Buster Keaton — Family Man (1931) 🇺🇸
On the screen Buster Keaton is a grand comedian — But off-screen he is amazingly different from what you’d expect a Hollywood funny-man to be.
by Jack Jamison
Off the screen, Charlie Chaplin is an even more sensitive artist than on. Off the screen the Marx Brothers — outside of the time they are playing bridge — are insane. Off the screen Laurel and Hardy are wistful, El Brendel is stupid, and Charles Butterworth and Roland Young are cultured and cosmopolitan.
Off the screen, Buster Keaton is normal.
Buster is a normal, everyday man who happened to slide into fame on the seat of his pants. He knows it. No one will ever be able to accuse him of being high-hat. He takes no credit for anything. He got into pictures by accident.
“I belonged to an organization of vaudeville artists called “The White Rats.” This was years ago, of course. About that time, vaudeville was taken over by the trusts. That made it plenty tough for all of us. “The White Rats” struck. I didn’t want to get mixed up in the strike, so I quit vaudeville and signed up for a Winter Garden show. I happened to meet Joseph Schenck.
‘Ever play in a movie, Buster?’ he asks me.
I told him ‘Nope.’
‘We’re making a comedy with Fatty Arbuckle,’ he says. ‘Go down to the studio and play a bit in it, just to see if you like it.’
That’s how I got into pictures. That’s all there was to it.”
But it goes back still further than that, Buster’s falling into his profession! That’s what he did — literally fell into it. As you know, he was practically born in a theatre. Did you ever stop to think that being born in a theatre doesn’t necessarily make you belong there? Most of our farmers are farmers because they were born on farms. They might be a hundred times happier driving locomotives or selling ribbons in a department store. We’re all lazy. We take the easiest way out. Buster was born in the theatre, so he stayed there. His parents’ act was a rough-and-tumble comic one, so he became a comic. Really Buster is no more a comedian than you or I. He would be better fitted as a grocer, a shopkeeper, an undertaker — especially an undertaker, perhaps, with that dead pan of bis. Instead, he learned comedy as the son of a bricklayer learns to lay bricks.
It was no easy school. It was the school of Watch-Your-Step-Or-Get-Your-Block-Knocked-Off. That is not a figure of speech, but an actual fact. A misstep, a mis-gauged hand-hold, resulted in falls that made him gasp with pain. Then, sick and dizzy, he had to jump up smiling and go on with the show.
Once Buster’s dad misjudged a comedy kick, and landed a heavy shoe at the base of the little boy’s skull. Buster was unconscious for exactly eighteen hours.
Then, travelling about the country, there were freezing depots to wait in through howling blizzards, trains to be caught in rain-storms at four in the morning — a million other inconveniences, annoyances, downright hardships. In a single period of five months, the Keaton family had to leap from bed in the middle of the night and dash from five burning hotels.
Buster saw his baby sister tumble from the second-story balcony of one of these small town hotels, strike the ground on her chin, and bite her tongue in half. (And the baby had her tongue sewed back on, and her jaw set, with no ether or cocaine to deaden the pain.)
He learned that balconies — and other things, in the theatrical world —were to be scrupulously avoided if you didn’t want to get hurt. It was slam, bang, crash, the Keatons’ life, both on and off stage! Uncertain food. Broken bones. Accidents. Lost trunks. Missed sleep. Town to town. Good people. Bad people.
Devoted friends. Traitorous acquaintances. All the mad rush, the alternate exhilaration and despair, of the life of a trouper. That was Buster’s childhood.
Did it make Buster a comedian, that life? Well — does it sound very comic to you? It taught him several things, yes. It taught him, that school of bumps and falls, that hard luck is liable to step up and kick you in the seat of your comedy pants when you least expect it. It taught him, secondly, that no matter how hard the luck there is almost always a way out if you keep your brain working fast. And it taught him — amazingly enough — to enjoy that sort of life.
Why quit the show business to become a business man, when the show business paid better money and offered so much excitement? Hard knocks there might be, but it was exciting. Humdrum it was not! So, to stay where he was, with the people he knew and loved. Buster learned to lay the bricks of comedy. And the man who ought to be an undertaker or the proprietor of a music store learned that, if you sat down suddenly on the seat of your pants, people would laugh.
Sitting down suddenly on the seat of his pants is a business with Buster. There is no roguish twinkle in his eye. He does not have a humorous outlook upon life. On the contrary. It is his means of earning a living, into which he drifted as most of us drift into our lifework.
He manufactures and sells laughs as though they were articles turned out in a factory he owned. “I got a lot of laughs in that picture,” he says. In the exact tone Buster uses, a business man might speak of a successfully marketed piece of merchandise. He doesn’t kid himself. I have heard him come out of a studio projection room, after a preview of one of his films, and say: “That’s a lousy picture. It hasn’t a laugh in it. It doesn’t deserve to make a dime.” And he didn’t care who heard him, either. How many Hollywood stars would admit such a thing about their pictures? Hollywood loves to kid itself. Buster doesn’t. He is a hard-headed, clear-sighted business man.
A business man with the seat of his breeches for his stock in trade. Oomph! Down he goes, kerplunk! And we laugh. And pay money at the box-office.
Someone ought to make a list of how many hundred ways to sit down, trip, stumble, fall, that Buster has demonstrated in the time he has been making pictures. There must be thousands. My own favorite is the time, in “Doughboys,” he came marching up the street alone, wearily saluted the sergeant, spun around, and plunked into three feet of mud, too tired to march another step. Yours may be the way the smokestack knocked him down, years back, in “The Navigator.” But both falls came from the same factory. They were both Keaton products, like the thousands of others. Without a smile, without a chuckle, Buster planned them all out for us, all those falls. Once they were carefully planned, he put on a funny costume and — kerplunk! But he never smiled. Do business men smile at their own products?
Buster is a dutiful citizen, who always votes and never breaks the speed laws. He is a loyal friend. He is a good husband, a good son, a good son-in-law. (He stayed up all night, night after night, with his mother-in-law, during her recent illness.) He could not be a more regular citizen if he was a clerk in a chain store and attended pep meetings wearing a paper cap and a celluloid button with his name on it. When he is not working, he plays golf. In the evening he and Mrs. Keaton go to the movies. In season, they go to baseball games. In dead seriousness, Buster says: “The most exciting moment of my whole life came the day when Washington and Pittsburgh were playing, in the World Series, and Walter Johnson got licked.”
He ought to have a big round tummy, and smoke cigars, and go to sleep in a Morris chair after dinner with a handkerchief spread over his face. He’s so normal it hurts. He probably will go to sleep that way, in a few years. What a grandfather Buster is going to make! Kids will crawl all over him. And undoubtedly he’ll carry little sacks of peppermints in his pockets, for them You’ve probably heard what his hobby is. If you haven’t, it’s— singing harmony in quartets. Sad, plaintive barber-shop tunes. His favorite is one whose words run:
Dear old pal, the robins sing above you.
Dear old pal, they sing of how I love you.
For the blinding tears are falling
As I think of my lost pearl;
And my broken heart is calling —
Calling for you — dear old girl!
This man — this loving husband — this singer of sad ballads — this player of amateur golf — this wild rooter at baseball games — this is the man we think of as a comedian! Oh, he does like a little fun now and then, yes. But so does a preacher. On the front porch of his dressing room he has a sign “Men At Work,” just as college boys hang signs in their rooms. Recently he sneaked up behind Darryl Zanuck, an executive, and pushed him into a swimming pool with all his clothes on. And after a woman visited him in his bungalow and later sued him in court, he had a form printed which every woman who visits him there now must sign. It reads, “The undersigned deposes and states that she is in the spot known as Keaton’s Kennel at her own risk, which same she recognizes and fully admits and in consideration agrees that she will under no circumstances sue for any damages, either actual or punitive, arising out of any injury, broken limbs, or any other mishap sustained while upon said property.” He likes little jokes like that, does Bus — kiddish, prankish little jokes. But they’re not the kind of jokes you expect from a professional comedian. Of course they’re not. Why?
Says Hollywood, “For a comedian. Buster is a pretty good family man.”
How much nearer to the truth Hollywood would be if it only said: “For a family man, Buster is a pretty good comedian!”... A familv man is what he is, first and foremost, finally and forever. A family man who learned how to sit down hard on the seat of his pants.
No hint of separation, no breath of scandal has ever touched Buster and his wife, who was Natalie Talmadge. They are perfectly happy, perfectly contented. Their home life is that of thousands of other American homes. It centers entirely upon Bobbie and Joe, their sons. Buster and Natalie live for their children. They spend hours together in the playhouse.
Buster does acrobatic stunts for the kids. Once a week the two boys visit daddy at the studio, and get gloriously sick on ice cream and excitement. Buster spoils them terribly, and they adore him and pay attention to nothing he tells them to do.
Natalie is stricter with them, and they mind her. She does everything for them herself, and leaves nothing to the servants.
Buster helps them with their homework in the evenings. When there is no homework, he plays casino with them, and teaches them card tricks. Other evenings he and the boys make a wreck of the house, taking alarm-clocks and toys apart and putting them back together again. Few people know that Buster is a certified marine engineer, and the boys have inherited his love of mechanics.
The kids go to bed early, and so do their parents. Buster reads in bed and eats apples and crackers, and Natalie gives him the devil for it. He’s just a big kid, too, keeping young with his children.
A family man, Buster.
A family man who slid to fame on the seat of his pants.
The dining room “Keaton Kennel,” the dressing room-dwelling. It is in this house that he has his training quarters in which he keeps constantly fit.
Hollywood says: “For a comedian, Buster is a pretty good family man.” But how much nearer the truth it would be to say: “For a family man, Buster is a pretty good comedian.”
Source: Modern Screen, December 1931
Buster Keaton didn’t intend to be a comedian. His first role was a serious one. But when Buster was serious, he looked so funny — he got laughs in spite of himself! The dead-pan artist has joined the foreign invasion now and is planning to leave for England to make a movie over there.
Photo by Renato Toppo
Source: Photoplay, January 1934