9 Facts About Buster Keaton On His 125th Birthday

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

On October 4, 1895, Buster “The Great Stone Face” Keaton was born as Joseph Frank Keaton, in Piqua, Kansas—the small town where his mother, a dancer and singer, was when she went into labor. Keaton was born into a vaudeville family: His father, also Joseph, was a performer and actor who worked with Harry Houdini. Buster himself joined the family business and began performing with his parents on stage at the age of three; they were known as The Three Keatons.

In 1917, when he was 21 years old, Buster began transitioning into silent films, making his first onscreen appearance in The Butcher Boy with Fatty Arbuckle. Just a few months later, Keaton partnered with Arbuckle again on The Rough House, which the two wrote, directed, and starred in together. Over the next nearly 50 years, Keaton became one of Hollywood's most famous faces, starring in nearly 150 pictures—many of which he also wrote and/or directed. Among those films was 1926’s The General, which Orson Welles deemed one of the greatest films ever made. Welles described Keaton as “the greatest of all the clowns in the history of cinema.”

Once “talkies” arrived in the late 1920s, Keaton’s star began to wane. But in the 1940s and 1950s, he made a comeback with feature films (including a worthy cameo as himself in Sunset Boulevard) and starring on TV shows. In 1959, Keaton received an honorary Oscar. Along with Harold Lloyd and Charlie Chaplin, Keaton is known for being one of the three great silent-era comedians; even today, Keaton's unique comedic stylings continue to influence many filmmakers, from Mel Brooks to Jackie Chan.

1. Harry Houdini gave Buster Keaton the “Buster” nickname.

A 1905 photo of Buster Keaton as a child with his parents, Joe and Myra, with whom he formed a family vaudeville act.Express/Getty Images

When Keaton was born, his parents were performing with Harry Houdini in a medicine show (touring acts that promoted "miracle cures"). In a 1963 interview, Keaton explained how he got his nickname from Houdini: "I fell down a flight of stairs when I was around six months old. They picked me up … no bruises, didn’t seem to hurt myself, and Houdini said, ‘That was a Buster.’ And the old man says, ‘That’s a good name; we’ll call him that.’”

2. Buster Keaton didn’t like to work with a script.

Keaton believed in the art of improvisation. In an audio interview played over Tony Zhou’s 'Buster Keaton—The Art of the Gag' video essay, Keaton stated: “As a rule, about 50 percent you have in your mind when you start the picture and the rest you develop as you’re making it.” He hired “gag men” to write for him, including sportswriter Clyde Bruckman, who co-directed The General. According to The Dissolve, Keaton and his writing team started with gags and visual stunts and conceived the rest from there. But sometimes the improvisation started from a visual. On The Navigator (1924), Keaton rented an ocean liner and reportedly told his writers: “There’s the boat. Now write me a comedy.” Keaton also felt gags should be accomplished in one shot, and if not, the gag should be thrown out.

3. Buster Keaton did most of his own stunts.

In the 1920s CGI didn’t exist, so actors either had to hire stuntpeople or do their own stunts; Keaton chose the latter. One of his most remarkable stunts was done in the 1928 feature film Steamboat Bill, Jr., where a 4000-pound facade of a house fell on the actor. "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," The Guardian wrote. However, Keaton did injure himself a few times.

On the set of The Electric House (1922), he broke his ankle. On Sherlock Jr. (1924), Keaton broke his neck—and somehow he didn't even realize it. A water spout knocked him unconscious on train tracks, and despite suffering from headaches, he didn’t know the extent of the damage until years later when an X-ray revealed the breakage.

4. Buster Keaton didn’t use many title cards.

In an interview later in his life, Keaton explained that "The average [silent] picture used 240 titles. And the most I ever used was 56." Instead, he preferred to convey plot through action and pantomime—visual comedy, as it’s known—and found "humor in the geometry."

5. Buster Keaton fashioned his porkpie hats from Stetson hats.

American actor and comedian Buster Keaton visits the Frankfurt television studios of the local radio station which is broadcasting his old films in 1962.Keystone/Getty Images

One of Keaton’s most recognizable features was the porkpie hat he wore in his films. “In those days, almost every comedian you saw affected a derby hat,” Keaton said. “Even Harold Lloyd, when he was playing his Lonesome Luke character in 1917, wore a derby.” Keaton decided he needed his own brand of hat. “I took a good Stetson and cut it down, then I stiffened the brim with sugar water. My recipe calls for three heaping teaspoons of granulated sugar in a teacup of warm water. You wet the top and bottom of the brim, and then smooth it out on a clean, hard surface and let it dry to a good stiffness. I did the earliest ones myself, always—and then I trained my wife. Now she does them for me.”

6. Buster Keaton influenced Mel Brooks.

In a 1997 interview with The Keaton Chronicle, Mel Brooks talked about how Keaton influenced his movies, especially 1976’s Silent Movie. "He gave me things that you can’t put your finger on," Brooks said. "He kind of said, ‘Never play a crazy scene with anything but reality.' He was always intensely and desperately true. He never winked at you. He never said, 'Aren’t we having fun?' That was a great lesson for me. He and Chaplin were my mentors." Brooks described Keaton's work as "astonishing ... I’ve never seen any human being able to perform as brilliantly and gracefully with such unusually gifted timing. There was only one Keaton."

7. Buster Keaton thought The General aged pretty well.

Even though The General is known as Keaton’s masterpiece, when United Artists released it in 1926, it opened to mixed reviews, and poor box office receipts resulted in the studio forcing Keaton into a restrictive deal with MGM. But in 1965, nearly 40 years after its initial release, Keaton commented on how The General was still funny. “Comedy does not change,” he said. “Here’s the best proof in the world: Two years ago we sent a picture to Munich, Germany, using old-fashioned subtitles with a written score. This was The General … But I sneaked into the theater and the laughs were exactly the same as on the day it was first released.”

8. Buster Keaton starred in a series of beer commercials.

In 1962, Keaton—then 67 years old—partnered with Buffalo, New York's The Simon Pure Brewery to film a series of beer commercials. He aped his silent film-era films in the ads while drinking beer.

9. Michigan hosts an annual Buster Keaton convention.

The International Buster Keaton Society—members are called Damfinos—hosts an annual Buster Keaton convention in Muskegon, Michigan, where Keaton owned a summer home. The three-day convention screens Keaton’s films and hosts panel discussions and live performances.

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12 Festive Facts About White Christmas

Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, and Danny Kaye in White Christmas (1954).
Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, and Danny Kaye in White Christmas (1954).
Paramount Home Entertainment

In 1953, Paramount Pictures set out to make a musical built around and named after the most popular Christmas pop song of all time. At that point “White Christmas” had already become a holiday classic thanks in no small part to Bing Crosby’s hit recording of the song, but would it translate to the same success on the big screen?

With Crosby’s star power leading the way and Michael Curtiz in the director’s chair, White Christmas overcame some early development struggles and even some anxiety from composer Irving Berlin to become one of the most celebrated holiday movies of all time. Here are 12 facts about its production and reception.

1. The song "White Christmas" was already a hit.

Though the film didn’t come along until 1954, the story of White Christmas actually began more than a decade earlier, when Irving Berlin composed the future holiday classic that would become the title track. Berlin wrote the song in 1940, and the next year Bing Crosby—the singer still most identified with the song, despite many cover versions—sang it on his Christmas radio show.

By 1942, Crosby had recorded the song, and over that same year it made its first film appearance in Holiday Inn, starring Crosby and Fred Astaire. The film helped earn “White Christmas” the Oscar for Best Song in 1943, and over the course of the 1940s the song climbed to #1 on the charts several times. It would go on to hold the title of bestselling single of all time for decades, until it was finally eclipsed by Elton John’s rewritten 1997 version of “Candle in the Wind.” Because of the song’s enduring popularity, particularly during the World War II years, it was only natural that Hollywood would want to capitalize, and by 1949 what would eventually become White Christmas began to take shape at Paramount Pictures.

2. White Christmas was originally set to co-star Fred Astaire.

By the late 1940s, Irving Berlin and executives at Paramount Pictures were working on piecing together White Christmas as a movie musical with the title song as its centerpiece, and they had big plans for the film’s stars. The project was originally envisioned as the third installment of an unofficial trilogy of buddy musicals starring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire. The duo had already teamed up for Holiday Inn in 1942 (which also featured “White Christmas”) and Blue Skies in 1946, and White Christmas was supposed to mark a triumphant reunion. Unfortunately, Astaire ultimately turned the project down, reportedly due to lack of interest and a concern that he might be getting too old for such a film.

3. Bing Crosby almost passed on White Christmas.

While most of the casting drama surrounding the film was tied to the Phil Davis character, there was also a point during pre-production on White Christmas that the film almost had to go searching for a new Bob Wallace. In January of 1953, when Astaire decided to back out of the project, Crosby also decided he wasn’t sure the film was right for him, and initially planned to take time off to be with his son following the death of Crosby’s wife, actress Dixie Lee. Later that some month, though, Crosby decided to stick with the project, and White Christmas moved ahead.

4. Danny Kaye was cast at the last-minute.

Danny Kaye and Vera-Ellen in White Christmas (1954).Paramount Home Entertainment

With Fred Astaire out of the picture, Paramount had to search for a new star to play Phil Davis to Bing Crosby’s Bob Wallace, and settled on Donald O’Connor, who was fresh off the success of Singin’ in the Rain. O’Connor was all set to play Davis in the film, but became ill shortly before production was set to begin. Now anxious to find a new co-star in time, the studio offered the role to Danny Kaye, who decided to go for broke and request a salary of $200,000 plus a percentage of the film’s gross. Kaye was apparently certain the studio would say no, but they agreed to his terms rather than attempting to wait it out for O’Connor’s health to improve. Kaye was cast as Phil Davis, and O’Connor would later go on to work with Crosby on Anything Goes.

5. Rosemary Clooney couldn’t dance.

Rosemary Clooney was one of the most acclaimed and beloved singers of her generation, and with White Christmas she became a co-star of one of the most acclaimed and beloved musical films of all time. Clooney was able to do this despite one particular shortcoming, which she was always honest about in both interviews and in her eventual autobiography: She was not a dancer. Clooney’s character, Betty Haynes, only has two real moments of dance in the film—in “Sisters” and in the “Minstrel Show” medley—and both times the choreography is rather simple and (in the case of “Sisters”) makes use of a prop to help make the scene visually interesting without too much actual dancing involved.

6. Vera-Ellen couldn’t sing.

Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen in White Christmas (1954).Paramount Home Entertainment

To complete the duo of the Haynes sisters, Rosemary Clooney was paired with Vera-Ellen, who was already an experienced and acclaimed movie musical performer considered by many to be one of the best dancers in Hollywood at the time. Clooney recalled feeling “inadequate” when paired with her new co-star in terms of learning her limited White Christmas choreography, but also noted that their dynamic was rather evened out by both Vera-Ellen’s patience and the fact that she couldn’t sing. Vera-Ellen’s vocals were dubbed in White Christmas, largely by an uncredited Trudy Stevens, but by Clooney herself for the song “Sisters.”

“If they could have dubbed my dancing, now, we would have had a perfect picture,” Clooney later joked.

7. Bing Crosby improvised a lot of his White Christmas dialogue.

By the time White Christmas came along, Bing Crosby was one of the biggest movie stars in the world, a veteran singer and actor who could pack audiences in and commanded respect on the Paramount Pictures lot. This meant his job came with a lot of perks, including the opportunity to embellish and flat-out improvise much of his dialogue on the fly. As co-star Rosemary Clooney recalled later on a commentary track for the film, when Bob Wallace used phrases like “slam-bang finish,” it was often because the phrases were favorites of Crosby’s. Clooney also recalled that the little monologue Crosby’s character goes on when they meet in the Columbia Inn lounge for sandwiches and buttermilk was largely made up by Crosby on the spot, faux German accent and all.

8. Bing Crosby didn’t like shooting White Christmas's "Sisters" scene.

One of the most famous scenes in White Christmas involves Bob Wallace and Phil Davis rolling up their pant legs and lip-syncing to Judy and Betty Haynes’s song “Sisters” in an effort to cause a diversion so the sisters could escape a vengeful landlord and hop on a train to Vermont. It’s an instantly memorable, and very funny movie moment, but apparently Bing Crosby was actually somewhat uncomfortable about the scene. In an effort to liven the performance up and get a rise out of his co-star, Danny Kaye improvised the moment when he begins to slap Crosby with his feathered fan. If you watch the scene closely, you can see Crosby caught off guard by this, and by the end of the scene the two men are cracking up on camera for real. According to Rosemary Clooney, Crosby was convinced that the take was unusable, but director Michael Curtiz liked the spontaneity of it, and used it in the finished film.

9. White Christmas features an Our Gang cameo.

Early in the film, as Bob and Phil get to know the Haynes sister, they discuss the sisters’ brother Benny, who Bob and Phil knew from the army and who ostensibly connected them for their meeting at the club. Judy Haynes then offers to share a recent photo of Benny, who Phil had already referred to as “Freckle-faced Haynes, the dog-faced boy.” The photo appears only briefly, but fans of the Our Gang series of comedy shorts might recognize Benny Haynes. He’s played in the photo by Carl Switzer, who was Our Gang’s Alfalfa.

10. White Christmas was the first movie released in a new format.

A scene from White Christmas (1954).Paramount Home Entertainment

At the time White Christmas was produced, film was having to increasingly compete with television for the attention of the American public, and this meant numerous gimmicks were deployed to get people to go to the movies. This included even more prevalent use of color on the movie screen (at a time when television was still a black and white medium), as well as a more ambitious use of aspect ratios to emphasize the “big” in big-screen. White Christmas was envisioned as a Technicolor showcase, but it also became the first film to be released in Paramount’s new widescreen format, VistaVision.

The format featured special film magazines that were mounted to the side of the camera lens, which fed the film negative through the camera horizontally rather than vertically. This created a more detailed widescreen exposure that was then printed vertically just like any other film. The result was a format that could play on virtually any movie screen and offer an increase in quality, unlike other contemporary large format options like CinemaScope, which required an adapter.

11. Irving Berlin was nervous about White Christmas.

By the time White Christmas was in production, the title song was one of the bestselling and most beloved songs in the world, and had already been in heavy circulation for more than a decade. Still, that didn’t stop Irving Berlin from being nervous about how the film would be received. Though he wasn’t always on the soundstage during shooting, Rosemary Clooney later recalled that Berlin showed up every day at the cast’s recording sessions for the soundtrack, and as Crosby and company recorded the finale version of “White Christmas” the legendary composer couldn’t stop nervously pacing around the studio. Eventually, Berlin’s worried look proved so distracting that Crosby went over to him and said: “There’s nothing we can do to hurt this song, Irving. It’s already a hit!"

12. White Christmas was the biggest movie of 1954.

White Christmas was released in the fall of 1954 and, on the strength of Berlin’s songs and the Technicolor and VistaVision production values, quickly became a hit for Paramount. The film was the highest-grossing movie of 1954 with a box office take of $12 million. It was also the biggest hit of director Michael Curtiz’s career, which was impressive considering his resume already included classics like Yankee Doodle Dandy and Casablanca.

Additional Sources:
White Christmas: A Look Back with Rosemary Clooney (2000)
White Christmas commentary track by Rosemary Clooney (2000)
Backstage Stories from White Christmas (2009)
Christmas in the Movies by Jeremy Arnold (2018)