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.