The Edmond Sun

August 13, 2013

AGAINST THE GRAIN: Buster Keaton savored his Oklahoma ties

William F. O'Brien
Special to The Sun

OKLA. CITY — William Friedkin has been one of the most influential filmmakers in the United States since the early 1970s. His movies include “The Exorcist,” “To Live and Die in LA” and “The French Connection.” The latter film includes a dramatic chase scene in which a New York City Police detective played by Gene Hackman commandeers a citizen’s car and follows the path of a an elevated train in pursuit of a Frenchmen who is involved in the importation of large amounts of heroin into the U.S.

In his recently published memoirs, “The Friedkin Connection,” the filmmaker writes that he was glad that he had not seen the silent film made by Buster Keaton titled “The General” before he made the “French Connection,” because if he had, he would have been tempted to replicate the chase scene contained in that silent classic into the “French Connection.”

And while Buster Keaton’s name is known today primarily by filmmakers and students of film history, he, along with Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd were the three great comedians of the silent film era. Joseph Frank Keaton was born in 1895 in Kansas, but spent some of his early years in Perry. He and his parents spent much of their time on the vaudeville circuit where they performed a comedy act, but his grandparents also had a home in Perry and lived with them when his parents were performing without him.  

According to Keaton’s most recent biographer, Marion Meade, he retained fond memories of Perry and considered it to be his home town. He also made his stage debut there as a child at the Perry Opera House. A young magician who appeared in vaudeville performance with the Keaton family, Harry Houdini, is credited with giving the younger Keaton the nickname of “Buster.”  

Keaton began to act in films in New York City in the 1920s with Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and later made his way to Hollywood where he made a series of films that are now classics of the silent film genre. They included “Sherlock Holmes Junior” in which a character comes of off a film screen and begins to interact with patrons in the theater that may have inspired the Woody Allen movie “The Purple Rose of Cairo” that has a similar plot line. The movie “The General” was a comedy about the theft of a train during the Civil War by a Confederate sympathizer played by Keaton. While that film is recognized as a classic today, it was not successful when it was released in 1926, and its dismal box office performance, according to Meade, resulted in Keaton losing creative control over the movies in which he starred. The late Pauline Kael, who spent several decades as film critic for the New Yorker Magazine, thought that “The General” may have been too perfect a film for the time in which it was released. “The General” is now on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 greatest movies. The advent of talking movies also adversely affected the career of Keaton, as it did Chaplin and Lloyd, and Keaton began a slow descent into depression and alcoholism in the 1930s. But in the late 1950s Keaton’s career was revived to an extent and he appeared in films such as “Sunset Boulevard,” and “It’s a Mad, Mad, World.” He also was featured in several episodes of “The Twilight Zone” and made television commercials. He died in 1966.

In 1957, Keaton returned to Perry for the premier of a film based on his life  titled “The Buster Keaton Story” that featured Donald O’Connor as Keaton. It was reported that when the comedian entered the Perry Theater and saw many of the people that he had known there that he cried.  

WILLIAM F. O’BRIEN is an Oklahoma City attorney.