"Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker's Life" by James Curtis

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"Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker's Life" by James Curtis

Postby Ed Watz » Tue Feb 15, 2022 6:46 am

From The Telegraph, February 13, 2022:
Buster Keaton A Filmmaker's Life by James Curtis
Review: brilliant, myth-busting biography of the king of deadpan

5 out of 5 stars
From debunking myth to revealing the perfect pie-in-the-face recipe, James Curtis’s biography is sterling tribute to a cinema legend
Review By Renée Branum

As a hopelessly devoted, lifelong admirer of Buster Keaton, I’m the ideal audience for James Curtis’s definitive, 800-page biography of the legendary silent-film comedian. Nonetheless, I am not envious of the task Curtis set himself. Chronicling Keaton’s life and work poses many challenges, even for a biographer as seasoned as Curtis, who has written acclaimed books on Spencer Tracy, W C Fields and Preston Sturges. Yet he clears these Keaton-esque hurdles with all the logic- and gravity-defying grace of the King of Pratfalls himself.

The fundamental problem is: how do you write about silence? Is it even possible to do justice to the elaborate physicality of Keaton’s genius in mere words? Still, I believe Keaton would approve of Curtis’s use of language. His descriptions of on-screen gags and the off-screen planning that went into them are thorough and concise.

Keaton’s imagery arrives fully formed before the reader’s eye; unforgettable scenes from his films – the house that collapses on him in 1928’s Steamboat Bill Jr., for instance – unfold unhampered by unwieldy scholarly interpretation. Rather, Curtis lets Keaton speak for himself, quoting his words about his creative process and comedic philosophy, simply and nakedly. Iconic moments from his films are placed in the greater (and relentlessly riveting) context of his journey from vaudeville to stardom to loss of creative control to alcoholism and, finally, to overdue recognition.

Keaton’s life was mythologised from its very first moments; the story of his birth, as told by his father, included swirling cyclones and a runaway tent that the expectant parent chased down alongside Harry Houdini, while another story involved a hurricane sucking three-year-old Keaton from a boarding house window. Curtis swipes aside such tall tales, but acknowledges their value in shaping Keaton’s aesthetic of grace derived from chaos.

He was born in 1895 to vaudeville performers Joe and Myra Keaton, who were passing through the nowhere town of Piqua, Kansas, at the time. When he was scarcely old enough to toddle, he was co-opted into rough and tumble slapstick hijinks on stage with his father, earning him the title of “The Boy Who Can’t Be Damaged”. The act persisted, despite threats of fines from the “Gerry Society”, dedicated to keeping minors off the stage.

In 1917, Keaton teamed up with Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle to launch his film career, creating short “two-reeler” comedies for a New York studio. His ingenuity as actor and director led to Keaton starting his own studio, where he made enduring classics such as The General, Steamboat Bill Jr., Sherlock Jr. and The Navigator, until in 1928 Hollywood’s biggest studio MGM persuaded him to sign a contract. This marked the end of his glory days. Faced with loss of creative control, Keaton developed a crippling drinking habit that led to collapse, hospitalisation and a hasty, ill-advised marriage to his nurse. In later, more sober years, he made appearances on television shows like The Twilight Zone and Candid Camera, performed in a French circus and starred in the short 1965 film (titled simply Film) that was Samuel Beckett’s only foray into screenwriting. In 1959, his stature was recognised with an honorary Oscar.

Curtis leaves nothing out, offering the delectable minutiae of details such as Keaton’s cherished recipe for the perfect pie-in-the-face pie (the secret is a double-baked crust, blackberries and whipped cream). Curtis invites the reader to imagine the man behind “The Great Stone Face,” emphasizing that, although Keaton was “deadly serious” about comedy (a seriousness made all the more deadly by the fact that several of the stunts he performed nearly killed him), it was not rare to see him crack a smile at one of his famous bridge parties, or when an impromptu game of baseball broke out on set.

Unlike past biographers such as Rudi Blesh, Curtis avoids the traps of reverence and romanticism. The story he tells is a remarkable one, rich with pathos, despair, triumph – but like Keaton’s Great Stone Face, he leaves those emotions for the reader to find. They are never projected on to events.

Curtis thus pays fitting tribute to Keaton’s performances, “unsmiling but certainly not without expression or feeling”, as he puts it.

“There were those who would fail to see humanity in him, who preferred the emoting that Chaplin brought fully featured to his pictures, but for audiences that considered the viewing experience a collaborative effort, he instinctively invited them into the action, and what they saw in return was a reflected humanity, a bit of themselves in what was superficially regarded as a blank pan.”
"Of course he smiled -- just like you and me." -- Harold Goodwin, on Buster Keaton (1976)

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Re: "Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker's Life" by James Curtis

Postby Ed Watz » Sat Feb 19, 2022 11:51 am

Literary Hub has posted an excerpt from Jim Curtis' definitive biography Buster Keaton A Filmmaker's Life

https://lithub.com/how-buster-keaton-became-a-cinematic-superstar/
"Of course he smiled -- just like you and me." -- Harold Goodwin, on Buster Keaton (1976)

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Re: "Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker's Life" by James Curtis

Postby Ed Watz » Sun Feb 20, 2022 8:34 am

Two online interviews were posted this past week with Jim Curtis discussing his superb - may I once again say "definitive" - Buster Keaton biography.

Both are quite interesting and well worth watching:

1) Jim with Patty Tobias and Joe Adamson, fielding questions from members of The Damfinos:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VT3jFZph_nI&t=22s

2) A virtual conversation between Jim and members of The Lambs Club:

https://youtu.be/XRrA4YqLClw
"Of course he smiled -- just like you and me." -- Harold Goodwin, on Buster Keaton (1976)

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Re: "Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker's Life" by James Curtis

Postby Ed Watz » Tue Feb 22, 2022 3:00 am

Another sterling review for this magnificent book, from shelf-awareness.com:

As his previous biographies of W.C. Fields, Spencer Tracy and Preston Sturges attest, film historian James Curtis doesn't write inconsequential profiles, he writes definitive biographies. Curtis's Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker's Life is the masterclass biography fans of the "Great Stone Face" comedian have been hoping for. This hefty, swift-moving book is both a superbly researched and fascinating account of the star's life and an astute, articulate and informed look at the many classic films and shorts he wrote, directed and starred in.

Buster Keaton (1895-1966) was only a toddler when he joined his parents as "The Three Keatons" in a comedic/acrobatic vaudeville act. The team found great success until Keaton's father's alcoholism broke up the act in 1917. Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle recruited Buster Keaton to appear in a series of short film comedies. With Arbuckle as his mentor, Keaton was soon directing, writing and starring in his own films. Between 1920 and 1929, Keaton created 32 classic film comedies (19 shorts and 13 features), mostly made for his own company. In 1928, Keaton made the colossal mistake of signing with MGM, a studio that stripped him of his writing and directing roles and wanted him only as an actor. His films declined at the same time his marital woes and alcoholism increased. MGM fired him in 1933. He continued to work as a supporting actor (and uncredited gag writer) until his films were revived in the 1950s, which brought a heralded career resurgence.

Film buffs will cherish this monumental biography of a phenomenally talented but troubled comic filmmaker. --Kevin Howell, independent reviewer and marketing consultant

Discover: This monumental, definitive biography offers a masterclass on Buster Keaton's life and films
"Of course he smiled -- just like you and me." -- Harold Goodwin, on Buster Keaton (1976)

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Re: "Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker's Life" by James Curtis

Postby Ed Watz » Fri Feb 25, 2022 9:53 am

Next, here's Larry Wilmore's excellent podcast with Jim Curtis discussing the Buster book. You can listen for free on Spotify (just download their free app). Jim's interview starts at the 25-minute mark and like the previous talks posted, it's more fascinating, stimulating conversation:
https://open.spotify.com/episode/2inNIZ ... -menu&nd=1
"Of course he smiled -- just like you and me." -- Harold Goodwin, on Buster Keaton (1976)

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Re: "Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker's Life" by James Curtis

Postby Ed Watz » Tue Mar 08, 2022 2:40 am

Some great news from Ben Model:

On March 15, James Curtis will be our special guest on a live-stream of Keaton shorts I'm doing for the Cinema Arts Centre. This program is part of a monthly silent film live-scored/live-stream series that I've been doing with the CAC since June 2020.

To register for the stream (free or pay-what-ya-want):

https://prod3.agileticketing.net/WebSal ... 0073268f4&

# # #

ONLINE EVENT - BUSTER KEATON - CLASSIC COMEDY SHORTS - Live-Stream with Live Piano Accompaniment by Ben Model! - Featuring a live conversation with James Curtis, author of “Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker's Life”

Buster Keaton - Classic Comedy Shorts
One Week, Cops, and The Electric House
Featuring a live conversation with James Curtis, author of “Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker's Life”
With Live Piano Accompaniment by Ben Model

Live Streaming on Tuesday, March 15th at 7:00 PM Eastern Time!
General Admission is Pay-What-You-Want!

Join us for a very special live-streamed online event featuring three of legendary comedian Buster Keaton’s funniest and most beloved shorts, with an introduction and post-screening conversation with James Curtis, author of the acclaimed new biography “Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker's Life.” It was James Agee who christened Buster Keaton “The Great Stone Face.” Keaton’s face, Agee wrote, "ranked almost with Lincoln’s as an early American archetype; it was haunting, handsome, almost beautiful, yet it was also irreducibly funny. Keaton was the only major comedian who kept sentiment almost entirely out of his work and . . . he brought pure physical comedy to its greatest heights.” Before the release of his world-famous features like Our Hospitality, Sherlock, Jr. and The General, Buster Keaton mastered his skills as an actor and director of comedy shorts. First appearing alongside Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, producer and studio executive Joseph M. Schenck later gave Buster his own production unit where he created a series of two-reel comedies that cemented his place as a pioneer of silent cinema.
"Of course he smiled -- just like you and me." -- Harold Goodwin, on Buster Keaton (1976)

Ed Watz
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Re: "Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker's Life" by James Curtis

Postby Ed Watz » Sat Mar 12, 2022 11:08 am

Dan Lybarger discusses Buster Keaton A Filmmaker's Life with author James Curtis:

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, March 11, 2022:

Speaking For The Great Stone Face
by Dan Lybarger

During the filming of the 1926 silent film “The General,” Buster Keaton performed many dangerous physical stunts on and around the moving train, including jumping from the engine to a tender to a boxcar, running along the roofs of the railroad cars and riding on the cowcatcher.
There's no debating that Joseph Frank "Buster" Keaton is an essential figure in the history of cinema. The more pressing question is why.
In a career that began when he was 4 years old and ended in 1966 when he was 70, Keaton was a daredevil whose on-camera stunts included surviving the fall of a house front simply because he was standing where an open window was (in "Steamboat Bill, Jr."). In his earlier movie "Sherlock Jr.," Keaton unknowingly broke his neck on camera.
While he was dubbed "The Great Stone Face," Keaton's low key acting style enabled other thespians to convey complex emotions with remarkable restraint. Because of Keaton, Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford, generations of actors who followed them realized wild gesticulation was unnecessary on the big screen.
Like Chaplin, Keaton also directed himself and pulled off some jaw dropping technical feats. In his short "The Play House" (1921), Keaton played all of the performers and all of the audience members inside an auditorium, while "Sherlock Jr." features a scene where he dreams himself into a movie and winds up disoriented every time one sequence cuts to another.
While his Civil War epic "The General" (1926) is loaded with breathtaking photography, it's also side-splittingly funny. In later films, Keaton wrote gags for other comics and honed his unique features so that audiences were laughing as his own face seemed unmoved.
With all of those achievements, it's no wonder that James Curtis, who has profiled W.C. Fields and set designer William Cameron Menzies ("Gone With the Wind") took 800 pages to tell Buster's story and to explain why his work is so significant.
A MISUNDERSTOOD TITAN
Keaton may have stood only 5-feet, 6-inches, but "Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker's Life" explains why the comic casts such a long shadow.
Speaking from New York last week as he was getting ready to host a screening of Keaton's "Go West" (1925), Curtis says, "I think of him as the total filmmaker and that's why I gave the title of the subtitle to the book as I did. I want people to understand completely what he did, not only in front of the camera, but behind it.
"And for that reason, he's not in costume on the cover of the book. I was very adamant about that. I didn't want the usual cliche of the pork pie hat and the string tie and all of that. I wanted him perceived as somebody beyond that and to expand upon people's appreciation and understanding of what he represented as a whole, as a filmmaker, not just as a comedian."
While Keaton has been gone for over half a century, much of the reason there is a market for a major biography on him is that his work is now more readily available than ever. Many of his gags from the silent movies are now animated GIFs, and YouTube is loaded with his classic 20-minute shorts or two-reelers.
Whereas Theda Bara is known, if she's recalled at all, for starring as Cleopatra in a film that's now lost, Keaton's comedy is easy for either Alexa or Siri to locate. In fact, both Chaplin and Keaton are unique in that nearly all of their films survive whereas many other silent stars like Bara have little to show for their careers.
That wasn't true when Curtis first discovered Keaton's performances.
"My first exposure to him was on Saturday morning, seeing that mediocre TV series. That to me was Buster Keaton ... And then of course, I saw him in the 'Beach Party' films, but that was the extent of what I knew and what really opened my eyes was (the Canadian documentary) 'Buster Keaton Rides Again,'" Curtis says.
"I knew there was something much deeper going on there. When I started to see some of his early work, which was for the most part unavailable during his lifetime, unless you happened to live near the Museum of Modern Art. I think it's the widespread availability of his best work today that is responsible for his being more popular probably today than he was at any time during his lifetime."
Because Keaton worked almost until the day he died, there was plenty of material for any biographer. Unfortunately, Curtis says that many of his predecessors hadn't seen much of is work or only examined limited aspects of Keaton's life. For example, Tom Dardis ("Keaton: The Man Who Wouldn't Lie Down") focused primarily on Keaton's drinking, which helped derail the comic's career in the 1930s. Dardis, himself, struggled with the bottle.
"Tom Dardis got to some interesting information, but all he was really interested in was the alcoholism," Curtis said. "I think also he was a very sloppy writer and that, he wasn't capable of writing a coherent paragraph without inserting about five unnecessary and careless errors. And even when he put out a corrected version of his book, he corrected the errors that were in there then added new errors to replace them."
SURVIVING THE FALLS
Thankfully, there's a lot more to Keaton's career than his silent films and his setbacks. Whereas Vilma Banky's career ended when her Hungarian accent was at odds with her ethereal screen persona, Keaton could sing and play verbal or even dramatic roles like he did in "The Awakening," a 1954 TV adaptation of a Nikolai Gogol story. (In his book, Curtis cites an article I wrote on that episode of "Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Presents: The Rheingold Theatre." ) He also suggests that people who want to hear the comic's voice should also check out "Parlor, Bedroom and Bath," "The Twilight Zone," and some of his later shorts like "Pest from the West" and "Grand Slam Opera" (1936), which he also co-wrote.
Because "A Filmmaker's Life" is so comprehensive, it was easy to wonder why Curtis didn't include a list of injuries Keaton received on set. Even in his 60s, Keaton was tempting fate.
Jackie Chan, a devoted Keaton disciple, has nearly an entire chapter in his memoir "I Am Jackie Chan" devoted to his prolific wounds.
"We know about the broken neck, which he didn't acknowledge at the time or know about it but found out about it later," Curtis says. " He dealt with that by stopping at Charlie Chaplin's ex-wife's house and getting a drink and then he kept working.
"He was tough, but at the same time, the idea to pull off a gag successfully is not to walk away with a broken bone or for that matter to kill yourself, which he conceivably could have done with things like 'Sherlock Jr.' That's not the intent. I don't think he thought so much about physical dangers. He thought about pulling something off successfully, and then danger was part of that."
While "The General" features a spectacular sequence where a train and a burning bridge have a spectacular mishap, it's hard to image enjoying Keaton's work if his onscreen persona wasn't appealing.
HIS HOSPITALITY
Part of the reason his talkies with MGM are nearly unbearable is that the studio thought pun-filled dialogue was funny (it's not) and that Keaton's occasionally bumbling characters were pitiable and hapless, similar to the characters Chaplin and Harry Langdon often played.
It's hard to imagine either of them recovering a stolen locomotive, a kidnapped girlfriend or the course of a major battle the way Keaton does in "The General."
"Buster invites the audience into the process," Curtis says. "There's room to lay your own interpretation of what he's doing. Chaplin lays it all out for you. There's never any confusion about what Chaplin wants you to think or respond to. Buster's a little more ambiguous. I think that's the thing that inspires the people who really, really feel strongly about him is that there is a participatory experience."

===================
https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/202 ... tone-face/
"Of course he smiled -- just like you and me." -- Harold Goodwin, on Buster Keaton (1976)

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Re: "Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker's Life" by James Curtis

Postby Ed Watz » Thu Mar 31, 2022 11:55 am

In the latest issue of The Keaton Chronicle (Spring 2022), esteemed Keaton scholar David B. Pearson has written a "five stetson review" (that's five stars of course) of Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker's Life. Since this is a subscription-based publication I'm only including highlights from Mr. Pearson's book review. The entire issue of The Keaton Chronicle can be downloaded with a membership in The Damfinos, The International Buster Keaton Society (https://www.busterkeaton.org)

BEST KEATON BIO EVER
By David B. Pearson

“You aren’t going to do another crummy Keaton bio, are you?” I asked Jim Curtis this at a Damfino Convention in Muskegon a few years ago — and it gave him a hearty laugh. However, I asked this question with more than good reason. Biographies on Buster Keaton have a notoriously bad track record...

I am very happy to announce we can say this no longer. Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker’s Life by James Curtis is the book we have long awaited.
The book is simply magnificent, and what can be said beyond that?
Well, let’s see…
This bio has the most complete presentation of Buster’s childhood and vaudeville career with The Three Keatons.
This bio provides the best narrative of his work and friendship with Roscoe Arbuckle, and Buster’s days in the US Army.
This bio is the very first book to correctly present Buster’s short films in both in the order of their production and in their order of release.
This bio is the very first book to correctly state the financial grosses on all of Buster’s independent silent feature films. This includes grosses on The General , where Curtis shows to been the highest grossing of all of Buster Keaton’s silent films.
This bio gives the most accurate presentation of Buster’s personal life with Natalie Talmadge, and his relationship with his sons James and Robert.
This bio gives the most accurate material on the disintegration of Buster’s film career and MGM’s methodical crushing of Keaton as a creative artist.
This bio gives the brutal details of Buster’s crashing into acute alcoholism and eventually into an
asylum. And Curtis does this not with an agenda, but a statement of the facts.
This bio details — better than any other— how Buster retook control of his life, and the details of
how Eleanor Norris became his life partner...

This is now THE biography. It totally outclasses every previous book on the life of Buster Keaton. It makes books like My Wonderful World of Slapstick and Rudi Blesh’s Keaton look downright quaint. Meanwhile the bios written by Tom Dardis and Marion Meade are only useful as doorstops. They are all now obsolete. Whatever errors are in the old bios, the Curtis book corrects . Whatever is good in the older bios, Curtis improves.

The truth of it is, of all the many Keaton bios I’ve read over the last 44 years, this really is the best one. It may well be the best researched Keaton book of any sort.

...if you are a Keaton fan, you need to get this book. Want to write something on Buster? You need this book. Want to impress other Keaton experts with your increased knowledge? You need this book. So go get yourself a copy.
"Of course he smiled -- just like you and me." -- Harold Goodwin, on Buster Keaton (1976)

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Re: "Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker's Life" by James Curtis

Postby Ed Watz » Wed Apr 13, 2022 2:17 pm

Leonard Maltin may not be writing the last review we'll see on this remarkably fine book, but his review below IS The Last Word:

BUSTER KEATON: A FILMMAKER'S LIFE by James Curtis:

"At more than 600 pages, this is not the kind of book one takes up casually. I cleared time on my calendar to read it cover to cover. By the time I got to Buster Keaton’s blossoming film career in the 1920s, it was hard to put down. I was genuinely excited to learn what was coming next. It’s not that I don’t know the basics of Buster’s life and career; Curtis has dug deep and found fresh, fascinating details that explain how and why some movies came about, and how the methodical performer and filmmaker executed some of his still-astonishing gags.

New information about films made one hundred years ago? That’s right. Curtis also proffers original thoughts that help us understand Buster’s unique personality, work ethic and his laissez-faire attitude toward his producer (and brother-in-law) Joseph Schenck.

This revelatory quality permeates the hefty book, along with a selection of rare photographs. I’ve read descriptions of the family vaudeville act The Three Keatons before, but never in such rich and vivid detail. I’m familiar with the act’s bête noir, The Gerry Society, which sought to protect children in show business, but again the author expands our knowledge with useful and amusing details.

Curtis is a superior biographer, having tackled W.C. Fields, Spencer Tracy, and William Cameron Menzies, among others. His ability to communicate is matched only by his diligence in conducting research that goes beyond the ordinary.

Others can, and will, continue to write about Buster Keaton and offer their own interpretations…but I can’t imagine anyone else tackling his life. This volume can lay claim to being definitive."

https://leonardmaltin.com/buster-keaton ... s8eD6kd5WM
"Of course he smiled -- just like you and me." -- Harold Goodwin, on Buster Keaton (1976)

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Re: "Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker's Life" by James Curtis

Postby Ed Watz » Mon Apr 25, 2022 4:07 am

Here's a wonderful article excerpt from The Orange County Register on James Curtis' Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker's Life.

As I've mentioned previously, it is a magnificent book, easily the best book on the life of Buster Keaton, and one of the very best biographies of all time:

Buster Keaton’s life, from silent film stardom to ‘How to Stuff Wild Bikini’ gets a fresh look
The film icon's biographer, granddaughter and costar speak about the man and his work.


By PETER LARSEN | plarsen@scng.com | Orange County Register
PUBLISHED: April 21, 2022 at 7:37 a.m. | UPDATED: April 21, 2022 at 8:13 a.m.

Melissa Talmadge Cox knew Grandpa Buster had made a bunch of silent movies long before she was born, but it wasn’t until after Buster Keaton died and Cox was in college that she saw one.

“I was absolutely speechless when it ended,” Talmadge says of the movie, “Steamboat Bill Jr.,” that she watched at a silent film fest in the late ’60s. “Here was this person I had never known my grandfather to be.”

Similarly, Bobbie Shaw Chance was a 19-year-old actress when she appeared in “Pajama Party” with Keaton in 1964. He became like an uncle, she says, as they also teamed up for “Beach Blanket Bingo” and “How to Stuff a Wild Bikini.”

She, too, never realized the importance of Keaton, who was a silent film comedian as famous as Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd in his day, until years after his death.

“To me, he was just a kindly, sweet old man who was really funny,” Chance says. “I didn’t know he was the brilliant Buster Keaton. Who knew? I didn’t know.”

Author James Curtis talked with Cox and Chance as he worked on “Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker’s Life,” a new biography that explores Keaton’s life and work over 700 pages.

Like Chance and Cox, Curtis says he grew up knowing Keaton mostly for the TV roles he took in the ’50s and ’60s.“He was still alive,” says Curtis, whose previous film biographies include books on Spencer Tracy and W.C. Fields. “But I had no idea really who he was.”

Years later, he saw a screening of Keaton’s silent movie “Seven Chances” at UCLA and was stunned.

“I was just astonished,” Curtis says. “I had never seen anything like it. So I slowly began to learn over a little bit of time just how involved he was in the making of his films.

“And I knew I wanted to explore that.”

Excavating the past
Curtis knew, of course, that Keaton had been the subject of previous biographies and didn’t want to invest the years of work on his own if a great one already existed.

“I talked to a few people, like (film writers and historians) Leonard Maltin and Kevin Brownlow, and his granddaughter Melissa,” Curtis says. All of them told him there was room for a new Keaton biography, and urged him to do it, he says

“Research, to me, is the fun part,” Curtis says. “I know people who do this sort of work who happily hire a researcher, and they sit at home and compose it.

“I’m just the opposite,” he says. “I love doing the library work. I love handling those materials. If I could hire someone to actually write the damn book, I think I might. But I can’t do that.”

Having spent 40 years or so as a film biographer, Curtis knew from experience where many of the archives and libraries of early Hollywood history are kept. And so he dug in for four-and-a-half years of research.

“It’s pretty much a hunting expedition,” he says. “A lot of times you come away empty-handed. But I’ve always believed in the old adage, the harder I work, the luckier I get.”

In the MGM archives in the Cinematic Arts Library at the University of Southern California, he dug out daily production reports on the first four movies Keaton made for the studio.

“Those files reflected exactly what happened on an hour by hour basis, and kept the brass in the front office informed,” Curtis says. “If there’s a problem or stopping of some sort, that’s noted. If the star actor is ill, maybe had a little too much at lunchtime, that’s noted in there.

“That’s wonderful material, and it’s not easily available,” he says. “And nobody had found it up to that point.”

Other documents revealed new details of Keaton’s move from his own studio to MGM and revealed the truth about why that happened.

“That’s how you do it,” he says. “You just know where things are through experience, you go looking, and sometimes you find things. So there are a lot of eureka moments that occur.”

‘Proud to be related’
Melissa Talmadge Cox fondly remembers frequent visits with Grandpa Buster and step-grandmother Eleanor at their then-remote home in Woodland Hills. There was a pool to swim in and a barn in which she and her brothers played on the ropes used to lift hay bales to a loft.

“He had a little red schoolhouse that he kept chickens in, and I got to go collect eggs,” says Cox, 72, from her home in Sonoma County. “It was just a fun place.”

She saw him on TV from time to time, shows such as “The Twilight Zone” and “Candid Camera,” but mostly her time with Buster, who died when she was about 17, revolved around Sunday dinners, summer vacations and Christmas gatherings.

Then, as a student at the University of California, Davis, she went to Berkeley one night and saw Keaton as the innovative actor and director of the silent screen, and gained a whole new appreciation for her grandfather’s work.

“He could do the most remarkable things,” she says. “He did far more physical tricks than the other actors did at the time. He was always moving and doing fabulous gymnastics.”

When her own children were in elementary school, Cox says she’d often take the Keaton silent film “One Week” into the classroom to share with their classmates.

“Here are kids, 80 years later, whatever it was, falling off their chairs laughing,” she says. “It’s timeless.

“I don’t know, I’m just so proud to be related,” Cox says. “I think it’s wonderful.”

Keaton and Chaplin
Charlie Chaplin remains iconic today – the image of the Little Tramp is indelible. Harold Lloyd, with his glasses and hat, was a huge star of the silent screen, his films often earning bigger profits than Keaton’s.

But Curtis says neither of them could do what Keaton did.

“I think Buster had the greatest natural gift as a filmmaker,” he says. “In the sense that he could see the entire screen in his head, and he knew how to fill the frame in a way that advanced the story and made the comedy as good as it could be.

“Chaplin was a good director of Chaplin,” Curtis says. “As far as Chaplin was concerned, the only interesting element in the frame was Chaplin.

“A lot of these comics, they rarely do things that they couldn’t do in the vaudeville stage,” he says. “Buster used whole trains and did things with them. You can’t do that on stage.

“He was a brilliant guy on screen but he was also a brilliant behind the camera.”

So why is Chaplin still revered and Keaton less remembered?

“The basic difference is that Chaplin laid it out for you, so you really didn’t have to participate,” Curtis says. “You’re just reacting to what he’s showing you, what he’s telling you.

“There’s an element of ambiguity in Buster’s work that I think is stronger than say, Chaplin or Lloyd,” he says. “Now, Chaplin can do a great closeup and tear your heart out.”

Keaton, in contrast, was famous for his deadpan blank face on film, which didn’t give audiences as much to work with.

“He said, ‘If the audience is going to feel sorry for me, well, I’ll them do it. But I’m not going to them for it. That was the basic difference. They were going to have to come to him.”

‘It was magical’
Bobbie Shaw Chance says she knew she’d been hired for the beach party movies because she looked good in a bikini. But Keaton recognized more than that, she says.

“Buster saw something in me that I didn’t even know I had, which was comedy timing,” says Chance, 78, who for three decades taught actors at her Hollywood Actors Showcase in Sherman Oaks, before handing the business off to her son as a virtual studio at RichieChance.com.

“He taught me how to do double-takes and how to give certain looks,” she says. “When to hit the joke and all that.”

Most days on set, Chance and Keaton had lunch together in his dressing room. Keaton would play his ukulele or the two would play cards.

Even though she hadn’t seen his classic silent films at the time, Chance says she knew Keaton was someone special by the way the directors treated him.

“The directors did not direct the scenes that Buster and I were in,” she says. “That’s when I knew he was pretty savvy and smart.”

In “Pajama Party,” Chance remembers director Don Weis calling Keaton over before a scene.

“He said, ‘Buster, how do you see the scene going?’” she says. “That’s when I knew Buster was special, really special.

“There was a lot of respect around him. It wasn’t just fun, it was magical.”

A legacy lasts
In the years after Keaton’s death, young filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese, Stephen Spielberg, and Peter Bogdanovich began to seek out and celebrate his early films, which for decades were seldom seen.

Museum screenings, revival house showings and European festivals started to book retrospectives as silent film gained new attention from cinephiles. At the end of his life, Keaton was briefly able to enjoy the acclaim that he’d lost for much of his later life, Curtis says.

Keaton and his wife traveled to Europe to promote “Film,” a movie he’d made with playwright Samuel Beckett, at the Venice Film Festival, where a year or two earlier there’d been a celebration of Keaton’s best films.

“He and his wife were put on the mezzanine level, in the box of honor, I guess you’d call it,” Curtis says. “As they came down, and they sat, you could hear the clapping starting.

“Buster wasn’t sure what was happening,” he says. “He said to his wife, ‘What are they clapping for?’ She said, ‘That’s for you.’

He stood to look, and below him in the theater, everyone was standing, some on their seats, to applaud the great screen comedian.

“It just went on and on and on,” Curtis says. “Someone snapped a picture right at that moment, and you can see he’s just bewildered at this reception.

“It did not stop, and that was within months of his death, but he got to experience it.”

https://www.dailynews.com/2022/04/21/bu ... resh-look/
"Of course he smiled -- just like you and me." -- Harold Goodwin, on Buster Keaton (1976)


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