On a relentlessly hot day in July 1898, Buster Keaton lost part of a finger in a clothes wringer, had several stitches in his forehead, and was carried off by a cyclone. Keaton’s childhood seemed to be a rehearsal for the rest of his life.
Curiosity on the part of this precocious three-year-old was the cause of losing part of his finger and so was the forehead gash: occasioned by throwing a stone in the air and not getting out of the way fast enough when it fell back to earth. Two years earlier he had nearly suffocated when the lid of the large steamer trunk in which he slept closed over his head.
Surviving the cyclone might be ascribed to a deus ex machina. Keaton’s parents were appearing in vaudeville in Kansas when a cyclone struck the town. Joe and Myra Keaton ran back to the boarding house where they had left their son. Up to the bedroom, no Buster. Down to the storm cellar, no Buster. The story is recounted by Rudi Blesh in Keaton (1966):
“At that moment, Buster was sitting in his nightgown in the dusty middle of unpaved Main Street some four blocks away… Just as his parents were scrambling in the front door, the vast vacuum of the tornado’s eye had sucked him bodily right out of the second-story window. Before Joe and Myra were halfway up the stairs, their son was sailing high over trees and houses, too amazed to be afraid, and then coasting down a slow-relaxing ramp of air to land gently in the very centre of an empty street.”
Buster’s mother kept a scrapbook of press cuttings in which she pasted news stories about the Keatons and advertisements for the family act. In one story, Buster at the age of six months is said to have toppled down an entire flight of stairs in the theatrical boarding house where his parents were staying with a troupe that included the young escapologist Harry Houdini. It was he who picked Buster up only to discover that not only was he unharmed by the fall but laughing. Houdini remarked, “That’s some buster your baby took!” and the nickname stuck.
Such incidents set their stamp on a man who literally tumbled into the lives and affections of millions. Early on he discovered that a deadpan face – never smiling, never blinking an eye – would grab the audience’s attention. He was sometimes compared with the Swiss entertainer Grock (1880-1959), who described the secret of clowning as “transforming the little, everyday annoyances, not only overcoming, but actually transforming them into something strange and terrific… the power to extract mirth for millions out of nothing and less than nothing.”
According to film critic James Agee in “Comedy’s Greatest Era” (Life Magazine, 5 September 1949), Keaton was:
“The only major comedian who kept sentiment almost entirely out of his work, and he brought pure physical comedy to its greatest heights. Beneath his lack of emotion, he was also uninsistently sardonic; deep below that, giving a disturbing tension and grandeur to the foolishness in his comedy, there was a freezing whisper not of pathos but of melancholia. With the humour, the craftsmanship and the action there was often, besides, a fine, still and sometimes dreamlike beauty.”