Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor

KEATON, BUSTER (1895-1966)

Buster Keaton in Sherlock Jr.

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One of the greatest creators of American silent film comedy, Keaton was born Joseph Frank Keaton in Piqua, Kansas, on October 4, 1895. His father, Joe Keaton, migrated from Indiana to Oklahoma during the land boom of 1889 but soon abandoned homesteading to perform eccentric dances for Frank Cutler's Medicine Show. There Joe met Cutler's daughter Myra, who also performed in the show. In 1894 Joe married Myra and launched his own medicine show in partnership with Harry Houdini, who allegedly suggested the younger Keaton's nickname, Buster.

According to legend, one day while his parents were performing in Kansas shortly before Buster's third birthday, Buster suffered three alarming accidents. First he caught his hand in a clothes wringer, mangling the tip of his right index finger, which had to be amputated. Later the same day, he hit himself near the right eye with a rock while trying to knock a peach out of a tree. Still later, he was sucked out of a window by a tornado, carried three blocks, and deposited on the ground unhurt. Concluding that Buster might be safer onstage, Joe devised the vaudeville act known as The Three Keatons, which consisted primarily of an escalating combat between Buster, an unruly child, and Joe, his exasperated Irish father. As "the Human Mop," Buster entertained audiences by tumbling and being flung impassively around the stage, developing acrobatic skills he later used to perform spectacular film stunts.

Largely due to Buster's audience appeal, The Three Keatons thrived until Joe's alcoholism made working with him intolerable. When the act broke up in 1917, Roscoe Arbuckle recruited Buster to appear in a series of short comedies for Arbuckle's Comique Film Corporation. To Buster's surprise, the mechanics of filmmaking fascinated him, and he quickly mastered the new medium.

Keaton's greatest achievements are the thirty-two film comedies (nineteen shorts and thirteen features) he made, mostly for his own company, between 1920 and 1929. These films showcase Keaton's trademark character: an unsmiling, hauntingly earnest young man who becomes embroiled in a wide array of bizarre situations, many of them involving machines. Keaton's films are characterized by wry humor, a touch of surrealism, and a vigorous exploration of the possibilities and limitations of film as a medium. Of his feature films, Our Hospitality (1923), Sherlock, Jr. (1924), The Navigator (1924), The General (1926), and The Cameraman (1928) are especially notable.

In 1928 Keaton made the critical mistake of signing a contract with mgm. As a result, he quickly lost control of his films, whose quality seriously declined, while at the same time his marital and drinking problems increased. Fired by MGM in 1933, the tenacious Keaton nevertheless continued to work, less prominently, as an actor, gag writer, producer, and director. Eventually, he remarried happily and lived to see his films revived in the 1950s and 1960s. This rediscovery of his work brought him renewed, even unprecedented recognition, including a special Oscar in 1960. Buster Keaton died of lung cancer in Woodland Hills, California, on February 1, 1966. A small museum in Piqua recalls Keaton's Plains origins.

Constance Brown Kuriyama Texas Tech University

Dardis, Tom. Keaton: The Man Who Wouldn't Lie Down. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1979.

Keaton, Buster, with Charles Samuels. My Wonderful World of Slapstick. New York: DaCapo, 1982.

Rapf, Joanna E., and Gary L. Green. Buster Keaton: A Bio-Bibliography. Westport CT: Greenwood Press, 1995.

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