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.]
Three Ages (1923)
BUSTER KEATON: [Producer Joseph] Schenck said [moving to features] was the only way to get big rentals. The exhibitor, anyway, was often featuring our two-reelers over his main film. So why not make him pay for it? It would more than double the rentals – would mean twenty-five hundred dollars and more a week from each theatre. As for me personally feature stories meant something else again…I had begun to want longer stories. A challenge, yes, but also room to develop the thing. To really say it.1
…what I did [with Three Ages] was just tell a single story of two fellows calling on a girl…And in fighting over the girl and different situations we could get into, and finally winning her. But I told the same story in three ages. I told it in the Stone Age, Roman Age, and Modern.2 I was thinking of Intolerance (1916) when I made it. I told the three separate stories same as Griffith did; and of course in that film I did take liberties, because it was more of a travesty than a burlesque. That’s why I used a wristwatch that was a sundial, and why I used my helmet the way I did. Fords at that time had a safety device to stop people from stealing the cars…which looked just like my Roman helmet. So I unlocked my Roman helmet off me and locked it on the wheel of my chariot. At that time the audience all compared it with the safety gadget for a Ford.3
CLYDE BRUCKMAN, co-director, The General: Bus wanted one of the cavemen to heave a big rock at him; he would take a batter’s stance, swing his war club, bat the rock back, and it would bean the other guy. Now, you do this easy by the cutting technique. One shot of the guy throwing. Next shot, someone out of camera range lobs it up to Buster and he bats it. Final shot, close-up of the rock beaning the guy. Put it all together. Easy as duck soup…the studios do it every day. It rolls across the screen with a whoosh – but you never saw the thing really happen; it’s a patchwork of half-truths.
Now, Buster accepted the fact that this rock must be papier-mache. But he wouldn’t accept action trickery. It had to be continuous action, from the moment the caveman picked it up and heaved it straight through to the moment it homed back and coldcocked him. “We get it in one shot,” he said, “or we throw out the gag.”
We set up the cameras for a long profile shot – this rock was going to sail for thirty feet – and we worked for hours. Seventy-six takes, all for one little gag.
“Okay,” said Buster, “now they’ll know it was for real.”4
BUSTER KEATON: [For the film] I went to jump across an alleyway on top of a tall building. We built the sets over the Third Street tunnel – or the Broadway tunnel – looking right down over Los Angeles. Now, by getting your cameras up on a high parallel and shooting past our set in the foreground with the street below, it looked like we were up in the air about twelve, fourteen stories high. And we actually had a net stretched from one wall to the other underneath the camera line so in case you missed any trick that you were doing…you had a net to fall into, although it was about a thirty-five foot drop. So, my scene was with the cops chasing me, that I came to this thing and I took advantage of the lid of a skylight and laid it over the edge of the roof to use as a springboard. I backed up, hit it, and tried to make it to the other side which was probably about eighteen feet, something like that. Well, I misjudged the spring of that board and I didn’t make it. I hit flat up against that other set and fell to the net, but I hit hard enough that it jammed my knees a little bit, and hips and elbows, ’cause I hit flush, flat – and I had to go home and stay in bed for about three days.
And of course, at the same time, me and the scenario department were a little sick because we can’t make that leap. That throws the whole chase sequence…right out the window. So the boys the next day went into the projecting room and saw the scene anyhow, ’cause they had it printed to look at it. Well, they got a thrill out of it, so they came back and told me about it. Says, “Well, if it looks that good let’s see if we can pick it up this way. The best thing to do is put an awning on a window, just a little small awning, just enough to break my fall.” ‘Cause on the screen, you could see that I fell about, oh I guess about sixteen feet, something like that. So, now you go in and drop into something just to slow me up, to break my fall, and I can swing from that onto a rainspout and when I get ahold of it, it breaks and lets me sway, sways me out away from the building hanging onto it. And for a finish, it collapses enough that it hinges and throws me down through a window a couple of floors below.
Well, when we got back and checked up on that this chase was about – the chase was this: I was getting away from policemen, and used the old Hollywood Station on Hollywood, which was right next door to the fire department. Well, when this pipe broke and threw me through the window, we went in there and built the sleeping quarters of the fire department with a sliding pole in the background. So I came through their window on my back, slid across the floor, and I lit up against the sliding pole and dropped to the bottom on the slide. I bounced from that to set on the rear of one of the trucks and as I hit the rear the truck pulled out, so I had to grab on for dear life, but I’m on my way to a fire – but the fire was in the police department. So we went back and shot the scene where I accidentally, not knowing it, had set fire to the police department before the cops started to chase me. Well, it ended up…it was the biggest laughing sequence in the picture.5
Our Hospitality (1923)
DAVID ROBINSON, film historian/Chaplin biographer: The leap from The Three Ages to the masterpiece Our Hospitality is one of the most startling revolutions in Keaton’s career. Our Hospitality shows Keaton in full possession of his mature gifts: as a filmmaker he is as assured as a [Henry] King or a [King] Vidor; and certainly the superior of Chaplin, who at the time that Keaton was making Our Hospitality was preparing The Gold Rush (1925) – a beautiful film, but technically archaic and visually feeble when seen alongside the Keaton film.6
BUSTER KEATON: On Our Hospitality we had this one idea of an old-fashioned Southern feud…our best period for that was to go back something like eighty years. “All right,” we say. “We go back that far. And now when I go South, am I traveling in a covered wagon, or what? Let’s look up the records and see when the first railroad train was invented.” Well, we find out: we’ve got the Stephenson Rocket for England and the DeWitt Clinton for the United States. And we chose the Rocket engine because it’s funnier looking. So we build that entire train and that set our period for us: 1825 was the actual year of the invention of the railroad.7…and they weren’t so fussy about laying railroad track [then] – it if was a little unlevel, they just ignored it. They laid it over fallen trees, over rocks (laughs). So I got quite a few laughs ridin’ that railroad.
[In the film] when I got down South to claim my father’s estate, I ran into the family who had run us out of the state in the first place. And the old man of the outfit wouldn’t let his sons or anybody shoot me while I was a guest in the house ’cause the girl had invited me for dinner. Well, I’d overheard it and found out. As long as I stayed in the house, I was safe. But I had a good story to tell and it rounded out swell and it was a big seller for me.8
For that scene in the rapids…we picked the best rapids from a pictorial point of view, a two-hundred-yard stretch where the water moves fast and white. I’m supposed to grab onto a sixteen-foot log and float out into the bad water.
“Can you hold on to the log?” [Technical Director Fred] Gabouri asked me. I said, “Yes.” So he put a holdback wire around the log, ran the wire out about sixty feet, and then anchored it tightly around a baseball bat. There were three men holding that bat.
The idea was to shoot this close up to establish the action while they keep me from getting swept away. Then we’d go into a more distant profile for long stretches of milder water, where they can control the log and me.
Fine, we’re shooting, then the wire goes pop, real soft, and – bang! – the log and I are in the rapids, and off to hell we go. I hear the guys yell and start into the rocks and underbrush along the river. But I’m thinking about myself – think fast or forget it. I sure as shooting have to shed that log or it will beat me to death against the boulders. So I kick loose and spring ahead. The main thing is to keep from whirling. I’m fighting for breath and trying to remember how long the rapids are and how much of them are left.
It starts to quiet down, and I think, I’ve made it! Then suddenly I’m in foam a foot deep. You don’t breathe very well in foam, and you sure as hell can’t swim on top of it. It was a bend in the river that saved me. I grabbed some overhanging branches, pulled myself out, feet still in the water and just lay on my face fighting for air.
All of that took maybe a minute and a half, two minutes. It took [the crew] nearly ten minutes to fight through the underbrush. I don’t suppose they knew what they would find.9
Sherlock Jr. (1924)
BUSTER KEATON: I liked Sherlock. It was a good picture for me. It was the trickiest of all the pictures I ever made because there were so many camera tricks and illusions. We spent an awful lot of time getting those scenes.10 That was the reason for making the whole picture. Just that one situation: that a motion picture projectionist in a theatre goes to sleep and visualizes himself getting mixed up with the characters on the screen. All right, then my job was to transform those characters on the screen into my (the projectionist’s) characters at home, and then I’ve got my plot. Now to make it work was another thing: and after that picture was made every cameraman in Hollywood spent more than one night watching it and trying to figure out just how we got some of those scenes.11 I think the reason we started off on that story is because I had one of the best cameramen in the business, Elgin Lessley. We laid out a few of these tricks; some of these tricks I knew from the stage. I seldom did camera tricks. I tried to do the real illusion. I have done an awful lot of camera tricks too, as far as that goes. But I laid out some of those gags. And the technical man that builds the sets, I showed him how I have to get them built for the things I had to do. When I got that batch of stuff together, he said “You can’t do it and tell a legitimate story, because there are illusions, and some of them are clowns gags, some Houdini…It’s got to come in a dream.” And all I had to round out was that I was in trouble at the start of the picture with my girl’s father. He thought I stole his watch. Well, on the screen I became the world’s greatest detective, to solve this mystery. Of course, while I’m asleep the girl finds out that I didn’t steal it, and she’s the one who woke me up at the finish. But on the screen I was a son-of-a-gun, the world’s great detective. No matter how they tried to surround me and kill me or get me, I got out of it.12
Oh, there were some great shots in that baby!…I got up on the screen and they threw me off back into the audience. I finally get back up there again and the scenes changed on me.13 [For that] we built what looked like a motion picture screen and actually built a stage into that frame but lit it in such a way that it looked like a motion picture being projected on a screen. But it was real actors and the lighting effect gave us the illusion, so I could go out of semi-darkness into that well-lit screen right from the front room of the theater right into the picture. Then when it came to the scene changing on me when I got up there, that was a case of timing and on every one of those things we would measure the distance to the fraction of an inch from the camera to where I was standing, also with a surveying outfit to get the exact height and angle so that there wouldn’t be a fraction of an inch missing on me, and then we changed the setting to what we wanted it to be and I got back into that same spot and it overlapped the action to get the effect of the scene changing.14
…I didn’t use stunt men for me, but I doubled them. There’s a scene in Sherlock Jr. when I call a motorcycle cop, and I say, “Follow that car.” And I jump on his handlebars, we hit a bump in the street, and I lose the cop. Well, the cop that fell off was me. Because what I did was take Ernie Orsatti, an assistant props man with me, who was my size. Put my clothes on him. I put the cop’s clothes on, drove the motorcycle, hit the bump and fell of the motorcycle.15 [For that] I’d just go out and learn to handle a motorcycle on the handlebars16… hell of a job. Number one. The control of the gas is here [on the handlebars] for speed, but I’ve got no brakes. You’ve got to have a strong arm to get your feet back down there, ’cause it was footbrakes, see. Well, I got some beautiful spills before I could get back. Some beauties. I parked right up on top of an automobile once. I hit it head on, and I ended up with my fanny up against the windshield, my feet straight in the air. [Laughter] Parked car!17
They found a fracture – years later – I didn’t even know it. I was doing a scene in Sherlock. I was running along the top of a freight train, and I grabbed the rope of a water tower to get on the other train, and of course all my full weight pulls on the rope and of course I pull the spout down and it drenches me with water. Well, when you’re on top of a freight car you’re up there twelve feet high and that water spout is a ten inch pipe. I didn’t know how strong that water pressure was. Well, it just tore my grip loose as if I had no grip at all and dropped me the minute it hit me. And I lit on my back, with my head right across the rail – the rail right on my neck. It was a pretty hard fall, and that water pushed me down.18 I said, “I want a drink.” So, that numbed me enough that I woke up the following morning, my head was clear, and I never stopped working. But fourteen years later, I’m in the Soldier’s Home down here in Sawtelle. The doctor calls me in and says, “When did you break your neck?” I said I never broke my neck. He said, “Look at this X-ray. This callus has grown over the crack, it’s next to the top vertebra.” I didn’t know it. I said, “How long ago was this?” “That looks like it could be somewhere between ten and fifteen years ago.” I started thinking back. “I know when it happened. It’s that goddamn fall on the track. It cracked this vertebra.” I never stopped working, never knew it. Well, that’s luck. No nerve pinched or anything in the healing – and I never knew it.19
CLYDE BRUCKMAN: We had a pool-table shot where he had to pocket a number of balls in one stroke of the cue. The camera at high level had to show it all happen. Set up the balls, Whang away and miss. We worked an hour.
“You know, Buster,” we said, “this thing can’t be done.”
This made him mad. “It can be done. Give me fifteen minutes with those stupid goddamn balls.” He coated each ball with white chalk, then shot it separately into the proper pocket. Each ball left the line of its path on the green felt. Then Buster placed each ball exactly where the line indicated, called, “Camera!” and took one shot and pocketed them all.20
The Navigator (1924)
WOODY ALLEN, comedian/filmmaker: City Lights (1931) and The Gold Rush (1925) and The Navigator and The General (1927) are the four great comedies, aren’t they?21
BUSTER KEATON: We were workin’ on a story, the scenario department, and we didn’t have a good idea yet …And I had just lent my technical man to Metro, to Frank Lloyd. He wanted to do The Sea Hawk and that called for about five fourteenth-century sailing vessels. So he was up and down the Pacific Coast lookin’ for those hulls that they could build up into those pirate ships…But he had just gotten back in town, and he says, “While I was in ‘Frisco, I ran into an ocean liner – five hundred feet long – a passenger ship. And they’re just about to sell it for junk.” Says, “You can have it for$25,000 and do anything you want with it.”
Well, we went to work right then and there and says, “Now, what could we do with an ocean liner?” Says, “Well, we can make a dead ship out of it. No lights aboard. No water running. Just afloat.” How could we get it afloat? Well, we set out to figure out how to do that and to write a story around it. Only to get a boy and a girl alone, and adrift in the Pacific Ocean. And we plant the characters so that the audience knows that she never saw a kitchen in her life, doesn’t know how to boil a cup of tea. I am the son of a very wealthy man in San Francisco, so I’ve been waited on all my life with valets, chauffeurs, and private tutors and everything else. So I don’t know what I’m doin’. And set those two characters adrift in the Pacific Ocean on a dead ship. Well, that’s The Navigator. And it worked out beautifully.
…The opening gag in that picture with me is one of the most stolen gags that was ever done on the screen. I think I knew at one time of twenty-seven times it had been done by other companies. With us, the gag was more to establish the fact that I was so helpless, that I went to call on the girl, and I came down and got in my car with a chauffeur and a footman. The footman wrapped a blanket around my knees … and drove [me] across the street. That’s all. I got out to call on the girl., I asked the girl if she’d marry me and she said, “No,” and I come back down. The guy opened the door in the car for me, and I said, “No, I think the walk will do me good.” So I walked across the street with the car followin’ me, makin’ a U-turn.22
…when we first laid out the story of The Navigator ahead, a few dramatic scenes at the start of it were legitimate and not done in a comedy way…you get a good dramatic director to take care of those sequences in the picture. The only one mistake we made there, and that was Donald Crisp – he was strictly from the D.W. Griffith school, a topnotch dramatic man…But when he joined us, he turned into a gag man. He wasn’t interested in the dramatic scenes, he was only interested in the comedy scenes with me. Well, that we didn’t want.23 He was actually annoying as a gag man, see. Actually, after I let him go, I went back and shot a couple of the dramatic scenes again.24
I’ll show you how seriously they used to take our stories. In The Navigator…we run aground stern first off a cannibal island, and through the binoculars I can see that they are wild type of cannibals, they are headhunters. Well, it was just a matter of time that they are going to come out there and get onto this ship. And we spring a leak in the stuffing box, which means we can see this water pouring in around the driving shaft. It can’t be plugged from the inside; it’s got to be done from outside. Well, automatically there’s deep-sea diving equipment right there in the set with us. So, the girl helps me put it on, and she’s up there to pump air to me.
Well, we laid out this gag in advance and had it built by the Llewellyn Iron Works in Los Angeles. We got about twelve hundred solid rubber fish about a foot long and hung ’em on cat gut, violin strings that are transparent under water. And then hung ’em from this rigging so that a school of fish…we could make a school of fish go past, circle around back of the camera and continue, and with one spot to break it when we wanted to. So my gag was, while I’m down there trying to fix that stuffing box, that a big fish came up and tried to go through the school and couldn’t make it. And I see a starfish clinging to a rock, so I got the starfish off of the rock and let it grab my breastplate. I stepped into the middle of the school of fish and brought it to a stop, and then turned and brought the big fish through, and then turned – I directed traffic – and then went back to my job.
Well, the gag photographed beautifully. We preview the picture, and it lays a beautiful egg, not a giggle from the audience. We can’t figure it out. Well, says, we’ll try it at the next preview and see. Next preview, the same thing. It finally dawned on us what it was. I went down there to stuff that stuffing box to keep the girl and me from falling into the hands of these cannibals, and I had no license in the world to stop to go help a fish go through the traffic. Simple as that. Now to prove it, we take it out of the picture and of course our picture travels the way it is supposed to and finished great. And I took that sequence and put it in with what they call the trailers. And this scene was in it, and it got an out-and-out belly laugh.25
[We had] terrible problems [with the underwater sequences]… I was one month up [at Lake Tahoe] shooting that sequence. One of the worst problems in Tahoe was the water so clear you could really see, but so cold that I could only stay down about thirty minutes at a time.26
…we built this camera box for two cameras…with a big iron passage up to the top with a ladder on the inside. That box, of course, was built of planks and sealed good so that there’s no leakage. But it’s wood and there has to be added weight added to it. Well, I added about a thousand pounds of weight to it. Now we find out the inside’s got to be kept at the same temperature as the water outside. So we hang a thermometer out there so the cameraman can look through the glass and read it – and one on the inside. And we got cakes of ice out there…to make sure to keep the temperature of the camera box the same as the water on the outside, so it won’t fog up the glass. Either one side or the other will fog up on you, see. The difference was that when the two bodies are in there, the body heat…that means add more ice immediately. So, as you put the cameramen in, you also put more ice in. [Laughter] Dressed them warm enough to take it. So, there’s the whole outfit and me with that deep-sea diving outfit going down there, and the cameraman says, “I’m too close. I want to be back further.” I moved that camera box under water – I moved it! That’s how much you can lift when you’re down around fifteen or twenty feet deep. The box must have weight about fourteen hundred pounds or something like that. Two cameramen and two cameras and about two to three hundred pounds of ice, another thousand pounds of weight on it, and I picked it up and moved it.27
[The Navigator is] an out-and-out novelty – such a screwy story, starting with using an ocean liner, for the love of Mike. It lent itself to gags that you’d never think of.28
Seven Chances (1925)
BUSTER KEATON: A certain local screwball…sold [Joseph Schenck] a story – a Belasco show called Seven Chances – twenty-five thousand dollars. The money wasn’t much, but the show! I had seen it in New York – 1916 for heaven’s sakes – and it was a flop then. Closed in a week, if I recall. The type of unbelievable farce I don’t like. We made it anyway and got a fair picture.29
[For the climax of the film] I am running away from a batch of women who are chasing me. A friend has put it in the paper that I’ll marry anybody so long as I can be married by five o’clock – it has to do with inheriting an estate or whatever. So all the women in the world show up to get married. They chase me out of the church, and so on. I went down to the dunes just off the Pacific Ocean out at Los Angeles, and I accidentally dislodged a boulder in coming down. All I had set up for the scene was a camera panning with me as I came over the skyline and was chased down into the valley. But I dislodged this rock, and it in turn dislodged two others, and they chased me down this hill.
That’s all there was: just three rocks. But the audience at the preview sat up in their seats and expected more. So we went right back and ordered fifteen hundred rocks built, from bowling alley size up to boulders eight feet in diameter. Then we went out to the Ridge Route, which is in the High Sierras, to a burnt mountain steeper than a forty-five degree angle. A couple of truckloads of men took those rocks up and planted them, and then I went up to the top and came down with the rocks. That gag gave me the whole final chase, and it was an accident in the first place.30
[There’s a scene where] I had an automobile, like a Stutz-Bearcat roadster. I was in front of an office building. Now it’s a full-figure shot of that automobile and me. I come down, got into the car – there’s a lot of people walking up and down the sidewalks, office building in the background – I release the emergency brake after starting it, sit back to drive – and I didn’t move. The scene changed, and I was in front of a little cottage out in the country. I reach forward, pull on the emergency brake, shut my motor off, and went on into the cottage. I come back and after I visit her, get into the automobile, turn it on, sit back there – and I and the automobile never moved – and the scene changed back to the office building in New York, in the city. Now that automobile’s got to be exactly the same distance, the same height and everything, to make that work, because the scene overlaps but I don’t…for that baby, we used surveying instruments, so that the front part of the car would be the same distance from [the camera], the whole shooting match.31
PIERRE ETAIX, filmmaker/clown: Buster Keaton, in anything he did – for example, the whole stunt sequence at the end of Seven Chances where he tumbles down a hillside, somersaulting and flipping, with the rocks at his heels, and the women pursuing him – what a magnificent scene! What a performance! He wasn’t acting there. His movements are true acrobatics. It’s marvelous. That’s a legacy from the circus and variety shows.33
Go West (1925)
BUSTER KEATON: [We shot that] about sixty miles out of Kingman, Arizona. We were really out in open country34…I ran into one disappointment on that film. One of the most famous Western shows ever seen in the United States was called The Heart of Maryland, in which these two guys are playing cards, and one guy calls the other a name, and he takes out his six-shooter and lays it down on the table, pointing right at this fellow’s middle, and says, “When you call me that, smile…” Well, because I’m known as frozen face, blank pan, we thought that if you did that to me an audience would say, “Oh my God, he can’t smile: he’s gone; he’s dead.” But it didn’t strike an audience as funny at all: they just felt sorry for me.35
I had [another] bad disappointment in that thing. I thought I had a funny sequence when I had my cattle…and I actually turned ’em loose in Los Angeles in the Santa Fe depot in the freight yards, and brought ’em up Seventh Street to Broadway (no – up to Spring Street). And we put cowboys off on every side street to stop people in automobiles from comin’ into it. And then put our own cars with people in there. And I brought three hundred head of steers up that street. I’d hate to ask permission to do that today. But then I thought that by goin’ in a store, and I saw a costume place, and I saw a devil’s suit… well, bulls and steers don’t like red, they’ll chase it. ‘Course I was tryin’ to lead ’em towards the slaughter house. I put that suit on and I thought I’d get a funny chase sequence, and have the cows get a little too close to me, and get scared. Then really put on the speed tryin’ go get away from ’em. But I couldn’t do it with steers – steers wouldn’t chase me. I actually ran and had cowboys pushin’ ’em as fast as they could go, and I fell down in front of ’em and let ’em get within about ten feet of me before I got to my feet. But as I moved, they stopped, too. They piled up on each other. But they wouldn’t come near me. Well, that kind of hurt when you think that’s going to be your big finish chase sequence. We had to trick it from all angles…Some parts I like, but as a picture, in general, I didn’t care for it.36
Battling Butler (1926)
BUSTER KEATON: Battling Butler I liked. It was a good picture. I told the original story that was taken from the stage show except that I had to add my own finish. I couldn’t have done the finish that was in the show…[where] he just finds out in the dressing room up at Madison Square Garden that he don’t have to fight the champion and he promises the girl he’ll never fight again. And of course the girl don’t know but what he did fight.
But we knew better than to do that to a motion-picture audience. We couldn’t promise ’em for seven reels that I was goin’ to fight in the ring and then not fight. We knew that we had to fight. So we staged a fight in the dressing room with the guy who just won the title in the ring – by having bad blood between the fighter and myself. And it worked out swell.37
CLYDE BRUCKMAN: My God, it was a really dramatic fight, not a comedy fight. Yet it stood up in a comic picture – one of the best closings of any Keaton film. You’re all in there rooting for this little guy against the world’s champion.38
edited by Hank Curry