If you've ever watched one of Buster Keaton's silent films, you've probably been amazed by his grace, agility, strength (especially for such a wiry little guy) and his brilliant sense of comedic timing. But you'll probably be most impressed by his absolute fearlessness: Buster choreographed and performed all his own stunts with an accuracy that usually kept him safe from harm -- but not always. Case in point? The time he broke his neck and didn't know about it until 10 years later.
It happened when he filmed this scene for his film Sherlock Jr.:
At the very end of that scene, the water tower unleashes a torrent of water on Buster and knocks him to the ground. He gets up and continues the scene without missing a beat, but reportedly suffered from headaches for several days afterward. In the 1930s, Buster discovered that his neck had been fractured and figured out that this very scene is when it happened. (He and his crew had grossly underestimated the amount of force of the water.)
But usually, Buster Keaton's sense of space and timing were impeccable -- allowing him to do impossible-looking stunts that could go horribly wrong if his calculations were off by a second or an inch. For example, just consider the following scene that gave Buster Keaton's film crew fits. This famous clip of a house falling around (and almost on) Buster is from Steamboat Bill Jr.:
Happily, Buster wasn't injured in that stunt (despite a very near-miss by the house facade that weighed two tons). But the story goes that half of his film crew walked off the set before that scene was filmed, and of the remaining half, none of them could bring themselves to look until the dust had settled!
Although many of today's film fans have never seen a silent film, it's truly worth it to check out some of Buster Keaton's best work -- movies like the ones mentioned above, or The General, the movie that Orson Welles called "the greatest comedy ever made, the greatest Civil War film ever made, and perhaps the greatest film ever made."
Even if silent movies aren't your thing, Buster Keaton's legacy lives on in the work of actors he's inspired, like Jackie Chan. But that's another story for another day...
The posts on this blog are conceived of and written by various members of a homeschooling family. We're lifetime learners who delight in finding odd bits of history, obscure practices that were once commonplace, and forgotten cultural icons tucked away in books and on the Internet.