Joseph Frank "Buster" Keaton (October 4, 1895 – February 1, 1966) was an American comic actor, filmmaker, producer and writer. He was best known for his silent films, in which his trademark was physical comedy with a consistently stoic, deadpan expression, earning him the nickname "The Great Stone Face".
The American Film Institute has named Keaton the 21st Greatest Actor on their 50 Greatest Screen Legends List. Keaton also has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame: 6619 Hollywood Boulevard for motion pictures and at 6321 Hollywood Boulevard for his television career. The 1987 documentary Buster Keaton: A Hard Act to Follow, which won 2 Emmy Awards and was directed by Kevin Brownlow and David Gill, is considered the most accurate retelling of Buster Keaton's life to date.
Since his gags are about the presence and absence of bodily intelligence un the encounter between man and object, it is evidently in Keaton's interest for the audience to grasp the physical variables and their relations that are pivotal in each routine. In order to appreciate the pratfalls and other mishaps the Keaton character suffers, the spectator needs a handle on the physics of the situation. And that is what Keaton's commitment to visible intelligibility is all about.
By early 1928, Keaton had made 31 films of his own. There is no way he could have foreseen that within five years, his personal and professional life would be a shambles. Until 1928, Keaton had worked independently, his films produced by Schenck and released through other studios, including First National, United Artists and Metro.
Not long after the heights of "The General" Buster's career was broad-sided when his contract was sold to M-G-M. Buster lost his independence and freedom as a film maker in a strict environment that was counter to what Buster had mastered. In the studio atmosphere, Buster's work suffered till the end of the silent era, with 1929's "Spite Marriage". To make matters worse, his early and dreadful sound films were bringing in big bucks leading Buster down the road to alcoholism. The most physical of silent comedians, Buster Keaton was a marvel to watch. His work was re-discovered in the 1950's and he was finally given the acclaim he so richly deserved.
The golden decade of Hollywood in the 1920s would belong to Keaton. With such features as The Navigator, Sherlock Jr., Steamboat Bill Jr., and College, his films would firmly establish Buster Keaton as a true comic legend. Perhaps Buster's greatest film tribute to the military was his 1926 masterpiece, The General. This Civil War story stands even today as one of the greatest military films made. Buster would often highlight the military many times throughout his film career. There. are many gags in his films that have a military influence. In fact, the ship he used in his 1924 classic, The Navigator, was a former World War I troopship that was stationed in the same port that Buster shipped out of in France.
Keaton developed a distinctive comic style which merged slapstick with a sophisticated sense of visual absurdity, and often included gags which made the most of the film medium, involving props, sets, and visual trickery that would have been impossible on the vaudeville stage. Keaton also developed his personal visual trademark, an unsmiling deadpan demeanor which made his epic-scale gags even funnier.
If a picture is worth a thousand words, then sixty seconds of a Buster Keaton film is worth over a million words -- and maybe more than that. A skilled director and editor, Keaton was also a master filmmaker who used mise-en-scène to pack his films with information about his characters and the worlds they inhabited. Using intertitles sparingly, Keaton was able to create pictures that spoke for themselves -- and still speak, after more than sixty years. The High Sign (1921), Our Hospitality (1923), and College (1927) are three films that run the Keaton gamut.
Despite having the nickname “The Great Stone Face” due to his deadpan style of acting, Keaton’s performances are undeniably moving and tender. Whether it’s his love for The Girl (Kathryn McGuire) in Sherlock Junior or Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack) in The General, Keaton expresses a warmth that lies somewhere between sincerity and naivety. Even in his later films, when his face was marked by the passage of time (see the Can-con production par excellence The Railrodder), Keaton continued to exude a timeless humanity.
Along with Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, Keaton was a titan in the world of silent film comedy. His rise from vaudeville trouper to a filmmaking artist is a story matched in dramatic scope only by his fall into obscurity, alcoholic despair and a heroic third act that saw him feted by the Motion Picture Academy with an Honorary Oscar® in 1960.
Depending upon which criticism one reads, the films of Buster Keaton reveal : a knockabout comedian from vaudeville who successfully adapted his act to silent films; an unintentional surrealist; or one of the earliest and finest directors of classical Hollywood cinema.