On October 4, 1895, Joseph Francis “Buster” Keaton was born. In the one hundred and twenty years since his birth, Buster Keaton has become an iconic clown and one of the most influential filmmakers of all time. To commemorate this landmark anniversary, I have compiled a three part oral history of Keaton’s life and career, allowing us to read, in his own words, how he made the silent films that have become classics of comedy and world cinema. [NOTE: This oral history has been compiled from a number of readily available interview sources and biographies. I and all Keaton fans around the world are heavily indebted to the interviewers and historians who have conducted those interviews. It is not the intention of this editor or Zimbo Films to take credit for this interview material or to profit from it. For a full list of citations, please see below.]
BUSTER KEATON: Well, I was born with a show – with a tent show, in fact. It was a onenight stand in Kansas, a little town called Piqua. And the show left my mother and me there for two weeks and then she rejoined the show. So I was really born with the show.1
MYRA KEATON , Buster Keaton’s mother : It was late morning upstairs in a boardinghouse when [ my husband] Joe and I heard this sudden racket. We rushed out and – my God! there’s our baby lying in a heap down on the next landing. Somehow he’d inched out of our room and, bang, down the stairs. Harry Houdini and his wife Bessie, who were in our company, got to him ahead of us. Harry grabbed the baby up, and the confounded kid began to laugh!
Houdini gasped and said, “That’s some buster your baby took.” He’s been Buster ever since.2
BUSTER KEATON: Before I was a year old, [my parents] quit medicine shows and started into the smallest of smalltime vaudeville, trying to work their way up, and had some very tough times. Of course, they had makeups on me and were walking me out just as soon as I could walk in front of an audience. By the time I was four years old, I was a regular member of the act…a manager in Wilmington, Delaware, said, “Keep him in the act, and I’ll raise your salary $10 a week.” That’s what started me.3
My dad was a comedian and a great eccentric dancer… He wasn’t exactly an acrobat, but darn near. And my mother played musical instruments…Of course, when I came into the act, then they got the idea of trying to show the audience how to bring up children correctly.4 [My father] tried to convince the audience that there was only one way to bring up children and that was to make ’em mind. Be gentle and kind to them, but make them mind. By that time I’d knocked both of his feet out from under him with a broom or something – the chase was on again.
…I saw the great days of vaudeville. I got in just in time to see vaudeville go from the ten, twenty, and thirtycent admission fees to the two dollar. And, in fact, The Three Keatons, that’s what
we were called, we held Hammerstein’s Theater record for playing it the most times. You were only supposed to play there about once a year, and if they liked you, you got to play there twice a year. We used to average four to six times a year.5
[Eventually I] got too big for Joe to throw around. The act had to change. But Joe was changing too. Mad most of the time, and could look at you as if he don’t know you. But he could become the father quick enough – those lickings onstage for things that had happened before. Finally I’d get sore, and we’d start trading. And still keep it funny.
Myra told me, “Joe’s not punishing you. It’s old Father Time he’d like to get his hands on. Man or woman,” she said, “some can take getting old, some can’t.”
It made it more understandable, no more standable. When I smelled whiskey across the stage, I got braced.
Yet you have to say, “Poor son of a bitch, fighting something he’d never catch up with!” But, sweet Jesus, our act! What a beautiful thing it had been. I don’t know how we lasted as long as we did. Finally – it was in February, 1917 – Myra decided to call it quits. Joe was abusing her too. We were on the train from Oakland to Los Angeles when she said to me, “Buster, God help me, I can’t take any more.”
When we got to L.A. we swiped our trunks out of the alley back of the theatre, gave the manager some money for Joe, and ran. I still can hardly believe we did it. Except for Myra, I guess I’d have gone on taking it.6
Getting Into the Movies
BUSTER KEATON: I was going to go into a show in New York. I was going into the Winter Garden for The Passing Show of 1917,when I met [Roscoe “Fatty”] Arbuckle on the street with an old friend of mine, who introduced me to Arbuckle. Arbuckle asked me if I’d ever been in a motion picture. I said I hadn’t even been in a studio. He said, “Come on down to the Norma Talmadge Studio on Fortyeighth Street on Monday. Get there early and do a scene with me and see how you like it.” Well, rehearsals hadn’t started yet, so I said, “all right.”
Well, the making of a motion picture started to fascinate me immediately. So I stuck with them and went in and out of that picture. First thing I did was I asked a thousand questions about the camera and got into the camera. Then I went into the projecting room to see things cut. For a finish I asked them to break my contract, let me out of the show, and I stayed with Arbuckle. And Arbuckle at that time was considered, next to Chaplin, to be the best comedy director in pictures.
He was a good man to watch. Well, I was only with him about maybe three pictures when I because his assistant director. I don’t mean in the sense of an assistant director like we have today who sees that the people are on the set. I mean when he was doing a scene and I wasn’t in it, I was alongside the camera to watch him. I directed when he was in the scene. So by the time I’d spent a year with him, it was no problem at all, when I set out to make my own, to direct.7
…I’d only been with him a short time, and he says, “Here’s something you want to bear in mind, that the average mind of the motion picture audience is twelve years old.” I was only with him about
another couple of months or something like that, and I says, “Roscoe, something tells me that those who continue to make pictures for twelveyear old minds ain’t going to be with us long.”8
…we stayed [in New York] and shot pictures…altogether I think we made six pictures there…Then Arbuckle persuaded [producer] Joe Schenck that the East was no place for our type of motion picture – we needed too many exteriors and changes of scenery, while in New York in that neighborhood you were kind of helpless.9 I stayed with Arbuckle out on the Coast for about six more pictures, and got into the army, the Fortieth Division, and I was a doughboy in France for seven months. When I got back, I only made two more pictures with Roscoe, and Joe Schenck had sold his contract to Paramount. And the minute Schenck did that, he turned the company over to me and then went and bought me a studio. Fact, he bought me Chaplin’s old studio, and named it the Keaton Studio. And all he did as the producer, he says, “You’re to make eight tworeelers [short films] a year we’re going to release through the new outfit that Marcus Loew has just bought, called Metro.” So Schenck never knew when I was shooting, or what I was shooting. I just set out to make those eight pictures a year.10
BUSTER KEATON: [Metro] bought a show from John Golden calledThe[New]Henrietta.It was done twice on Broadway. The second show starred William H. Crane and Douglas Fairbanks. And the character in the show [that Fairbanks played] was called “Bertie the Lamb.” His father was a Wall Street tycoon or something, and he was the “Bear of Wall Street,” and they called his son “Bertie the Lamb.”
John Golden comes out to Hollywood, and he’s up at Doug’s house for dinner and says, “Metro’s going to makeThe[New]Henriettaand William H. Crane’s going to play his own part.”
He says, “Who’s going to play my part?” Says, “We don’t know.”
And Fairbanks says, “I know who to get.” “Who?”
He says, “Keaton.” He says, “Well, after all, Keaton’s never had anything on but misfit clothes and slap shoes all his life.” And he says, “You dress him up and he’ll play Bertie the Lamb for you.” So I did.11 Metro made the picture, not the Keaton studio. My staff had nothing to do with that picture.12
The Keaton Studio
BUSTER KEATON: When I first started making tworeelers, I had Eddie Cline – I just codirected with him. What we’d do, of course, we always carried three men on our scenario staff and worked with them, and by the time we decided on a [story]….we were ready to start a picture, my head technical man that builds my sets, my head prop man, my head electrician, assistant director, everybody knows what we’ve been talking about for weeks. So, we never had anything on paper. Neither Chaplin, Lloyd, nor myself – even when we got into featurelength pictures – ever had a script. For instance, somebody comes up with an idea. Says, “Now, here’s a good start.” We skip the middle immediately – we never paid any attention to the middle. Immediately went to the finish. We work on the finish, and if we get a finish that we’re all satisfied with, then we’ll go back and work on the middle, because the middle for some reason always takes care of itself. You get the start and a finish, you’re all right.
Now here’s the difference in independent companies in those days. When you owned your own studio and you’re the only company in there…Your skeleton outfit of the company – that’s your technical man, your head cameraman and his assistant, and the prop man, your head electrician – these people, they’re on salary with you for fiftytwo weeks of the year. So, if I’m sitting in the cutting room, and the picture’s been finished, I’m going through it, and I say: “I’d like to take this sequence out, and if I’d turned to the left in that alley there, I could drop that whole sequence and pick it up right here. So, we’ll get the cameras out this afternoon and we’ll go back to that alley and shoot it.” Now, to do that, that’d cost me the gasoline for the cars that we owned and the amount of film that we bought from Eastman to put in the camera to take that – which, when it all adds up, means about $2.39. You try that at any major studio today, and I’ll tell you the least you could get that scene for – just go out and grab that scene and get back – would be around $12,000. Because everything is rented. Everything! And of course you don’t move a company today but the union has to take so many props men, so many…the commissary truck goes, the dressingroom truck goes.
Fred Gabourie was my technical man, built all our sets. Production manager would have been my studio head, who was Lou Anger, whose name would never have been on the screen. And most of the time I used Gabourie as a production manager. [Elgin Lessley] was my first cameraman. He was with Arbuckle originally, because I had the Arbuckle Company when I started…the two best [writers] I ever had were Jean Havez and Clyde Bruckman.13
CLYDE BRUCKMAN,gag writer, codirector, The General (1926):I was at Buster’s house or he at mine four or five nights many a week – playing cards, horsing around, dodging the issue. Then, at midnight, to the kitchen, sit on the sink, eat hamburgers, and work on gags until three in the morning. And how we’d work!
Buster was a guy you worked with-not for…Harold Lloyd was wonderful to me. So was [W.C.] Fields. But with Bus, you belonged.
With it all, you wouldn’t believe a comedian could be so serious. He showed them all how to underact. He could tell his story by lifting an eyebrow. He could tell it bynotlifting an eyebrow. Buster was his own best gagman. He had judgment, taste; never overdid it, and never offended. He knew what was right for him.14
BUSTER KEATON: In my early experiences, as a kid growing up in front of an audience, I had learned at an early age that I happened to be the type of comedian that couldn’t laugh at anything he was doing…the more seriously I took everything… the better laughs I got. So by the time I went into pictures, working with a straight face was absolutely automatic with me…when I started getting the reputation for being called “Frozen Face” and “Blank Pan,” we went into the projection room and ran our first two pictures to see if I’d smiled. I hadn’t. We didn’t even realize it.15 [The porkpie hat] was very similar to the one I had on the stage…when I went into pictures, every comedian wore a Derby hat. So, I says: “If there is one thing I won’t wear, it’s a Derby hat.”16
CLYDE BRUCKMAN: Let me tell you this, and the dates will prove it: Buster Keaton was the first to film comedy at standard camera speed. Remember the old rushing, jerky Keystone comedies? They were filmed at slow speed – which does the opposite when projected on the screen, that is, speeds the action up. They thought it was funnier – and it saved film. But no undercranking for Buster. “The unnatural tempo,” he said, “makes the action unbelievable. Besides, it wrecks the gag timing.” So Keaton used standard speed right from the start with his own outfit. After his first release Chaplin and Lloyd followed suit. I often wish that I were back there, with Buster and the gang, inthatHollywood. But I don’t have the lamp to rub. It was one of a kind.17
One Week (1920)
BUSTER KEATON: One Week,my first tworeeler, was averybig laughing picture…[in the film] my uncle gave me the portable house and my aunt gave me the lot to build it on, as a wedding present. Only my former rival for the girl’s hand changed the numbers on the crates so when I put the house up it was the darndest looking thing you ever saw. And then for a finish, I found out I’d built it on the wrong lot.18 [For the scene where the house spins] we built it on a turntable and buried the control belt or rod or whatever it was. You just dig a ditch down about that far and lay your stuff in there and then put boards over it and then shovel dirt and grass on top of it. And that’s it. You’re sure to do that in nothing flat…it would take about three days.19
The High Sign (1920)
BUSTER KEATON: We’re making some screwball picture about the Black Hand or something in which there’s a high sign, the fingers crossed under the nose.
So, we do a simple scene, there’s a street with a corner and a guy goes by eating a banana and drops the banana peel. Then I come on the other way, turn the corner and walk into the camera. Everyone knows that I’m going to slip on the banana peel – only I don’t. I walk right over the peel and give the high sign into the camera. Okay, so we preview the picture. The scene doesn’t get a titter. Not a titter and nobody can figure out why. Finally I get the idea and we go back and shoot the scene over again. We do it exactly the same, only this time, after I walk over the banana peel and into the camera, giving the high sign, the camera follows me and I slip on another banana peel that I haven’t seen and down I go. Yaks. The audience wants his comic to be human, not clever.20
Hard Luck (1921)
BUSTER KEATON: Well, in our early successes, we had to get sympathy to make any story stand up. But the one thing that I made sure – that I didn’t ask for it. If the audience wanted to feel sorry for me, that was up to them. I didn’t ask for it in action. [Chaplin] has done that. I’ve seen him do it, get sorry for himself. The only time I did it was…I did it more in a burlesque way, because it was one of the early tworeelers – …Hard Luck...I started out in that picture – because I was down in spirit and heart and everything – to do away with myself. So I set out to commit suicide. There were about six gags in there that were pips. The last one was one of the most talkedof gags that’s ever been done in the picture business.
I got out by a country club, in an openair swimming pool, and there was a very high diving platform there for some professionals. So just to show off in front of the girls lounging around the pool, I climbed up to the top of it, and posed, and did a beautiful swan dive off the top of that thing. And I missed the pool! I made a hole in the ground, disappeared; people came up and looked down in the hole, shrugged their shoulders, and the scene faded out. It faded in to a title that said, “Years Later,” and faded back in: the swimming pool now was empty; it was cracked, nobody around, the place deserted. And I came up out of the hole with a Chinese wife and two kids, and pointed up to the high thing and said, “I dove off there, and that’s what happened.”
That was the fadeout of the picture, and that audience would be laughing getting into their cars out in the parking lots. It was so darned ridiculous that there was no way to time the laugh, because if the audience stayed in there and watched the feature picture coming on, they’d still be laughing at the middle of the next reel of the feature.21
The Playhouse (1921)
BUSTER KEATON: Well, we just set out to kid Thomas H. Ince. Ince started takin’ himself very seriously and his pictures come out saying, “Thomas H. Ince presents Dorothy Dalton in Fur Trapping on the Canadian Border. Written by Thomas H. Ince. Directed by Thomas H. Ince. Supervised by Thomas H. Ince, and this is a Thomas H. Ince Production.”22 So, when I madeThe Playhouse– and remember I do all these double exposures – I’m the whole orchestra, I’m the people in all the boxes, in the audience, and I’m on the stage. I bought a ticket from myself – I’m the ticket taker who took a ticket from myself. [Laughs.] So, when we put the credit titles up – we put up the cast of characters, they’re all Keaton. We used that: Written by Keaton. Directed by Keaton. Costumes by Keaton – and into a separate title – This is a Keaton production, which got a belly laugh from the audience.23
CLYDE BRUCKMAN: Buster Keaton did the multiple exposure to end all multiple exposures. He built a lightproof black box, about a foot square, that fitted over the camera. The crank came out the side through an insulated slot. It was in the front that the business was: nine shutters from right to left, fitted so tight you could have worked underwater. You opened one at a time, shot that section, closed that shutter, rolled the film back, opened the next shutter and shot, and so on.24
BUSTER KEATON: Actually, it was hardest on Elgin Lessley at the camera. He had to roll the film back eight times, then run it through again. He had to hand crank at exactly the same speed both ways, each time. If he were off the slightest fraction, no matter how carefully I timed my movements, the composite action could not have synchronized. But Elgin was outstanding among all the studios. He was a human metronome.
My synchronizing was gotten by doing the routines to banjo music. Again, I got a human metronome. Metronome Lessley set the beat, metronome banjo man started taping his foot, and Lessley started each time with ten feet of blank film as a leader, counting down, “Ten, nine, eight,” and so on. At “zero” we hadn’t thought up “blast off” in those days – banjo went into chorus and I into routine. Simple.25 But I made one very bad mistake with that picture..I could have made the whole tworeeler just by myself [in all the parts], without any trouble. But we were a little scared to do it, because it might have looked as though we were trying to show how versatile I was – that I could make a whole halfhour picture all alone, without another soul in the cast. That’s the reason why we brought other people into the second reel, and that was a mistake.26
ALBERT LEWIN, filmmaker: An altogether extraordinary emotional effect came from the dreamlike, obsessive, hallucinatory repetition of that strange frozen face. There is no question that Buster Keaton, among other things, was a surrealist even before surrealism. Such fantasy! Not even Pirandello ever conjured up such extraordinary visions.27
The Boat (1921)
DAVID ROBINSON,film historian:The Boat can rank with the great feature length comedies. No Keaton film previous to The Boat was quite so sustained in its melancholy; or provided such continuous laughter.28
BUSTER KEATON: Well, I’ll tell you how you might remember this one. I built this family cruiser.
It was about a thirtyfive footer, and I had it on the launching cradle down at Balboa – and the wife and two little kids to pull the blocks out from under it and spring it loose as soon as she christened in. I stood on the nose of the boat, the proud owner and captain, and she christened the boat. They pulled the blocks out, and the boat slid down into he ocean and never stopped. It went right tot he bottom. The last the audience saw of me, my hat was floating.29
…when we actually [sunk the boat], it took us three days to get the scene. Just kept running with things, that’s all. We got that boat to slide down the waves. Now, we got something like sixteen hundred pounds of pigiron and Trails in it to give it weight. We cut it loose and she slows up, slows up so slow that we can’t use it. Well, you don’t like to undercrank when you’re around water… immediately you see it shows, that it’s jumpy. Well, first thing we do is build a breakaway stern to the boat. So, when it hits the water, it would just collapse and act as a scoop, to scoop water. That worked fine except the nose stayed in the air. We’ve got an air pocket in the nose. We get it back up and bore holes all through the nose and everyplace else that might form an air pocket. Try her again. And there is a certain amount of buoyancy to wood no matter how much you weight it down. She hesitated, before she’d slowly sink. And our gag’s not worth a tinker’s dam is she just don’t go straight right down to the bottom. So for a finish, we go out in the bay at Balboa and drop a sea anchor with a cable to the stern, a cable out of a pulley over to a tug out of the shot. I actuallypulledthat boat down. That’s the way we got the scene.30
BUSTER KEATON: [In Cops] I tried to cut through the [police] parade [in my horse and cart], and I couldn’t do it, so I just joined it. And before anybody could stop me, some anarchist up on top of a building threw a bomb down on the police parade, but it lit in my wagon. So, when it went off, the whole police force was after me.31
Onyx [the horse] was my costar. Bruckman, for some cockeyed reason, named him Onyx. I can’t recall why we didn’t rent a horse. Anyway, we bought this oldtimer.
There was a scene – before we stumble into the parade – where Onyx slows down and can’t pull the heavy load of furniture any longer. I’m to unharness him and lead him out from the shafts. Then it’s to cut and show me, bit in mouth, between the shafts pulling the wagon. Then pan back and show Onyx up in the wagon riding.
It was a good idea except that Onyx wouldn’t go along with it. We wasted a day trying to get him up in that wagon. He wouldn’t walk up a ramp, refused to be hoisted in a veterinarian’s bellyband, snorted and kicked whenever we came near. We finally gave up and shot the scene with me pulling the wagon alongside of the horse. Not as good a gag, but it had to do. That finished the Saturday shooting.
Monday morning we saw the reason for it all. Onyx had a brand new colt standing by her when we came to the studio. Her, I said.
Bruckman was just opening his mouth to say something. I could feel the word forming in his mind. I beat him to it. “The baby’s name,” I said, “is Onyxpected!”32
TOM DARDIS, Keaton Biographer: Today Buster’s films are seen by some as paradigms of the human condition, as existential films that deal with [philosopher Martin] Heidegger’s Dasein, his notion of what it’s like “being there” in the world. One Week can be interpreted this way, as can Cops, one of Keaton’s greatest achievements.33
RUDI BLESH, Keaton Biographer: It is only on the surface that Cops is a replay of the old Keystone theme. It is much more, more even than man adrift on the sea but consoled by his family [in The Boat]. It is man completely alone and fleeing before his fellow men. It is fate operating through accident and misunderstanding, nullifying good intentions, canceling hope, bringing ruin. It sounds as if we are talking about Kafkaesque tragedy…And indeed, in part, we are.34
NORMAN SILVERSTEIN, author, “Film Experience”: The year 1922 has been celebrated for the appearance of The Waste Landand Ulysses. Buster Keaton’s Cops,I would maintain, is a great work of art, belonging with Eliot’s poem and Joyce’s novel rather than with the trivial works with which it has been associated…35
BUSTER KEATON: Oh, just doing a hit or miss routine there, just ducking cops in all directions. Just a common ordinary chase sequence.36
edited by Hank Curry
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22Blesh, Rudi.Keaton.Third ed. New York: Macmillan Company, 1966.4.
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55“Turning Point Interview with Buster Keaton” InBuster Keaton: Interviews, edited by Kevin W. Sweeney, by Arthur B. Friedman, 1415. First ed. Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi, 2007.
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2626“Keaton at Venice.” InBuster Keaton: Interviews, edited by Kevin W. Sweeney, by John Gillett and James Blue, 224. First ed. Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi, 2007.
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2828Robinson, David.Buster Keaton.First ed. Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1969. 60.
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