May 17, 2022
From The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:
At 810 pages, 'Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker's Life' is a commitment worth making
by Carol O'Sullivan
You might wonder why, in the age of TikTok, anybody would be interested in reading about a silent film star born during the Gilded Age. But the story of a fascinating life is timeless. Such is the case with Buster Keaton (1895-1966), known for his deadpan comic style, acrobatic stunt work and clever high jinks that coincided with the rise of cinema.
There already were several biographies, plus an autobiography, and a couple of documentaries before two additional bios were published this year. “Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker’s Life” by James Curtis is one of them.
At 810 pages, this history of the film artist’s life is quite a commitment. But it is also beautifully written. Those with even a cursory knowledge of Keaton should find the book compelling.
The stunning cover photo of Keaton as a young man suggests he could’ve been a matinee idol rather than comedian — had he any interest. Additionally, Keaton’s granddaughter Melissa Talmadge Cox, who was a new resource for this bio, provides many wonderful candid snapshots.
Known as the “Great Stone Face” through most of his career, what Keaton figured out as a youngster, crashing about the stage with his parents, was this: the more serious his expression, the bigger the laughs.
The author calls that famous mug “unsmiling, but certainly not without feeling.” He points out, “...for audiences that considered the viewing experience a collaborative effort, he instinctively invited them into the action, and what they got in return was reflected humanity….”
Although he had no formal schooling, Keaton was always drawn to the study of physics. One Keaton legend, oft repeated, claims 3-year-old Buster was plucked right off the ground by a cyclone and gently dropped on the other side of town — thus underscoring his fearless relationship with the forces of nature. Sadly, Curtis implies this probably never happened.
We get expanded stories about his upbringing and the vaudeville lore: all the towns and theaters where “The Three Keatons” performed, all of the (often dangerous) physical gags that made audiences roar, all the injuries, all the siblings, all the friends he made.
When Keaton was asked, circa 1917, if he’d like to try a movie, he jumped. “I had been traveling on the road for over 20 years,” he says. “I took my gamble and cast my lot with the pictures,” sealing his fate.
No surprise, Keaton was a quick study, first becoming an apprentice then assistant director. The book offers detailed descriptions of the set-up and execution of gags in many of those early shorts, showing us what made them funny.
Thriving on the creative new art form, Keaton’s movie career took off, and his reputation as a comic genius soared. His silent masterpieces include “Cops,” “The Navigator,” “The General,” “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” and many more.
In a gleaned interview, Keaton explains that making films was always collaborative, calling himself a “producer, player, principal scene planner, chief gag writer, and director.” His ego didn’t get in the way; he didn’t care about getting credit. He just loved the work. “I would have done it for free.”
After much fame and fortune in Hollywood, his personal life begins to feel like a bad mini-series. Will alcoholism, mounting debt, and two nasty divorces take him down? Fortunately, about halfway through the bio, we learn Keaton pulls that plane, so to speak, out of a death spiral. He dries out (mostly), adapts to changes in the industry, gets a dog, and moves on.
It helps that his third and last wife, Eleanor, was devoted to him. But more than anything, he was most content when working, rarely turning down a job. He transitioned to sound films just fine (even teen movies), live theater and television. He acted in TV commercials, as well as popular shows such as “Playhouse 90,” “The Donna Reed Show,” “Twilight Zone,” “Route 66” and “Candid Camera.”
Keaton lived long enough to see a multitude of tributes and retrospectives. Audiences honored him with standing ovations all over the world.
Meticulously (maybe excruciatingly) researched, this book includes facts surrounding a complex fight over copyright issues. Keaton, though, was pretty democratic about his legacy. One day, he told his wife “I’ll turn my movies over to television … and let them stay on TV forever.”
Today Buster Keaton’s films live on YouTube. He probably would’ve liked that.
Carol O’Sullivan is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh. She taught film history for more than three decades.
https://www.post-gazette.com/ae/books/2 ... sy6f_cAc9k
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"Of course he smiled -- just like you and me." -- Harold Goodwin, on Buster Keaton (1976)
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