Written for the Silent-ology 2022 Buster Blogathon.
“Not being horsey people we didn’t know . . .” (My Wonderful World of Slapstick, p. 141)
Not being a horsey person in the 1920s would’ve meant something very different than it does in the 2020s. Nowadays horses belong almost exclusively to the wealthy. My own experiences with them are limited to trail rides in the fuzzy past and having my foot stepped on. I would call myself “not a horsey person” because if you handed me a horse right now I wouldn’t know where to put it or what to do with it. (It needs to get dressed right? Like a saddle or something?) I like to think that once on top of it I wouldn’t fall off right away, but, really, who can tell.
Buster on the other hand was constantly surrounded by them for much of his life.
This was not so much on the stage – apparently most vaudeville horses were composed of two people in a costume (yet another reason to miss those stage days). And despite the fact that at least one of The Three Keaton’s engagements shared the bill with a well trained white stallion and his mistress, La Titcomb –
– the streets of Buster’s childhood were his main source of equine related activity. Cities in the early 1900s were lousy with horses.
Today the U.S. horse population equals about 1 horse to every 86 people. In 1900 it was almost 1 horse to every 3 people. Cars didn’t even match those numbers in the largest cities until around 1910. As a constant part of the scenery it makes sense that Buster would center a lot of comedy around them.
An article in Myra Keaton’s scrapbook describes Buster’s earliest summers on his grandparents’ farm in Oklahoma:
So some of his earliest happy memories included horses.
A possibly less happy memory occurred when Buster was about 13, a year before he bought his first car. At this time he was driving his siblings around in a phaeton.
About ten years later Roscoe Arbuckle (with Buster as gag man) made horses central to several strong moments of his comedy. Apparently the animal actors didn’t always cooperate as hoped.
In the climactic scene of The Bellboy, Buster offered to double for the man required to pull off a difficult stunt while playing a robber in a horse chase. “The big moment was supposed to come near the top of the hill when the traces broke, jerking the driver through the air so that he landed squarely on the horse’s back.” Not knowing that without blinders the horse could see him coming, it didn’t work out that way. “He was a mean critter, pardners, that innocent-looking horse. the moment I jumped he bolted like mad up the street, dragging me bumpety-bump on my chest over the cobbles for almost a block before anybody could stop him.” (MWWoS p. 141)
The moment was apparently filmed again and with more success. Here we can see him making that treacherous leap onto the horse’s back:
At other times Roscoe’s steeds were a little too cooperative…
A bit later, in 1921, Buster (along with Roscoe Arbuckle, Tom Mix and other movie stars) participated in a benefit rodeo for the Los Angeles Orthopaedic hospital school. The article didn’t say which events Buster signed up for, but they raised $7,500 for crippled children. (Movie Stars Will Hold Benefit Rodeo, Los Angeles Herald, July 9, 1921.)
When Buster moved on to his own studio, horses quickly became frequent members of the cast. The animal actor in Hard Luck apparently really enjoyed working with Buster. I wonder if it had any other gigs.
The nag in Cops, another of Buster’s short films, caused some excitement off set. She was amiable and cooperative up until she wasn’t. And for good, stork-related reasons.
The new mother was thoroughly congratulated by the equine acting community:
“Forence Vidor’s steeplechaser, Buster Keaton’s white horse, which had a role in “The Blacksmith,” Ben Turpin’s jackass and Billy Beban’s zebra, which is now playing “On Patrol,” a two-reel comedy for First National, have sent a bag of oats to Buster’s mare, which foaled a 90-pound colt last week. The mare is doing well, but has been temporarily excused from work at the Keaton studio.” (The Oregon Daily Journal, March 19, 1922).
“We called the little fellow “Onyx,” short for unexpected, and he became the pet of the lot. He would walk into my dressing room, or on the set to see what was going on, or into Lou Anger’s office to find out if the bookkeepers were on the job.” (Buster Keaton, MWWoS pg. 142)
The mare and colt were included in a list of Buster’s personal pets in 1922.
That is, unless Buster owned another horse and colt I don’t know about…
Advertising for another early short film promised violent contention:
Mostly, though, we got hilarious scenes like this one – the horseshoe salesman.
There’s plenty more horsey comedy sprinkled throughout Buster’s short films in the form of clay and wooden statues, mistaken direction, missed jumps, and kindly salted grass.
At some point around this time (probably 1923-ish) Buster discovered his name had been immortalized off screen in the form of a Tijuana race horse. A goal we all aspire to.
The horse did pretty well actually, and was soon partly owned by Buster’s sister in law, Norma Talmadge.
This sounds to me like a very sweet and funny thing to do. I can imagine lots of jokes forming between Norma and Buster over it.
Six of the ten full length features made at the Keaton studio include equine comedy. A lot of these moments I would rank among my favorite gags. Like this one:
During the filming of The General in 1926 a terrible accident very nearly occurred involving a rush of horses:
“Buster and his leading lady, Miss Mack, were almost run down by Confederate cavalry men rushing to the front on Marietta’s main street. Buster had given instructions that the scene was to be that kind of a one and attention should be given to the presence of himself and Miss Mack. The hoop skirts of Civil war days were not as easy to keep from under foot as those of today and one of the horses got one hoof entangled in the leading lady’s dress. The only damage was to the dress.” (The Cottage Grove Sentinel July 29, 1926)
About this time Buster also made an appearance alongside a wild horse on a trading card geared towards children.
I have to wonder if they didn’t just slap a film star on there because the animal cards weren’t selling. Compared to other unexpected combinations like Lon Chaney and gray squirrel or Charlie Chaplin and rhinoceros, boxing Buster and wild horse seems inspired. Both are long faced, gracefully energetic and wicked fast.
In 1929 a rumor floated across the papers that:
“Buster Keaton will play the part of a race jockey in his next picture, Edward Sedgwick will direct.” (Evening Star, Washington D.C., May 12, 1929)
I can’t tell how short lived or unfounded this rumor was – did they really consider it and then scrap it for Spite Marriage (or Free and Easy)? Did someone see a picture of Buster on a horse and jump to wild conclusions? The concept doesn’t seem too far fetched to me, at least visually:
But, of course, it never came to be.
Buster made friends with a lot of equine-related individuals over the years:
But he apparently had some trouble making friends with the horse in Spite Marriage.
This sort of anecdote is very interesting to me because we also have moments like this one, another favorite of mine from Our Hospitality. Buster clearly had to be comfortable enough with this animal to pull off stunts at high speeds.
Or this moment from The Paleface, several years earlier. I can’t imagine someone uncomfortable with horses performing (I’m guessing) difficult tricks.
Was Buster just particularly comfortable with these particular horses? Was the horse in Spite Marriage a spiteful beast? Is the article full of it? Do horses not eat carrots?
All questions we may never know the answers to.
There weren’t too many horsey themes in Buster’s MGM films. Or in his shorts for Educational Pictures and Columbia. But in 1938 he directed the MGM short Hollywood Handicap in which a musical group of stable hands inherits a race horse and, naturally, sells their instruments in order to enter it into the Hollywood Handicap. And eleven years later, in 1949, Buster starred in a play called Three Men On a Horse by George Abbot and John Cecil Holm. He played Erwin, a man who can predict the outcome of horse races and subsequently gets tangled up with three rough-type gamblers.
I’m guessing he didn’t need to do a lot of research for these projects as the papers are lightly peppered with Buster’s presence at the racetrack throughout the 20s and 30s. Especially in Tijuana where movie stars regularly vacationed away from prohibition.
It’s fun to see the spot where Buster spent some of his free time. And where Buster Keaton the horse clocked in to his day job.
Later on in his life Buster apparently involved horses in some of his circus performances. I haven’t been able to discover what role they played exactly. Maybe he just wanted to ride this one out onto the stage before his dueling act:
And finally, this endearing quote from Buster’s wife, Eleanor, tells of his affection for the horses backstage at the Cirque Medrano in Paris. Proving (was there ever any doubt) that no matter what Buster’s mixed experiences were while acting with them, his feelings always remained warm and fond.
“There was three horse acts, a [thoroughbred] liberty act, beautiful chestnuts worked in liberty with the plumes. . . anyway, we had three sizes of horses, the Shetland ponies, the Liberty horses and Buster used to call them his big showgirls, they were the big, big dappled grey Percherons that were so beautiful, they were there and they worked in an animal act too. Buster used to steal all the sugar cubes he could get his hands on and fill his pockets up and then he’d buy chestnuts, and take them in and all he did was open the stable door, and you never heard such a racket in your life, with the feet (Stamps) and whinnying and braying, they all knew him the minute he came through the door they were going to get a treat. He used to go down the line, there was about 25 or 26 of them with all three sizes, and he had to hand feed every one of them all the way down the line, every night.” (Eleanor Keaton interviewed by Oliver Lindsay Scott, The Little Iron Man)
Maybe horses seemed particularly funny to Buster, or maybe he just liked having them around, but we certainly got a lot of great comedy from this dynamic duo.
Clippings and quotes: My Wonderful World of Slapstick, by Buster Keaton. Margaret Herrick Library Digital Collections. Newspapers.com. Library of Congress. California Digital Newspaper Collection. The Day Buster Smiled presented by The Cottage Grove Historical Society. The Little Iron Man, by Oliver Lindsay Scott
Photos: Honestly, Pinterest and Google. If you suspect I’ve stalked your Pinterest board and you feel you deserve credit – I’m sure you’re right and I wholeheartedly agree! Let me know.
For more information about the odd trading cards, this is a very interesting site that I absolutely learned a lot from.
If you see something I got wrong (this is not unlikely) call me out!