Orson Welles once said, “The enemy of art is the absence of limitations.” It’s a statement full of wisdom, but it also carries a degree of irony. Welles made Citizen Kane—one of the most daring and inventive movies of all time—when RKO Radio Pictures granted him historic levels of artistic freedom. It might be more accurate, then, to say the enemy of art is the absence of limitations for most—but not for an exclusive few.
In fact, in the history of motion pictures, there might be only one other filmmaker who could make films of such consequence and majesty with complete creative control: Buster Keaton. His life’s greatest tragedy was that, once he gave up that freedom, he could never get it back.
The vaudeville child star turned filmmaker had a run in the 1920s that makes him, as Roger Ebert once declared, arguably the greatest actor-director in the history of movies. During that decade, he churned out 10 silent feature films—including his most famous, The General—and a collection of shorts that created the grammar of cinema. At the dawn of the medium, Keaton figured out visual storytelling like none other. His gags worked not only because of his physical courage and prowess—he did his own stunts, often in one take—but because of his ingenuity with the camera.
In his short film The Goat (1921), for instance, Keaton tries to escape from the police by hiding in a spare tire attached to the back of a car. Once the car drives away, however, we see that the spare tire is not, in fact, attached; rather, it’s part of a display for a tire store. We are then left with Buster, his body encased helplessly in rubber next to the curb. It’s a joke that requires hardly any technical trickery; it works because he knew where to put the camera. To this day, Keaton’s shots are among the most imitated, like the house collapse in Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928) when a wall falls down on him, but he’s saved by standing on the perfect spot to pass through the attic window.
Keaton loved the comedy of action and the ability of the camera to fool the eye. He was a genius at experimentation. With the exception of The General, he never worked with a completed script. He would devise a compelling beginning and a satisfying finish. “The middle will take care of itself,” he would say.
Unfortunately, though, like all things, Keaton’s incredible run came to an end in 1928, when he joined MGM Studios and lost his creative control. The move, he said, was “the worst mistake of my life.” Around the same time, he was drinking excessively. He went in and out of rehab and nearly lost everything. MGM fired him.
After an extended bout with chronic depression and alcoholism, he made his way back into pictures. None were as good as the ones he made in the 1920s. Then, after a lost period, he was at the cutting edge of television comedy in the 1950s. In many ways, his experience in vaudeville and silent film equipped him perfectly to reach audiences on a smaller screen, who were harder to capture without the inoculations a theater provides from the outside world.
As Dana Stevens writes in her new book, Camera Man—an impressive confluence of biography, film criticism, and cultural history—Keaton’s trajectory tells, in its own way, the history of modernity and the evolution of film technology.
Keaton’s life essentially coincided with the first 70 years of film. And yet he was stunningly ahead of his time. Indeed, a quick scan today of Instagram, YouTube, or TikTok yields an endless stream of gags that carry influences from Buster—even if their makers don’t realize it.
Joseph Frank Keaton was born in the small town of Piqua, Kansas, in 1895, the same year the Lumière brothers made their first films. As Stevens, a film critic for Slate, notes, at some point in that year, Louis Lumière is said to have proclaimed, “The cinema is an invention with no future.” It’s no small irony that this is when our hero—the man who proved him wrong—emerged.
Buster’s parents, Joseph and Myra, were comedic performers in a traveling vaudeville show. As legend has it, when he was six months old, he fell down a set of stairs, amazingly without a scratch. Another traveling performer, Harry Houdini, witnessed the tumble and reportedly said to Joseph and Myra, “That’s some buster your kid took.” (“Buster” at the time was a common word for a fall.) From then on, young Joseph went by Buster.
It wasn’t long before he became one of the nation’s premier vaudeville stars. Joseph, Myra, and Buster were known as “the Three Keatons,” with Buster as the main attraction. As a kid, he loved to make people laugh by taking the fall—a formative time for his physical comedy. His dangerous gags were such a pervasive part of the show that critics accused the elder Joseph of child abuse, including for once throwing a young Buster at a heckler in the audience. But as contemporary critics have noted, the Keatons were skilled performers who knew what they were doing, and Joseph likely wouldn’t have wanted to hurt his son, the star of the act. His parents weren’t avaricious, either. Buster was able to keep his share of the earnings. By the age of 12, he had his own car.
In 1917, he appeared in his first film, The Butcher Boy, after being discovered by Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. He went on to act in 20 of Arbuckle’s films, with an interruption to serve in World War I, where he lost hearing in one ear.
Keaton got his next big break in 1920, when an impressed studio executive, Joseph Schenck, gave him his own production unit. From 1920 to 1929, Keaton made his masterpieces of silent film: Our Hospitality (1923), a satire of the warring Hatfield and McCoy families; Sherlock Jr. (1924), a surreal comedy about a movie projectionist who becomes the famed detective; Seven Chances (1925), about a man who must fulfill a series of bizarre terms to inherit $7 million; The General (1926), an epic tale of a Civil War train engineer who schemes to be reunited with the two loves of his life; College (1927); and Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928).
Keaton’s daring was unquestionable; his famous $42,000 train wreck in The General—almost $650,000 in today’s dollars—is the most expensive shot in silent film history. Two of Keaton’s most famous rules were to never fake a gag and to never use a stuntman. “Stuntmen,” he once said, “aren’t funny.” For Seven Chances, he manufactured an avalanche of rocks falling down a mountain so a camera could capture him running from them. The 1920s were also when he cemented his reputation as “the Great Stone Face.” He was known for maintaining a deadpan expression even as cataclysm was happening all around him. Because he was human, after all, he did eventually get hurt. At one point, he broke his neck—from which stunt, no one knows—but he didn’t even realize it. (Years later, a doctor asked him when he broke his neck. “Never,” Buster said. “Yes, you did,” the doctor replied.)
In the century’s first three decades, Keaton rose from obscurity to become one of the industry’s biggest stars.
But when MGM poached Keaton in 1928, both his friend Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd advised him not to give up his independence. Financially, it was a hard offer to turn down; MGM was offering Keaton $3,000 a week (a little under $48,000 today). But the studio, one of the most regimented in all of Hollywood, was a stifling place for him.
Although his first film with MGM, The Cameraman (1928), was a box office hit, there were endless battles behind the scenes. His entire method of filmmaking was deemed unacceptable. Scripts had to be written; everything had to be planned. From then on, Keaton’s films didn’t have the same energy.
Meanwhile, his personal life was also falling apart. Keaton began drinking heavily. In 1932, his wife Natalie divorced him, and his drinking got worse. He went to rehab, where he met a nurse and married her, but he couldn’t quite kick the booze. By 1933, MGM had fired him, but his drinking continued. He got divorced again, and then suffered a nervous breakdown and was taken to a hospital in a straitjacket.
Newspapers said he would never appear in movies again, but after a year of sobriety, Buster went back to acting. He was clearly still depressed; on the set, he would take breaks to cry.
Eventually, he signed a 10-film contract with Columbia Pictures, but again without creative freedom. His salary was also seriously diminished, from a peak of $3,000 a week to just $100.
In 1940, Keaton got married, for the last time, to Eleanor Norris, a dancer whom he met playing bridge. (He was known as one of the best bridge players in Hollywood.) Keaton had lost most of his money, so they moved into his mother’s home.
Around this time, he made the last big transition of his career: to television.
In the 1940s and ’50s, he starred in commercials and made short appearances in a few feature films, including Sunset Boulevard (1950) and, most memorably and movingly, in Chaplin’s late film Limelight (1952), in a routine where the silent-era stars played a pair of inept stage musicians. It was the only time the two giants would ever appear together on film.
But it was his appearances on television comedy shows, such as The Ed Wynn Show, that got him attention again. Keaton’s background in vaudeville proved highly useful, because so many of those early shows relied on skits. “The overlap between early television and vaudeville was so marked that a new term, ‘vaudeo,’ was coined to describe the phenomenon,” Stevens writes.
This galvanized a reconsideration of his silent films from the 1920s. In 1960, Buster received an honorary Oscar. He had seemingly risen from obscurity once again. Suddenly, with the dawn of a new medium (television), a newfound appreciation had surfaced for an old medium (silent film), and the innovations from Keaton that had shaped it.
In 1966, Keaton died while playing bridge. He was 70 years old and suffering from lung cancer. Luckily for the rest of us, Eleanor Keaton outlived her husband by 32 years and became a dedicated promoter of his work, traveling around the world to speak at screenings and festivals that featured Buster’s silents.
Even as the industry continued to experience “sea changes,” as Stevens calls them—including the collapse of the studio system in the 1970s, shortly after Keaton’s death—his influence became increasingly visible. Jackie Chan re-created his gags—from falling out of windows to hanging on the side of moving buses—and Wes Anderson emulated his shots, with their emphasis on geometry and the way characters move inside of the frame.
Now, with the birth of social media, many of his stunts have become popular memes and gifs. On TikTok, whose short videos featuring physical comedy make it well suited to Keaton homage, there is an entire page with content from Buster’s films. It has received more than 44 million views.
As Stevens makes clear, Keaton was a singular 20th-century man. He brought film from its inception to the present, and he created a cinematic language that now travels with virtually everyone, all the time, contained in a small device that we carry around in our pockets. “He is out there to be seen,” Stevens writes, “streaming past us on every conceivable platform, still and always ahead of his time.”
And yet the best way to experience Keaton is in the mode he originally intended: on a big screen, in the company of others. That’s where the magic comes alive.
I remember my first time seeing a Keaton film on a big screen, in 2017. It was a showing of The General at the AFI Silver Theatre, in Silver Spring, Maryland, with live musical accompaniment. The shots were astonishing, better than anything that computer-generated imagery can produce. The soundtrack was beautiful and elegant. But the most memorable part was laughing with the audience. The film was more than 90 years old at the time, and yet—like Citizen Kane, another movie made by an unconstrained genius and imitated for generations—Keaton’s comedy still held the power to delight and surprise.