Tag Archives: fatty arbuckle

Remembering Buster

Forty-five years ago today, the laughter was silenced.

I’ve been writing a lot about Charlie Chaplin lately since my wife Kimi and I are helping host ChaplinFest, which begins on Friday evening in Newhall, California.

But today, I would like to focus our attention on Buster Keaton, another of the silent era’s comedic titans, who was a friend and rival of Chaplin.

Porkpie topped, stone-faced Keaton was a master of physical comedy, technical innovation, and the use of visual effects in his films.

Born Joseph Keaton into a vaudeville family in 1895, young Buster claimed to have gotten his nickname from magician Harry Houdini who was part of the troupe.

Buster entered his parents’ act at the age of three, and remained a performer for the rest of his life. Despite having only one day of formal education, he had the mind of a mechanical engineer, and possessed a lifelong fascination with machines.

Buster made his film debut in 1917 with his friend Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle in New York, and later claimed to have taken the movie camera apart on the set that day, learning how films were created. He would use his new knowledge in later films to create innovative visual effects.

Before long, Keaton had his own studio in Hollywood (which he acquired from its former occupant, Charlie Chaplin). During the 1920s, Keaton was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, ranking alongside Chaplin and Harold Lloyd in terms of popularity. He made several silent masterpieces during the decade, including 1927’s Civil War comedy The General (which just happens to be my all-time favorite film).

Chaplin and Keaton had a great deal of respect for each other, and Keaton actually appeared in Chaplin’s film Limelight in 1952.

And like Chaplin, Keaton also filmed around Newhall.

In 1921, Keaton made a film called The Paleface, where he escaped from Indians across a bridge that was constructed over Beale’s Cut in Newhall. Beale’s Cut was a 90-foot man-made slit carved though a mountain which aided travel to and from the San Fernando Valley from the mid-1800’s until bypassed in 1910. Keaton returned to Beale’s Cut in 1925 to film a scene in Seven Chances.

ChaplinFest will be held at the William S. Hart Regional Park in Newhall, which contains the home and ranch of the former silent cowboy star. Ironically, William S. Hart was the subject of a western parody that Keaton filmed in 1922 called The Frozen North. Buster was angry at Hart for publicly condemning his friend Fatty Arbuckle during Arbuckle’s well-publicized scandal, which was brought on by the death of an actress at a party.

In The Frozen North, Keaton pokes fun at the tough, melodramatic character that Hart most-often portrayed in his films. Hart apparently didn’t find the portrayal funny, and refused to speak to Keaton for two years

Keaton has an additional area tie as well – his mother Myra is buried nearby in Glen Haven Cemetery in a canyon just north of Sylmar. (This cemetery is also the final resting place of Anne Cornwall, who played Buster’s girlfriend in his 1927 film College.)

Buster is buried in Burbank’s Forest Lawn Hollywood Hills Cemetery just steps away from the grave of Stan Laurel, another former Chaplin friend and rival.


Long Live the King! – Part Two

November, 1960 was a tough month for Hollywood’s “kings.”

Yesterday, I wrote about the 50th anniversary of the passing of Clark Gable, the “King of Hollywood,” who died on November 16, 1960. His death came just eleven days after the passing of Mack Sennett, Hollywood’s “King of Comedy,” at age 80.

Mack Sennett, the ribald silent comedy producer who brought the “pie fight” and the wild car chase to the masses, was born in Canada in 1880. After his family relocated to New England when Sennett was a teenager, young Mack decided to go into vaudeville. He later claimed that his mother and some of her friends, including future U.S. President Calvin Coolidge, tried to talk him out of his decision.

Sennett migrated to New York where he got work at Biograph Studios as an actor and director. By 1912, he was on the move again, this time to the West Coast, where he founded Keystone Studios near Echo Park. This hyper-manic lot became the birthplace of the entire genre of silent film slapstick comedy, launching the careers of such stars as Fatty Arbuckle, Ben Turpin, Mabel Normand, Ford Sterling, the Keystone Cops, and a young English music hall veteran named Charlie Chaplin. Chaplin arrived at Keystone in 1914 and by the end of that year he had made 35 films for Sennett, becoming the world’s biggest box office star in the process.

The Keystone Cops, with Ford Sterling on the phone, and Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle at the far right.

Chaplin left Keystone in 1915 and Sennett eventually moved his operations to a new complex in Studio City. He continued cranking out comedies at a furious rate at his new laugh factory, launching several more notable careers.

Sennett’s fortune, along with his studio, was lost in the Great Depression. He retired from filmmaking at the age of 55 after having produced a roster of over 1000 silent and talkie films over a 25-year career.

Like yesterday’s fallen king Clark Gable, Sennett was quite a philanderer in his time and is sometimes credited with the creation of the “casting couch.”

Sennett’s old stomping grounds in Studio City was for a time the home of Republic Pictures, and is now known as the CBS Studio Center. This is the home of several long-running television series, including Gilligan’s Island, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, WKRP in Cincinnati, Leave It To Beaver, CSI: NY, Boston Common, and Seinfeld.

The site of Sennett’s Keystone Studio is today a storage facility.