Buster Keaton’s Love Affair (with Trains)

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).

The Artist

I knew this was going to happen. In fact, I am writing this the night before Oscar nominations are announced, after just having seen The Artist. I was upset about this movie from the first trailer I saw. My father mentioned to me that they had made a new silent movie, and as I watched the trailer, still on the phone with my dad, my heart sank. They were making a mockery of silent film! This trailer (which was a very early one and has since not been used to publicize the movie) billed it as “one man’s love letter to silent cinema,” and honestly, my first thought was, “Has this man even seen a silent movie?” The acting is atrocious, measuring by silent standards. The plot is ripped from Singin’ in the Rain. The cinematography steals scenes directly from Citizen Kane. The director absolutely bashes the audience over the head with symbolism. And I am not alone! Michel Hazanavicius is not being “lightly criticized;” more than one patron coming out of the movie theater complained of the stolen plot from Singin’ in the Rain. I will concede that Jean Dujardin is a fantastic actor. I was enchanted by his rapscallion charm. His acting is exempt from my criticisms because he did not pantomime. Pantomine is not silent acting. But Dujardin used his physical expressions in a self-aware and endearingly self-mocking way. He didn’t take it too seriously, and he comes out on top. He deserves every award he wins, starting with the breakout win atCannes for Best Actor. If Michel Hazanavicius wins for that poor work, I will be sorely disappointed, but sadly not surprised.

Let me begin with the acting. In this interview with Hazanavicius, he is quoted as telling his female lead (and coincidentally or not so, his wife) to develop “her own style.” She was studying silent greats like Joan Crawford and Greta Garbo, women who successfully made the leap from silents to talkies, the journey which forms the entire crux of Berenice Bejo’s character, Peppy Miller. Hazanavicius told her to stop. Why stop studying the greats? How else do we learn? Yes, copying a star’s acting exactly will never work. I’m sorry, but you will never have what Brando had. Don’t do a Brando impression. But studying their techniques and styles will only help, especially when working in an outdated form. Silent acting is vastly different from stage acting and especially from today’s film acting. Telling your stars to “wing it” will not yield the results you want. Telling extras to wing it will make everyone, including the director, look stupid. In the opening sequence, the audience at George Valentin’s premiere is a perfect example of pantomiming. People were not that stupid just because it was 1927. Women really didn’t clasp their hands together and almost faint. Indicating is such a taboo in modern acting, so what makes it ok to indicate in a silent film? Indicating means not creating a real emotion but, basically, going through the motions. An unconvincing actor is often indicating. Silent acting just means you need to better express yourself with your facial and body movements. It does not mean use over exaggerated, ridiculous body language. The audience isn’t idiots either. We will know you think something is funny if you only chuckle. No need for that fake belly laugh. Dujardin, who starred in Hazanavicius’s OSS 117 series, a spoof on James Bond films, brings a light-heartedness to his role. He doesn’t take the acting to seriously, and he lets his emotions be little and his comedy be physical. He is charming and dashing and fully self-aware of his antics. He only pantomimes for a joke. It’s interesting that Hazanavicius lets him get away with it, when clearly Bejo is much more controlled and directed, but Dujardin did well.

The plot is not entirely Singin’ in the Rain, but the similarities are undeniable. The film opens with the premiere of another successful, and silent, George Valentin film, co-starring his trusty Jack Russell terrier and his wife, played by Uggie and Penelope Ann Miller, respectively. Valentin is on top of the world, when a fan girl falls into his arms outside the theater. A snapshot of the two winds up in the paper, and when she appears on his film set the next day as an extra, he gets her a bigger part. “The name’s Miller. Peppy Miller!” she winks. With the advent of talkies, George’s career goes into decline. The studio wants “fresh meat,” and he is out, while Peppy is in. George makes one last silent film, spending all of his money, and the film opens the day the stock market crashes. No one goes to the premiere except Peppy. George’s wife leaves him. George loses his house. George sells his tuxedo to get a few bucks. George fires his valet and loyal friend, Clifton. George’s bad luck continues. In a fit of rage, George burns the films he has stored in his house, and since film negatives are highly flammable, almost dies in the blaze. His Terrier saves him, and Peppy nurses him back to health. But, when she offers him a part in her new talkie, he refuses, angry that she has to help him financially and in his career. He goes back to his burnt-out apartment and is about to pull the trigger when Peppy rushes into his arms. She saves him, with one last great idea. They will tap dance on film! Not unlike Singin’, but strangely darker. George is just beaten down and beaten down. Scene after excruciatingly scene of bad luck for George. And it ends in a classic Fred and Ginger, sweeping tap duet, happy ending.

The cinematography throughout is good, but not reminiscent of a silent film. Hazanavicius claims he didn’t want to make a silent movie, visually, but a movie without sound. Apparently his DP came to him saying “This is so Citizen Kane, this is the 1940’s, not the 1920’s,” and Hazanavicius’s response was “I don’t care.” He probably should have cared, because he allowed scenes from Citizen Kane to be put exactly into his film. (To say nothing of photoshopping Dujardin’s face on top of George Fairbanks in a print of Mark of Zorro.) George’s wife really serves no plot purpose other than as one more nail in his coffin of depression, but Hazanavicius spends a lot of time establishing their discord, through the classic Citizen Kane break fast scenes. Absolutely anyone who has taken a film course has studied those scenes as groundbreaking cinematography in which form mirrors content. The distance at the breakfast table, created through newspaper and camera angles mirrors the distance between husband and wife’s relationship. Simple, obvious. Why are we giving this man awards? To him credit, the DP, Guillaume Schiffman, who was not allowed to study silent films either, did a great job with the direction he was given. The menacing, Hitchcockian spoof camera angles as George rips the dustcloths off the relics of his former success is beautiful camerawork. Unfortunately, it’s been done, and not in this kind of film.

In addition to his obvious references to Citizen Kane and Singin’ in the Rain, Hazanavicius virtually beats the audience over the head with the symbolism of sound and silence. A trio of monkeys statues, representing “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil,” become a certerpiece of George’s demise, as we see them in his mansion during the good years, on the auction block, and later in storage at Peppy’s house, where her pity has placed them. We get it. The monkeys are supposed to mean something, but they become only a device. The falcon in The Maltese Falcon is a supreme example of a physical symbol that is not overused. The falcon appears only in the last 20 minutes of the film, and wrapped up until the last 5. I don’t mean to digress, but the absence gives the symbolism more weight. The monkeys have no meaning. They become just some kitschy plot device. From the opening sequence, when backstage at the premiere appears the sign “Be silent behind the screen,” to the final calls (audibly) of “Cut the talk! Silence!” Hazanavicius overdoes it, no he more than overdoes it with the silence symbolism. The symbols come to be devoid of meaning through their overuse. George, unable and unallowed to transition from silents to talkies is hushed by Peppy’s maid and says wistfully (in intertitles of course) “If only he could talk” (of his dog). George’s dream in which he can hear the sounds others make and the sound of his glass clinking against the table but no sound comes out of his mouth, and his waking nightmare when the audience sees a close-up of a policeman’s mouth, but George hears nothing, communicate, rather blatantly, that George feels powerless about his silence. It would be too numerous to list every groan I uttered at another jab at silence. The final blow comes when John Goodman requests, verbally, one more take, and Jean Dujardin, in his lovely French accent responds, “With pleasure.” The film should have ended there and gone out with a little bit of grace. Instead, Hazanavicius takes a slow pan back and back and back, revealing the movie studio the stars are filming in, as we hear those last cries of “Silence!” and then, “Action!” as it cuts to black.

Hazanavicius not only borrowed from other movies (better movies) plots and cinematography, but music. Kim Novak, star of Hitchcock’s 1958 film Vertigo, claimed that Hazanavicius stole Bernard Herrmann’s music for his own film. She called it rape. Hazanavicius’s statement was this:

“The Artist was made as a love letter to cinema, and grew out of my (and all of my cast and crew’s) admiration and respect for movies throughout history. It was inspired by the work of Hitchcock, Lang, Ford, Lubitsch, Murnau and Wilder. I love Bernard Herrmann and his music has been used in many different films and I’m very pleased to have it in mine. I respect Kim Novak greatly and I’m sorry to hear she disagrees… I used music from another movie, but it’s not illegal. We paid for that, we asked for that and we had the permission to do it. For me there is no real controversy…. I feel sorry for her.”

Non, Michel. C’est une traveste.

‘The Artist’ Director Responds to Kim Novak Slam Over ‘Vertigo’ Music

‘The Artist’ director defends use of Hitchcock score


Buster Keaton vs. The Marx Bros.

Buster Keaton is vastly underrated. Watch just one of his movies, and you will see the roots of modern physical comedy. And none of this slapstick nonsense propagated by the likes of Red Skelton and the Marx Brothers. Buster was the most athletic, clumsy, silent comedian there was.

Buster began his life as a vaudeville star, touring with his parents. It was during these shows that he discovered audiences laughed more if he was expressionless, than if he smiled or laughed himself. Buster became known as “The Great Stone Face,” but he was anything but stony. Buster’s eyes; now that was acting! He managed to express his feelings, most often of sorrow or dejection, perfectly, with only his eyes. His mouth was never upturned, in any photograph or film. He often played love-scorned characters, and he conveyed the hopeless of his character through his eyes. But, he also endeared audiences to him and created sympathy. Buster’s eyes made audiences want to take him in their arms, he was so dejected over the loss of whichever lady love (usually named Sally), he had failed to win. This balance between stoniness, the non-reaction to comedic happenings, and the pleading sadness, found only in Buster’s eyes, is unmatched.

His physical comedy is also unparalleled. Many will argue that the Marx Brothers pioneered physical gag humor, but Buster actually wrote gags for the Marx Bros. His road from making his own endearing and brilliant pictures to writing for a vaudeville team was a long one down.

Buster began in pictures as an independent filmmaker, with his own unit under producer Joseph Schenck. He wrote, starred in, and directed his own films, often serving as a director of photography and stunt coordinator as well. In a later interview, Buster spoke of his process of creating a movie during this time. He said that the team (whom he worked with through almost all of his independent pictures) sat around a table, and thought of beginnings. When they had a good story beginning, they thought of how it would end. They let the middle take care of itself. Buster would improvise physical gags on set, making up the “middle,” of the movie as he went along. This process worked well, and during this time, he made The General, The Saphead, and The Navigator.

In 1928, the MGM studio-machine signed Buster. MGM, run by Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg, did not take kindly to Buster’s working method. More concerned with budgets and creating a box office hit for as little money as possible, Buster was forced not only to change his entire creative process, but the types of films he made. His first movie with MGM, The Cameraman, was his last silent. Buster had wanted to make it as a talkie, but giving Buster a sound stage was not in the budget. The Jazz Singer had been released the year before, but making a talkie was still expensive. The Cameraman, although Buster had to work from a script and was not allowed to improvise gags, was also the last great Keaton film. MGM changed Buster’s working method, forced him to use stunt doubles, restricted him with budgets, and even got him to star in a musical (Free and Easy, his first talkie). Their greatest mistake was pairing shy, sad Buster with Jimmy Durante, nightclub comedian, who was loud, brash, and steamrolled Buster right out of their scenes. Durante’s fast-talking style of comedy might have been en vogue at the time, but it clashed with Buster’s stone face, physical style, and Buster got the worst of it. Buster was excited about the advent of talkies, and had even wanted The Cameraman  to be made as a talkie. However, he thought that silent, physical comedy could be incorporated to a talkie. Stretches of 30 seconds with no words and only action were fine with Buster, but not Durante or MGM. They filled every moment with puns. Buster began drinking more and more. In 1933, MGM chose not to renew their contract with Keaton.

The only work Buster could find after that was writing gags for other comedians, even re-writing some of his own gags, for the likes of Skelton and the Marx Bros. Buster re-wrote a famous sequence from Spite Marriage, a movie he had made in 1929, for a knock-off film starring Red Skelton. The scenes in which Skelton puts on a false beard and clumps and stumbles his way onto stage as a Union soldier with his matinee idol are carbon copies of Buster’s scenes, made years before. Buster, unfortunately, signed off on it and even coached Skelton. It was a job. A Night at the Opera, the Marx Bros. hit in 1935 (also one of AFI’s Top 100), has several sequences lifted from Buster Keaton routines. Buster worked on the movie, and found the brothers very difficult to work with. They were rambunctious, and their style of comedy was unintelligent. They used cheap gags and relied on Groucho talking fast to cover it up. Buster managed to pull off some of the weaker puns that came with the new talkie comedies with his stone face. He was serious, endearing, and shy. His voice was unassuming and sweet, like his eye expressions. Groucho, on the other hand, had more trouble selling cheesy puns, developing his fast-talking style. Buster could sell a bad pun with sincerity, while Groucho was also falsely exasperated, which made his jokes sound forced and self-aware. This self-awareness and almost self-mockery was not to Groucho’s advantage, as it pointed directly to his weaknesses, and invited the audiences to groan at the bad puns as much as he was. Buster’s sincerity in one-liners invited the audience to sympathize with and cheer for his characters. Who cheers for Groucho Marx? Even in his conquests with women, he’s crude and rough. He rolls his eyes. The hero-thwarted-in-love was popular in these situational comedies, and Buster’s ability to make an audience sympathize with him, helped this often cheap plot. Groucho’s exasperation grated audiences. The gags featured in many Marx Bros. movies that were not originally Buster’s routines, Buster wrote and staged for the brothers. They began in vaudeville as he did, but their humor was much weaker. Buster worked for MGM in this capacity until 1950.

In 1940 he had married his second wife Eleanor, and Eleanor had coaxed and encouraged Buster into getting in front of the camera again. In 1950, he played one of the “waxworks” in Sunset Boulevard (Best Picture winner that year, launching William Holden to fame and co-starring Gloria Swanson) and went on to several more small, but signature film roles in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum with Zero Mostel and Limelight with Charlie Chaplin.

Chaplin’s Limelight was a semi-autobiographical feature about his fall from grace. In it, an older Charlie Chaplin takes in a young, struggling ballerina and helps her to regain confidence in herself as a performer. In the process, the much younger woman falls in love with Chaplin, who is constantly trying for a comeback. In the end, Chaplin refuses the woman at least 20 years his junior, although this was not so in real life. Buster plays Chaplin’s old vaudeville friend, and in a benefit performance, Buster does a few gags with a piano and violin alongside Chaplin. His part is small, but it is beautiful. The two share a scene in the dressing room before their performance and talk about show business. Chaplin’s character has been hopeful up to now, and Buster’s is more jaded and honest. Buster still manages to convey the same endearing qualities he had in the 20’s as a much younger man. Chaplin was a hero of Buster’s, a man he looked up to and admired as a pioneer in comedy and in filmmaking. I would suggest (much to the film community’s chagrin) that Buster’s oeuvre outshines Chaplin’s in craftsmanship, character, and intelligence. Chaplin certainly was a pioneer, especially in his independent efforts and the creation of United Artists with Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. Limelight is not an outstanding movie and is a very thinly veiled defense of Chaplin, but Buster is superb in his small role.

Yet three of Chaplin’s movies (Modern Times, The Gold Rush, and City Lights) are included on AFI’s Top 100 list, and only one of Buster’s (The General). Chaplin was played by Robert Downey Jr. in a biopic (and all the scenes of his liaisons with much younger women were truthful). Buster’s biopic starred Donald O’Connor, and blew his drinking problem out of proportion, according to those who knew Buster. The Marx Brothers were a huge commercial success in their time (while Buster decidedly was not) and are still a household name. With the help of Eleanor, Buster began to travel in his later years, promoting and attending screenings of his films, and even performing a vaudeville-esque act with his wife. In 2004, Turner Classic Movies released a documentary titled So Funny It Hurt: Buster Keaton and MGM, dispelling many misconceptions about Buster. Before she died in the late 80’s, Eleanor also co-authored a book of photographs, most rare and never-before-seen, about her husband. TCM dedicated the month of October 2011 to Buster, screening his movies on Sunday nights. Buster gained some of the recognition he deserved, but most will never recognize that he was the father of modern comedy.

For more information and most of my sources, see TCM’s Buster Keaton Profile and Buster Keaton Remembered, by Jeffrey Vance and Eleanor Keaton. Also, check out this Tumblr tribute to Buster.