Part 2: The Flickers

Buster broke that contract less than two months later, following a chance meeting with ex-vaudevillian and film comic Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. He appeared in his first film, The Butcher Boy, that same day in a scene that was shot with no retakes, a remarkable film debut. Keaton, always fascinated by gadgets, got permission to take the movie camera home, where he dismantled it and put it back together to learn how it worked. He recognized in the movie camera the ultimate toy, and gave up stardom and $250 a week for supporting role status and $40 a week.

 After making just three films, he became Arbuckle’s assistant director and soon his entire writing staff, his salary increasing accordingly, until he was soon making almost as much as he would have on Broadway. Keaton’s contributions are noticeable almost immediately, his subtler and more sophisticated humor standing out in bas relief from the broader slapstick of the Arbuckle style. His close friendship with Arbuckle, whom he considered his mentor, lasted until Arbuckle’s sudden death in 1933, despite the tragic scandal destroying Arbuckle’s career in 1922.




Following a brief army stint as a cryptographer and entertainer on the back lines of France in World War I, Keaton was, in his own words, “back from the back” (his “career at the rear”) and was making his own two-reelers in Charlie Chaplin’s old studio in California starting in 1920. His unique and dramatically visual style was evident right from the beginning in his first short films The High Sign and One Week.

“No movie actor ever had a faster rise to stardom than Buster Keaton, ” noted Eddie Cline, one of his co-directors, in 1957. “In less than two years, he was famous all over the world.”

His best friend Roscoe Arbuckle did not fare as well. While Buster was becoming world famous, Arbuckle was felled by a tragedy that would change Hollywood forever. The gentle Arbuckle was arrested for raping and murdering a young actress, Virginia Rappé, who died after attending a party given by Roscoe in San Francisco. Following three manslaughter trials that received an inordinate amount of sensationalized, damaging and often inaccurate publicity, Arbuckle was completely cleared.

Unfortunately and unfairly, Hollywood and the public still rose up against him and his career was ruined. The end of Arbuckle’s career at age 34 foreshadowed the end of Keaton’s control over his films just a few years later, at age 33. The Arbuckle case, plus a couple of other scandals at the same time, encouraged Hollywood to develop stricter guidelines for the personal behavior of its stars, including a “morals clause” in all contracts, and to develop censorship for the films.

Meanwhile, Keaton’s career continued to soar. Within three years, he was making two feature films a year, films that would forever ensure his reputation. Although his films were never as popular in their day as those of his nearest rivals Charlie Chaplin or Harold Lloyd, Keaton was undoubtedly an important and established star.

From 1920 to 1928, Buster Keaton made 19 short films and 12 features, all with his distinctive style—unlike anything seen before on the screen. Critics agree that even the worst films, such as the shorts Neighbors or My Wife’s Relations, are technically superior to the best movies being made by almost anyone else at the time—Chaplin included. For Keaton comprehended, far more than anyone else, the potential of that marvelous toy, the camera, and with comprehension came a new kind of comedy.

Keaton did more than slapstick. He had a wry wit, a deft touch for satire, breathtaking acrobatic ability and an innate and delicate touch with both black comedy and fantasy. Where his contemporaries pointed the camera at funny people doing funny things, Keaton made the camera his partner and developed a new comic vocabulary with it.

The best of his work, which means most of his work, has a timeless quality that has made Keaton probably the only remaining silent film artist other than Chaplin who can still draw big crowds and attract new followers. His films are timeless and convulsively funny, they engage both the audience’s emotions and its intellect. Keaton’s characters are sympathetic, his plots immediately involving, his stunts astounding and his gags clever and surprising.

Keaton performed almost all of his own stunts—and with his vaudeville upbringing, that’s not surprising. He knew how to fall, and he took particular pride in his physical accomplishments in front of the camera.


Accidents happened on occasion, although friends later said that Keaton seemed impervious to physical pain. During the shooting of The Electric House (1921), his slapshoe got stuck in an escalator and crushed his foot. While he was recuperating, under doctor’s orders not to do anything strenuous, Keaton made The Playhouse—a stunning experiment in special effects—but also a film in which he performs an extended dance. Keaton apparently did not consider dancing to be strenuous.

On Our Hospitality (1923), he almost drowned in a river sequence. On The General (1926), he was knocked unconscious by a cannon. On the Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1927) set, he broke his nose (playing baseball), and the most remarkable of all, he broke his neck shooting a scene for Sherlock Jr. (1924). In the scene, he runs along the top of a train and then grabs a waterspout. Water gushes down on the track and Buster is obscured for a moment. During that moment, he was forced by the pressure of the water down onto the tracks, where he hit his neck. But if you watch the film closely, you see Buster get up and run off—still in the same take. It was years before he discovered what had given him those awful headaches.

His most famous film—certainly the one of which he was proudest—was The General, made in 1926. Based on a true Civil War story, The General is the Keaton film most modern audiences are familiar with. It is essentially a dramatic story of Northern spies who steal a Confederate train but are thwarted by one determined man—the train’s engineer, played by Buster. As much action-suspense as comedy, The General’s humor comes from its view of human behavior.

Above: Scenes from "The General", 1926.

The General has long been praised as one of the greatest films ever made; it was one of the first to be included in the Library of Congress for the National Film Registry as part of the National Film Preservation Act.

His other silents range from the intimate, personal films like The Cameraman to the epic, like Our Hospitality, to the absurd and surrealistic, like The Playhouse and Sherlock Jr. Some of the films depend on astounding special effects for their magic; others on Keaton’s own remarkable physical acrobatics; still others on their unique view of human beings trying to live in a modern world.


“Buster Keaton’s sphinx-like face is to be seen at the Capitol this week in a nautical film-farce, called ‘The Navigator,’ wherein his wildest emotions are reflected by an occasional upward turn of his right eyebrow. Now and again the Keaton eyes evince a suggestion of life, but his lips barely budge. To have a contrast to this comedian’s placidity of countenance, we had only to look at those watching this picture. Mouths were wide open in explosions of laughter and eyes sparkled with merriment . . . . Mr. Keaton deserves untold credit for his originality in thinking up most of the funny scenes.”

— The New York Times, October 13, 1924

Keaton was the main creative force behind his silent film work. A gifted writer, director, technician and performer, he was unquestionably a visionary. Yet he always gave on- and off-screen credit to others, once mocking (in his landmark short The Playhouse) his more egotistical colleagues like Thomas H. Ince and Charlie Chaplin, who hogged credit for everything.

Clyde Bruckman, co-writer of several of the best films and some of the Columbia shorts and television work, confirmed this modesty: “I could tell you and so could [writer] Jean Havez if he were alive that those wonderful stories were ninety percent Buster’s. I was often ashamed to take the money, much less the credit.” Keaton’s modesty about his work is partially responsible for the surprising fact that much of his influence on American humor and on filmmaking has been overlooked.

In 1920, during this highly productive period, he had married Natalie Talmadge, sister of movie stars Constance and Norma Talmadge. Natalie has been described by several who knew her and apparently didn’t like her as a congenial “lump,” whose goals in life consisted primarily of entertaining Hollywood’s elite and shopping. She reputedly spent approximately $900 a week on clothes—approximately one-third of Buster’s salary—and insisted that Buster and their children move into larger and larger homes, eventually settling in what they called “the Italian Villa,” a movie-star mansion that may have been beyond Buster’s means.

From the beginning of the union, the Talmadge family, dominated by the strong-willed Peg Talmadge, virtually resided with young Keaton and his bride, dictating the direction the marriage would go. In 1924, following the birth of two sons to whom Buster was devoted, the Talmadge women en masse casually informed 29-year-old Keaton that he was no longer welcome in Natalie’s bed.

“Having got our two boys our first three years, frankly, it looked as if my work was done,” he reported with sardonic humor years later. “I was ruled ineligible. Lost my amateur standing. They said I was a pro. I was moved into my own bedroom.” Surprisingly, the marriage lasted another nine years before it collapsed with a loud noise in the disastrous year of 1932.

Although Keaton would always claim he had loved Natalie, he eventually admitted: “I know of no woman in the world who could have taken me from Natalie—except Natalie herself.”