When one thinks of silent comedy, several names come to mind. However, for most, only one name comes to mind: Charlie Chaplin. During a time of war and terror, Charlie Chaplin was a shining light of hope that identified with the common man and made light of dark times. Today, he’s regarded as a comic genius, an innovative filmmaker, and simply one of the most important figures in Hollywood history.
But not many remember that Charlie had a rival. At one point, Charlie was the most recognized man on Earth. But there was one man that rivaled both his popularity, and his genius. This man would create some of the greatest comedy films in film history, with his trademark deadpan style, inventive jokes, near-expert athleticism, innovative film techniques, and unique engineering skill.
Buster Keaton was born Joseph Frank Keaton on October 4, 1895. His parents were popular vaudeville and music hall performers, and when their son was barely a child, they brought him in to join the family business. Quickly, Buster’s family and audience realized that he had a knack for performing. He could sing, dance, and perform comedy sketches like the best of them.
The trademark Keaton show was a comedy act that Buster performed with his parents. His mother Myra would play saxophone while he and his father Joe would perform a comedy sketch. The sketch almost always ended in Joe throwing his son around the stage, into the scenery, and even into the audience. It shocked many audiences, but they learned to settle themselves when they saw that the boy wasn’t hurt at all. Buster learned from a very early age how to perform stunts. He often stressed in his interviews how he had “learned to fall properly” so that he didn’t get hurt. It was a skill that he would perform magnificently in his future films.
There are many stories as to where Buster’s nickname came from, but the most popular theory is that it came from the famous illusionist and magician Harry Houdini. Houdini was actually working with the Keatons at the time. One day, an infant Buster fell down a flight of stairs, and crawled away completely unharmed. Houdini then reportedly remarked “That was a buster!” At the time, the term “buster” referred to any sort of physical injury that was certain to cause harm. The nickname stuck.
If the Keaton act was performed nowadays, accusations of child abuse would certainly plague the family, but believe it or not, Buster loved the act. He never actually got hurt while performing, and even enjoyed himself so much, that he couldn’t stop from laughing during the act. Buster and his family had noticed that whenever Buster would laugh during a show, it would bother and distract audiences, so Buster tried to think of a solution. It was then that Buster developed his trademark deadpan expression, a unique style that would earn him the nickname: The Great Stone Face.
The Three Keatons (as they were called) would soon find themselves in Hollywood where a chance encounter would have Buster meeting with one of the biggest silent comics of the time, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. Buster and his family had reservations about making the move into film, but Buster would soon discover his intense passion and fascination with it. Buster was always interested in engineering and mechanics, and when he first saw a camera, it was like love at first sight. Buster asked to borrow one of Arbuckle’s cameras and Arbuckle obliged. Buster took the camera home, disassembled it, studied the different parts, and assembled it again. His reservations had completely faded.
Arbuckle, who was looking for actors to join his troupe, saw potential in the young 22-year-old Buster and signed him on with his company. The aspirant young lad jumped at the opportunity and soon became quite the celebrity. But by the time Buster had made his first film in 1917, Charlie had already become a household name. Charlie’s film debut was in 1914, and in the first two years alone, he had become a nationwide phenomenon. Buster had quite the act to follow, but he just wanted to entertain, and didn’t care too much about fame because he had found bliss in his calling and passion. Starting from his work with Arbuckle, Buster would go on to make some of the most innovative comedy films in cinema history and become a Hollywood icon.
Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin changed comedy films forever. Their revolutionary films and characters paved the way for comics of today and helped develop comedy as a respectable art form. The two of them together have created a great deal of the greatest comedy films of all time, many of which are largely considered to be some of the greatest films ever. Today, their fans are largely divided as to who was the best. In the end, Buster and Charlie had the utmost respect for one another and greatly admired each other’s work.
Whether or not Buster was the greatest is irrelevant. When it all comes down to it, what really matters is the films. Buster’s films are national treasures that captured his genius and forever molded the comedy genre. His timeless masterpieces like The General, The Cameraman, Sherlock Jr., Steamboat Bill Jr., One Week, and Cops are a testament of what hard work, passion, and perseverance can achieve.