Buster Keaton Biography

Buster Keaton

The poker-faced silent movie star revolutionised onscreen comedy with films like 'The General' and 'Sherlock Jr.' Profile of the life and work of one of cinema's true legends.

The son of medicine show performers, Keaton joined their acrobatic comedy act 'The Three Keatons' at age three, and moved on to vaudeville when he was six and already an accomplished acrobat.

He entered films with ‘The Butcher Boy’ and, after brief service in World War I, he made a series of short films, along with his first feature, ‘The Saphea’.

By 1923, he was exercising complete artistic control over his films and he had established his persona as a deadpan and agile Everyman, undaunted by the most extreme situations.

Some of his productions were almost surreal, such as ‘Sherlock, Jr’, in which he played a film projectionist who became involved in the action on the screen. Other masterpieces include ‘The Boat’, ‘Our Hospitality’, ‘The Navigator’ and ‘The General’ - the latter a film many consider to be his finest work.

After signing with MGM in 1928, Keaton's life spun out of control. He lost artistic control over his films, his marriage to Natalie Talmadge fell apart and he was troubled by alcoholism and mental illness. His contract at MGM was terminated and Keaton fell into a deep depression. He fell out of the Hollywood film world until an appearance at the circus in Paris in 1947. After making numerous appearances at the circus, Keaton was offered a television show.

As a result of the show, Keaton was cast on Charlie Chaplin's ‘Limelight’. This led to the rediscovery of his comic artistry. During the 1950s, many of his silent masterpieces were re-released. His last decade saw him all but overwhelmed by the constant demands on his time and tributes to his genius.

Keaton married his second wife, nurse Mae Scriven, in 1933 during an alcoholic binge about which he afterward claimed to remember nothing. When they divorced in 1936, she took half of everything they owned. Four years later, he married Eleanor Norris, who was 23 years his junior. She saved his life from the spiral of alcoholism, and helped to salvage his career.

Though his career may have lacked the lustre of Chaplin or Laurel and Hardy, some consider Keaton the most gifted comedian of the silent film era.

He died aged 70 in his sleep, shortly after playing cards with his wife. He had been suffering from cancer.

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