Buster Keaton’s Scenic Realism

In 1925 silent film star Buster Keaton, his wife, and their two sons moved into a new house just off Sunset Boulevard in Beverly Hills, California.  Dubbed the Italian Villa, it sat on three and a half acres, and for Keaton’s wife, glamorous Natalie Talmadge, it was an ideal setting for lavish Hollywood parties.  For Keaton himself, it was the perfect location for an outdoor model railroad.

Railroads were part and parcel of Keaton’s life.  Born Joseph Frank Keaton in 1895 to parents who toured the vaudeville circuit, he grew up catching trains from one town to another.  Keaton’s father, Joe, was a hard-drinking Irish-American who drilled the boy in pratfalls that earned him the nickname Buster, but by 1917 the younger Keaton had enough and moved to California, where he appeared in some slapstick comedy films starring Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle.

Troop trains then became part of Keaton’s experience.  After the United States entered the First World War, Keaton was drafted into the Army, being assigned to the Signal Corps and learning map reading and Morse Code.  In the summer of 1918, he was sent to France, his unit being kept in reserve and never seeing combat.  Along with rain, mud, and monotony, his biggest difficulties were a uniform too big for his sinewy 5’5″ frame and then an ear infection that permanently damaged his hearing.

In 1919, back home from the war, Keaton resumed making movies with Arbuckle.  Before long, Keaton had his own production company, and he developed a persona whereby when he was in public or being filmed, he never smiled, earning him another nickname, the Great Stone Face.

Keaton’s silent films featured him as an earnest if hapless young man stymied by modern technology as he sought the respect of various father figures and above all, sought the affection of a young lady he hoped to marry.  As S. T. Karnick wrote in The Weekly Standard (13 March, 2000), Keaton’s films “support conventional morality against Jazz Age libertinism.”  A recurring theme in his films is Keaton’s character looking for a judge or clergyman in order to marry the girl Keaton has been courting.

Another recurring theme is trains.  Throughout his life, Keaton said that if he had received more formal education, he would not have become an actor and director but a civil engineer.  His silent films show a creative mind attracted to challenges posed by physics, architecture, and machines, especially trains, both model and real.  From One Week (1920) to Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928), trains appeared in most of Keaton’s films, and Hard Luck (1921) involved a street car.  Our Hospitality (1923) replicated a Stephenson locomotive from the 1830s, and in The Blacksmith (1922), Keaton used model trains.  Two more examples will suffice.

In The Electric House (1922) Keaton sets up a Standard gauge model train to convey food from the kitchen to the dining room table.  Being a comedy, the arrangement goes not exactly as planned.  With Keaton, the use of model trains became a case of life imitating art:  Whether at the Italian Villa or at a bungalow he owned later in life, Keaton used his model trains to serve food to his guests.

A year after setting up a garden railroad at his Italian Villa, where real trees and flowers and rocks served as scenery, Keaton made one of his most ambitious films.  Based on an actual incident in the American Civil War, The General (released in February, 1927) stars Keaton as a railroad engineer.  Instead of using a model train for various scenes, Keaton used a steam locomotive that was part of a functioning narrow gauge logging railroad near Cottage Grove, Oregon.

One way to look at The General and its realistic setting is Keaton toying with the ultimate outdoor train layout.  Although there is no record of Keaton deliberately crashing his own model trains, in The General he indulged in what seems to be a primordial male instinct:  Boys and their toys, they want to wreck their trains.  The climactic train chase and then wreck in The General has become a classic scene in film history.

Nearly every Keaton silent film included a chase scene, and Keaton did almost all his own stunts.  In The Theater and Cinema of Buster Keaton (1999), Robert Knopf put his finger on Keaton’s art:  “His preference for long shots, long takes, and vast realistic landscapes grounds his chases in strict classical realism,” and yet “the progressively larger and larger number of people, objects, and animals in the chases exceeds any reasonable expectations” and thus becomes like a dream, but “a dream made solid and palpable through Keaton’s meticulous realism.”

While the country plunged into the Great Depression, Keaton’s 1930s were a time of personal depression.  In 1928 he signed a contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, giving them artistic control over his future films; in 1932 his marriage broke up.  Frustrated and humiliated, he took to drink.

By the late 1930s, after a second unfortunate marriage, he was in a stable if stagnant period.  Now sober, he had his other hobbies of fishing and duck hunting, playing bridge and reading murder mysteries, and he worked as a gag writer for the Marx Brothers.  However, those masters of zany verbal comedy had little need for the insights of a man noted for silent physical comedy.  “That used to get my goat,” Keaton later admitted.

In 1940 he married a young MGM dancer, Eleanor Norris.  She was 21, he was 44, but they had clicked right away, staying together until his death in 1966.  In 1955 they moved to Woodland Hills in the San Fernando Valley, where the anti-communist but otherwise apolitical Keaton served two terms as honorary mayor.  The Keatons bought a modest bungalow, what he called his ranch, and there Keaton built another outdoor model railroad.

Roger Carp, writing in the May, 2003, issue of Classic Toy Trains, recounted Keaton’s fascination with model trains.  In particular, Carp wrote about Keaton’s outdoor layout at the house in Woodland Hills.  There Keaton enjoyed an S gauge American Flyer 4-6-0 326 Hudson  steam engine looping around ready-built Plasticville structures.

Less common among model railroaders than HO or O gauge, S gauge uses a scale where 3/16 of an inch, or nearly 5 millimeters, equals one foot.  Carp described Keaton’s model train running from the garage to the barbecue area and back again, while his grandchildren and family friends delighted in seeing the train arriving at the picnic table, flat cars carrying hot dogs and gondolas bearing condiments.  As Keaton recalled in his memoir, My Wonderful World of Slapstick (1960), his acre and a quarter ranch had “a miniature railroad that carries peanuts, soda pop, sandwiches, and popcorn to guests.”

According to a documentary, Buster Keaton:  A Hard Act to Follow (1987), another use he had for his model train was more personal.  For much of his life Keaton had been a three or four pack a day cigarette smoker.  In his late sixties he decided to quit smoking, so he would light a cigarette, put it on his train, send the train on its route, and when it returned to him, he would take a puff on the cigarette, put it back on the train, and send it on another round.

In his last years, Keaton suffered from insomnia.  When not playing with his trains, he was playing bridge with Eleanor or was up all hours playing solitaire.  Eleanor Keaton later said that when he died, he had his Rosary in one pocket and a deck of cards in the other.  A few years after he died, she donated his trains to a local children’s hospital.

Daniel J. Heisey
Daniel J. Heisey, O. S. B, is a Benedictine monk of Saint Vincent Archabbey, Latrobe, Pennsylvania, where he is known as Brother Bruno. He teaches Church History at Saint Vincent Seminary.

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