California State Military Department
The California State Military Museum
Preserving California's Military Heritage
Buster Keaton: Comedian, Soldier
by Master Sergeat Jim Ober
Public Affairs Office, 40th Infantry Division (Mechanized)
    "I resented my uniform,which made me feel ridiculous," said comedian and silent film star Buster Keaton. "Apparently, the quartermaster general had never anticipated that anyone under five-foot inches tall would be allowed to join the United States Army"
 

 


One of the funniest comedians from the silent film era, Frank Joseph "Buster" Keaton, was a 40th Division veteran of World War I.

Along with such other greats as Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, Keaton was among the greats of his time at making people laugh. He started at the age of four in his families’ touring vaudeville act, and learning the rough and tumble trade that silent films required of their male comedians.

Buster had just started in the film business at the age of 18, when he was called into service with the infantry, but somewhere along the way, was switched over to the Signal Corps for training at Camp Kearney, near San Diego. Army life was tough on Buster.

In his autobiography My Wonderful World of Slapstick, Keaton said, "I resented my uniform, which made me look and feel ridiculous. Apparently, the quartermaster general had never anticipated that anyone under five foot five inches tall would be allowed to join the United States Army.

My pants were too long, my coast looked like a sack, and wrapping Army puttees around my legs was a trick I never mastered. The size eight shoes handed me were far too big for my size 6 1/2 feet. Old-timers in our outfit had long given up hope of ever getting uniforms that fit them. They had theirs altered at civilian tailor shops.

They also bought sturdy workmen’s shoes, which they managed to disguise well enough to pass inspection." But Buster, like most GI’s, found ways around "the system," even in 1917. His rich and fashionable girlfriend, who he meet a couple of months earlier while he was a budding film star, lived near Camp Upton, New York, where his battalion was staging to debark to France. He observed how the officers, who were allowed to come and go in and out of camp, dressed in just their uniform shirts and ties and saluted the sentries.

Buster took off his tunic, hopped with his girlfriend into the into the back of her chauffeured Packard roadster, and drove past the military police, giving that lazy salute that had them convinced he was like any other officer.

He returned that night after a fabulous dinner with his girl and the next day the unit left for France. While most of the division’s units were broken up and the men scattered to various units, Keaton’s was the exception; staying together as a unit until it was sent back to the United States seven months later. The unit was held in reserve and Buster and his fellow soldiers never actually saw any action. The men stayed in eight-man circular tents and saw little but rain and mud. It was here that Buster caught an ear infection that almost cost him his life a couple of months later. He was coming back to his tent after a late night card game, and didn’t hear two demands for passwords from a sentry.

The guard pulled back his bolt on his rifle, preparing to fire, when a sixth sense told Buster to freeze. His hesitation saved his life, and the sentry allowed him to pass after almost having pulled the trigger. Buster’s ear problem was cleared up after he returned to the United States after multiple visits to VA hospitals.

After the Armistice, many units awaited transport back to the United States. The time was filled in with unit parties, and Buster was a favorite entertainer at them. He would partner-up with the regimental band and do a "burlesque snake dance" and other routines, just like he did not too many years earlier in Vaudeville.

One day, an officer read him a headquarters directive instructing him to do his "snake dance" at a party for a brigadier general about 10 miles away.

Pvt. Buster Keaton walked to the party, but afterwards the general’s aide asked him if he would like a ride back to town in the Generals car. On the way back to town, with the general’s insignia painted as big as life on the car, Buster had an idea. He had the general’s driver drop him off in front of the Hotel Grand, in the middle of the town square, where thousands of his fellow soldiers were having a party, singing and drinking the night away.

None of the soldiers there had seen a general in six months, if ever, and they all jumped to their feet as the car stopped in front of the hotel. The driver got out, walked around and opened the door for Buster as he stepped out. All over the square he could hear bottles dropping on the ground as officers and enlisted came to attention. The driver stood at attention, as Buster said to him, "I won’t be needing you any more this evening."

Buster got about 15 feet before everyone recognized him and let fly with curses, bottles, tomatoes, apples and eggs. "You son of a bitch," the mob said, as they lunged towards Buster, but he cut for the nearest alley, and in the best traditions of some of his movies, he barely escaped.

He found a farmer’s empty barn and spent the night in it. The next day, his company commander called him in. "Those were two great shows you put on last night. But I liked the second one best-I could court martial you I suppose, but you sure put life into the old town square last night, not to mention scaring the hell out of a lot of my young officers who thought they were in for a surprise tour of inspection. We mustn’t let them get too smug, must we, corporal?"

The incident was dropped after that, and Buster returned to the United States shortly thereafter to resume a movie career that made cinema history.

He retained his warm regard for the National Guard. About 10 years after the war, Keaton directed, and starred in The General, a movie set in the Civil War. It was filmed on location in Oregon and Keaton hired 600 Oregon National Guardsmen as extras to play the part of Union soldiers. During the Second World War, Buster Keaton returned to the colors, again as a private, as a member of the 1st Evacuation Regiment of the California State Guard.


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