It’s hard to imagine TV as anything other than the multicolored, high-definition experience it is today. Nevertheless, there was a time when just seeing live actors on screen was a treat. Silent movie star Buster Keaton made a name for himself in those days, but his mental health waned with their decline.
There’s some debate over what damaged Keaton’s emotional well-being, but perhaps that’s a sign of the times. The subject wasn’t often discussed during the actor’s life, though some attribute it partially to the silent era movies’ close. Thankfully, willingness to discuss mental health seems to be lifting the stigma around it in the modern era.
October 10 marks the World Health Organisation’s World Mental Health Day, and it encourages people to share their stories. Anyone can suffer from mental illness at any time, as many celebrities can testify. Big names such as Lady Gaga, Ryan Reynolds and Ellen DeGeneres have experienced associated problems, as did Keaton.
Unfortunately, Keaton had to face his inner demons with less aid than sufferers have today. But it helps to know more about the man before we can reveal the challenges he encountered. For example, did you know that the silent movie actor came into the world during a stage show intermission?
Keaton was actually born in 1895 as Joseph Keaton to two Kansas vaudeville performers: Joe and Myra. Joe owned a travelling show called the Mohawk Indian Medicine Company together with famous stuntman Harry Houdini. The business also doubled as a patent medicine vendor, selling purported ailment remedies to visitors.
Furthermore, according to Keaton’s anecdotes, he credits Houdini for giving him the nickname Buster. Keaton informed TV director Fletcher Markle that he fell down a flight of stairs as a toddler. Much to Houdini’s surprise Keaton got up unharmed, leading the stuntman to announce, “That was a real buster!”
In the context, Houdini meant that the accident wasn’t harmful despite the odds, and the nickname stuck. It proved to be just as apt for Keaton’s future stage performances that followed soon after. Young Keaton started acting in infancy and made a stage debut alongside his parents at just three years old.
The Three Keatons, as the family called their show, was a physically demanding performance for a child. Indeed, it was renowned for its boisterous comedy, and Keaton was at its center. As punishment for scripted acts of disobedience, Joe would hurl his son around, sometimes aiming at the watching crowd.
In fact, Keaton’s airborne antics were so common that his parents stitched a suitcase handle into his clothes. The Three Keatons became famous – and infamous – for their stunts, so the family leaned into their reputation. They consequently billed the show as “The Roughest Act That Was Ever in the History of the Stage.”
As a result of the act’s apparent violence, authorities confronted Joe and Myra several times for alleged child abuse. On a few occasions, police even arrested them but couldn’t place charges due to a lack of evidence. No one could find a cut or bruise on the youngest Keaton, as he was happy to demonstrate.
Keaton became known as “The Little Boy Who Can’t Be Damaged” on the show’s advertisements as a result. Indeed, the actor revealed that the entire performance was the end result of careful planning and execution. Keaton attributed this perceived invulnerability to his stuntman skills, as he explained to the Detroit News in 1914.
“The secret is in landing limp and breaking the fall with a foot or a hand,” Keaton explained. “I started so young that landing right is second nature with me. Several times I’d have been killed if I hadn’t been able to land like a cat.” He said it was a difficult skill to replicate.
Keaton continued, “Imitators of our act don’t last long, because they can’t stand the treatment.” Yet despite the rough work, he reportedly enjoyed it so much he occasionally burst into laughter during stunts. The watching crowds didn’t find this as entertaining, though, so Keaton developed the impassive expression that he became famous for.
Indeed, the actor become so well known for his stoicism that his alternate nickname is The Great Stone Face. Keaton’s reputation on the acting circuit grew with him, despite a few challenges. One of them was Joe, who tragically became an alcoholic and risked his family’s show in the process.
The Keatons subsequently moved to New York where Keaton junior met silent film actor and director Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. Although both Keaton and Joe were apprehensive about the relatively new medium, the former was nevertheless open-minded. After scrutinizing a camera he borrowed from Arbuckle, the young actor decided to give movies a try.
Arbuckle hired Keaton to star alongside him in 1917’sThe Butcher Boy. By 1920 Keaton had developed a close relationship with Arbuckle and starred in 14 of his short films. Keaton landed his debut starring role that year too in The Saphead, a quasi-comedic second remake of a stage show called The New Henrietta.
The Saphead was a commercial success, which paved the way for Keaton’s future career. His trajectory continued when studio executive Joseph M. Schenck approached him with an opportunity. On the strength of Keaton’s work with Arbuckle, Schenck set the rising star up with his own production company. He called it Buster Keaton Productions.
Initially, Keaton Productions focused on comedy shorts such as The Playhouse, The Electric House and Cops. However, as time went on, the multitalented actor and his team turned to directing their own movies. Rival director Leo McCarey revealed that while Keaton employed other writers for his company, Keaton himself was the best.
Perhaps Keaton’s success was because he knew his own limits as a stuntman as well as a writer. Whatever the reason, he wasn’t afraid to push himself to extremes for viewers’ entertainment. For instance, one of Keaton’s stunts involved him emerging unscathed from the ruins of a two-ton prop house.
Furthermore, Keaton suffered a broken neck during a stunt for Sherlock Jr., one of his most visually surprising movies. He was exposed to the falling contents of a water tower, and the impact injured him. But even so, Great Old Stoneface was unaware of the damage at the time, and only found out in later years.
Keaton’s combination of writing, acting and directing made him a triple threat to rivals. Critics praised him for hits such as Our Hospitality, Seven Chances, and Keaton’s favorite film, The Navigator. The early 1920s were perhaps the highlight of Keaton’s silent movie career. He even married his Our Hospitality co-star Natalie Talmadge in 1921.
But despite his many hits, distributors harshly punished Keaton for his most significant miss: a film called The General. Inspired by the Great Locomotive Chase during the American Civil War, It united Keaton’s love of trains with his passion for film-making. Although the movie industry considers it a masterpiece now, initially critics considered it a popularity failure.
Reviewers disapproved of the movie’s subject, pacing and drama in relation to Keaton’s earlier comedy-filled works. Consequently, The General’s poor critical reception – coupled with its failure to break even – tarnished Keaton’s reputation with his distributors. They implemented a production manager to regulate storytelling and expenditure as a result.
The timing couldn’t have been much worse for Keaton, who was also facing problems in his personal life. Specifically, his marriage to Talmadge began dissolving after the birth of their two sons, Joseph Buster Jr. and Robert. That fact that Talmadge didn’t want any more children caused friction in their relationship.
As a result, Talmadge and Keaton slept in separate rooms, but that wasn’t the only fissure in their marriage. Apparently, Talmadge also had expensive taste in clothes, which cost Keaton as much as a third of his wages. With both his work and personal life in jeopardy, Keaton was feeling the pressure.
Keaton couldn’t stand the production manager’s backseat manoeuvring for very long – he’d reached his limit after just two films. But once again, Keaton’s old associate Schenk appeared to make him a tempting offer. In his autobiography, My Wonderful World of Slapstick, Keaton himself revealed what happened next.
“Then, in 1928, I made the worst mistake of my career,” Keaton wrote. “Against my better judgement, I let Joe Schenck talk me into giving up my own studio to make pictures at the booming Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer lot in Culver City.” He was, of course, referring to the film studio MGM.
Before accepting the offer, Keaton sought advice from his friend and fellow silent film actor Charlie Chaplin. He said, “Don’t let them do it to you, Buster. It’s not that they don’t have smart showmen there. They have some of the country’s best. But there are too many of them, and they’ll all try to tell you how to make your comedies.”
Nevertheless, the deal looked good on paper, and Schenck was adamant that Keaton would retain creative freedom. So Keaton signed up with MGM, and his first film with them, The Cameraman, was a critical success. Unfortunately, though, the studio didn’t consider its financial gain significant enough to give Keaton free rein over his projects.
Keaton subsequently found himself wrestling for control of his movies, which resembled his original vision less and less. Aside from his work on The Cameraman, MGM limited his attempts to embrace the dawning sound era. When Keaton approached the studio with an idea for a comedy called Spite Marriage, it denied him access.
Apparently, the studio considered comedies a medium best suited to silence and reserved its sound equipment for dialogue-filled scripts. Furthermore, the sound projects MGM allowed Keaton to work on were lacking his usual spark. Part of this can be attributed to his limited influence, but his growing mental illness was probably also a factor.
Over the years, Keaton’s marriage had all but finished, and Talmadge wanted a divorce. When she left, she took the majority of Keaton’s savings and cut off his connection to their children. He soon fell into a deep depression and developed a reliance on alcohol that led to his second marriage.
In fact, he wed a nurse called Mae Scriven in 1933 during a period of heavy drinking. According to Keaton, he was so drunk that he couldn’t even remember the wedding. The relationship didn’t last long. As a result of Keaton’s infidelity, Scriven divorced him two years later.
The settlement forced Keaton into bankruptcy. Additionally, in 1934 MGM noticed Keaton’s lack of passion for his work, so it ended his contract. During his period of depression, the film maker also spent a little time in a mental health institution. However, the next few years were much kinder to Keaton.
After his third marriage to dancer Eleanor Morris in 1940, Keaton got his alcoholism under control. Indeed, some people attribute his personal improvement to his new relationship. The recovering Keaton also turned his attention to making low-budget – and less stressful – feature films for the majority of that decade.
Keaton experienced a return to fame in 1949 and subsequently found roles in bigger movies again. In the 1950s he was known to TV fans in both the U.S.A. and across the pond in Britain. Keaton’s appearances as himself in Sunset Boulevard in 1950 and the 1952 Chaplin film Limelight are particularly noteworthy.
It wasn’t just Keaton’s reputation that received a fresh veneer of appreciation, either. In 1954 a film programmer called Raymond Rohauer expressed an interest in Keaton’s older works. Keaton and his wife got together with Rohauer to discuss the possibilities of rereleasing the earlier movies. They struck a deal, and Keaton’s films proved even more popular than before.
Alongside receiving $50,000 for a film roughly based on his life, Keaton continued to work despite his advancing years. But this time around, the industry showered him with appreciation. Documentary makers and biographers chronicled his life. Keaton also received two stars on Hollywood’s walk of fame for both motion pictures and TV.
Keaton likewise got to witness his earlier films applauded following their rerelease. The General is a prime example. Keaton was proud of his accomplishment at the time, but it was heavily criticized in reviews. The second time around, viewers reassessed its relevance and lauded it as a masterpiece.
Then in 1966 Keaton passed away in his sleep. But before his passing, the screen legend got to experience what The Guardian speculated was Keaton’s “happiest moment.” It was his 22-minute silent short called Film the previous year which ended with a five-minute-long standing ovation. Keaton’s face was far from stony as he emotionally exclaimed, “This is the first time I’ve been invited to a film festival, but I hope it won’t be the last.”