Monday Morning Memorial Day Mystery!
Buster Keaton’s WWI “Career at the Rear” is well-known to his legions of fans. Just as his star was on the rise with Roscoe Arbuckle’s Comique film company, Buster was shipped off to serve as a cryptographer in France with the 159th Infantry Company C, 40th Division. He spent the rest of the war writing Morse Code, and remained in France several months after the Armistice entertaining troops and wounded as they waited to be shipped back home.
In Keaton’s biographies, most authors and researchers state that Buster was drafted. Of the 4 million Americans who served in the WWI armed forces, over 2.8 million were draftees. Nonetheless, I recall having read somewhere that Buster had first tried to enlist and was turned down because of his missing fingertip and small stature. Buster’s own biography confirms that the Army wasn’t prepared to outfit a 5’5” fella, because his uniform was ridiculously large and his boots were 2 sizes too big. He apparently served his entire European tour in his baggy duds – he didn’t get one that fit until he was shipped back home and paid for it himself. He was issued a gun despite the fact that he was missing the end of his trigger finger.
The Selective Service Act of 1917 went into law on June 5, 1917. Buster apparently wasted no time in signing up, as his draft registration card is dated June 15th. (That’s pretty prompt considering it would have taken several days to get the forms disseminated and registration posts set up). According to Wikipedia, Secretary of War Newton Baker drew the first draft number on July 20, 1917.
Whether he was drafted or enlisted, Buster Keaton reported for duty in Long Beach, CA on July 7th 1918. Available data shows that scant few American silent-film era stars served active duty in WWI. Those who did serve seemed to have done so before their film careers began, or they served after the Armistice was signed. I’m sure there are exceptions, but I can’t find any info on anyone of Buster Keaton’s ilk who left a successful job as an actor and co-director to go and fight a war. Granted, Buster wasn’t a top-billed celebrity in 1918, but he had already completed 12 two-reelers with Roscoe Arbuckle and was well-connected with the Schencks & Talmadges by that time. Had he wished to avoid serving, I’m certain that Keaton could have gotten a deferment based on his hand injury or a Class III exemption (registrants who provide sole family income for dependent parents and / or siblings under 16) because he was the sole provider for his family at the time he went to war. Hollywood was no stranger to exemption “scams” either – Jack Pickford (Mary’s brother) was involved in a scandalous scheme that allowed rich young men to avoid service by paying bribes.
We may never solve the “drafted vs. enlisted” mystery, but in the end it’s not important. Buster served honorably, damned near lost his hearing, came home half-starved and went right back to work making the most incredible films ever seen. During WWII, Buster served with the the California 1st Evacuation Regiment of the California State Guard and worked in the Hollywood Canteen serving refreshments to the troops (and doing dishes, according to Orson Welles).
Here’s to you, Buster, on Memorial Day and thanks to all the men and women of the Armed Forces!