The UFA Film Nights are showing Buster Keaton’s Our Hospitality. Here are 8 things you should know about the comedy genius.
1. He was born to do it
Keaton’s parents performed in a vaudeville act, and he made his first appearance on stage at barely two weeks old. By his 4th birthday he was a full member of the company, performing a comedy routine with his father, which ended with Keaton Sr throwing his child in the orchestra pit. Buster would later use a lot of the old vaudeville gags in his films. Buster’s father pops up in Our Hospitality as the railroad engineer. He was an alcoholic by then, just like Buster would become in later life.
2. He always kept a straight face
Keaton quickly realized that “the more serious I took it, the better laughs I got.” It earned him nicknames like ‘Frozen Face’ and ‘Doughnut Hole’. It also gave his screen persona a melancholy, even sad quality. In reality he had a lot of trouble keeping that face during filming, and would always be the first to corpse on set.
3. His movie wife was his real wife
Keaton even does his frozen face in his wedding pictures. He married Natalie Talmadge, the sister of the famous actresses Norma and Constance, in 1921. When she refused to join Keaton on location for Our Hospitality with their newborn son, he offered her the female lead. His son appears in the prologue of the film. By the end of the shoot Natalie was pregnant with their second son – Keaton and his cameramen had to film around her baby bump.
4. He was mad about baseball
But like, seriously obsessed. He would always start a game whenever there was a break on set. And once a year, he organized a charity game with a bunch of Hollywood celebrities. These would be crammed full of gags, as elaborately choreographed as his movies.
5. His real name wasn’t ‘Buster’
No surprises there. The interesting thing is the person who gave Jospeh Frank Keaton (his real name) the moniker ‘Buster’. Legend has it that the great escape artist Harry Houdini, who was performing with Keaton’s parents at the time, saw the child tumble down a flight of stairs, only to get up again, brush himself off, and go about his business. ‘Now that’s a buster!’ Houdini exclaimed.
6. He was a control freak
Again, probably not a huge surprise that Keaton - who wrote, directed and starred in his movies- was a bit of a control freak and perfectionist. The art direction and attention to detail on Our Hospitality was so meticulous, that Buster’s precise duplication of the Gentleman’s Hobby-Horse, the first bicycle ever made, was later given to the Smithsonian in Washington at the institution’s request.
7. His stunts were genuinely dangerous
Buster Keaton did all his own stunts, and they were often so dangerous that the crew couldn’t bear to watch. Studio bosses tried to curtail his daredevil behaviour, out of fear of ending up with a dead star. He actually broke his neck on the set of Sherlock Jr, but didn’t notice. A doctor discovered it about twelve years later.
8. Our Hospitality nearly killed him. Twice
One of the stunts in Our Hospitality nearly ended in disaster. While floating down the river, his safety cable broke and he very nearly drowned. Keaton’s number one rule for his crew was: keep filming whatever happens until I yell ‘cut!’. So he ended up using the footage in the finished film. You can clearly see him accelerating after the cable snaps.
Another stunt, and the climax of the movie, takes place on a waterfall and was probably the most dangerous one of Keaton’s career. Everything went smoothly, but Buster took in so much water that he needed medical attention afterwards.