The Rise and Fall of Buster Keaton: A Short History of the King of Pratfalls

“If there is a better place in the world to be – when I’m not in front of an audience or a camera – someone else will have to name it.” – Buster Keaton

On October 4th 1895, vaudeville performers Joe and Myra Keaton gave birth to Joseph Frank Keaton. Baby Joseph was a mischief, if he wasn’t crawling to the stage footlights; he was falling over and hurting himself whenever possible. One of his greatest falls came when he was a toddler, falling down a complete set of stairs just to be picked up at the bottom by Harry Houdini, friend and co-performer to the Keaton’s. “My, what a Buster,” Houdini remarked about the child’s fall, and from that day on Buster Keaton, the king of pratfalls, was born. 

Buster spent his whole childhood performing with his family on stage, touring across the United States. ‘The Three Keaton’s’ act was a success due to the family’s ability to fall and take hits without ever inflicting damage. Every night, Joe threw his son around the stage, even throwing him at a heckler in the crowd one night. Although some audience members raised concerns about Buster’s wellbeing, there was never a bruise on him. He never experienced discomfort on stage, keeping a stone-faced persona that he’d later become famous for. 

As Buster grew up and entered his early twenties, he wanted to step away from the family act and start a solo career. In 1916 in New York he met Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle, a silent movie star who happily invited Buster to come shoot one day on his newest picture, The Butcher Boy. With his first ever scene, Buster is smacked square in the face with a large bag of flour. Buster doesn’t flinch and gets it right first time, something that no newcomer had ever done before. He’s a natural, with his future now destined to star in pictures; he turned down a $250 a week appearance on Broadway in order to continue making two-reeler shorts with Roscoe. 

The pair continued to make silent comedies. Buster starred in 14 shorts from 1917 to 1920, not only making a name for himself in Hollywood, but also learning the tricks of the camera. Buster manipulated the camera lens: taping off parts that allowed a gag of forty-nine men to follow him out of a car in the short Moonshine. Their whole crew moved to Hollywood, where the majority of moving pictures were being made. Then, Roscoe signed a million-dollar contract with Adolph Zukor, founder of Famous Players-Lasky (later known as Paramount), the biggest contract ever seen for a silent-movie star. 

In the same year of 1920, Buster parted ways with Roscoe and began to make two-reelers by himself, not only starring in but directing and writing the shorts as well. Buster’s brainstorming sessions were different to the usual studio routine however, opting to play baseball with his crew and find the story in one of the innings. His best ideas would come to him alone at home, usually in the bathroom, if not then Buster would rely on improvisation. A lot of his short films would rely on misdirection and impossible gags. The ending for one of his most popular comedies, Hard Luck, had him dive a hole in the ground so large that he re-emerges years later with his wife and kids from China. 

Although his shorts were proving a success, Buster always knew the future of Hollywood was with feature films. He had wanted to get ahead of the curve years earlier, but it wasn’t until 1923 when Buster had made his first feature: Three Ages. Buster’s feature film slate is full of many successes. Sherlock Jr., The Navigator, The General and Steamboat Bill, Jr were the key examples of displaying his talent at silent features. Buster was at the height of his creative powers: he had hired professional baseball players to help run the set and keep the brainstorming sessions afloat. Whilst he wasn’t careless with money, Buster’s creative choices inevitably turned out to be way ahead of his time. The General, the movie most affiliated with Keaton, was a flop. He spent a whopping $42,000 ($600,000 adjusted for inflation) on a stunt where a locomotive train fell into a river. Spending that much money on one stunt at the time was unprecedented and gave his funders cold feet. He was on thin ice from that point on and had to have a production manager to keep an eye on costs. 

The independent studio scene was fading away in 1928, with stars and crew members now being pushed to sign with the big studios. Buster was told that the funding for his movies was no more, and he was stuck between a rock and a hard place. He had been made aware of an offer by M-G-M that would give him more money than he’d ever need. Chaplin said it best to Keaton about M-G-M, “that they have all the best people, but there’s too many of them, like having too many cooks in the kitchen”. But Buster had no other choice if he wanted to keep making pictures, and so signed the contract with M-G-M. 

So, with his signature on the contract, Buster signed away his creative freedom. His first project, The Cameraman, had a writing room of 22 writers all trying to have their own stamp on the script. The Cameraman may have been a success, but it signified how M-G-M would run Buster’s movies from this point onwards. A perfect example of this was when a producer suggested that Buster should smile at the end of The Cameraman, going against his stone-faced look that was as synonymous as his porkpie hat. As his constant suggestions were dismissed, Buster’s drinking habits soon became a drinking problem. His next project, Spite Marriage, would not be a ‘talkie’ like Buster had asked, but a silent film with a musical score and sound effects. 

After Spite Marriage Buster was able to start making talkies, but by then any creative decisions that he had were dismissed before they were even suggested. Buster’s box-office returns started to slump, and he was blamed for it. M-G-M looked for answers and, in 1932, decided to pair Buster up with Jimmy Durante, taking away the leading-man status he had maintained since 1920. They made three movies together but there was a clear chemistry issue between them. As well as this, Buster’s drinking got worse and had become so severe that he delayed a day of filming on What! No Beer? when he had passed out on set. Buster’s life crumbled around him; his wife divorced him, taking all of his assets and his two children with her. It wasn’t until finishing What! No Beer? with Durante that Buster found a letter on his dressing table to add to his dismay: he had been fired from M-G-M. 

Buster proclaimed the years that followed to be the worst of his life. He moved to Europe in order to make features and also made low-budget two-reelers for Columbia Pictures. His love life consisted of marrying and then later divorcing the nurse that looked after him in rehab. He was now alone, drunk and looking back at the lavish life he once knew. It wasn’t until 1939 where Buster’s redemption came to fruition. He married his third and final wife, Eleanor Norris, and signed a contract with M-G-M again, this time as a comedy constructionist and gagman. But the highlights of Buster’s later years were from his regular appearances on TV. He became a special guest and returning star for popular late-night programmes,  The Ed Wynn Show and The Ed Sullivan Show. He was gifted his own TV show, The Buster Keaton Show, where he re-enacted his most famous gags, as well as starring in other successful shows like The Twilight Zone

Although the king of pratfalls had to take the biggest fall imaginable with M-G-M, his ability to shrug it off and move on to the next gag shines through with his TV career. He may have never been able to repeat the success that he had in the early 1920’s, but almost 100 years later his work is still readily available for anyone who wishes to seek it. Buster Keaton’s work will always be a memorable chapter within film history, and one that is still inspiring innovators today.