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Buster Keaton’s Early Career

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For over a hundred years some of the greatest video treasures of all time have been produced. Some have been lost in the sands of time and others, soon to be rediscovered, will become fan favorites for a whole new generation.

Each week we will feature just one of the many hidden gems that you can see on ATVN with insights and commentaries on classic television shows and legendary cinematic performances.

You can’t look at early cinema without studying the great contributions by comedian/producer/director/screenwriter Buster Keaton.

Joseph Frank “Buster” Keaton has been credited with inspiring fellow legendary directors and comedians from Orson Welles to Mel Brooks to Johnny Knoxville.

He started in the entertainment business at the age of six, working with his parents doing physical comedy and vaudeville acts and road shows.  Some of his most popular acts were getting thrown by his father, who pretended to be angry with him. (Buster and his family toured with renowned illusionist Harry Houdini for years.)

Unbeknownst to the audience, a suitcase handle was sewn into Buster’s clothing making it easy for his father to reach in and throw his child who had become very proficient at landing on his feet and avoiding injury doing what seemed like extreme physical acts.

According to, his act was advertised as “The Roughest Act That Was Ever in the History of the Stage”.  Decades later, Keaton said that he was never hurt by his father and that the falls and physical comedy were a matter of proper technical execution. In 1914, Keaton told the Detroit News: “The secret is in landing limp and breaking the fall with a foot or a hand. It’s a knack. 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. Imitators of our act don’t last long, because they can’t stand the treatment.”

It was also as a child that he learned that if he smiled during his physical comedy routines, he didn’t get as many laughs from the audience.  Thus, he quickly developed the ability to not show any expression on his face during his routine–an action that later earned him the nickname “the great stone face.”

Originally skeptical of the new medium that was film, Keaton quickly adapted his highly entertaining physical humor to the big screen and became one of the greatest early comedians in the cinemas.

After great success in films as an actor and comedian between 1917 to 1920, Keaton quickly formed his own production company, allowed him to produce and direct his own films and create unparalleled physical comedic scenes throughout the rest of the 1920s.

Among his great physical highlights caught on film include Keaton sitting on top of a collapsing two-story building and escaping unharmed – as if he was on a surfboard riding a wave and dismounting like he was on a beach.

His 1926 classic, The General, combined tremendous feats of physical comedy with Keaton’s love of trains, including an epic locomotive chase.  Initially, it was not considered a financial success.  In addition to going way over budget, many people couldn’t stand watching so many death-defying physical acts (done, of course, without the benefits of any CGI).  However, the film is regarded by many as one of the greatest comedy films of all time.

The myth that Keaton couldn’t make a successful transition to talkies was just that — a myth.  Unlike , who disliked talking pictures vehemently, Keaton did immediately jump in to the new innovations and starred in a number of successful, early sound pictures for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.  It was his growing discontent of working with MGM, his overwhelming work schedule, an ugly divorce and an increasing dependency on alcohol that drove him out of the film industry for several years.

But Keaton’s film career and legendary work was far from over. We will look at more of Buster’s great legacy in a future blog entry here at the “Showplace.

In the meantime, you can see Buster Keaton in one of his early talkies, Parlor, Bedroom and Bath on Thursday, June 16, at 9:00 am on ATVN.


To view the complete rundown of classic programming on the Astound TV Network, check out the weekly listings here.


The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Astound Broadband or any other agency, organization, employer or company.