About Buster — Overview

The Life of Buster Keaton

Buster Keaton, one of the greatest comedians and filmmakers of all time, made 19 silent short films and 10 silent features between 1920 and 1928. Seven of his films have been included in the National Film Registry, making him one of the most honored filmmakers on that prestigious list: One Week (1920), Cops (1922), Sherlock Jr. and The Navigator (both 1924), The General (1926), Steamboat Bill, Jr., and The Cameraman (both 1928). Time magazine proclaimed Sherlock Jr. one its top 100 movies of all time.

Entertainment Weekly has chosen him as the seventh greatest filmmaker in history and as the 35th greatest movie star, while the American Film Institute voted him the 21st greatest actor, and his 1926 masterpiece The General is #18 on the AFI’s “100 Years…100 Movies — 10th Anniversary Edition” and #18 again on its “100 Years… 100 Laughs” list, with Sherlock Jr. placing #62 and The Navigator #81 on that same list. Sight & Sound magazine ranked The General as #34 on its 2012 list of the greatest films of all time, and as #75 on its list of the greatest directors of all time. Keaton and The General also made the 1972 and 1982 Sight & Sound top 10 lists, which are announced once every 10 years.

During his lifetime, Keaton was a recipient of the George Eastman Award in its year of inception (1955), and he received an Honorary Academy Award® in 1960 “for his unique talents which brought immortal comedies to the screen.” In addition, Keaton has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, one for his movies (6619 Hollywood Blvd.) and the other for his television work 6321 Hollywood Blvd.).

Since his death, his reputation has continued to grow, to the point that many now consider him to have been the greatest of all the silent comedians. In 1917, Buster Keaton first stepped before a film camera. He was 21 years old and a veteran of the vaudeville stage, having headlined his family’s acrobatic comedy act since childhood. One hundred years later, Keaton’s film comedies are as funny and appealing to 21st-century audiences as they were when they were first released.

Part 1: A Vaudeville Childhood

By the time Buster Keaton became a professional performer and vaudeville star at the age of five, he had already lived a life as extraordinary and fanciful as his films would later become.

Part 2: The Flickers

Following a chance meeting with ex-vaudevillian and film comic Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, Buster appeared in his first short, The Butcher Boy. It was filmed that same day in a scene that was shot with no retakes, a remarkable film debut, and just the begin of a decade of innovation and brilliance.

Part 3: The Worst Mistake

In allowing himself to be signed over to MGM, Buster indeed made an irretrievable mistake—he would never again be completely free to create films, although he never gave up hope that he would be allowed to return to the work he adored. "I don't know if it was human nature, greed, or power, but the big companies were out to kill the independents," he said years later.

Part 4: The Lost Years

Some assume that Keaton's career was ruined by the coming of sound, that he just wasn't suited to making anything but silent films. Anyone who has seen the rare French film Le roi des Champs-Elysées (King of the Champs-Elysées), made in 1934, knows that Keaton could make as good a sound film as anyone. The truth about the years from 1933 to 1949 is that he worked continuously, appearing in numerous short films for Educational and Columbia, as well as a few films in Europe.

Part 5: A Happy & Contented Man

After meeting MGM contract dancer Eleanor Norris in 1938, he married the much-younger woman (she was 23; he was 44) in 1940. Their marriage was a happy one that lasted 26 years until his death from lung cancer in 1966 at the age of 70.