Keaton met the camera today

One hundred years ago today, Buster Keaton was introduced to the moving picture camera. Considering what Keaton did with it, the day really ought to be an international holiday.

Childs Restraunt breakfast menu, 1917. Did he get rye, corn meal, buckwheat or wheat  griddle cakes? It’s been lost to history.

Monday, March 19, 1917 started out unremarkably for him. According to biographer Rudi Blesh, he got up early, restless and worried about his solo act. Twenty-one years old, he’d never worked onstage without his family, and he’d signed a contract to appear alone in The Passing Show, the Shubert’s Broadway variety show. It was the day before rehearsals were to begin. Unsettling news of the war in Europe filled the front page of the New York Times; three American boats had been sunk by German submarines, but Russia vowed to keep fighting alongside their allies, despite their revolution. Keaton went to a Childs Restaurant (it was a chain), ordered pancakes, but he couldn’t touch them. It was a cold morning (35 degrees) but dry and he went for a walk. He ran into Lou Anger, an old friend from vaudeville who was working for Roscoe Arbuckle. He talked Keaton into coming along for a visit to the studio. Anger introduced Arbuckle, who asked him to do a bit in the next scene of The Butcher Boy but Keaton turned him down. Arbuckle invited him to stay and see how they worked, then called for a twenty-minute break. He asked what he wanted to see first. The camera, Keaton replied. So they went over to the cameraman, Frank Williams.

Frank Williams
Frank Williams

Keaton and Arbuckle must have been persuasive, because most cameramen wouldn’t let a stranger (even worse, an actor) get anywhere near their equipment. Nevertheless, Williams let him, as Blesh put it, all but climb inside the camera, inspecting the gears, sprockets, and shutter. Then Keaton looked at the lights, the cutting room, and watched some dailies. Blesh continued, “This, he saw, was for him. As the last frame of the last rush faded on the screen, he stood up in the darkness. The twenty-minute break had been nearly an hour. ‘Let’s do that scene,’ he said.” And that’s how Buster Keaton became a filmmaker.

Grace Kingsley was busy working 3,000 miles away, so she had no idea that one of her soon -to-be favorite comics was getting his start in film. On this day she reported that theaters were going to stop using the American flag in advertising to restore some dignity to it “in the present grave crisis of national affairs” (Congress declared war on Germany just three weeks later, on April 6th) and she reviewed the week’s films, including Out of the Wreak (“another of those obvious stories, patched together out of the scenario barrel”) and The Barricade (“a new and refreezing twist on the defaulting broker theme”).

Two days later she mentioned that she’d gotten a letter from Arbuckle’s publicity man, Jimmie Tynan, who’d gone “east with Roscoe Arbuckle to try and get that man a little much-needed publicity.” He didn’t mention any clever recent hires, but he told her that while New York life was very exciting, they all missed California and “Mrs. Arbuckle’s sister had never seen snow before — and she hasn’t seen anything else since, in the way of climate, anyway.” No wonder the company moved back to Los Angeles in October. Minta Durfee Arbuckle’s sister Marie was born in Los Angeles in 1893, so the story might have even been true.

Unfortunately, when The Butcher Boy was released in Los Angeles in late April, Kingsley didn’t like it very much. She called it “pretty much the old jazz stuff as regards action and plot” but she conceded that Arbuckle in girls’ clothes is always funny. She didn’t mention the guy with the bucket at all.



1924 Chicago Tribune ad

[Of course I had to find out what Bulgarzoon on the Childs menu was. It was a yogurt drink like Kefir, according to Dining Chicago.]


21 thoughts on “Keaton met the camera today”

    1. Lea — as you’ll see shortly when Lisle updates this blog, Buster’s actual first day in front of the camera was Wednesday, March 21, 1917. So we’ve got two days to go! Then we celebrate! Porkpie hat-shaped cake, anyone?


      1. Hi there Patty! Awkwardly enough, I was actually under the impression that we were celebrating Buster’s first visit to the Comique studio, where he would get to inspect a camera for the first time–not the day he actually performed the molasses scene. I had included “He would appear in his first film scene a day or two later” in the intro to Lisle’s post. I can see where these posts would be misleading though. Thanks so much for commenting, I appreciate it–and tomorrow is getting its own special post for sure!


  1. Reblogged this on Silent-ology and commented:
    INTERMISSION! I’m sure Mr. Méliès wouldn’t mind if we took a small break to celebrate a historic day for any fan of silent comedy…or comedy…or movies. This is apparently the day when Buster Keaton, former vaudevillian who was about to have a role in the Passing Show of 1917, was invited to see Roscoe Arbuckle’s Comique studio. Yes, THIS is the day when Buster Keaton fell in love with the camera!!

    My friend Lisle Foote, a Keaton historian, has written a detailed post about this milestone below. Take a look (and leave some comments)!


  2. 100 years! Some one posted on Facebook a clear photo image of Keaton’s little pocket journal, with him meeting Arbuckle, then filming the next day with the studio address. He spells Talmadge wrong. Only a few words per entry. I should have cut and paste that photo. Have you seen it?


  3. Was glad to know more about this important milestone coming up in Keaton history! It seems that Los Angeles has been celebrating with Buster screenings lately. This past weekend the Old Town Music Hall showed “The Cameraman”, and this coming weekend The Valley Performing Arts Center will show The General with live musical accompaniment. I am going to try to go to the Northridge venue as I haven’t been there before. Great post, Lisle, and thanks for re-blogging it, Lea!


  4. I’m a bit late to the party, but given the history you’ve presented here, I wholeheartedly agree that March 19 should be a national holiday.

    One hundred years already!!!

    Also, I was fascinated by that menu. Some really tasty breakfast choices… I notice that they didn’t skimp with the cream in the “Cereals” section.


  5. I enjoyed reading your review of this memorable day in the life of Keaton and film history. Such a ingenious man…taking apart a camera first before performing in front of one. Pure Keaton🙂


  6. Here’s a link to a photo of Keaton’s datebook:

    It raises a few questions for me. First, why does it say “first picture”? Was he that sure there would be another?
    And second, is there an entry for the start of rehearsals for The Passing Show? Sources differ on how long after the famous meeting the rehearsals were due to start, and you would think the datebook would clear this up.


    1. Thanks for the photo! Unfortunately, I don’t have access to the datebook. It would be interesting to page back a bit and see.

      I don’t know why it says “first picture.” Perhaps he wrote it a few days after it all happened, when he knew he wanted to stick with it? If he’d signed a contract, he might have known there was more than one? I’m just speculating — I really don’t know.


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