Legends of the Silent Screen
Joseph Francis “Buster” Keaton was born in 1895 to medicine show performers in Piqua, Kansas, a town literally blown off the map by a cyclone a few years later.
In his autobiography, Buster Keaton stated, “I have considered myself a fabulously lucky man.” Indeed, his good fortune was evident at six months, when a fall down a flight of stairs left him unhurt and nicknamed “Buster”—a vaudeville term for a comic fall—by family friend Harry Houdini. Buster’s resiliency was showcased in the family comedy act, The Three Keatons, where he starred as the “Human Mop.” The act broke up in 1917, the year he met Fatty Arbuckle at a Broadway theater. After accepting an offer to appear in comedy shorts, Keaton’s film career was under way.
By the 1920s, Keaton and Chaplin were the kings of comedy. Keaton married Natalie Talmadge in 1921 and released “The Playhouse,” a surrealistic short with elaborate special effects. In 1923, Keaton switched to feature-length comedies with a parody of D.W. Griffith’s “Intolerance,” called “The Three Ages.” In “Sherlock, Jr.” (1924), Keaton’s biggest commercial success, a projectionist fantasizes about stepping through the screen into the movie set. “The General,” another favorite, was based on the true Civil War saga of a spy who tried to steal a locomotive called the General. Seven of the film’s eight reels were devoted to the chase.