buster: CINEMA'S CLOWN PRINCE
This Monday will mark the 115th anniversary of Buster Keaton's birth, but I doubt if too many people will notice. Once upon a time, Joe 'Buster' Keaton was a huge international star: a contemporary of Charlie Chaplin's, he was beloved of early cinemagoers across the world.
Like Chaplin, he was more than just a vaudeville clown. He created and directed all his own films, and at least one of his movies appears regularly on lists of the best films ever made.
But Keaton was one of the biggest casualties of the transition from silent film to sound. Partly through bad luck and partly due to personal problems, Buster experienced a brutal fall from grace during the 1930s from which he never quite recovered.
These days his films are hardly ever shown on television, and entire generations have grown up without seeing a Buster Keaton film. Which is a pity, because Buster was perhaps the finest silent-screen comic of them all, and 80-odd years after they were made, his best films are as fresh and funny and visually impressive as ever.
The Great Stoneface, as Keaton was affectionately known, was born into a family of vaudeville troupers, and always destined for a career on the stage. He started pretty young, too: born on October 4, 1895, he was performing regularly in a vaudeville routine with his mother and father by the age of three.
Keaton's parents Joe and Myra were well-connected in the showbiz world, and legend has it that he acquired his unique stage name at the age of 18 months after Harry Houdini saw the boy take a tumble unharmed down a flight of stairs and remarked, "That was a real buster!"
The name stuck, and Buster began touring America with his parents as The Three Keatons. No doubt health-and-safety laws would have something to say about their act these days, but it involved young Buster provoking Joe Sr by disobeying him until his father lost it altogether and began throwing him around the stage, into the orchestra pit, and even on occasion into the crowd.
The boy, naturally enough, became very adept at landing without injuring himself. He was soon being billed as "the little boy who can't be damaged", and the act became a huge success.
Little Buster realised the pratfalls got a much bigger laugh if he sailed through the air with a mournful poker face, and it was a trick he'd use to great effect in later years.
In 1916, after his father's drinking had jeopardised the family act, Buster moved to New York with his mother.
As with so many of his vaudeville peers, Keaton was highly dubious about the rising motion picture business. But after meeting Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle at the Talmadge Studios in 1917, he began working as a gag writer and actor in Arbuckle's films, and the two became close friends. Keaton's talent for elaborate slapstick was remarkable, and by 1920 he was co-directing and starring in films of his own.
His early films were surprisingly innovative, and he was forever testing the limits of cinema technology.
Like Charlie Chaplin, he tended to exaggerate his underdog status by surrounding himself with tall, broad co-stars. He also insisted on doing all his own stunts, and famously told his cameramen to keep shooting until (a) the take was finished or (b) he was dead.
Keaton shifted to longer films in the mid-1920s and had a big breakthrough with Sherlock Jr, a delightful comic fantasy in which he plays a movie projectionist who falls asleep and dreams he's Sherlock Holmes on a big case. He fractured his neck during a scene involving a water tower and a railway track, but brushed off such injuries as trifles.
Sherlock Jr was the beginning of an extraordinary purple patch in which Keaton pushed himself to the limit creating comedies that moved and amused in equal measure, and considerably expanded the language of cinema.
Like Chaplin, his themes involved the small, marginalised man being constantly belittled by technology and a hostile world. But Keaton studiously avoided the sentiment Chaplin milked, and there was an almost biblical severity in the way his characters were battered by the elements, and fate.
Some of his set-piece stunts were breathtaking.
In his masterpiece, The General (1927), he pulled off extraordinary stunts involving sitting on the grille of a moving train and leaping between carriages. Steamboat Bill Jr (1928) contains Buster's most famous stunt, where a building's facade collapses on him and he only survives because he's standing on the precise spot where the attic window lands.
Buster might have survived the advent of sound, but the fates began to conspire against him.
Despite its brilliance, Steamboat Bill Jr was an expensive flop, and in the aftermath Keaton lost his creative freedom and became a pawn in inter-studio rivalry. When he moved to MGM, his star began to fade.
His first marriage was breaking up, and, in the grand Keaton tradition, Buster hit the bottle.
By the late 1930s Keaton was working as a gag writer on Marx Brothers films. He had a TV show and appeared in the Billy Wilder film Sunset Boulevard in the 1950s, but never regained his earlier status.
Buster died in 1966, but by that time his greatest films had been unearthed and re-shown, and the great man had been hailed as a genius.
No less a luminary than Orson Welles described him as "the supreme artist" and The General as "one of the greatest films of all time".