It’s hard to imagine sitting back and watching a flick in a movie theater as anything other than the multicolored, high-definition experience it is today. Nevertheless, there was a time when just seeing actors on screen was a treat. Silent movie legend Buster Keaton made a name for himself in those days, too, although his star power would ultimately begin to wane with the advent of talking pictures. And, sadly, that fall from grace appeared to take quite a toll on Keaton’s mental health.
There’s some debate over what damaged Keaton’s emotional well-being, but perhaps that’s a sign of the times. The subject of mental health wasn’t discussed in length in public when the actor was alive, after all. Thankfully, though, things have changed, and there is arguably now less of a stigma around mental health issues.
In fact, the World Health Organisation even spearheaded a World Mental Health Day, which takes place annually on October 10. And it’s become increasingly clear that anyone can suffer from mental illness at any time – as many celebrities can testify. Such big names as Lady Gaga, Ryan Reynolds and Ellen DeGeneres have all opened up about their experiences with PTSD, anxiety and depression, for example.
Unfortunately, though, Keaton had to face his inner demons with less aid than sufferers have today. But it helps to know more about the man before we can reveal the challenges that he encountered. For example, did you know that the silent movie actor came into the world during a stage-show intermission?
Yes, in 1895 Keaton – originally known as Joseph – was born behind the scenes to two Kansas vaudeville performers: Joe and Myra. Together with famous stuntman Harry Houdini, Joe owned a traveling show called the Mohawk Indian Medicine Company. And as the business’ name suggests, Keaton’s father also doubled as a patent medicine vendor, selling purported ailment remedies to visitors.
Furthermore, the future screen star apparently credited Houdini for giving him the nickname Buster. As the story goes, Keaton had once fallen down a flight of stairs as a toddler. Much to Houdini’s surprise, though, the young boy got up unharmed, leading the famous magician to announce, “That was a real buster!”
In that context, Houdini meant that the accident wasn’t harmful despite the odds – and the moniker stuck. What’s more, the stage name proved to be somewhat apt for Keaton’s early performances. And the boy started young, too; he first trod the boards alongside his parents at just three years old.
Yet performing as part of The Three Keatons – as the family called themselves – was often physically demanding, owing to the clan’s propensity for boisterous comedy. As punishment for scripted acts of disobedience, for example, Joe would hurl his son around – sometimes aiming his offspring at the watching crowd.
In fact, Keaton’s airborne antics became so frequent that his parents ultimately stitched a suitcase handle into his clothes. And as The Three Keatons became famous – and infamous – for their stunts, the family leaned into this reputation by consequently billing the show “The Roughest Act That Was Ever in the History of the Stage.”
Nevertheless, as a result of the show’s apparent violence, authorities confronted Joe and Myra several times on suspicion of alleged child abuse. On a few occasions, police even arrested the couple, although they couldn’t place charges due to a lack of evidence. No one could find a cut or a bruise on the youngest Keaton, as he was happy to demonstrate.
Indeed, owing to his ability to seemingly emerge unharmed from shows, Keaton became known as “The Little Boy Who Can’t Be Damaged” on advertisements. Still, the entire performance was the end result of careful planning and execution, as the vaudeville star explained to the Detroit News in 1914.
“The secret is in landing limp and breaking the fall with a foot or a hand,” Keaton explained. “I started so young that landing right is second nature with me. Several times I’d have been killed if I hadn’t been able to land like a cat.” Even so, he said, such skills were difficult to replicate.
Keaton continued, “Imitators of our act don’t last long because they can’t stand the treatment.” Yet despite the roughness of the work, the performer reportedly enjoyed his time on stage so much that he occasionally burst into laughter during stunts. The watching crowds apparently didn’t find this break in character as entertaining, though, leading Keaton to develop the impassive expression for which he ultimately became famous.
Indeed, the actor later become so well known for his stoicism that he earned the sobriquet “The Great Stone Face.” And Keaton’s reputation on the theater circuit grew with him, despite a few challenges. One of these was Joe, who tragically became an alcoholic and risked his family’s show in the process.
Along with Myra, then, Keaton subsequently moved to New York, where he encountered silent film actor and director Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. And although both Keaton and his father were apprehensive about the relatively new medium, the former was nevertheless finally won over. Yes, after scrutinizing a camera that he had borrowed from Arbuckle, the young actor decided to give movies a try.
Arbuckle then hired Keaton to star alongside him in 1917’s The Butcher Boy – the start of a fruitful relationship that saw the pair make 14 short films together. Then in 1920 Keaton landed his debut starring role in The Saphead, which was a quasi-comedic second remake of a stage show called The New Henrietta.
And fortunately for Keaton, he shone in The Saphead, with his performance marking him out as a talent to watch. The fledgling actor looked set for big things, too, after studio executive Joseph M. Schenck approached him with an opportunity. On the strength of Keaton’s work with Arbuckle, Schenck set the rising star up with his own movie-making company: Buster Keaton Productions.
Initially, Keaton Productions focused on comedy shorts such as The Playhouse, The Electric House and Cops. However, as time went on, the multi-talented actor and his team turned to feature-length productions. And rival director Leo McCarey once claimed that while Keaton employed other writers for his company, the main man himself was the best at the job.
Then, of course, there was the fact that Keaton wasn’t afraid to push himself to extremes on screen for viewers’ entertainment. One of the star’s stunts, for example, involved him emerging unscathed from the ruins of a two-ton prop house.
Yet Keaton wasn’t so lucky when shooting a scene for 1924’s Sherlock Jr. After he was exposed to the falling contents of a water tower, you see, the fluid’s impact ended up breaking his neck. But even so, The Great Stone Face was unaware of the damage at the time, and he only found out about the injury in later years.
In all, then, Keaton’s skills at writing, acting and directing made him a triple threat to rivals, while critics praised him for such hits as Our Hospitality, Seven Chances and Keaton’s favorite film, The Navigator. During the early 1920s, then, Keaton’s silent movie career was flying high. And there was even success on the personal front in that period, as he married his Our Hospitality co-star Natalie Talmadge in 1921.
But despite the many hits under Keaton’s belt, distributors harshly punished the performer for his most significant miss: a film called The General. Inspired by the Great Locomotive Chase during the American Civil War, the movie united Keaton’s love of trains with his passion for filmmaking. And although The General is often considered a masterpiece now, contemporary critics weren’t as keen.
In particular, reviewers disapproved of the movie’s subject, pacing and drama in relation to Keaton’s earlier comedy-filled works. And The General’s poor critical reception – coupled with its failure to break even – tarnished Keaton’s reputation with his distributors. As a consequence, then, they chose to bring a production manager on board to regulate storytelling and expenditure at Keaton Productions.
And the timing couldn’t have been any worse for Keaton, who back then was also facing problems in his personal life. Specifically, his marriage to Talmadge began dissolving after the birth of their two sons, Joseph Buster Jr. and Robert. Talmadge didn’t want any more children, you see – something that ultimately resulted in the couple taking separate bedrooms.
Nor was that the only point of controversy in Keaton and Talmadge’s relationship. Apparently, the actress also had expensive taste in clothes, meaning Keaton had to hand over as much as a third of his wages to his wife. And with both his career and personal life in jeopardy, Keaton was feeling the pressure.
What’s more, Keaton couldn’t stand the production manager’s backseat maneuvering for very long – he’d reached his limit after just two films. Once again, though, Keaton’s old associate Schenk appeared to make him a tempting offer. And in his autobiography, My Wonderful World of Slapstick, Keaton himself revealed what happened next.
“In 1928 I made the worst mistake of my career,” Keaton wrote. “Against my better judgement, I let Joe Schenck talk me into giving up my own studio to make pictures at the booming Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer lot in Culver City.” He was, of course, referring to the film studio MGM.
Before accepting the offer, however, Keaton sought advice from his friend Charlie Chaplin. And Chaplin seemingly dissuaded his fellow star, saying, “Don’t let them do it to you, Buster. It’s not that they don’t have smart showmen there. They have some of the country’s best. But there are too many of them, and they’ll all try to tell you how to make your comedies.”
Nevertheless, the deal looked good on paper, and Schenck was adamant that Keaton would retain creative freedom. So, Keaton signed up with MGM. And things started off well, as the actor’s first film with the company, The Cameraman, was a critical success. Unfortunately, though, the studio didn’t consider its financial gain significant enough to give Keaton free rein over his projects.
Keaton subsequently found himself wrestling for control of his movies, which became less and less to his liking. And aside from his work on The Cameraman, MGM limited his attempts to embrace the dawning sound era. When Keaton approached the studio with an idea for a comedy called Spite Marriage, for example, MGM denied him the necessary technology to make a talkie.
Apparently, the studio considered comedies a medium best suited to silence and reserved its sound equipment for dialogue-filled scripts. In addition, the sound projects that MGM allowed Keaton to work on were lacking his usual spark. Part of this can be attributed to his limited influence, but his failing mental health may also have been a factor.
Over the years, you see, Keaton’s marriage had all but finished, leading Talmadge to call for a divorce. And when she left, she both took the majority of Keaton’s savings and also cut off his connection to their children. The performer ultimately fell into a deep depression, then, and developed a reliance on alcohol.
During a period of heavy drinking in 1933, Keaton even wed a nurse called Mae Scriven – although the star was so inebriated at the time that he didn’t remember tying the knot. And, perhaps inevitably, the relationship didn’t last long; as a result of Keaton’s infidelity, Scriven divorced the actor two years later.
Thus Keaton capped off perhaps his most troubled period. He had already experienced considerable professional woes; in 1934 MGM had noticed Keaton’s lack of passion for his work, so the studio had consequently ended his contract. That loss of employment had in turn led to the star’s bankruptcy. And during his period of depression, the film maker also spent a little time in a mental health institution. Fortunately, there was pretty much nowhere else to go but up.
And Keaton did turn his life around, with the performer getting his alcoholism under control following his third marriage to dancer Eleanor Morris. Indeed, some people attribute his personal improvement to his relationship with Morris, whom he wed in 1940. The recovering Keaton also turned his attention to making low-budget feature films – and ones that were less stressful to produce – for the majority of the ’40s.
Keaton even embarked on something of a comeback at the turn of the decade, as he subsequently found roles in bigger movies again. The star’s appearances as himself in Sunset Boulevard in 1950 and as a veteran performer in the 1952 Chaplin film Limelight are particularly noteworthy.
And it wasn’t just Keaton’s reputation that received a fresh veneer of appreciation, either. In 1954, you see, a film programmer called Raymond Rohauer expressed an interest in Keaton’s older works. With that, Keaton and his wife consequently got together with Rohauer to discuss the possibilities of re-releasing the actor’s earlier movies. They struck a deal, too, with the result being that Keaton’s films proved even more popular than before.
In addition, Keaton would receive $50,000 for a film roughly based on his life – a 1957 biopic rather unoriginally called The Buster Keaton Story. The man himself, meanwhile, was still adding chapters to that tale, appearing on screen despite his advancing years. And this time around, the industry showered the actor with appreciation – not least through two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Keaton likewise got to witness his earlier films being applauded following their respective re-releases. The General in particular received something of a critical reappraisal; following a spell in movie theaters in 1962, the silent comedy was lauded by reviewers and audiences alike.
And before his death in 1966, Keaton got to experience what The Guardian’s obituary speculated was arguably his “happiest moment.” This had come in 1965, when a Venice Film Festival screening of the movie legend’s silent short Film ended with a five-minute-long standing ovation. And Keaton’s face was far from stony as he emotionally exclaimed at the event, “This is the first time I’ve been invited to a film festival, but I hope it won’t be the last.”