What you may not already know about Buster Keaton

The International Movie Database (IMDb) remains the best single source for information about filmmaking and those who create them. I urge you to check it out. For example, here is a portion of the information IMDb provides about Joseph Frank Keaton (1895-1966) who was born on October 4, 1895 in Piqua, Kansas, to Joe Keaton and Myra Keaton. They were Vaudevillian comedians with a popular, ever-changing variety act, giving Keaton an eclectic and interesting upbringing. In the earliest days on stage, they traveled with a medicine show that included family friend, illusionist Harry Houdini. Keaton himself verified the origin of his nickname “Buster,” given to him by Houdini, when at the age of three, he fell down a flight of stairs and was picked up and dusted off by Houdini, who said to Keaton’s father Joe, also nearby, that the fall was “a buster.” Savvy showman Joe Keaton liked the nickname, which has stuck for more than 100 years.

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o Unlike many silent movie stars, Buster was eager to go into sound considering he had a fine baritone voice with no speech impediments and years of stage experience, so dialogue was not a problem.
o Pictured on one of ten 29¢ US commemorative postage stamps celebrating stars of the silent screen, issued 27 April 1994. Designed by caricaturist Al Hirschfeld, this set of stamps also honored Rudolph ValentinoClara BowCharles ChaplinLon ChaneyJohn GilbertZasu PittsHarold LloydTheda Bara and the Keystone Kops.
o Fractured his neck while filming Sherlock Jr. (1924) and did not learn about it until a doctor saw X-rays of his neck during a routine physical examination many years later.
o Died quietly at home, in his sleep, shortly after playing cards with his wife.
o He was already quite sick with the cancer that would eventually kill him by the time he made his last completed film, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966). He used a stunt double in this film, as well as most of the films he made as an MGM contract player. Before signing with MGM in 1928, he had performed all of his own stunts, and even doubled for cast members in his own films, as in Sherlock Jr. (1924), where he played both himself, riding on the handlebars of a motorcycle, and the man who falls off the back of it.
o His mother was of British/German ancestry, and his father was of Scottish/Irish ancestry.
o Because most of his childhood was spent in vaudeville with his parents, he had few peers. However, he enjoyed a more regular childhood during his family’s annual summer getaways to an Actor’s Colony on Lake Michigan in Muskegon, MI. In fact, the city of Muskegon has erected a historical marker to note his stomping ground.
o First married Mae Scriven in Mexico on January 1, 1932 before his divorce from Natalie Talmadge was final, then again legally in 1933.
o He became an alcoholic when his career collapsed around 1930, only kicking his habit and regaining his self-esteem when he married Eleanor Norris (Eleanor Keaton), his wife from 1940 until his death in 1966.
o Was voted the seventh Greatest Director of all time by Entertainment Weekly, making him the highest rated comedy director. Charles Chaplin did not make the list.
o When he married Natalie Talmadge, the Talmadge family was one of the great acting dynasties in both theater and film, and the gossip in Hollywood was that Keaton married her to gain respect in the industry, a rumor he never quite lived down during his peak. Ironically, Keaton is now a film legend, while most people would be hard-pressed to answer who the Talmadges are.
o Not only did Keaton do all his own stunts, but, when needed, he acted as a stunt double for other actors in the films.
o He often surrounded himself with tall and heavyset actors in his films, typically as his antagonist, to make his character seem to be at as much of a physical disadvantage as possible. [He was 5’5″ tall.] The similarly diminutive Charlie Chaplin (Charles Chaplin) also did this.
o The three top comedians in silent-era Hollywood were Keaton, Charles Chaplin and Harold Lloyd. All three produced, controlled and owned their own films. Keaton was convinced to sell his studio and films to MGM in the 1920s, while Chaplin and Lloyd retained ownership of their films. Chaplin and Lloyd became wealthy, while Keaton endured years of financial and personal problems.
o In one scene in Sherlock Jr. (1924), filmed at a train station, Keaton was hanging from a tube connected to a water basin. The water poured out and washed him on to the track, fracturing his neck. This footage appears in the released film.
o Was named the 21st Greatest Actor on The 50 Greatest Screen Legends List by the American Film Institute
o Was hearing-impaired since 1918, after serving in Germany fighting World War I.
o Met Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle for the first time strolling down Broadway in New York City. Arbuckle was with Keaton’s old vaudeville acquaintance Lou Anger, who introduced them. Arbuckle immediately asked Keaton to visit the Colony Studio, where he was set to begin a series of comedies for Joseph M. Schenck. The famous comedy team was born.
o Loved to play baseball. He would sometimes play between takes on the movie set. Furthermore, for the annual Hollywood charity baseball game for Mt. Sinai Hospital in the 1930s, he always led the comedians’ team and developed comedy business on field with his writers.
o Said he learned everything about moviemaking and comedy from Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle.
o The Navigator (1924) was his most successful movie by gross revenue.
o There is much legend regarding the conception of his nickname, Buster. As noted, many attribute the name to the legendary Harry Houdini, who was the partner of Joe Keaton (Buster’s father) in the medicine-show group “Kathleen Marownen”, after he saw a young Buster fall down a set of stairs without any injury. Others have said that it was Joe who conceived the name after he saw Buster’s accident, while still others say that Joe Keaton fabricated the incident for a good story to tell on vaudeville. Which of these stories is actually true is unknown.
o He and his parents formed an acrobatic group called “The Three Keatons” in his early youth.
o Wanted to become a railroad engineer as a child.
o His performance as Johnny Gray in The General (1926) is ranked #34 on Premiere magazine’s 100 Greatest Performances of All Time (2006).
o His last film work was The Railrodder (1965), but because it was such a short film it was released before other movies, like A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966), which had completed filming before “The Railrodder”.
o When he was three years old he got his right index finger caught in a clothes wringer and it was crushed and had to be amputated at the first knuckle. The injury is most clearly visible in The Garage (1920), when Keaton steadies Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle‘s head with his right hand while wiping oil off his face with his left.
o In 1952 while remodeling his home, James Mason discovered several reels of Keaton’s “lost” films (Mason had purchased Keaton’s Hollywood mansion) and immediately recognized their historical significance. He took upon himself the responsibility for their preservation.

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