Buster’s oversized slap shoes were a central part of his comedy wardrobe from the very beginning of his career. So central that articles were written about them. Some of these suggested that the shoes were a copy of Charlie Chaplin’s, so then even more articles were written countering this claim and insisting that the shoes were heirlooms. At some point I would like to examine this heirloom claim (which I think might possibly have some merit), but for now enjoy the admiration of a little fan.
In the short film released just before this article, The Balloonatic, Buster’s slap shoes are the last distinguishing feature that we see, hanging out over the broken end of his canoe-air balloon.
I came across a hilarious little article printed in 1925 recalling a few of Buster’s more unexpected contributions to the stage as a youngster. It seems that he would often decide a little something was missing in a few of the more dramatic acts, and then he would kindly oblige in filling the comedic void. With no warning.
Likely a climactic scene, the big moment for the villain of the piece- suddenly shot down by a little comedian, come out of nowhere, I’m sure cutting the dramatic tension to shreds. It became a comedy that night.
I can just imagine this prima donna – her whole life spent building up to moments like these before an audience. Perhaps having just delivered something moving and gorgeous like this:
And then little buster tramping on stage in a dress and mock solemnity, belting out his own performance. I’d guess the comedy came from his attire, his size and his “screaming out” vaguely Italian sounding gibberish with real heart. I can just imagine how hilarious that (hopefully) was for the prima donna.
The third came during a performance of The Count of Monte Cristo, an incredible and dramatic story. Edmond Dantes has endured betrayal and wrongful imprisonment for fourteen long years during which he thought of nothing but revenge. He has toiled and trained and studied, all the while nurturing his anger like a baby bird until finally, finally he manages to escape the horrible island prison, Chateau d’if.
He’s almost caught. He almost dies. He finally manages to swim the choppy ocean to his freedom. He proclaims his joy:
Luckily it seems that for the most part Buster was such a likable boy back stage that the performers didn’t mind these little additions to their work, and even on occasion gave him gifts of appreciation. I’ll bet they laughed – I sure would have. The audience certainly did and remembered it too, twenty or so years later.
Viola Dana and Alice Lake are little more than footnotes in books on Buster, but they were both a pretty big part of his life at the start of his film career. Buster and Viola dated and were great friends after he moved to California, and he even lived with her family for a time. As she put it much later in her life,” My brother-in-law brought him home for dinner one night and he stayed for [months].” (Curtis p.123)
As for Alice, she and Buster starred together in a number of films directed by Roscoe Arbuckle. Off set Alice also dated Roscoe, who was Buster’s best friend. So Alice and Viola made up their regular social foursome around 1918-20.
Biographies of Buster spend a little time describing these ladies’ beauty and vivacity and a bit of their acting abilities. Sometimes there’s a hint or two at a variety of relationship possibilities with Buster. Mostly it’s just things like : “For at least a year, Alice and Viola were the two women in his life.” (Dardis, p. 56)
I personally didn’t realize just how spunky these ladies were, or that they were great friends with each other, until I came across an article titled “Charlie and Sarah.”
Though the interview takes place in 1922, after their foursome had pretty much broken up, it’s still fun to get a sense of their personalities. Buster had been married to Natalie Talmadge for almost a year at this point and they were expecting their first baby. Roscoe was no longer making movies due to the fact that he was on trial for the tragic death of Virginia Rappe, a crime he did not commit. In 1922 Roscoe stood two rounds and was acquitted in April. These famous and excessively publicized trials might account for some of the suspicion directed towards movie stars that Viola and Alice talk about.
I’ve typed the article out because it was tricky to read, but all the pictures are included in this post. The original can also be found here.
Under the surveillance of Ray Leek, publicity commander of the Metro cantonment, I sat in the salon of the Hillview apartments awaiting Alice Lake and Viola Dana, champion bantam-weights of the screen world. They had consented to go a five-course round at some quiet tavern, that I might record their moods, manners and movements under the influence of the demi-tasse.
As I say, I waited with the Metro duenna, observing with my rare perspicacity that the Siamese Twins, as they are known about the film colony, by reason of their inseparability, were thus far manifesting no distinction from the rest of the gender femina.
Finally they emerged–sartorially incomplete, of course, having only started on the gloves. Viola asserted that Alice made her wear them. She thought the idea of wearing gloves to dinner was most unreasonable, since one no sooner got them on than the soup arrived.
Thus the glove was thrown down, metaphorically speaking, and the combat started.
Alice likes gloves.
Viola does not.
Alice likes dark men.
Viola demands blonds.
Alice emotes for art.
Viola says she’s French and Russian.
Alice says she’s Irish and Brooklyn.
Let this curtain-raiser suffice to show that the two differ sufficiently to be bosom friends.
“Where do we go?” Demands Viola, stripping on a finger of her glove–and asserting that the skin is stripping with it. “I have to get back early, because Dad is having a man up to see me about investing my money.”
“Investing in motion pictures?” I asked.
“I should say not! I want something safe.”
“Where do we go?” demands Alice.
We reach the running-board of the Leek fiacre.
“Let’s go to the Hollywood Hotel,” says Viola, enthroning herself on a forward cushion. “I used to live at the Hollywood Hotel.”
“Do you s’pose they’ll let us in, then?” demands Alice.
There’s no retort to this. Viola is considering suit against the saleslady who that day had fitted her with gloves. She alleges that the lady, in the course of fitting, had, with premeditation and malice aforethought, given her hang-nails.
Upon alighting in the lobby of Hollywood’s chief hospice, six gentlemen–actual count–rush forward to salute les petites.
Eventually, we reached the menu. Viola refused to vouchsafe it a glance.
“Why should I look at it?” she asks. “I told you I used to live here. This is spare-ribs and roast veal night.”
She suddenly is seized with a morbid desire for a home of her own.
“I’m going to get married,” she avows.
“So am I.” says Alice.
“What type of men will be cast for the parts?” I inquired.
ALICE: I don’t care, so long as he’s dark.
VIOLA: Mine must be blond. All the men I’ve ever fallen for have been blonds–except five or six.
ALICE: I want a man with character. You know–human. A cave-man? I should say, I don’t want a cave-man.
VIOLA: I do. Only there isn’t any.
ALICE: Above all, he mustn’t be affected. I like people to be themselves. I could kill a conceited man.
REFEREE: You wouldn’t marry an actor, then?
ALICE: All actors aren’t conceited. Now, there’s David Warfield–
VIOLA: Heavens, you haven’t designs on Dave, I hope.
ALICE (with feminine logic) : I’m not going to marry at all.
VIOLA: You’re backing out!
ALICE: No. If it gets in the magazines that I want to marry, some nuts will think it is an ad and start sending me photographs.
VIOLA (sentimentally): I had a proposal once by mail. He said he would rather clasp me to his bosom than be President of the United States.
REFEREE (fervently): Who wouldn’t?
ALICE: Well, I’m not going to stop anybody’s chances of being President of the United States.
VIOLA: If they keep on making you play grandmothers in your pictures, you certainly won’t. Cheer up; in your next picture you are to play a young girl of thirty.
ALICE (addressing Referee): Do you know what we call one another? I call Vi “Charlie,” and she calls me “Sarah.” They expect her to be as funny as Chaplin and me to be as emotional as Berhardt.
VIOLA (making wry grimace): Producers expect a screen actress to have the face of a girl of sixteen, the brain of a woman of fifty, and the acting ability of Berhardt.
ALICE: If we could only be ourselves. I don’t want to be Bernhardt–not so long as I can get around as I am.
REFEREE: What are you going to do when you start losing your beauty?
VIOLA: We haven’t started having any yet.
ALICE: I’ll be a censor.
VIOLA: I’m going to raise a family.
ALICE: You’re a fine person to raise a family. In all your pictures, you vamp. For four years they called you the Baby Vamp, and now it’s the Flapper of the Screen.
VIOLA (dignifying slightly): I don’t know that anybody would get a very good idea of your character from seeing you on the screen. I haven’t seen you in a picture yet that you weren’t seeking revenge on some one.
ALICE (addressing Referee): And in real life I never seek revenge; do I, Vi?
VIOLA (suspiciously): Well, who said I vamped in real life?
[Enter, F. Richard Jones, director of Mabel Normand in “Mickey ” and “Molly-O.” He is hailed familiarly as “Dick” by Alice and Referee and introduced to Vi and duenna Leek. He shows a magnificent platinum and gold watch, which he has received as a gift from Mabel, who at the time is having a vacation in New York. The Referee recalls that Dick has the reputation for never knowing when to quit work. Perhaps Mabel wants to provide him with a way of knowing before she starts her next picture under his direction.]
ALICE (To Dick as he departs) : We’ll be down to see “Molly-O” as soon as you give a preview.
VIOLA: We’re chronic fans. We went to the movies every night last week; didn’t we, Alice?
ALICE: We saw “The Queen of Sheba” last night, and we cried so much we were ashamed when the lights came on.
VIOLA: We cried so much that we had the mee-mee’s when we got home. Betty Blythe is wonderful. I admire her refinement in being able to wear those costumes without ever suggesting anything vulgar.
ALICE: Miss Blythe is marvelous, and so is Fritz Lieber. He’s a Shakespearian actor.
VIOLA: Alice goes to every kind of a show–even Shakespeare. Can you imagine it? And she couldn’t wait until Robert Mantell got here, to drag me down to see him.
ALICE: Well, wasn’t he good?
VIOLA: Yes, but he sings. And he kept coming back to sing without any encore.
ALICE: All great actors sing when they play Shakespeare.
VIOLA: I like Shakespeare, but I think he must have been asleep when he wrote “As You Like It.” What a dumb-bell play that is. Can you imagine any girl like Rosalind, getting away all that time as a boy, just by wearing a little boy’s suit?
ALICE (somewhat irreverently) : I love Savoy and Brennan.
VIOLA : Savoy would make a fine Rosalind, wouldn’t he? Can you hear him saying. “You must come over,” to Orlando?
ALICE : Savoy’s favorite screen actor is Douglas Fairbanks. He says he thinks Doug is “gorgeous.”
REFEREE : Have you no favorites?
VIOLA: Sure we have–a lot of them.
ALICE: I like Dick Barthelmess and Jack Barrymore.
VIOLA: I think Jim Kirkwood is fine–and Lon Chaney–
ALICE: I like Jim, too.
VIOLA: And Joe Martin. Oh, Alice, give your imitation of that [***] girl that used to hang around Vitagraph.
ALICE (proceeding to look cross-eyed and talk in a nasal tone, with a lantern-jawed effect not unlike Joe Martin): “All the men are just crazy about me. Can’t keep them away–just crazy about me.”
(With loud roars from Viola, Referee and Duenna, Alice gets up and imitates the sirenic Miss [***])
VIOLA (her laughter subsiding): Alice nearly killed me this morning by giving imitations as we were getting up. You ought to imitate that scenario writer who was always getting us aside to tell us his stories. They were all alike.
ALICE: Well, you had to admire him for sticking to his story!
VIOLA: Anything I hate is to be told a story. It’s terrible to go to a dinner with a movie crowd, and have to sit next to a director that wants to tell you about the corking thing he’s going to do next. You look away, and just get to talking to someone else, and he nudges you and says, “Oh, say, I’ve got a wonderful gag!”
ALICE: Did you ever see a Mexican jumping bean, Vi?
VIOLA: A which?
ALICE: They jump all around, and never stop.
VIOLA: My word! It must be embarrassing trying to eat a plate of them. What do you use–a butterfly catcher?
ALICE: You don’t eat them. They have worms in them. When the worm turns over, the bean jumps.
VIOLA: They must be spooky, like the relatives of those people who have seances at our apartment house.
ALICE (shuddering violently): Oo-oh! They’re awful. The room is all dark, and their relatives come down–or up–and jiggle the tables, write on pads, ring the alarm clock–
VIOLA: And put the cat out.
ALICE: Just suppose, Vi, that some time when they are being subpoenaed or seanced–or whatever they call it–the relatives make a mistake in the number of the apartment and get into yours. Oo-oo-oo-ooh!
VIOLA: Alice is afraid of the dark. She wanted a drink of water last night, and lay awake three hours because she was afraid to get up and get it.
[A venerable dame, passing our table, catches the word “drink,” and glances suspiciously thru her double-barreled glasses.]
ALICE: I know what she’s thinking. She’s thinking, “Those loud, vulgar movie people.”
VIOLA (wearily): Everyone is attacking us now.
ALICE: Especially the San Francisco people. And only last year we went up there to boost the town at some festival or something.
VIOLA: And you wore your new seventy-five-dollar hat in the rain.
ALICE (mournfully): It got all squashed down flat on my head.
VIOLA: Yes, it looked like a cat had crawled up there and died.
[The lights begin to wink suggestively. Viola, with a sigh, commences to struggle with her gloves.]
VIOLA (reaching under the table): My feet hurt.
ALICE (sympathetically): So do mine.
[Having at last reached agreement on one subject, they are ready for home, where Viola, with the advice of her counselor, Alice, is to face the man who wants to invest her money.]
REFEREE: Good-night, Charlie. Good-night, Sarah.
CHARLIE AND SARAH (in perfect harmony): Good-night. Now, don’t you publish anything we said!
(Motion Picture Magazine, May 1922)
Being The King of staged photographs, Buster had some photographic fun with both Viola and Alice during their friendships. It’s easier for me to imagine the hilarity that must’ve gone into making these photos after hearing the ladies’ voices. None of these images are from movies, just goofing around.
Buster and Viola (and Eddie Cline):
Buster and Alice, loose in the costume closet:
What a damn hoot.
*** Miss Black. After several careful readings (by myself and others) I concluded there was nothing sensitive about this paragraph other than, potentially, the fact that these days Alice’s poking fun at someone might be considered mean spirited. However, a less careful reading or a skimming over the words might cause it to come off differently, so in order to avoid confusion I removed her last name from the text. If anyone has any questions or concerns about this please let me know!
When Buster was a boy, steeping in stage life, he enjoyed burlesquing other popular acts. As it seems much of The Three Keatons’ act was planned and timed out to the second, I imagine these moments alone on stage, obliging an encore, were the freest opportunities for him to spontaneously create and improvise.
Either way they sound damn impressive.
One of my favorites is, of course, his imitation of Houdini’s straight jacket act at the age of six. This one sticks with me because, not only did Buster describe it himself in his autobiography, but it’s one of the easiest to envision. Houdini is still famous. We know his straight jackets. There’s actual video you can watch on youtube. It’s easy to imagine the precocious little Buster wiggling out of his backwards coat on stage, thrashing and grimacing à la the handcuff king.
But that was just one of his many burlesques. Another I came across was performed years later (I’m guessing preteen-ish age?) and modeled after a performer named Fred Zobedie.
Zobedie is a mysterious fellow. He may or may not have been an Olympic gymnast. He may or may not have hailed from Australia. …Basically, I could only find crumbs about the guy, but he called himself “the world’s greatest hand balancer,” and reportedly “seems to walk as well upon his hands as on his feet and even dances to music with his feet in the air.” (Myra’s scrapbook p.125)
Fred also did some pretty wild stuff for publicity.
It was the heyday of amazing public stunts (over Niagara Falls in a barrel anyone?) and I feel pretty sure that Buster would’ve showed up for as many daring spectacles as he had the chance to. He was at least at the right place and time for this one in Houston, TX.
It was during this same engagement that I believe Buster first performed his hand balancing burlesque.
I wish there was more information about how he interpreted such a skilled and physically taxing act. It’s clear from his short The Scarecrow that he has some hand walking abilities:
I imagine the burlesque went a bit like an extended version of this clip. Comically interrupted attempts, preparations, fakes, and mimed excuses. Maybe he ran into things or fell inopportunely as he does in The Scarecrow – soaking his head after a valiant attempt to keep his feet dry. But I do wonder if Buster managed to climb anything or balance on one hand. I wouldn’t put it past him.
As always if anyone has any information about Buster, burlesques or balancing please share!
A Note on the Photos:
Both hand balancing photos are not of Fred Zobedie, but of Professor Paulinetti, an originator of hand balancing in the early 1900s.
I thought this was a very fun memory of Buster’s vaudeville act with his father. What skill it would’ve taken to not hurt him! How shocking and hilarious when he was finally thrown clear! Very clever. I wish I could’ve seen it.
Joe was a member of the cast and was a big part of Buster’s scarecrow scenes. I wonder if there was a lot of reminiscing about this vaudeville gag on set.
The inspiration for the outfit might possibly have come about in another way though. The papers claimed it was a true to life crow-scarer that served as Buster’s muse.
Besides the gloves, straw, and that magnificent hat, these flapping robes look pretty close to Buster’s baggy standard to me. What do you think?
I do not know who colorized the cover photo. I just came across it and though it was gorgeous. If you or someone you know (or know of) was the artist involved in bringing it to life, let me know and I’ll gladly give credit or take it down if they so wish.
In 1925 a film was released called The Masked Bride. It starred Mae Murray as a dancer of the Paris underground who gets caught up in romance and crime. No copies of the film survive and it is now considered lost, which is a real shame as it sounds like an interesting film in its own right:
What makes this film so interesting to me, though, is that Buster Keaton’s identical twin apparently acted in the film as a nightclub Apache (ah-PAHSH) dancer.
Until a few things were pointed out to me, I was pretty much ready to battle down to the teeth that the mystery man in these photos was, in fact, Buster Keaton. Maybe he was doing someone a favor and hopped on set to show off his rumored dancing skills in between filming his own works, Go West and Seven Chances.
And, I mean, c’mon. Could he look more like Buster?
Ernie Orsatti was considered a great Buster lookalike, but no one’s talking about this guy?
Anyway, the real problem with this Buster theory comes down to the first finger on the right hand — Buster lost part of his as a child, and the mystery man apparently has his whole finger. And the ear.
The finger I’m more willing to attempt to explain away with various photography tricks of the time, but the ear not as much. According to Sherlock Holmes in “The Adventure of the Cardboard Box” (and also…science) the human ear is unique. Like a thumbprint. And despite the fact that the ear shape does look quite a bit like Buster’s,
as far as I know, there’s no accounting for its attached quality at the base. Attached earlobes are genetic and Buster just doesn’t have it. At least not so prominently. (Unless! This isn’t a genetically attached earlobe and is maybe something more temporary? Or maybe it’s just some weird shadow?? . . .You can see how unwilling I am to give up my conspiracy theories. . .)
Apparently it was typical for the Apache to focus completely on the woman and her daring performance, so it was pretty common for the man to not be acknowledged at all. There’s no record anywhere to be found of who this mystery man might be. Despite his uncredited performance, he’s still featured in some prominent advertising:
Until we unearth an alternative candidate for the mystery man, I personally refuse to give up my remaining thread of hope that if The Masked Bride is ever found there’s a chance we might get to see Buster do some serious Apache style dancing. Like this:
But I guess we’ll just have to be satisfied with his performance in Doughboys, where Buster takes the part of the lady. And kills it.
If anyone has any information about The Masked Bride, the mystery doppelganger or attached earlobes, please do let me know!
Buster disliked interviews. In almost every interview I’ve read from the 1920s, the reporter feels the need to mention the scared look in his eyes and how obvious it is that he would rather be anywhere else. In this interview, he actually tries to flee the scene before it begins.
It took place in early August, 1927. Buster had just released College and was probably about to begin (or continue) work on Steamboat Bill Jr., his last independently crafted film–much of which was filmed on the river in Sacramento.
During this time Buster was already under some annoying supervision at his studio, and his marriage was entering into its final stages of suffering. The Keatons were living in their Italian Villa, newly finished the year before, and their sons were aged 5 and 3 1/2. Buster was still working at what he loved in the way that he loved to work, and didn’t yet know that his methods would shortly shrivel into something barely tolerable after his move to MGM.
“Worse than someone who had lent money to Julian ‘Pete'” — “Julian Petroleum Corporation (nicknamed “Julian Pete”) was a Los Angeles based oil company. It collapsed in 1927 amid large-scale fraud, taking over $150 million from 40,000 investors.” (Wikipedia) Those high level fraudulent investor were probably pretty tight-lipped.
“Folded his arms a la Napoleon at Marengo” — May be referring to the difficult and indecisive nature of Napoleon’s victory in that battle. Deep thinking required.
“Following Rockefeller’s advice to the extent of using economy and perseverance in his words.” — I’m guessing this just means stingy and protective. Rockefeller was the richest man in American history, and the founder and head of the first monopoly trust – Standard Oil Company. (Wikipedia) He was at his height during this time.
Besides the fact that they recorded Buster’s birthdate wrong (it was October 4th) this sounds to me like it could be a pretty true account. All other facts are accurate, and the jokes and vernacular do sound to me like Buster. The description of his mannerisms and even noting Buster’s “gray eyes wide open and expressionless” (they were hazel, but that’s pretty close) all feel correct to what I’ve read about Buster in interviews. I also enjoyed seeing an account of Harry Brand interacting with Buster. I’ve only come across a few of those.
It’s really amazing to me that the banana of the 1920s was a different variety than what we have today. I wonder if the thicker Gros Michel peel was more of a slipping hazard. Something to think about. And test if I ever come across one…
Gros Michel banana shortages began in the 1920s. A wilting disease spread through un-diversified crops eventually wiping out the breed of banana almost entirely by the 1950s. Today, the Gros Michel is almost extinct, though apparently you can still get exorbitantly priced Gros Michels in Florida (miamifruit.org) and in Uganda where they’re called the Bogoya as well as a few other places across the globe. The superior Gros Michel was replaced with our banana of today, the Cavendish, considered to be lesser in almost every way – flavor, thickness of peel, size, even color.
Anyway, an odd song came out in 1923 that was likely inspired by these shortages. I’m sure you’ve heard of it: “Yes, We Have No Bananas,” by Frank Silver and Irving Cohn.
I heard it first in one of my all time favorite films, Sabrina (1954). The fact that it topped the charts for five weeks and was revived 31 years later as an example of music of the time demonstrates its popularity. It even makes an appearance in a Buster film: Sidewalks of New York (1931).
The much played song was followed, again in 1923, by the “Yes We Have No Banana Blues.”
Buster apparently agreed with the man on the cover. According to this article he was tired of (probably) both songs:
I know that a lot of silent film stars requested violinists to play appropriate music for their scenes to help them create mood and emotion, but apart from minutely timed moments I’ve never heard of Buster keeping musicians around like that. I like it. An old melody on an accordion during this scene adds a lot of color.
Anyone heard of any other instances of Buster hiring musicians to play behind the scenes?
In the early and mid 1920s, Athens Georgia was the home of a very quirky fan club. They used words like Umpty Umph, challenged each other to keep a straight face while watching Keaton comedies, and advertised so freely in the the Athens Banner-Herald that I wonder if one of their members worked for the paper. They had the charm of a secret club populated by members who, after catching sight of the ad in their morning paper, hurry off into the mist on mysterious errands. Their “secret” club house was the Palace theater in Athens, G.A., opened in 1921.
They claim to have had members in high places – business men and bankers – who slipped out of meetings to attend films. Sentries were posted at the door of the theater to be sure these important men were not followed and then reported to their superiors for skipping out on work:
“According to due and modern form the club organized at the unusual meeting place as soon as members could slip away from the business partners and bosses and after placing a sentinel at the entrance of the theatre to watch for anyone who might be employed to shadow them…”
New members were personally introduced to the ticket master at the theater, presumably so they would be admitted to meetings without trouble. Initiation included “serving as cashiers for the round of drinks” and “seeing Buster’s picture at the Palace and not showing any more facial expressions than does the idol of the club himself.” They go on to say “if any neophyte laugh he is forever blacklisted and barred from future membership in the club.” (The Banner-Herald, June 13, 1923)
They made a real party out of their meetings with decorations, entertainment and refreshments. Speeches kept to a minimum.
I get the sense that their leader, Michaelo Costa, started the club to save himself costs.
They would apparently skip out of work to watch films, usually at 10:30 in the morning: “While the pre-lude was showing “Why Elephants Leave Home” balloting on a couple of new members got under way but in each instance objection was raised because members of the same firm are now in the club and if others came in there could be no “slipping” away from meetings. The blackball proposals are to be kept secret. (The Banner-Herald, January 31, 1924)
With all their claims to secrecy, they published at least one highly detailed ad in the paper for each of these films, and probably more:
Now for a little mystery. An article in early 1924 states that:
This would mean that Mr. Costa could possibly have appeared in The Navigator, Seven Chances or Go West as an extra. I doubt it as I’m sure the club would’ve written extensively about any cameo and their ads never mention it, but what a fun idea! — Buster (or more likely a publicist or something) hearing about this highly active little club and extending an invitation. — I personally hope it did happen and one of the populous running from loose cattle or wild women in bridal getup is Michaelo Costa.
Digital Library of Georgia at gahistoricnewspapers.galileo.usg.edu
In 1919 Harry Houdini was a motion picture actor living in California. It was an interesting phase in his career that honestly always surprises me. His motion picture endeavors ended up fizzling out after a few years, but during that time he payed visits to several studios, and one of them was Roscoe Arbuckle’s.
To my disappointment there isn’t much about Houdini and Buster’s interaction at this meeting, but I would like to assume from stories of their sharing the bill in vaudeville days that it would’ve been a happy reunion. As a whole, it sounds like the group had a lot of fun.
There’s obviously a lot about this article that sounds untrue, and it’s likely just publicity. but I can easily imagine Buster breadstick dueling while hanging from his toes. Anyway, it seems to have been one of his favorite ways to approach trees…
And over ten years later he’s still at it:
What do you think of the article? Absolutely true? Absolutely fabricated? Anyone have any more information about Harry and Bess’s time in California and whether they spent any of it with the Keatons? Love to hear it!
Buster’s mother, Myra, only appeared in two of her son’s films, and those much later in his career. Those parts were due primarily to Buster’s limited funds – he several times employed his whole family and several friends while filming his later, low budget shorts.
I always assumed Myra had little interest in film acting. Until…
There are some inaccuracies in this article, (Joe had acted with Buster in some Arbuckle films before this), but it’s easy to believe Myra would enjoy donning the convict’s uniform. She regularly dressed as a man on stage.
Did Myra the convict actually make it into the final cut? It’s really hard to tell.
Myra apparently acted in a few scenes of The Electric House as Buster’s mother a few years later, but alas, those scenes were cut. Maybe if Buster had written more parts for women she would’ve been happy to join in? As it was, it seems she was content to retire from acting to stay home with her two younger children and play pinochle.
What do you think? Anyone have more accounts of Myra acting in Buster’s films? Any accounts of Myra’s life after The Three Keatons retired from the stage? I’d love to hear it!
Frequently while hunting through articles I find one that makes me stop and go hmm…really? Usually it’s pretty obvious where the mix-up happened. A lot of times if a story was good, newspapers would dust it off, change the name of the film it’s related to and run it again as advertisement. At other times it’s clear that Buster had nothing to do with the quotes attributed to him, but that they were written by his publicist. There are dozens of printed jokes (some of them hilarious) that I wonder if Buster ever heard of at all.
But every once in a while I come across an article that creates a real mystery in my mind. It’s much harder to explain exactly what the writer was thinking. What rumor they heard and blew up like a shiny balloon, or if there is actually any truth to the information presented.
This is one of those suspicious articles:
I rank it as suspicious, because the quotes do sound to me like Buster. Was a newspaper man present at a casual, playful conversation and decided to record it? Are they making a silly reference to Arbuckle’s “Coney Island?” Did Buster talk about saving one life and they decided to make the story a little more interesting?
Here’s my guess:
I’m wondering if someone either read these articles about Buster’s leading lady, or were present at a conversation where both Buster and Sybil talked about swimming and saving lives, and they got the stories muddled:
Then they decided to exaggerate – seven lives to fourteen, and the actual quotes are Buster talking about lifeguarding in general and funny terms.
Or, I could be totally wrong. What do you think? Anyone ever heard of Buster being a lifeguard?
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!
Most of the articles describing accidents on set are about Buster. He was the one at the center of the action, pulling the dangerous stunts, never using a double. And if it’s not Buster, it’s one of the stunt men he hired to test out tricks before he performed them before a camera – every now and then I come across a story of one of these brave men loosing their teeth or almost dying.
Very rarely does there seem to be a completely unpredicted accident like this one:
What a terrible tragedy that could’ve been! As it was, I guess Buster liked the look of it because it stayed in the film.
Knowing the man made it out alright, the moment does have strong comedic value – what skill and experience these fierce whalers have! Or maybe they just couldn’t fish the harpoon out of the water for another take. Do you suppose it might still be down there? Covered in ocean flora. The cozy home of some little sardine?
As a side note, I think it’s very interesting that she mentions Roscoe Arbuckle wrote the story. The Love Nest was written and filmed during the time Roscoe was banned from working in films after his acquittal. Buster was not shy about wanting to help his friend in any way he could, and Roscoe was known to hang around Buster’s studio. I can’t imagine him standing by silent while Buster talked stories and scenes over with his gag men. Could Roscoe have been instrumental in forming the story of The Love Nest? Or was Constance Palmer thinking of Day Dreams (which we know Roscoe wrote) when she put together this article?
I recently came across an article that revealed (to me anyway) the identity of the well dressed languid beauty who orders coffee from Buster in The Cook : Miss Marion Sproul.
The article also does a good job illustrating how relaxed filming must have been in those days. Two bystanders just blithely hopped into a scene. If they’d pursued it, they might have become full blown stars.
It’s pretty obvious to me they’re describing this scene with Miss Sproul in her enviable evening gown.
And here’s a little more of her acting a bit later in the film.
Marion Sproul was a society girl and heiress. Her father died when she was young and despite the fact that her mother was still alive, his partner F.C. Lusk adopted her and her brother in order to legally and financially care for them. Lusk was a Chico California lawyer and financier who died in 1913 leaving Marion and her brother “the major portion of an estate valued at more than $200,000.” (The Sacramento Bee, Feb. 27, 1913). Today that would be something like $5,700,000 and was comprised of “town lots in Chico and ranch property in Butte county.” The money was put into a trust controlled by her mother until she turned thirty. (The Chico Enterprise. February 27, 1913). Another article interestingly mentions Marion was an accomplished basketball player on her school team. (Oroville Daily Register, Oct. 19, 1911).
In early 1918 it seems she moved from Chico to Los Angeles and struck up a short friendship with Roscoe, along with her society friend Doris Smith. She had a bit of bad luck at the beginning of the year – someone stole an expensive suitcase full of expensive things out of her car, (Oroville Daily Register, Feb. 6, 1918). But I think we can all agree life soon started looking up. Marion didn’t pursue acting, but was married in August 1919 to Maurice V. Kelly of Winnipeg Canada.
Have any additional thoughts or information on Miss Marion Sproul? Love to hear it!