If Mount Rushmore honored comedians instead of presidents, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd would be carved in granite as the Holy Trinity of Comedy Legends.
All three men gained fame in silent pictures. Each created memorable moments on screen. But to me, Keaton is the artist whose work best stands the test of time. Unlike Charlie, who could veer into sticky sentimentality, or Harold, who was funnier without sound than with it, Buster’s films crackle with timeless comic genius. (Quirky Random Fact: Keaton lost the tip of his right index finger in a childhood mishap; Lloyd lost his right thumb and index finger in an accidental explosion. Far as I know, Chaplin was buried with all of his factory-installed body parts.)
Keaton’s life is a riches-to-rags tale of a star virtually born in a trunk on October 4, 1895. His parents were vaudevillians who drafted Buster into the act when he was three. After serving in World War I, Keaton crashed the screen scene in a spiffy 1917 short, The Butcher Boy, opposite Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. Between that debut and Buster’s death from lung cancer on February 1, 1966, he survived two miserable marriages, alcoholism, bankruptcy, freeloading relatives and injuries (like a broken neck from doing his own stunts), before finding true love with third wife Eleanor, winning an honorary Oscar and enjoying a global resurgence in popularity.
To my eternal regret, I came to worship Keaton later rather than sooner. Growing up, I admired Chaplin in classics like The Gold Rush and City Lights, and marveled at Lloyd’s iconic stunt in Safety Last! (hanging from the hands of a clock, high above downtown Los Angeles). Buster’s films just weren’t on TV very often. So, years later when I was living in L.A. and a neighbor told me, “Eleanor Keaton lives across from our apartment building and loves talking about her husband’s movies,” naturally I didn’t bother to knock on Mrs. Keaton’s door. (That sound you hear is me kicking myself.)
As penance, I vowed to spare others from suffering a similar fate. Below, I’ve listed a sampler plate of great Keaton pictures. Stream them online, check your local library, or best of all, attend one in person. New Hampshire’s own Jeff Rapsis provides live musical accompaniment for silents starring Keaton, Chaplin, Lloyd and other top stars – scroll his schedule for upcoming screenings.
The High Sign
Steamboat Bill, Jr.
Buster Keaton: A Hard Act to Follow, available on YouTube