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 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

The Final Free Roscoe Friday

“All who have ever known the real Roscoe Arbuckle will always treasure the memory of the great, generous heart of the man, a heart big enough to embrace in its warmth everyone who came to him for help, stranger and friend alike. It was this quality which led to his downfall, after he had struggled from poverty to a fame in which the children throughout the world worshipped him. Those who knew him for the great artist he was admired him. His was the tragedy of a man born to make the world laugh and to receive only suffering as his reward. And to the end he held no malice.”

—20th Century Fox co-founder Joseph Schenck

Don’t forget—we’re marking this month’s 125th anniversary of Roscoe’s birth by giving away three copies of The Forgotten Films of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. It’s a four-disc DVD set that features 32 restored comedy classics.

And as always, you can enter for your chance to win in a myriad of ways (and on a daily basis). Follow the link to your left to enter; retweet one of our “Free Roscoe” tweets on Twitter. Like and/or share one of our “Free Roscoe” posts on Facebook. Like or reblog one of our Arbuckle-themed posts on Tumblr. Heck, you can even share a Free Roscoe post on Google+, if you like.

But you’ve got only until tomorrow—Saturday, March 31—at midnight, Eastern time, to load up on entries and improve your chances to be one of the lucky winners. So make the most of it!