From the destruction of a railroad bridge―with a train on top―in The General (1926) to the collapse of a house around his ears in Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928), Buster Keaton went to great lengths to entertain his public. While his characters walked away stone-faced and unharmed, the actor often suffered serious injury. In his fourth feature-length film, Sherlock Jr. (1924), he plays a projectionist who falls asleep and dreams he’s the star of a movie about a “crime-crushing” detective. The scenario, with its nonstop string of stage gags and illusions, allowed Keaton to perform some of his most impressive stunts, one of which nearly cost him his life.
Jumping from the top of a moving freight car, he swings down to grab the water tower’s release rope. During the shoot, the water gushed out with such force that Keaton lost his grip and was thrown to the track below, hitting his head on the rail. Despite being in severe pain, the always professional 29-year-old got up to finish the scene. During a routine physical examination 11 years later, an X-ray revealed that Keaton had fractured his neck.
Pearl White, Tom Mix, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, and Harold Lloyd were among the silent-era stars who performed their own stunts. Yet Keaton was singular in his willingness to risk life and limb, determined to outdo himself with every picture. He had honed a repertoire of pratfalls in his early years in Vaudeville, where he had been flung around the stage for comic effect as part of a family act. When he turned to filmmaking, he combined his comic timing and willingness to court danger with the added element of the camera, bringing it close to the action, so the audience could feel the actor’s peril.
Keaton first stepped onto a film set in 1917 at Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle’s Comique Film Corporation. He was so intrigued by the camera that he asked to take one home. He took it completely apart, studied every piece, and returned it intact the next morning. When he stepped in front of the camera to make his film debut in Arbuckle’s The Butcher Boy (1917), he was just beginning to exploit the camera’s potential.
At Comique, Keaton first met gag-writer Clyde Bruckman, who understood the actor’s “man against mechanics” approach to physical comedy. The two men spent four to five days a week at Keaton’s home, mapping out elaborate stunts. They became lifelong friends, sharing an affinity for cards and liquor. Bruckman was a key member of Keaton’s team in the 1920s, writing Sherlock Jr. and directing The General (1926). He also worked with other comedy legends, directing Harold Lloyd in Welcome Danger (1929) and W.C. Fields in The Fatal Glass of Beer (1933), as well as writing scores of gags for the Three Stooges.
Keaton worked as an independent for more than 10 years, making 19 shorts and 11 features before signing a contract with MGM in 1928. Keaton was accustomed to improvising gags around a rough story outline. But MGM’s money-conscious producers, who were tackling the conversion to sound, wanted accountability. Actor Harold Goodwin recalled friction between Keaton and his new bosses on the set of The Cameraman, Keaton’s first MGM picture. “[A] situation arises that has comic potential and [Keaton] likes to milk it for all it’s worth,” he told Keaton biographer Tom Dardis in 1977. “The brass wanted to know how they could budget a show if we didn’t follow the script.” Although The Cameraman was a late silent-era hit, MGM reined in Keaton’s spendthrift habits. Both sides were unhappy with the partnership, so Keaton and MGM temporarily parted ways in February 1933.
In 1937, he was back on the MGM payroll, this time as a gag writer. Assigned to the Marx Brothers’ At the Circus (1939), the ever-punctual Keaton arrived at 8 a.m., while the brothers showed up after lunch. Despite his frustration with the casual work ethic of his “all-talkie” successors, Keaton worked on and off as a comedy consultant for the studio until 1950, coaching comedy stars such as Red Skelton.
Bruckman and Keaton were reunited professionally for Pest from the West (1939), the first of 10 two-reel shorts for Columbia Pictures. Most of the shorts were shot on a small budget and a time schedule of three days. Keaton disliked the series and critics regard it as the nadir of his career.
Depression and alcoholism affected the careers of both Keaton and Bruckman. Keaton’s initial departure from MGM coincided with a bitter divorce from his first wife, which left him nearly destitute. Bruckman’s drinking ended his career as a director after he vanished for a full week during production of The Man on the Flying Trapeze (1935). Although he continued to find employment writing, he was known to recycle his own gags. In 1942, Harold Lloyd, who retained the rights to his films, sued Columbia Pictures, charging Bruckman with lifting routines from Movie Crazy and The Freshman (1925) for two Three Stooges shorts.
Lloyd, ironically, became a savior for both Bruckman and Keaton, suggesting to agent Ben Pearson that Keaton’s physical comedy was well-suited to television. Pearson contacted Bruckman in order to get in touch with Keaton. The result was The Buster Keaton Show, for which Bruckman wrote sketches that Keaton performed for an audience. It was broadcast live for 17 weeks in 1950. Thirteen episodes of a second series, Life with Buster Keaton, were shot on film and syndicated nationwide in 1951. The film format eliminated the studio audience, and Keaton quickly lost interest. He turned to guest appearances on other shows and commercials.
Bruckman found more work on the small screen through Hollywood stars who had begun dabbling in television, including Abbott and Costello. Unfortunately, Bruckman’s recycling of material provoked another successful lawsuit by Lloyd, effectively ending his movie career. In 1955, Bruckman fatally shot himself in a diner restroom with a gun he had borrowed from Keaton.
Keaton was shocked by Bruckman’s suicide. His friend was the last link to Keaton’s silent-era gang. The ensuing police investigation further rattled him, and, later that same year, his mother Myra died. Distraught and drinking heavily, Keaton was hospitalized with a ruptured esophagus. He recovered, but the effects of alcoholism and the damage to his body from years of pratfalls had taken their toll.
It was widely known in Hollywood that Buster Keaton’s stunt doubles had little to do on set except watch him work. When Keaton made his last feature film, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966), at the age of 71, stunt man Mick Dillon was hired to do the running required for Keaton’s character, “Erroneous.” Years after Keaton’s death in 1966, Dillon, embarrassed that he was the one to double for the legendary actor, revealed to author Marion Meade that Keaton was unable to perform many of the simple routines. Dillon recalled one wonderful incident when Keaton was shooting the close-up of a running scene and surprised everyone by doing one of his famous pratfalls after colliding with a tree. He got up and walked away, unharmed.
Presented at Winter Event, December 2009 with live music by Dennis James on the Mighty Wurlitzer
Special Sound Effects by Todd Manley