Buster Keaton began his life on the road. Born Joseph Frank Keaton to medicine show-turned-vaudeville performers, he was performing on stage as a toddler. His early childhood memories are of traveling from town to town with his family. In his autobiography, My Wonderful World of Slapstick, Buster describes a series of train wrecks his family experienced:
At the age of 21, Buster and his mother left his father and their vaudeville act, taking a train to Michigan.
Trains for a young Buster were linked with disaster and guilt. The family had a summer home in an artist colony in Michigan, and while Buster enjoyed summers there, he was fascinated by trains and transportation. The mechanisms and engineering behind a train intrigued him. He never received a formal education, but was curious and bright as a young man, especially with machines. “No other machine, in life or in film, enchanted him more than trains,” biographer Marion Meade writes. Why was a young man, already a vaudeville star, but not yet a filmmaker, so enthralled by the machine that always brought him disaster?
Buster’s film career in 1923 was gathering momentum. He had assembled a loyal and collaborative team of Jean Havez, Clyde Bruckman, and Fred Gabourie, and was working with his own unit under Joseph M. Schenck. Schenck was Buster’s brother-in-law by marriage (the husband of his wife’s sister, Norma), but Schenck gave Buster a good deal of autonomy in his pictures. Two years earlier, Buster had married actress Natalie Talmadge, and in 1923 brought her on board for Our Hospitality, a Hatfields-and-McCoys-Romeo-and-Juliet story. Our Hospitality opens with the death of John McKay and James Canfield. Mrs. McKay takes her infant son (played by Buster and Natalie’s son Buster Keaton, Jr.) to New York, to keep him away from the feud. Twenty-one years later, Willie McKay receives news in New York that he has inherited an estate in the South. He boards a train and meets a beautiful girl. When he arrives in town, it is discovered this beautiful girl is Canfield’s daughter (the niece of the man his father killed) and the Canfield boys will stop a nothing to kill this McKay, unless he happens to be under their own roof. Hence, the title.
But, the most compelling sequence is the train sequence. Buster purposefully set the film in the 1830’s so he could reconstruct a train like an early Stephenson’s Rocket. He cast his father, Joe Keaton, as the train engineer. The train, besides being a symbolic and literal catalyst for the rest of the film, is also steeped in biographic irony.
The train literally carries Willie McKay and The Girl (Natalie as the Canfield daughter is not credited with a first name- most often they were not in Buster’s films) to the scene of the feud and their families, which ignites all of the ensuing comic gags and plot twists. Without the train and the travel, Willie stays in New York and the film is pretty boring. Symbolically it catalyzes the film with its motion. The train moving forward—the train, a newfangled invention in the 1830’s—was not only moving forward in space, from New York to the South, but in time. The feud went back generations and represents the old order and the old South, so to speak. Willie and The Girl on the train, the new invention, represent the future.
The irony comes in the casting of Joe and Natalie. By the end of their time on vaudeville, Joe was an abusive alcoholic. Their act had always been rough, with Joe tossing Buster around the stage, and Buster taking the falls. He describes how he was able to continue to take such repetitive rough-housing because he had been doing it from the age of four. He learned early to fall limply or the break the fall with a hand or foot, he says. So early that it became second nature. But, when Buster was twenty-one and not a toddler anymore, his father’s increasingly rough treatment on and off stage became dangerous. He and his mother left, and shortly thereafter, Buster started doing films. Buster felt more guilt than animosity over these childhood incidents, especially in his early adulthood. He very often cast his father in his films in bit parts; after all, the man was an experienced and successful performer. But, in Our Hospitality, the engineer character is not a heroic character, like Buster’s in The General. He throws logs meant for the engine at a hobo trying to jump onto the train (who cleverly picks up the logs to use for a fire). He also gets so distracted making his dinner inside the engine that he drives the train off the tracks, which does only upset the passengers when they realize why the ride has become so smooth. Buster also cast his father in The General, in a role that allowed Buster to knock his father down, for once. In Our Hospitality, Joe is less of a villain, although he does a neat roundhouse kick to knock a man’s hat off, when criticized for “losing” the rest of the train. Buster and Joe’s relationship was unconventional to say the least. While Buster traveled with his father and spent time with him regularly while growing it, it was time spent on a vaudeville stage being knocked around. Buster clearly admired his father’s talent, and when he had his own production unit and was in charge of directing, casting, and producing, he brought in his father. Not his other family members or even wife, other than in Our Hospitality. His father, however, appeared in several of his films, not the least of which were his favorite train stories. Buster felt guilty leaving his father alone and not supporting him during his worse days as an alcoholic, and giving him parts may have also come from a place of giving the old man a chance.
Natalie Talmadge came from a show business family, but Buster only worked with her professionally once. Her family was beneficial to his career, in Schenck giving him a production unit, but Buster always said he felt he married all of the Talmadges. In addition to caring for his own mother, brother, and sister (as he had done since a teenager), his wife’s mother and sisters were often at their house, in Buster’s hair. They even lived with Natalie’s mother for a time early in their marriage. Natalie was also a demanding wife. Buster began building her and their new family a home in 1923, but she rejected it as “too small.” This led to the building of the Italian Villa, a much larger home they could never afford and Buster never wanted. But, in 1923, while filming Our Hospitality, Buster and Natalie had only been married two years, had just had their second son, and were on an even keel. The disappearance of Natalie as The Girl and the appearance of several other starlets (many joining him more than once) as The Girl in Buster’s future films speaks volumes about the downhill turn their marriage took.
Buster’s next picture was Sherlock, Jr., the story of a movie theater projectionist who imagines himself into a picture in order to solve the mystery of his girl’s father’s missing watch, of which he is accused. Trains are not the center of the story, nor the centerpiece of action. But, nearly all of Buster’s feature-length films include trains in some way, and Sherlock, Jr. was no exception. Buster is locked into a Southern Pacific train car by the villains, and he escapes out the roof hatch. He runs along the cars, and when he reaches the end of the train, he grabs a pipe jutting out of a water tank (used to fill the steam engines). In performing this stunt, Buster fell, landing on his back on the tracks below. He broke his neck in the fall, a fact he found out about ten years later while being examined by a doctor for an unrelated injury. Even during the rough vaudeville years, Buster sustained only a few injuries (some biographies report as low as two), making this injury rare. There were, of course, mishaps on set, but Buster really was able to take a buster, and he always seemed to come away scot-free. In Our Hospitality, he came out of the dangerous waterfall scene, in which his safety rope broke, unscathed. He performed dangerous (but inventive) stunts in all of his films, without major injuries. But, once again, trains spelled disaster for Buster. While the train in Our Hospitality is a hilarious and shining achievement, the train here caused the only major and lasting injury Buster ever sustained in pictures.
Never deterred, Buster made his seminal feature, The General, in 1926. By 1926 Buster, Natalie, and their boys were living in the luxurious Italian Villa, Buster’s career was soaring, and his production unit was thriving. The General became something of a pet project, an homage to his love for trains and his love for filmmaking. The General is the story of a young man in the South at the beginning of the Civil War. His girl pressures him to join up, but the army refuses him because his job, as a train conductor, is too important. The General is the name of his beloved engine. He is secretly relieved to be rejected from the army because he will not be separated from The General, but when The General is stolen by Yankee troops, he chases down the engine and in a spectacular finish, blows up a bridge to thwart the Yankee plans, becoming a hero. The story of the hero and his train and the success of the film parallel the success-ride Buster was on. The General, the beloved engine, is Buster’s comedy and his comedy in film. He loved working on films with his crew and being inventive with new gags and new ways to make people laugh. He was enamored with trains and technology, and within the unit, was given the chance to build, and play with, life-size, historically-accurate train sets. He was successful and able to support his family. The General is taken away from our hero, and Buster’s autonomy was taken away from him. Shortly after The General, Joe Schenck collapsed the unit and advised Buster to join Joe’s brother, Nick Schenck, at MGM. MGM took away Buster’s creative team, their unique process, and his autonomy. They even forced him to begin using a shooting script and stunt doubles, which severely hindered his ability to create new gags on set. He lost the ability to play, and his films lost the luster that freedom gave them. Natalie, more and more demanding, divorced him, took the boys, and changed their last name to Talmadge. Buster struggled financially and started drinking heavily. But, the hero chases down the engine. Buster was let go from MGM, but came back to write gags in the late 1930s-1950s for the likes of the Marx Brothers, toured with his second wife Eleanor in a vaudeville-esque act, and retired comfortably to a ranch. He even had cameo appearances in Limelight and Sunset Boulevard.(For more about his later MGM years, see my earlier post on Buster.) His career never regained the momentum of the early days, but by then, pictures had changed. Buster didn’t quite “blow up the bridge” in the end, but he did get himself out of a hole few actors could have returned from. The General described and predicted the arc of Buster’s career, and it came at the pinnacle; it was one man’s love letter to trains and films.
Many years later, in 1954, Buster approached Raymond Rohauer, a film historian, archivist, activist, and theater owner, with some prints of his early films. Rohauer was thrilled, and Buster was more interested in getting the cans of film out of his garage so he could build a model train set. Meade writes of the discovery of the cans of Three Ages in the Keaton’s garage:
The end of the film: when the bridge collapses and the Yankee plan is thwarted: when silent masterpieces are restored for future audiences: Buster Keaton is smoking a cigarette and planning where to put his model train set. Buster’s love of trains and idea to build a massive model train set that would go from the garage, through the kitchen, and out into the backyard to serve food to picnic guests (which he eventually did build) led to the preservation of some of his work. Rohauer, a controversial figure in and of himself, had a collection of some 10,000 films, and his collection of Buster’s work was the basis of the Buster Keaton Archives. Trains and Buster did not have an auspicious beginning. From train wrecks and leaving his father, Buster’s love of trains persevered and gave us Our Hospitality and a beautifully comically silly sequence. Trains bit back in breaking Buster’s neck, but ultimately saved him, twice. The General was a resounding success, and the only one of Buster’s films on the AFI Top 100 list. The model train set in the garage saved Buster’s film legacy. A man’s love for trains preserved priceless films, even though their relationship was about as rocky as any other.
This post was written as part of the For the Love of Film: Film Preservation Blogathon III, in support of the National Film preservation Foundation’s online streaming of Alfred Hitchcock’s early silent film White Shadows, with a newly commissioned score. Please consider donating to support the preservation of film. A big thank you to Ferdy on Films, Self-Styled Siren, and This Island Rod for hosting this blogathon (my first).