Buster Keaton Stunts: GIFs, Videos, And Stories Of His Craziest Feats
Though he's remembered for his death-defying stunts, Buster Keaton was so much more than an adrenaline junkie who got his kicks in front of the camera. After getting his start performing in vaudeville with his family, he quickly became the star of a dangerous show that taught him how to give himself over to increasingly risky stunts.
After serving in World War I, Keaton started working in silent films as a second unit director and gag writer preceding a nine-year streak of starring in and directing some of the greatest silent films of the era. Once sound films took over, however, Keaton's career took a nosedive. His struggle with alcoholism became so severe that he had to take a short trip to an asylum, but he was still Buster Keaton: He often escaped whatever shackles he found himself in. His career took off again in 1950, leading him to television and back to films, and despite his old age, he was just as agile and catlike as before.
The painful fall that gave Keaton an idea
Source: Metro Pictures
While filming The Three Ages, Keaton's first film under his Buster Keaton Productions, the star was just planning to jump from a board placed on the roof of a building onto another building. Simple enough, right? While performing the stunt, however, he missed the ledge and went sliding down the building into a safety net offscreen.
While Keaton was recuperating, he watched the replay and got the idea for his character to fall off the building and into another room. Rather than throw out the footage, he kept the shot of his fall (cameramen were instructed to keep filming regardless of what happened) and combine it with a fall through three awnings that shot him into a firehouse.
Buster Keaton catches a train in "Day Dreams"
Source: First National Pictures
It's hard to say which of Keaton's stunts is his most impressive, but this stunt from Day Dreams is genuinely awe-inspiring. During the film, Keaton is chased by a group of police through the streets of San Francisco and catches a street trolley to escape them. The train doesn't slow down, but that doesn't deter Keaton. He runs as fast as he can and jumps onto the back of the train, where he hangs from the back parallel to the ground. The stunt is just as fun to watch today as it was when the film was released.
The shower that nearly broke Keaton's neck
Source: Metro Pictures
Sherlock Jr. is one of Keaton's most beloved films, but Keaton fans might feel a bit differently about it if they knew that one of its stunts nearly killed him. The painful sequence in question occurs when the star is running across the top of a moving train in front of a water tower. It looks like the train is moving in front of a matte painting, but when Keaton reaches for the water tower, it becomes clear that he's actually performing the stunt outdoors. When Keaton grabs the spout on the water tower, it opens up and drenches him.
It's a hilarious gag, but it was totally unplanned. Keaton's weight forced the tube to descend and push him down to the track, fracturing his neck in the process. Though he was lucky to be alive, the injury pained him for years, causing intense migraines that he didn't even realize stemmed from the stunt-gone-wrong until a doctor diagnosed them in the 1930s.
Keaton probably had a ton of physical issues stemming from his stunts, regardless of his success rate, but he didn't let that keep him down. He continued performing exciting onscreen stunts like these until his final film in 1966.
Catching a lift
Source: Metro Pictures
After marrying the woman of his dreams in One Week, Buster Keaton's character and his bride set out for their marital home, taking a rather more complicated route than seems necessary. The couple hops from one moving car to the other, and when Keaton tries make a jump, he collides with a man on a motorcycle who carries him off for a few feet before they both crash.
It's amazing to think that this stunt was performed in one take with no editing, and the crash at the end of the scene shows just how far Keaton was willing to go for his craft. Not only does this stunt require Keaton to have total trust in the person from whom he's catching a lift, the fellow riding the motorcycle must ride smoothly and accurately. Otherwise, he could have flattened his boss. Do you trust anyone enough to let them run into you with a motorcycle?
He nearly derailed a train while riding it
Source: United Artist
The General is a shining star among Keaton's many masterpieces, and he took advantage of its feature length to cram in the maximum number of stunts. Inspired by the true story of the great locomotive chase of the American Civil War, Keaton stars as Johnnie Gray, a train engineer who gets caught up in the war when he tries to stop a stolen train.
There are a ton of amazing train stunts in this film, but the most exciting and dangerous looks incredibly simple. While riding the cow catcher of a train, Keaton had to knock a loose railroad tie off the tracks with a different loose tie before the train could hit it. Even though this was a pre-planned stunt, it's barely fiction. Keaton actually had to knock the loose tie away from the tracks, and if he mistimed any of the action, he would have derailed the train and likely killed himself. Fortunately for everyone who loved and depended on Buster Keaton, he was the best at what he did.