Happy 121st Birthday, Buster Keaton!

The wonderful Buster Keaton was born Joseph Frank Keaton 121 years ago today in a figurative trunk that just happened to be situated in Piqua, Kansas. Keaton ranks right up there with the Marx Brothers in our esteem, and as has surely been established by now, that’s saying something. Here are 10 BK Did-You-Knows:

  • Keaton was born into a theatrical family, as his father owned a traveling show with Harry Houdini called the Mohawk Indian Medicine Company that featured performances and sales of patent medicine.
  • Buster followed five other generations of Keaton men named Joseph (though the middle names varied).
  • The story goes that when Keaton was a toddler, Houdini witnessed him take a spill down a flight of stairs and emerged unharmed. “That was a real buster,” the legend has Houdini saying of the fall, and thus was a lifelong nickname born (unless the story is apocryphal, which is certainly possible).
  • By age three, Buster was a performer in an act called The Three Keatons that saw his mother playing saxophone and Buster and his father engaging in knockabout horseplay for humorous effect (mostly, the elder Keaton tossed his young son about in acrobatic fashion, which was surely laid a solid groundwork for some of the stunts Buster would later perform on screen). The act frequently came under scrutiny because of laws that prohibited the use of child actors in vaudeville performances and also because of concern on the part of the authorities for Buster’s safety, but the younger Keaton was adept at avoiding injuries, telling The Detroit News in 1914, “The secret is in landing limp and breaking the fall with a foot or a hand. It’s a knack. I started so young that landing right is second nature with me.”
  • As a child, Keaton lost most of his right index finger to a run-in with a clothes wringer.
  • Because of his father’s alcoholism, Keaton and his mother moved to New York City around 1916, where Buster first broke into films.
  • Keaton served with the 40th Infantry Division during World War I. While on active duty, he suffered an ear infection that left his hearing permanently impaired.
  • Keaton’s film career was launched after meeting Roscoe Arbuckle at the Talmadge Studio on East 48th Street in NYC. They would go on to make 14 shorts together and remained fast friends, even after Arbuckle was accused of causing the death of actress Virginia Rappe (he was eventually exonerated).
  • Keaton was an avid fan of the game of baseball, playing it at every opportunity.
  • Keaton’s move to MGM in the early talkies era was financially rewarding, but proved to be a detriment to his work, as the studio’s overly hands-on approach didn’t fit Keaton’s seats-of-the-pants style of filmmaking. The loss of control over his films drove Keaton to drink, and by 1932, MGM had fired him (the studio would hire him back some years later for a fraction of his original salary). His third wife, Eleanor, eventually helped him get his drinking under control and he began working as a gag man for other film comics. He continued to work, both behind and in front of the camera, until his death in 1966, but he never again equaled his greatest, pre-MGM successes.

Happy birthday, Buster Keaton, wherever you may be!

Buster Keaton

Happy 114th Birthday, Norma Shearer!

There seems to be widespread confusion regarding Norma Shearer’s birthday. Some sources say she was born on August 10, some say August 11, and The New York Times, in its obituary for her, cites August 15. The year is in question too: Was she born in 1900, 1902 or 1904? Biography.com lists her birth as occurring in 1900 and 1902.

We’re going with August 10, 1900, but we cannot promise that’s correct….

Norma Shearer was born Edith Norma Shearer 114 years ago today in Montréal, Québec, Canada. Here are 10 Did-You-Knows about the former Queen of MGM:

  • Shearer, who won a beauty contest at 14, moved to NYC with her (stage) mother and sister Athole (who would later marry legendary director Howard Hawks) four years later. After Florenz Ziegfeld passed on casting Shearer in his Follies, she got some small roles in movies.
  • Irving Thalberg saw some of her early movie work and in 1923 signed Shearer to a contract with with Louis B. Mayer Pictures, a precursor of MGM, where he was vice-president.
  • Shearer made eight—count ’em, 8!—feature pictures in 1924.
  • Shearer converted to Judaism to marry Thalberg in 1927 and continued to observe the faith after his death and for the rest of her life.
  • Norma’s brother, Douglas, won twelve Academy Awards for his work as a sound designer. The pair were the first brother-and-sister tandem to win Oscars.
  • At a point in her career when she appeared in only prestige productions, she played a part in The Stolen Jools (1931), a star-studded short subject intended to raise money for a tuberculosis sanatorium, as the owner of the titular “jools.” Also in the film were such luminaries as Wallace Beery, Buster Keaton, Edward G. Robinson, Laurel and Hardy, and members of the Our Gang cast.
  • F. Scott Fitzgerald is said to have based one of his stories, “Crazy Sunday,” on one of Shearer’s parties and the story’s protagonist, Stella Calman, on Shearer herself.
  • Weak eye muscles gave Shearer a slightly crossed eye; she worked with eye doctors to improve it and cameramen to disguise it.
  • She was the third woman to win the Best Actress Oscar and the second of three consecutive Canadians to win it (Mary Pickford won it in 1929 and Marie Dressler in 1931).
  • Among the roles she is reported to have turned down were Scarlett O’Hara (Gone with the Wind), Mrs. Miniver, and Norma Desmond (Sunset Boulevard). Of Scarlett, she said, “Scarlett O’Hara is going to be a thankless and difficult role. The part I’d like to play is Rhett Butler.”

Happy birthday, Norma Shearer, wherever you may be!

Norma Shearer

Happy 123rd Birthday, Harold Lloyd!

The great Harold Lloyd was born 123 years ago today in Burchard, Nebraska. Though today he’s less remembered by the general public than Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton are, in his day, he was more popular at the box office than either of them, and his pictures hold up very well today. If you ever have a chance to see one of his films in a theatre with a live audience, don’t pass it up. You’ll have a grand time.

Happy birthday, Mr. Lloyd, wherever you may be!

Harold Lloyd

Happy 129th Birthday, Roscoe Arbuckle!

Roscoe Arbuckle was born 129 years ago today in Smith Center, Kansas. Few actors have risen as high nor fallen so swiftly as far (and unjustly so) as Arbuckle, and it’s a little bit heartbreaking, even all these years later, to think that he died so soon after being exonerated of false charges, that he never had the opportunity to enjoy the triumphant comeback he was so richly due. We won’t address here the legal case that did in Arbuckle’s career—you can readily find that sad, sordid information elsewhere—but we sorely regret that he was subjected to such ill-founded accusations. He deserved better.

What’s more, we owe Arbuckle a debt of gratitude not only for his own fine work in pictures, but for recognizing genius and spotlighting Buster Keaton in a few of his films. Perhaps Keaton would have found his way to cinematic stardom, anyway, but perhaps not, without that boost from Arbuckle.

Happy birthday, Mr. Arbuckle, wherever you may be. We’ve shared very few quotes here at Cladrite Radio with which we more heartily agree than yours.

Roscoe Arbuckle