Buster Keaton in Sherlock Jr, 1924
Buster Keaton (October 4, 1895 - February 1, 1966) was a popular American silent-film comic actor and filmmaker. His trademark was physical comedy while keeping a deadpan expression on his face at all times which earned him the nickname of The Great Stone Face. Like his contemporaries, he came from vaudeville. His godfather was Harry Houdini, and Keaton himself credited Houdini with dubbing him "Buster" after seeing him, aged three, tumble down a flight of stairs without injury.
Keaton grew up in the world of vaudeville, performing with his parents (as "The Three Keatons") from the age of three. His star was rising in the theater, when he became attracted to the newly formed industry of motion pictures. He decided to try his luck in the world of the movies, and joined the filmmaking unit of Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle. Keaton's natural talent for physical comedy caught Arbuckle's eye, and Keaton was soon co-starring with Arbuckle, working closely on the production of Roscoe's films. Keaton and Arbuckle became close friends, a bond that would never break -- even after Arbuckle was embroiled in the "Fatty Arbuckle scandal" that cost him his career and his personal life.
Keaton's success encouraged the studio to give him his own production unit, and Buster Keaton began starring in a series of two-reel comedies that rocketed him to fame, including One Week, Cops, The Electric House, and The Playhouse. He reached the peak of his creativity during the early 1920s, and he graduated from short films to full-length features. The initial success of his movies made Keaton one of the most famous comedians in the world. His popularity was eclipsed only by the giant success of Charlie Chaplin.
His filmmaking style employs editing and framing techniques that are more closely aligned with today's sensibilities than the melodrama of other films of the day. His most famous and popular feature-length films included Our Hospitality, The Navigator, Steamboat Bill Jr, and The General. The last film is considered his masterpiece, combining physical comedy with Keaton's love for trains. It is seen by many as a good choice for viewers who are becoming newly acquainted with silent films. Unfortunately, many of his most acclaimed films performed poorly in the box office due their sophistication and the audience have a difficult time seeing Buster as a cinematic artist of considerable ambition.
Keaton's filmmaking unit was acquired by MGM in 1928, a business decision that Keaton regretted ever afterwards. He was forced to enter the ranks of the studio system, working at the MGM studios in an environment more controlled than he had previously had. He had difficulty adapting to the studio system, and he lapsed into alcoholism. His career declined within a few years, and he spent most of the 1930s in obscurity, working as a gag writer for various MGM films (including the Marx Brothers' A Night at the Opera).
Buster re-married in the late 1930s, and after playing a role in Billy Wilder's 1950 film Sunset Boulevard, he found work in the movies, performing minor roles in films including It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Among the best is a brief cameo in Charlie Chaplin's late film Limelight. Keaton and Chaplin share the screen for the only ten minutes in their lives, playing two aging former vaudeville stars trying to recapture a bit of glory, decades after both Chaplin's and Keaton's fame had peaked--though Keaton remarks, "If one more person tells me this is just like old times I swear I'll jump out the window."
He also found steady work as an actor for TV commercials. But he largely believed, perhaps, that he had been forgotten. His classic silent films did see a revival in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Shortly before he died, Keaton starred in one final short film called The Railrodder for the National Film Board of Canada, which saw him returning to the classic "stone face" role he had known during his heyday in the 1920s. He also played the central role in Samuel Beckett's only film project, Film, in 1965.