In the world of Hollywood’s silent era, few people were ever so successful and memorable as Buster Keaton. Known for his trademarked deadpan expression on screen, this multifaceted man spent the 1920s ruling supreme with one classic film after another. But that was a long time ago, and most people don’t know this screen legend’s remarkable life story, so we here at Factinate have seen fit to provide a list of interesting facts about the man, his career, and his legacy. Keep reading to find out more!
1. From One Legend to Another
Let’s address that iconic name, as there is a remarkable origin story for it that’s gone down in Hollywood legend. A friend of his parents happened to be visiting one day when Keaton (then a young child) accidentally fell down the stairs. Luckily, Keaton was unhurt and stood up immediately. The astonished family friend allegedly stated, “That was a real buster!” From then on, the nickname stuck.
On another note, that family friend just happened to be the legendary magician Harry Houdini!
2. Awesome Alias
One of Keaton’s signature traits as a performer was his constant deadpan expression, no matter how wacky the hijinks around him became. This led to the invention of Keaton’s famous moniker, “The Great Stone Face.”
3. A Star is Born
Joseph Frank Keaton was born on October 4, 1895, in Piqua, Kansas. His parents, Joe and Myra Keaton, were both accomplished vaudevillians. In case you’re not aware of what that means, vaudeville was an old style of theatre which featured a wide variety of entertainment such as singing, magic, trained animals, ventriloquism, and a host of acts that you’d also find in circuses.
It was eventually replaced with cinema, but before that, Keaton was performing with his parents in vaudeville acts from the early age of three years. The family unit was promoted as “The Three Keatons.”
One of the most important people in Keaton’s professional life was Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, who was at one point the most successful star in Hollywood. The two men met each other in 1917 in New York City, before Keaton had even begun his film career. However, during his meeting with Arbuckle, Keaton asked to borrow a film camera, which Arbuckle allowed.
Keaton allegedly spent the evening taking the camera apart and reassembling it. By the following morning, when it was time for him to return the camera, Keaton was utterly convinced where he wanted his career to go, and he asked Arbuckle for work in the film industry.
5. The Partnership That Started it All
During the late 1910s, Keaton built his film career working with Fatty Arbuckle as both a supporting actor and a second-unit director. Unlike Keaton’s more well-known film career, he was often depicted as smiling or laughing while working with Arbuckle. In total, the two men worked on 14 short films together before Arbuckle moved on to feature films and Keaton got his own production company.
6. Joe Keaton VI
Going back to Keaton’s birth name, there are a couple of interesting stories behind it. For one thing, Keaton was the sixth generation in his family to bear the first name “Joseph.” Additionally, Keaton gained the middle name “Frank” because it was the first name of his maternal grandfather. Ironically, though, said grandfather disapproved of Keaton’s parents getting married.
7. My Friend to the End
Despite the end of their professional collaboration, Keaton remained friends with Fatty Arbuckle for the rest of Arbuckle’s life. Keaton even allegedly defended Arbuckle at trial after he was accused of the rape and murder of Virginia Rappe. Evidently, Keaton’s testimony was instrumental in getting Arbuckle acquited.
Furthermore, for the rest of his life, Keaton maintained that Arbuckle taught him all that he knew about filmmaking.
You might be surprised to know that Keaton’s film productions almost never had a script. Granted, films didn’t have dialogue back then, but Keaton’s approach to filmmaking was incredibly improvisational. He would devise a basic idea of what they would do and coordinate the stunts prior to shooting, but he’d often come up with jokes to add into the film on the spot.
9. A Picture Says a Thousand Words
In case you’re completely unfamiliar with the nature of silent films, dialogue and exposition were added with the help of intertitles. However, Keaton preferred to tell stories that could be followed through the power of pantomime. While the average silent film used around 240 intertitles, Keaton was more likely to use around 23.
10. Primary Pioneer
Because it was the early days of cinema, Keaton’s innovations and tricks were incredibly novel, even among his peers. Keaton was one of the first filmmakers to alter a film’s speed and superimpose images onto film. As you can tell, there are a number of reasons why Keaton’s name is so revered in the film industry!
11. Someone Had to be First!
Believe it or not, Keaton appears to be the first person in known history to use “Buster” as a first name. Unsurprisingly, the name became well-known because of Keaton’s fame, and Buster started to catch on for parents all over the world.
12. The Path Never Taken
Interestingly, Keaton’s ideal job from when he was a kid wasn’t as an actor, or even a filmmaker. He allegedly was most interested in becoming a civil engineer. Frankly, we’re glad we’re living in this timeline rather than the one where some guy named Joe Keaton talked about how he was a vaudevillian as a kid while designing a bridge.
13. Me, Myself & I
By the 1950s, Keaton’s legend was such that he occasionally played himself in films. Two of these films were Sunset Boulevard and The Hollywood Revue of 1929, and Keaton must have done a good job: both of them were nominated for Best Picture.
14. My First Choice
Like so many stars, Keaton was once asked what his favorite of his films was. He chose Hard Luck, but in a case of tragic irony, this is one of his films that was considered lost to history, as no copies survived. However, a copy was eventually rediscovered, so you’re able to watch Keaton’s favorite film after all.
15. Too Cool for School
One problem with being a child vaudevillian was the fact that children were expected to go to school, even back then. Keaton, however, defied that expectation by only attending a single day of school in his life. He was taught how to read and write by his mother instead.
16. Husband and Father
In 1921, Keaton married actress Natalie Talmadge, who acted alongside him in the film Our Hospitality. The couple had two sons, James and Robert, both of whom took their mother’s surname.
17. You Don’t Say!
Perhaps one of the least expected disciples of Keaton’s filmmaking style is none other than Wes Anderson. Aside from a reliance on physical comedy, Anderson’s affinity for meticulous symmetry in his film’s visuals is taken almost directly from Keaton.
18. Remarkable Escape
At one point, Keaton’s alcoholism became such an issue that he was institutionalized, straitjacket and all. However, this couldn’t contain Keaton, as he’d been taught how to escape a straitjacket by family friend and magician Harry Houdini.
19. Pick on Someone Your Own Size
Just like his contemporary, Charlie Chaplin, Keaton often arranged for antagonists in his films to be played by big, burly men to contrast with his own short, slight build. It was an easy way to make Keaton’s characters into the underdogs if they were physically outmatched by their foes.
20. This Aged Well
One of Keaton’s biggest films from his heyday was The General, a silent comedy that was set during the Civil War. At the time, the film was a critical and commercial flop, as even then, people didn’t think that the Civil War was a setting that was ripe for comedy. The expensive failure that was The General put an end to Keaton’s auteur-style control over his own films.
Years later, The General is now regarded by many as Keaton’s masterpiece. No less a figure than Orson Welles (the man behind Citizen Kane) stated that The General was the best film ever made.
21. Authenticity for Art
One reason why The General was so expensive was an astonishing stunt that Keaton decided to do for real rather than fake. There’s a scene in the film where a bridge breaks, causing a train to collapse into the river. Keaton decided to do that to a real train!
22. Irrelevant Experience
One of Keaton’s greatest passions in life was baseball. During his film productions, he regularly started baseball games in between takes, and he even quizzed people on their baseball enthusiasm and abilities when hiring!
23. This Didn’t Really Work Out Well…
In the 1920s, Keaton was one of the big three silent film stars, along with Harold Lloyd and Charlie Chaplin. However, unlike those other two, Keaton made the mistake of selling his studio and the rights to his films to MGM. Lloyd and Chaplin retained their film rights, which left them in good financial standing, while Keaton spent the next decade in dire financial straits.
24. Saving the Past
Eight of the films with which Keaton was involved are currently being preserved in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress. This registry selects films that have been deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically” significant. These films are One Week, The Cameraman, The Navigator, The General, Steamboat Bill, Jr., Sherlock Jr., Sunset Boulevard, and Cops. Apart from Sunset Boulevard, Keaton both directed and starred in each of these films.
25. Synchronized Exit
Keaton worked with actress Hedda Hopper on several films, including Sunset Boulevard, Speak Easily, and The Slippery Pearls in the 1930s. Hopper and Keaton also ended up passing away on the same day.
26. Buster & Jackie
Perhaps unsurprisingly, one actor who lists Keaton as a main inspiration to his own career is Jackie Chan. While many considered Chan to be the successor to Bruce Lee, Chan himself was more interested in combining martial arts with physical comedy. Keaton’s accomplishments as a stuntman were such that he provided inspiration to Chan’s film work.
27. The Old Assisting the New
During his career slump in the 1930s, Keaton truly fell on hard times. Not only did he struggle with alcoholism and a wrecked personal life, he was also making very little money. Much of the income he got came from uncredited writing jobs for comedians who were more successful at the time. These included Red Skelton and the Marx Brothers. Some of the jokes Keaton wrote for those comedians were actually lifted straight from Keaton’s past filmography.
28. Bring it on!
It’s become rather cliché to portray the silent film stars of Hollywood panicking and struggling to adjust when Hollywood films adopted sound for the first time. On the contrary, Keaton was very excited by the innovation of sound in film. Keaton had spent years on stage, and he had a very clear baritone voice, so the transition to sound was no stretch for him at all.
29. Third Time’s the Charm
In 1940, Keaton married for a third and final time, to Eleanor Norris. Norris was credited with not only saving Keaton’s life by helping him curb his alcoholism, but also with saving his career as a result, as he was able to return to work more effectively. Not only that, Norris learned Keaton’s comedy routines so that they appeared as a double act in Paris’s Cirque Medrano.
Norris and Keaton remained a couple for 26 years until Keaton’s death.
30. What a Classic
Keaton was one of literally dozens of classic comedians who appeared in the 1963 comedic epic It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. The film was grandiose in its scope, featuring such a plethora of famous faces (Jerry Lewis, Mickey Rooney, Jonathan Winters, Spencer Tracy, Sid Caesar, etc.) that Keaton almost falls by the wayside. It became one of the biggest films of Keaton’s career, grossing $60 million when it was first released in 1963.
If the movie had been released in 2018, that amount would become just under $498 million.
31. The Avengers of Silent Film
While you might think that Keaton and Charlie Chaplin were the biggest rivals, they were actually quite friendly with each other. Chaplin was also partly responsible for Keaton’s comeback in the 1950s. Keaton was given a small role in Chaplin’s Limelight, which helped remind audiences why Keaton had been famous in the first place. Sadly, Limelight was the only time in Chaplin and Keaton’s careers that they worked on a film together.
32. Something’s Missing
When Keaton was just three years old, he suffered a rather nasty accident when his right index finger was crushed by a clothes wringer. The top of his finger had to be amputated. Keaton didn’t bother trying to hide it, so you can notice it in his films, particularly The Garage.
33. No Cats, Thanks
When it came to pets, Keaton was hands down a dog person. Specifically, he was an enthusiastic owner of St. Bernards. Interestingly, he named each and every one of his dogs Elmer. We can only assume that he was a fanatical Looney Tunes fan.
34. Farewell, Maestro
Keaton died on February 1, 1966, at the age of 70. He was laid to rest in California’s Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery.
35. Reversal of Fortunes
As it was a Hollywood marriage, there was a lot of gossip around Keaton marrying Natalie Talmadge. For one thing, Talmadge’s family was then known as one of the most prestigious acting families on stage or screen, and so Keaton was dogged with rumors that he’d only married Talmadge as a career move. Whether that’s true or not, the irony nowadays is that Keaton’s name endured far longer than Talmadge’s.
36. The Honeymoon’s Definitely Over
Keaton’s marriage to Natalie Talmadge did not end well. Following the birth of their second son, Talmadge didn’t want any more kids, and even moved into a separate bedroom to make sure that happened. Problems kept building, such as Keaton’s extramarital affairs and Talmadge’s excessive spending, and the couple divorced in 1932. Talmadge was not only awarded the entirety of Keaton’s fortune, she prevented him access to their children.
Keaton, for his part, was suffering badly from alcoholism and dealing with the depressive slump that his career was in.
37. From Bad to Worse
As if his first marriage didn’t end badly enough, Keaton rebounded with a truly horrific second marriage. In 1933, just a year after his divorce, Keaton married Mae Scriven, his nurse. As you can imagine, it wasn’t exactly the most romantic marriage; Scriven claimed that she didn’t know Keaton’s real first name until after the wedding, and Keaton claimed that he was going through an alcoholic binge from which he remembered nothing. It only took them three years to divorce after Scriven caught Keaton in bed with another woman.
38. Hello, What Have We Here?
As you can imagine, the bad financial times that we alluded to left Keaton having to sell his fabulous Beverly Hills mansion. After changing hands a few times, the house was purchased by British thespian James Mason, who made a remarkable discovery when he went through the house. Inside was a vault which contained a treasure trove of Keaton films. This find later proved invaluable in the effort to preserve Keaton’s filmography.
39. Why You Little…
As a child, Keaton’s most frequent act alongside his parents ended up getting the family in legal trouble. In the vein of physical comedy, Keaton would feign disobedience onstage, then his father would angrily throw him around onstage, and even into the audience. This naturally resulted in accusations of child abuse, but Keaton willingly showed the police that he never suffered any damage from his father’s antics.
Such was the controversy that Keaton was eventually promoted as “The Little Boy Who Can’t Be Damaged.” For the rest of his life, Keaton maintained that his father and he had been utterly professional in ensuring that he fell in ways that wouldn’t result in injury and claimed that he’d never been injured by his father during their act.
40. Don’t Tell Him!
Keaton was a heavy smoker throughout his life, and this naturally affected his health in a very bad way. However, when doctors diagnosed him with lung cancer in 1966, neither they nor Keaton’s family never actually told him what was wrong with him. They were allegedly worried that knowing about the cancer would be “detrimental to his health.”
Keaton went to his grave convinced that he was recovering from bronchitis and wondering why he wasn’t allowed to leave the hospital.
41. Relentless Stuntman
While Keaton’s stunts were carried on without disaster as a child, Keaton’s adult career was (perhaps unsurprisingly) filled with incidents of stunts going wrong. Among Keaton’s injuries were being knocked unconscious, at least one near-drowning, and a broken ankle. Despite these injuries and incidents, though, Keaton never once refused to perform a stunt.
42. Could He Ever Watch It Again?
Arguably the worst injury that Keaton ever experienced on a film set occurred during the filming of Sherlock, Jr. The scene took place at a train station, and Keaton was hanging from a tube which was hooked up to a basin full of water. On cue, the water poured out, but the force of the deluge was so intense that it actually broke Keaton’s neck. And good luck getting through that scene next time you watch it—Keaton ended up using the actual footage of his brutal injury in the final product.
43. That was Real?!
Anyone who has seen Steamboat Bill Jr. will know that the film includes a moment where a cyclone causes a house’s front to collapse on top of Keaton. His character only survives because he is standing precisely where the open window is. Believe it or not, there was no trick behind this particular stunt. Keaton and his crew meticulously calculated exactly where Keaton should stand, knowing full well that if they were off by even a few inches, Keaton would be killed.
Such was the tension when they filmed that scene that many people on set turned away, too terrified of potentially seeing Keaton get crushed to death. Thankfully, he survived, and helped create one of the most incredible shots in film history!