted to maudlin pathos. He turned a granite
face to the wildly comic and nightmarish cries that
befell him--and he always prevailed over impending
His strength was his ability to survive. He displayed
that perseverance not only in his comic
characterizations but also in his private activities.
For his life was marked by periods of triumph and
frustration--wealth, a descent into poverty and
alcoholism, and then, in his twilight years, a return
to riches, recognition and contentment.
His period of greatest productivity was in the early
and mid-1920's. In those light-tax days, Buster's
salary soared to $3,500 a week, and he built a
$300,000 house in Beverly Hills.
A great pantomimist, the equal of Mr. Chaplin in comic
inventiveness, he was held even superior to "the
little tramp" in acrobatic grace. Mr. Keaton never
used a double. His ability to take a violent fall
without breaking a bone was the marvel of the day.
Most of Mr. Keaton's films were made without a script.
"Two or three writers and I would start with an idea
and then we'd work out a strong finish and let the
middle take care of itself, as it always does," Mr.
Keaton recalled in an interview two years ago.
"Sometimes, we'd work out a gag in advance; other
times, it would work itself out as we went along. In
those days we didn't use miniatures or process shots.
The way a thing looked on the screen was the way you'd
When the movies began talking, Buster Keaton dropped
out of sight. The public wanted voices, and Buster's
pantomime technique failed to hold up.
Hard times and marital troubles piled up. After 11
years of marriage (and two sons), he and Natalie
Talmadge, sister of the beautiful actresses Norma and
Constance, were divorced in 1932. His second marriage,
to Mae Scribbens, ended in divorce in 1935.
In 1934, filing for bankruptcy, Buster listed assets
of $12,000 and liabilities of $303,832.
Mr. Keaton was down but never quite out. Just when
life seemed as hostile as a paranoid's nightmare,
things began to look up. His third marriage, to
Eleanor Norris, a 21-year-old dancer, in 1940, brought
stability. She survives him, as do his two sons.
Video Star in Britain
British television rescued him from obscurity in the
early 1950's. It brought him fresh fame, a comfortable
income and a new public. He appeared on most major
television shows in London and was paid from $1,000 to
$2,500 for each performance.
In 1956 Paramount paid him $50,000 for the rights to
"The Keaton Story," a film tracing Mr. Keaton's rise
from vaudeville to Hollywood stardom, with Donald
O'Connor playing the title role.
Mr. Keaton used the money to buy a ranch-type house
and an acre and a half of farmland in the San Fernando
Valley. He kept busy, making several filmed television
shows in Hollywood and appearing in several acting
Reissued "The General"
But it was his old silent movies that brought in the
gold. Mr. Keaton had had his own producing company in
the 1920's and he retained ownership of his old films.
He had the film quality restored and a sound track of
music added. The pantomime remained intact and the old
subtitles were kept.
The first reissue was of "The General"--a slapstick
classic of a bumbling Civil War spy-- in 1962. It
played all over Europe. People laughed harder than
they did in 1927, when the film first came out.
Mr. Keaton wrote the story and continuity of "The
General," directed it, cut it and played the leading
role. It was shot in 18 weeks at a cost of $330,000.
It contained one of the great chases in movie history:
Mr. Keaton's attempt to tame a runaway train during
the Civil War.
Mr. Keaton's renaissance reached an artistic peak last
October at the Venice Film Festival, when "Film," an
arty 22-minute silent he made in New York in 1964, was
accorded a five-minute standing ovation. Fighting back
tears, Mr. Keaton told a correspondent: "This is the
first time I've been invited to a film festival, but I
hope it won't be the last."
Critics differed on "Film," Samuel Beckett's first
screenplay, a story of an old, obsessed man who shuts
himself up in a room to thwart fate.
But there was no dissension over the wonderfully comic
image Mr. Keaton gave the world in his old two-reelers
such as: "The Cameraman," "Steamboat Bill Jr.," "The
Passionate Plumber," "Sherlock Jr." and in a
full-length classic, "The Navigator."
"The Navigator" contained the unforgettable scene of
Mr. Keaton trying to shuffle stuck- together cards.
And then there was the memorable sequence when he
launches a ship: he stood at attention on deck,
resplendent in admiral's uniform, riding it down the
ways, never blinking or wavering as it sank slowly out
Early in his career Buster Keaton learned that a stoic
countenance drew laughs.
He was born to the stage. His parents, Joseph and
Myron Keaton, were appearing in a tent show with Harry
Houdini, the magician, when the future comedian
arrived on October 4, 1895, while the show was playing
Piqua, Kan. It was Houdini who coined the nickname.
"What a buster!" Houdini is supposed to have exclaimed
when the six-month-old baby fell downstairs.
That was only the first of countless pratfalls. In the
family act, which became one of the roughest
knockabout low-comedy turns in vaudeville, Buster was
tossed around by Pop with murderous abandon while Mom,
oblivious to the chaos, essayed a saxophone solo
It was around that time that Buster perfected his
stoic mask while still a child performer. Hit on the
face with a broom, he would wait five or six seconds
without moving a facial muscle, and then say "Ouch."
It always brought down the house.
The Keatons did their last variety turn at the Palace
in 1917. They were signed by the Schuberts for "The
Passing Show of 1917" but Buster was sidetracked by
Roscoe (Fatty) Arbuckle, who talked young Keaton into
taking a supporting role in a two-reeler called "The
Butcher Boy." In this opus Buster was dumped in
molasses, bitten by a dog and hit with an apple pie.
Soon Buster became an expert on the composition of
slapstick pies. "First, you had to make it with a
double crust on the bottom, so you could get a good
hold on it without your fingers going through," he
once recalled. "Then you made the filling of the pie
out of flour and water uncooked, so it would be sticky
and stringy, and you topped it off with, say,
blueberries and whipped cream, or perhaps a nice
meringue. I never threw a pie in any of my
feature-length pictures. By then we thought pies were
In recent years Buster took great satisfaction in the
knowledge that a new generation was finding his old
films funnier than ever. And although he still refused
to smile when a camera was on him, he had to concede
that life hadn't been too bad. He was making better
than $100,000 a year from commercials alone.
"I can't feel sorry for myself," he said in Venice
last fall. "It all goes to show that if you stay on
the merry-go-round long enough you'll get another
chance at the brass ring. Luckily, I stayed on."
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