Buster Keaton: life, rise and fall of “The Great Stone Face”

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No one better than Buster Keaton represented silent cinema of the 20s. His art and his gags were the best way to present that world without sounds but full of expressions, riding a decade in which he became (together with Charlie Chaplin) the most paid and admired artist of the world.

Joseph Frank Keaton was born in 1895 and already as a child he was on stage with his parents, vaudeville artists: the nickname “Buster” was born in those early years of applause and itinerant performances, where the little actor performed as a real stunt-man, being thrown and often also beaten just to please the audience, apparently without consequences. It was Harry Houdini, a family friend, the one who invented the nickname that will accompany Joseph for all his life: after seeing him fall from the stairs without any damage, he came out with a “What a buster!”.

After years in the family company, the young Buster attempted in 1917 the film career, going to New York where he met his greatest friend and mentor: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbunkle. The great comedian created with him an indissoluble couple until 1919, when the name of Buster Keaton got famous enough for a solo career.

He will soon land on MGM, which did the impossible to cast him: his jumps and flights (strictly without stunt), his absurd and dangerous scenic ideas, the maniacal knowledge of camera, all that became a huge success. It was the most glorious and inventive period for Keaton, who was able to add his absolute genius on his screenplays. Here are some of his best gags.

But at the end of the 20s, the technology introduced the possibility of sound and nothing was like before. Suddenly, Buster woke up in a completely different world. He tried to adapt himself, his voice and his accent were fitted actually quite well with what was required by the industry, but the real problem. But the real problem was his history: both Hollywood and the public knew him as the best representative of the past and, precisely for this reason, they didn’t see him well in the new cinema.

The uncertainties that looked around him made him progressively fall into alcohol, bringing his life and his career to the meltdown. MGM fired him in 1932, also in order to get rid of the contract. Meanwhile his wife Natalie Talmadge asked for a divorce, putting in serious troubles the actor. She took the two children away, and that was the final hit for the precarious mental balance of Buster Keaton, who was completely lost in alcoholism.

He was forced to work and accept unimportant roles, transforming him into a caricature of the great actor that he was, while a second unhappy marriage with Mae Scrivens broke again in a divorce. At that point, he was so close to self-destruction that he realized the need to regain control. From 1935 he returned sober and the third and definitive marriage with Eleanor Ruth Norris gave more stability to his new life and career.

Only with the 50s and the TV, the name of Buster Keaton returned to be familiar to the public: the renewed popularity opened the doors to shows and advertising, allowing him again to economically plan the last part of his life. In this period Charlie Chaplin hired him Limelight, his ninth feature film, where the two big silent artists perform in a funny scene that smells like the great, old times.

In 1960 he won the Academy Honorary Award, a recognition from the same Hollywood that decided too quickly to get rid of him. The end came in 1966: sick for a long time, Buster Keaton filmed in Italy his latest film, War italian Style. Although the film was probably unworthy of being the last one of a sacred Monster of Hollywood, the final scene, pays back the perplexities about its actual value.

The old and shabby Nazi general is freed and escapes from the two Marines. The tagline, “thank you, pronounced after being silent for the whole movie, is a beautiful leave from the show and life, which so much gave him but also took him away. But perhaps it was supposed to go this way. Otherwise why calling him Buster?

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