An old master of the laugh

Buster Keaton in "The General."

Buster Keaton in "The General."

United Artists

This segment originally was broadcast May 20, 2001.

Long before there was "Jurassic Park," before there was "Titanic," and well before "Gladiator," there was Buster Keaton, reports CBS News Sunday Morning Correspondent Jerry Bowen. Keaton was the master of physical comedy, a silent film start ahead of his time.

"He was a man who lived for his work, and his work was making people laugh," says Jeffrey Vance, co-author of a new photograph-filled book about Keaton. He had thousands of photos from which to choose.

Says Vance, "Silent film was his love, where he learned his craft, where he perfected it, the mechanics of gags. Physical gags which he had learned on the stage were what he knew and what he loved and what he performed better than anyone."

Buster Keaton started in show business at the age of 4, on the vaudeville circuit with his parents. He was a human projectile in the hands of his father, as he recalled in a 1964 interview: "I was brought up being thrown all over the stage, and not just rollovers. I mean, picked up and thrown the length of the stage."

Joseph Frank Keaton VI was just 6 months old when magician Harry Houdini gave him his nickname after young Keaton fell down a flight of stairs. Keaton himself explained: "I sat up. Just shook my head and shook it off and didn't cry, so they knew I wasn't hurt. And Houdini said,'That was sure a buster,' meaning a fall."

And Buster made a career of falling, in the most unpredictable ways, making audiences gasp and laugh. But through it all, he never cracked a smile. Ever. And that earned him another nickname: The Great Stone Face.

Vance explains, "He and his father learned at an early age that if he showed he enjoyed what he was doing, the audience didn't seem to enjoy it as much."

In Hollywood, Keaton was up against established silent film comedians Harold Lloyd and Charlie Chaplin. So Buster did what he could to set himself apart: "Every comedian in pictures wore a derby hat. So that was one thing I won't wear, is a derby hat."

Actor James Karen was first a fan of Keaton's and then a friend. He says, "I mean, Buster was a genius. He understood better than any of the other guys what film could do and what a camera could do."

A technical genius, says Karen, bringing innovation to the infant movie industry, as he did in "The General," Keaton's favorite film. Keaton made 11 major silent films and numerous shorts, as producer, director and star.

But Keaton was forced into MGM's stable of actors and then was forced out again as his career foundered. He believed talking pictures stifled his strength: physical comedy. Two failed marriages and a five-year drinking binge didn't help matters. Had it not been for Eleanor, his third wife, Keaton's star might have dimmed altogether.

Eleanor was 30 years younger. But Keaton listened to her as she encouraged him to try television. Television and B movies re-introduced Keaton as a character actor t a new audience, complete with stone face and pork pie hat. Eventually, there was even a revival showing of his silent films. And now there is that new book, begun by Eleanor before her death in 1998. (Buster died in 1966.)

Says Vance, "She really made that her top priority, getting this book done, because she didn't want Buster to slip at all. I think we're just catching up to Buster. Today, people speak of Chaplin and Keaton in the same breath."

Says Karen, "He knew how good he was. Yes, he knew how good he was. But what Buster ddidn't understand, because he was such a modern thinker and such a man of the moment, I don't think he thought in terms of the future. People watching silent movies in the future. No. But he knew how good his pictures were."

And he knew something else, something timeless: Buster Keaton knew how to entertain an audience. In his own words:

"I want the audience to think they know what's going to happen. And then I surprise them."

"Buster Keaton Remembered"
by Eleanor Keaton and Jeffrey Vance
Harry N. Abrams Inc.

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