Think slow, and act fast."--Joseph Frank "Buster" Keaton (1895-1966)
February 1, 1966 was for many "the day the laughter died." Well a lot of it at least. I observe this anniversary of the greatest American silent film comedian Buster Keaton. Raised in a vaudeville family, Keaton left his parents' act for good in 1917 and started making some of the best comedy films (short films as a supporting player with then-major star Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle and later moved to his own film studio in 1920's Los Angeles to make shorts and features.
Keaton in his main film career was not as popular as Charlie Chaplin or the all-American do-gooder and small-town striver "glasses" character created by Harold Lloyd. But he was the most creative of the three as far as using cinema to its heights to get a style that was unique to the medium.
After a botched career move to the giant Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios in 1929 took away his creative control, Keaton's career floundered on the rocks of personal and professional setbacks. He succumbed to alcoholism, while at the same time his films got less funny and, ironically, made more money now that they play in more theaters thanks to MGM's chain of distributors. By 1933, the jig was up and he was unemployable by a major studio as a leading comedian. He went to England and France to make movies and came back to do bargain-basement short films for small film companies in Hollywood and later was hired as a gag writer for the Marx Brothers and Red Skelton at the studio which tossed him out.
By the fifties though some of Keaton's silent films were rediscovered and Keaton was clean and sober and married to a very supportive wife. He toured music halls in England and in summer stock plays in the USA. His films were restored and audiences from Venice California to Venice Italy enjoyed them and paid tribute to him. He also made dozens of appearances on variety shows on television and his acting career in films started getting a second wind in films.
He died having restored his finances, been received of much-belated awards and accolades like an honorary Oscar in 1962. He was in demand for everything from commercials to small roles in B-Comedies like "Beach Blanket Bingo" which were not great films but allowed a new generation of fans to see him. Many appreciative fans went back to his great films like "The General" (1927), "The Cameraman" (1928) and "Sherlock, Junior" (1924) as well as the short films. He could be subtle and he could play things broad with great physical gags. And there has not been his like since.