A Brief Overview of Buster Keaton

This is intended simply as a brief biography of Buster Keaton for those unfamiliar with his work. Far more in-depth sources can be found in print and on the Internet; just a few of them are listed on this site’s “Sources and Links” page. -- Steve Bailey, Webmaster

Buster Keaton (1895-1966) began his show-business career as part of his parents’ rough-house act in vaudeville. He was billed as “The Human Mop” and was literally tossed all over the stage, though his father Joe took great care to build a special handle into his stage outfit that would enable him to be jousted without bodily harm. Keaton’s “Stone Face” persona came about when he realized that his audiences stopped laughing whenever he himself laughed, but they howled if he remained stoic throughout the chaos he endured on-stage.

Eventually, Buster met and served as screen sidekick to Roscoe Arbuckle (“Fatty”), who at the time was second only to Charlie Chaplin in terms of box-office popularity. Keaton’s apprenticeship served him well. Keaton learned how to get laughs for a movie camera (more intimately than in the broadness of a playhouse), and he learned how a movie camera worked and how it could facilitate in getting laughs -- lessons put to use when Arbuckle’s producer (and Keaton’s future brother-in-law), Joseph Schenck, gave Keaton carte blanche to direct and star in his own comedy films beginning in 1920.

Keaton was successful from his first short subject, One Week, and continued to make shorts for three more years. Eventually, he was moved into feature films, where Keaton realized that plot and story construction trumped gags for gags’ sake. His second feature as an independent filmmaker, Our Hospitality (1923), demonstrates a quantum leap in story, gags, action, and photography. It was inevitable that just a few years and movies later, Keaton’s experience (as well as his love of trains) would come to a head in his most celebrated feature, The General.

Unfortunately, The General was so expensive to produce that it lost money upon its first release, as did Keaton’s next two features. Schenck eventually sold Keaton’s contract to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, where Keaton was soon turned into just another company player with assembly-line stories and gags. Keaton’s personal life also fell apart at this time, with his first wife divorcing him and changing their children’s last name.

Keaton was fired from MGM and made shorts for lesser studios, as well as straight acting roles and serving as gagmen for other comedians. The 1940’s brought happier days to Keaton. He married his third and final wife, dancer Eleanor Norris; the birth of widespread television gave Keaton a new audience for his comedy; and his old films were re-issued to the delight of old and new generations. He made countless guest appearances on TV and in movies, working right up to his death in 1966.

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Original Story of The General
Filming of The General
Release of The General
Trivia Related to The General
Quotations About The General
Sources and Links
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