In the early days of cinema, when the only sound that came with a movie was provided by a live piano player, Buster Keaton's films played to the amusement of all ages. For children, Keaton tumbled and crashed through rip-roaring action scenes, defying gravity - and authority - always with a finely timed crescendo of hilarious consequences. For adults, Keaton was at odds with the manufactured and machine-tuned times, forever blundering, - perplexed by one mechanized object after another.
Buster's childhood was marked by his singular ability to get himself into bizarre and physically dangerous circumstances - and yet somehow escape injury. One time, just before his third birthday, Buster ran to an open second story window to get a better look at a cyclone that was passing by. The eager young lad was literally sucked out the window by the cyclone. He landed - unscathed - several blocks away,
Recognizing this unique ability, his parents decided that, at the ripe old age of age of three, Buster was old enough to be a part of the family Vaudeville act. They were known as The Three Keatons, and the youngboy was tossed about on stage to much comic effect. Child labor authorities frequently examined the boy, amazed to find that he had suffered no injuries.
Young Keaton performed with some of the most well known Vaudeville acts. Harry Houdini taught him card tricks and Bill 'Bojangles' Robinson taught him how to dance. It was this wealth of childhood experiences that fed Keaton's creativity as a filmmaker in the 1920s.
With this resonant link to childhood, it is perhaps not surprising to note that Keaton's films had no small impact on the field of children's animation. The first Felix the Cat series was said to be directly influenced by Keaton's antics. And the first Mickey Mouse cartoon, Steamboat Willy was a parody of Keaton's film Steamboat Bill Jr. Keaton's death defying leaps from cliffs and miraculous recoveries from nearly any accident are the very stuff of Bugs Bunny and Road Runner cartoons. And in another link to childhood entertainment, professional clowns often study Keaton's films when learning their craft.
Being a star of the silent screen, quotes from Buster Keaton are hard to come by. But one of his earliest jokes survives. Performing on stage at age five, Buster took a fall instigated by a whack from a broom. Lifting himself up off the floor with great dignity, Keaton dusted himself off and adlibbed with mock-seriousness, "I'm so sorry I fell down."
Copyright © 2001 by Kevin Shortsleeve
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Wednesday, 04-Sep-2002 22:24:39 EDT