More than Meets the Eye: Buster Keaton. . .Secrets Behind the Face that Never Smiled

Poster for Sherlock Jr. (1924)

Buster Keaton didn’t really get started in show business until the ripe old age of 3, though he did crawl onto the stage in the middle of his parents’ vaudeville act “by mistake” when he was a 9-month-old toddler.

The story of his early life and how he became one of the geniuses of silent film comedy will be explored at the Easton Public Library this Wednesday evening, November 16 at 7 p.m.  But the real event of the evening will be a chance to see Keaton in action on the screen!

Watching a classic Buster Keaton movie is a real pleasure.  Not only do we laugh, but we’re amazed, in awe really, at the innovative art on the screen.  Created roughly a century ago, his films are still fresh, surprising, and very funny.  Critics debate who was the greater genius, Keaton or Charlie Chaplin.  The answer to my mind is easy:  Both. One thing, though, certainly gives Keaton the edge: there are more ridiculous stories about him than any other performer from Hollywood’s golden age.  Some are so crazy that they may have actually happened. 

A young Buster Keaton in his early vaudeville days. Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

I love the one about how baby Joseph Keaton, Jr. got his nickname “Buster.”  At the age of 6 months, his parents were touring in a Medicine Show with the great escape artist Harry Houdini who witnessed baby Joseph fall down a full flight of stairs and the laugh instead of tears that followed.  As Keaton told it, Houdini turned to the proud father, Joseph Sr. and said “That was sure some buster!” (Buster in those days being a word for a fall). The name stuck.

Did it really happen?  Probably not. Nor did the oft-told tale of the 18-month-young Buster being picked up by a tornado and deposited on the other side of town, unharmed.

But there are a few doozies that are verifiable!

From a very early age, Buster was the star of his parents’ vaudeville act, billed as  “The Human Mop” and “The Little Boy Who Can’t Be Damaged.” For at least three shows a day, touring all across the U.S.A., Buster was on stage, playing a nuisance who got in the way of his father, infuriating him until he starts kicking and hitting the boy, then throwing him around. It’s all part of a highly successful act; little Buster’s costume has a suitcase handle sewed on the back of his shirt, for easy tossing.

Sherlock Jr. (1924)

The act continues for 17 years, until Keaton’s father’s drinking got so bad and the action on stage so ferocious, with father and son battling it out in front of a cheering audience, that Buster and his mother finally quit.

Within a few months Keaton was trying out something new: performing in the movies.

As a young boy, Buster had learned that he got the biggest laughs when he seemed nonchalant about the stage violence. And his stage persona translated nicely to the silver screen’s great stoneface, a very funny man who never smiles. 

According to his autobiography (the “one more book he wrote than he ever read”) he went to school for only a single day, but Keaton was a very bright, and curious boy. While still a toddler he tried to figure out how a washing machine worked and lost the tip of one his fingers to the mangle.  He had more luck tinkering with his first car, which he bought in 1909, when he was 14 (paying $250 cash). 

Sherlock Jr. (1924)

Throughout his life and career, machines and gadgets fascinated Buster. The very day he was hired to work in the movies he borrowed the motion picture camera and took it home, where he dismantled it, then put it back together.  From the start, Buster befriended the film crew, especially the cameraman, and he spent hours in the cutting room, learning about editing. If he was going to get involved in the magic of the flickers, Keaton wanted to make sure he understood how the magic was made. 

The Goat (1921)

With surprising freedom over almost 10 years, Buster Keaton managed to write and direct some of the most inventive film comedies of the silent era: movies that continue to entertain and amaze us today.  

But don’t take my word for it. Come and see for yourself at the Easton Public Library this Wednesday, Nov. 16, at 7 p.m. We’ll be showing the short subject “The Goat” followed by the 45-minute feature “Sherlock, Jr.” (which  includes one gag that still seems impossible. How did he do it?)  

I’ll share more stories and we’ll engage in what I expect will be a lively discussion. Hope you can join us!

Sherlock Jr. (1924)
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