In the history of American cinema, the name Buster Keaton stands tall as one of the greatest stunt performers of all time. While today’s Hollywood stunts are done with numerous safety precautions, Buster Keaton’s work during the silent era relied largely on his guts. This is why some of his stunts, despite being several decades old, still continue to generate awe.
Buster Keaton’s top stunts
The 1924 movie Sherlock Jr. saw Buster Keaton perform two popular stunts. One involved his holding onto an upright roadblock gate that swings down, with him jumping onto an oncoming car at the right moment. In the second feat, he is seen hopping atop the cars of a running train, eventually clutching on to a water spout.
Subscribe to our Newsletter!
Receive selected content straight into your inbox.
His weight triggers the spout that releases the water and knocks Buster Keaton down onto the tracks. “Despite being rendered unconscious and experiencing severe headaches, Keaton soldiered on. In fact, he soldiered on for another decade or so before a trip to the doctors brought a diagnosis many years in the making. An x-ray revealed the fall had broken his neck,” according to The Vintage News.
In 1926, Buster Keaton released the movie The General featuring an epic locomotive chase. In one scene, he can be seen standing on the train’s cow plow, smartly using a piece of wood to deflect another piece of wood that was lying in front of the tracks. Though the movie is often regarded as Buster Keaton’s greatest, it, unfortunately, failed to click with the audience at the time of release.
Perhaps Buster Keaton’s most memorable daredevil moment is in the 1928 movie Steamboat Bill Jr. “The celebrated moment in ‘Steamboat Bill Jr.’ when the facade of a house drops to the ground with a two-tonne thwack, leaving Keaton serene amid the debris, relied on precise mathematics and nerves of steel. Keaton’s position on the ground had to line up exactly with an open window in the top of the house; thankfully for him, it did,” according to The Guardian.
Buster Keaton was born Joseph Frank Keaton. He is said to have started using the name Buster thanks to famous illusionist Harry Houdini, who was a former partner of his father. As a child, Buster Keaton once fell down the stairs. However, he immediately sprang back on his feet as if nothing happened. Houdini, who saw the incident, was surprised and apparently said: “That was a real Buster.” Buster Keaton is believed to have taken his name “Buster” from this incident. The story has never been confirmed to be true.
Despite starring in many movies, Buster Keaton never actually prepared a script for the films. When shooting a movie, he would simply get an overall idea of the plot, design the stunts, and would start shooting. He wouldn’t even rehearse! “Two or three writers and I would start with an idea and then we’d work out a strong finish and let the middle take care of itself, as it always does… Sometimes, we’d work out a gag in advance; other times, it would work itself out as we went along,” he once said (Ranker).
After 1928, marital and career issues turned Buster Keaton into a heavy drinker. After his alcoholism turned bad, he was institutionalized and even restrained in a straightjacket. However, he is said to have escaped the institution thanks to a few tricks he learned from Houdini.