John McElwee's review of "Buster Keaton A Filmmaker's Life" at Greenbriar

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Ed Watz
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John McElwee's review of "Buster Keaton A Filmmaker's Life" at Greenbriar

Postby Ed Watz » Wed Mar 09, 2022 2:41 am

Here's the great John McElwee's most excellent review at Greenbriar Picture Shows:

Greatest Buster Keaton Story Ever Told

We May Safely Put The Rest Away


I’m in accord with others who maintain this latest Buster Keaton biography is a best of all attempted, an outcome to be expected for James Curtis having turned his authorial hand to the topic. What he found and tells in this book surprised me like firecrackers lit and going off all along the way. Varied revelations I’ll not list; be assured they are there and constant. Final disposal of Buster myth as vaude-reared illiterate: He had to memorize seventy-five pages as Little Lord Fauntleroy, which he played at tender age. I wondered if BK was ever Peck’s Bad Boy on stage, but there’s not evidence of it. Still, I envision him in stage antics along lines of Douglas Croft as young George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy. As to whether Buster could lick any kid in town, I frankly don’t know how peers could catch up with him, let alone whup him. Overriding aspect of Keaton for me was his positive attitude. He seems never to have blamed others for whatever troubles he had, and that, we know, is a rare quality. To the end, he claimed membership among luckiest men to have lived. Keaton also did not take himself seriously as an artist, so ego for its sake was no deterrent for him or drag upon others.

We want Buster Keaton to have been the commercial king of comedy during 20’s peak, but Harold Lloyd sold bigger, much more so, and of course Chaplin was unassailable. Keaton did not finance or own his work as they did, so was subject to ill winds when they blew. He was a salaryman as genius comedian, but neither noted nor resented the placement. He built a mansion he probably should not have in an effort to make happy a wife who could not be made happy. I found myself wishing he had never laid eyes on a Talmadge, any of them. I mind less their being so obscure in film history for how they treated him. Buster seems to have been the best social company in the world, and he stood by friends even where it was unpopular doing so. I’d love to have attended one (or all) of his Italian Villa barbecues. You want his independence to have lasted a lifetime, but combine of circumstances ended it, and circumstances would not permit an easy adjustment. Imagine having an ideal creative environment for yourself and someone comes and snatches it away. That is what happened here. James Curtis tells how Keaton coped, even getting in occasional ideas to the betterment of MGM silents, and later talkies. Detail on shorts that followed the Metro group comes welcome. I had not realized how popular and enjoyed those Educational comedies were. As to seminal Keaton, like The General, there is much I never knew, like thoughts from Louise Brooks to Kevin Brownlow that maybe The General performed less because a public misunderstood it as a Civil War movie with Buster playing a General, and the idea did not appeal to them.

Each Keaton movie had a life of its own, both in terms of first-run and many revivals to follow. I don’t know another comedian’s output more revered. Whereas patches of Chaplin and Lloyd remain unavailable on Blu-Ray, virtually all of Keaton can be had. Even the Educational shorts are out there in HD. The old debate of Chaplin vs. Keaton is too tired to need revisiting from me. Thankfully, Curtis does not bother about it either. Significant is that while Buster never felt a rivalry, at least insofar as legacy, Charlie very much did. He wanted to be top man by history’s reckoning and knew at least by the end of a long life that Keaton had gained and maybe passing. Those most blessed love all vet comics and would wish the lot to thrive in memories. Buster Keaton’s face alone is enough to secure him among immortals. He looks to be the opposite of someone who’d seek out laughter. Curtis talks about projects that revealed the most of real-life Buster, some of which are obscure today. Many of industrials he did, these developed from scratch, Buster told generally what the sales pitch was, and take it from there. Could he have been a great advertising executive? Surely yes. Also watch Buster Keaton Rides Again where he hunkers down to creative posture and won’t be talked out of what he knew were right ideas. This book goes splendidly with reviewing all Keaton we can find/see.

I remember being astonished at age thirteen to see Buster Keaton starring in a new comedy from American-International, War --- Italian Style, flavors of the day Franco and Ciccio like gnats along margins, but who cared, this was Keaton as star, War --- Italian Style a farewell bow even as it wasn’t really. Buster the home companion was not mere matter of television. He came in on silent and peak career terms via bought reels of 8mm, an only way you’d see shorts and whole of features from legit or piratical source. Keaton interest would not flag no matter how many years he was gone. All-time critical lists had The General, and later others of his. Pretty soon you figured anything he did had to be great, and indeed you’d be right, Keaton product reliably bought blind. Curtis really mines the postwar rediscovery and revival, an always fascinating topic for me. Happy to know that Buster saw unmistakably how much he was treasured, and that films he thought were forgot had paying audiences queued up far and long. There have been Keaton books before. Most were plus and minus, sometimes more minus than plus. Several propagated untruths that Curtis corrects. I’ll keep a few on the main shelf beside Curtis … Rudi Blesh because he was first so there is historical interest, Buster’s own memoir for obvious reasons, one by Imogen Sara Smith that I liked … the rest will go to chilled storage. That’s what happens when someone finally tells the saga you’ve waited a lifetime for. Final tip: Don’t rush this one. Savor the eight hundred pages like I did.

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You'll also want to see the Keaton photos and read the comments on John's blog site:
https://greenbriarpictureshows.blogspot.com
"Of course he smiled -- just like you and me." -- Harold Goodwin, on Buster Keaton (1976)

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