Buster Keaton is one of the greatest film comedians in history, but many people don’t know him because he was a star in the silent film era.
He started life on the showbiz road as his parents were performers. He began performing onstage with his parents by the time he was 3 and helped make their act a hit. It was a rough and tumble act that was so popular it became a headliner, but by 1917 it was apparent the act was ending as the father was now in his 50s and the jumping and tumbling was taking its toll.
Buster signed up to do his own act in New York City but a chance encounter with comedy movie star Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle changed everything. Fatty asked Buster if he’d like to be in a scene. They did the scene in one take and Buster was asked to join the film comedian for $40 a week. Buster was getting $200 a week as a stage performer but was so enamored of the possibilities of film that he took the offer.
After more than a dozen films together Arbuckle told producers they should let Buster make his own movies. They agreed and Buster’s films were so well liked his short films would sometimes get billing over the feature films.
After a couple of years Buster got the opportunity to go into feature films and several masterpieces of the silver screen were the result.
At that time Buster didn’t work from scripts. He had a couple of “gag men” that helped him as they worked through the storyline. Once the overall plot had been worked out, they would start shooting the film, building the comedy as they went. If they got stuck on something, they would just take a break from shooting and sit around until one of them came up with an idea to get the ball rolling again.
In many cases, Buster being an avid baseball fan, the whole film company would stop and start playing baseball until someone solved the problem. He even had his own amateur baseball team that played teams in the Los Angeles area. Named the Keaton Nine, they usually won and were known as one of the best teams out there.
On at least one occasion when hiring a technician for the crew instead of asking about his film résumé, Buster asked if he played ball. When he said yes, Buster hired him on the spot.
It was so well known that Buster loved baseball that once, when a meddling producer showed up on set and tried to change things, Buster just looked at him and said, “Come on, gang, let’s go play baseball for two or three days.” The producer’s face turned red, he left and never meddled again.
The Old South, railroads and a true love
An early feature film was called “Our Hospitality.” “Our Hospitality” started with a stormy night sequence that showed a murder. This starts a family feud, as the widow and orphaned infant of one family leaves to start life new. Dark stuff indeed for a comedy. But this sets the laugh wheels in motion. Cut to years later and the infant is now grown into a young man — enter Buster Keaton.
His mother never told him about the feud so when he gets a letter that says he has inherited a piece of property in the South, he pictures a Tara-like mansion.
Buster set the film in the 1820s when the first railroad in the U.S. was started. He literally built his own train and laid tracks for a very funny sequence where he travels to claim his inheritance. He bids his dog farewell, but the train travels so slowly that when he arrives his dog has trotted along behind the train and is there to greet him.
In another sequence men along the tracks throw rocks at the engineer driving the train. He retaliates by throwing firewood for the steam engine back at them. Then we see the men gather up the wood and head home, never having used an ax to get their firewood.
On the train, Buster sits next to a pretty girl (played by his real-life wife Natalie Talmadge) and falls for her. Of course she is the daughter of the opposing clan in the feud.
Once in town he finds out a) his inheritance is a rundown shack, b) there is a feud between him and the girl’s family and c) because of the southern honor code of the day they can’t shoot him as long as he is under their roof. This makes for a really funny film as Buster makes it a point to not leave the house under any circumstances.
I’ve gone into length on this film as a lot of the elements here will show up in his top masterpiece, namely the Old South, railroads and a true love.
Some of his other films include “Battling Butler” where he is a rich, spoiled young man who shares the name of a famous boxer and ends up having to fight in a boxing match to win the girl. This is probably the funniest boxing scene in history.
In another film, “Seven Chances,” Buster stands to inherit millions by his 30th birthday but only if he’s married. It is, of course, the day before his birthday.
The girl he loves turns him down, but his buddy says he’ll help and for Buster to be at the church that afternoon dressed for the wedding. Buster goes to the church and falls asleep on the front pew while waiting.
The buddy puts an advertisement in the paper telling the whole bit, including the millions. As Buster sleeps the whole church fills up with would-be brides. When Buster wakes up, the chase is on with scenes of Buster chased by hundreds of brides.
Another classic was “The Navigator.” Buster and “the girl” end up on a huge passenger ship, alone, adrift at sea. Neither knows anything about ships or even how to cook for themselves. They manage to make do after lots of laughs and even (of course) fall in love.
A ripping yarn
Then, in 1926, one of his cohorts walked in and said he’d found a book that would make a perfect story for Buster’s next film. The book was “The Great Locomotive Chase.” It was a true story of the Civil War detailing the stealing of The General locomotive by Yankee spies and the chase that ensued to capture it before it destroyed the railroad between Atlanta and Chattanooga. The movie, ranked one of the best films of all time, was called “The General.”
Originally the book had been called “Daring and Suffering” and then later “Capturing a Locomotive” but the title had been changed again, and with “locomotive” and “chase” in the title, the potential for a ripping yarn was obvious.
The story is of 20-plus Union men heading south, stealing the train and destroying the railroad. If not for the single-minded pursuit by the conductor, Fuller, who doggedly chased the captors until they literally ran out of steam just past Ringgold, the plot might have worked.
Buster would play this lone character rather than be part of the raiding party.
The first half of the movie would tell the story somewhat accurately, but the second half was Buster’s imagination. Instead of the train running out of steam, the Union soldiers get it to Chattanooga. Buster follows them and then steals the train back for a return home to the South.
In April 1926, Buster and some of his team came from Los Angeles to Atlanta and traced the course of the story. They checked out Marietta, Big Shanty (now Kennesaw) where The General had been stolen, and then followed the rails north to Chattanooga.
To Buster’s dismay, the area here in Georgia had grown so much and become so modernized it would not work for the 1860s. They eventually found a place in Oregon that was hilly and forested like it looked around here back 150 years ago. But to think that at some point Buster came through Dalton, getting ideas for the film, is really exciting.
Among the things he picked up for the story was that he would use Calhoun as the rallying point for the southern army to fight back the northern advance, and the bridge over the Oostanaula River at Resaca and the Battle of Resaca would be the inspiration for the film’s climax.
Fun to contemplate
I’ve looked at old newspapers from Georgia during the spring of 1926 but find no mention of Keaton touring. He probably kept it under wraps, but still, thinking of Buster riding over the river into Whitfield County and then through Dalton and the tunnel at Tunnel Hill while his comedic mind was running faster than the train he was on is fun to contemplate.
The film eventually came out to mixed reviews and a slow but steady box office, but over the years Buster’s genius was recognized as people realized this was more than just a slapstick comedy and instead a work of comedic genius.
You can probably find a DVD copy around here or order a Blu-Ray online of the film. Please check it out and see if there’s not plenty of laughs still there for you.
If I ever find confirmation that Buster stopped and spent the night at the Hotel Dalton, I will propose a historical marker for downtown that reads “Buster Slept Here!”