Obituary: Eleanor Norris Keaton
Friday 30 October 1998
It is hard now to imagine how low Keaton's reputation and self-esteem were when he wed Norris. After a decade of talkies, silent films were screened only for a few enthusiasts. Many of Keaton's earlier masterpieces were unavailable at the time (indeed the comic was wrongly informed that most of them had been destroyed) and, unlike Charlie Chaplin, he was not yet the legend he was destined to become. He was working at MGM as a gag man, supplying comic routines for the Marx Brothers and other performers, when he met Norris.
A native of Hollywood and the daughter of an electrician at Warner Brothers studios, she was born in a house on Hollywood Boulevard in 1919. When her father was killed in a freak accident in 1929, his widow was left to bring up Eleanor and her sister Jane on a small studio pension. Norris later stated that she grew up fast when her father died and became "a pretty direct and straightforward young lady".
She took dancing lessons as a child, and at 15 left school to become part of a night-club dancing troupe, Six Blondes from Hollywood, which toured the world. At 17, she was working in Harry Richman's New York night- club, and the same year she signed a contract with MGM, appearing in the chorus of such musicals as Born to Dance (1936) and Rosalie (1937). "We were making musicals one after the other at that time," she later recalled.
Her first meeting with Keaton, in 1938, was due to her desire to become a good bridge player. She had confessed to a boyfriend, an acquaintance of Keaton's brother Harry, that she wanted to improve her game, and, since Keaton was known to be one of the best bridge players in Hollywood, the boyfriend asked Harry to take Norris to one of Keaton's bridge evenings.
She quickly realised that Keaton, who had been divorced by his second wife in 1936, needed not only a wife but "a combination valet, cook, housekeeper, bill payer, and constant reminder". Against the advice of both her own friends and Buster's, she married Keaton in May 1940, when Norris was just 21 and Keaton 44. "His friends said he'd had enough trouble in his life without adding me," said Norris later, "and that I should go away and leave him alone. He'd had two bad marriages and didn't need a third."
The wedding, performed in courthouse chambers, was later described as something like a Keaton two-reeler. Norris was accompanied by her mother, and the judge assumed that Keaton wanted to marry Mrs Norris, who was closer in age to the comedian. Ignoring Eleanor, the judge tried to marry her mother to Keaton. After the situation was clarified, he was so flustered that he referred to the bride throughout the ceremony as Morris. The sound of fire-engine sirens speeding past the building drowned most of the latter part of the ceremony and the couple were finally pronounced man and wife by a screaming judge.
Keaton was living with his mother, but his new wife got along with her and continued her dancing job as well as running the household. In one of the films for which her husband supplied gags, Bathing Beauty (1944), Norris swam alongside Esther Williams. At the end of the Second World War, when Keaton's sister, brother and brother's family of four moved in with them, Norris cooked and kept house for all of them.
With the wartime boom in movie-going ending, MGM drastically reduced their payroll and fired many of their small-part players and chorus members, including Norris, but the end of the war in Europe opened a new career for her husband. Buster Keaton's reputation had survived in France more than his own country, and when the famed Cirque Medrano in Paris asked him to appear with them he devised an act which would include Norris in one of Keaton's most famous conceptions.
First performed in Spite Marriage (1929), the "putting a drunk woman to bed" routine involved Keaton trying to get his intoxicated wife into bed without waking her up. Her totally inert body refuses to respond to his wishes, constantly sliding into grotesque positions. When he finally gets her into a chair she slides off it, and when he puts her on the bed and tries to roll her over, she rolls off on to the floor again. After several minutes of hilarious pantomime, he finally gets the girl into bed and the bed collapses to the floor. The routine was reworked by Keaton when MGM remade the film as I Dood It (1943), with Red Skelton and Eleanor Powell performing the scene, and at the Cirque Medrano Keaton performed it with his wife.
The show (the comic's first major vaudeville appearance in 30 years) was a hit, and Keaton and Norris then appeared on variety bills in Italy, Scotland and in England, where they appeared in a nostalgic show featuring such former headliners as George Robey, Hetty King and Wee Georgie Wood. They also returned several times to Paris and the Cirque Medrano, and toured Europe for several months a year into the early Fifties.
Keaton still had bouts with alcoholism, but the strong-willed Norris coped with this. She also learned to play basketball, the comic's favourite game, went camping with him, played bridge, and accompanied him on tours. "We had 28 years together," she said after his death, "and I think only twice was he on the road alone."
In 1957, with Keaton's genius now acknowledged and a new generation discovering his silent classics, Paramount decide to film his life story. Though The Buster Keaton Story was a poor film ("When we saw it, my stomach turned over, it was so awful," said Norris), the $60,000 paid to Keaton for the rights to his life-story enabled the couple to at last have a home of their own, a ranch in the San Fernando Valley, where they happily resided until Keaton's death in 1966.
As his widow, Norris continued to support her husband's memory, travelling to film festivals around the world, and happily co-operating with biographers and historians eager to share her insights into the man and his work. She raised champion St Bernard dogs, descendants of Keaton's dog Junior, several of which appeared in the Beethoven films, and also volunteered time at the Los Angeles Zoo. She also worked as a gag consultant for such comics as Mel Brooks.
Eleanor Ruth Norris, actress: born Hollywood, California 1919; married 1940 Buster Keaton (died 1966); died Woodland Hills, California 20 October 1998.
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