The Return of Buster Keaton …

Long ago and far away, I spent a good part of a few of my teenage summers visiting the library and devouring books. I didn’t swim and I didn’t have a bike (the reasons being a long, sad story I don’t want to get into), but I did love to read … and still do. I remember taking out a complete eight-volume set from Time/Life Books titled This Fabulous Century, which was kind of a pop culture history of the United States, decade-by-decade, with beautiful fabric-covered covers, each indicative of its own decade. It, of course, ended with 1960-1970 … the rest of the century was still up for grabs at the time I first read it. Another book I found fascinating and beautiful was The Silent Clowns by Walter Kerr, a well-known movie critic. I took that book out numerous times over the course of one summer and through it discovered the wonderful world of silent movies. I could (then and now) take or leave Charlie Chaplin, whom I found pompous and self-absorbed. Harold Lloyd and Harry Langdon didn’t interest me much, either, although Lloyd’s athleticism was amazing. But I fell in love with Buster Keaton, the stone-faced comedian who also excelled at stunts, most of them grounded in reality with very little trick photography, and just about all of them performed by Buster himself. Keaton was poetry in motion and when he ran, it was truly breath-taking. (The only other actor who I’ve ever seen run like Keaton is Tom Cruise. Both run at top speed and in total reckless abandon.) Keaton had a deep understanding of the realities of filmmaking. He exploited the fact that films were two-dimensional: If he drew a nail on a wall with a brush, he could hang his hat on it. It was all flat, all on the same plain. He could step off a front porch and land in a pond, just with a well-timed edit. He understood the world he existed in, and while he didn’t abuse the notion, he certainly used it to its fullest.

Buster Keaton is undergoing a little bit of a renaissance right now, with two new books and a possible movie (directed by James Mangold, of Logan and Ford v Ferrari fame) coming down the pike. He is at once a comic and tragic figure, one who survived Hollywood fame even though it almost killed him. Brought up in the hard scrabble world of vaudeville, he and his parents made up The Three Keatons (eventually the Five Keatons with the birth of brother Harry and sister Louise), with father and son Keaton practicing a kind of rough-and-tumble acrobatic act on stage where young Buster was regularly thrown around by his high-kicking dad while mom played some kind of musical instrument in the background. When Keaton turned 18 or so, he left the act and ventured into the fledgling movie industry, working with the rotund comedian Fatty Arbuckle, who rivaled Chaplin in popularity in the late 1910s, and whose own career ended in a tragic scandal. Keaton quickly “graduated” to his own short films (known as two-reelers due to their length, which was about 20 minutes) and his own studio, run by movie mogul Joseph Schenck, who also became Buster’s brother-in-law when Keaton married into the Talmadge family, a trio of sisters who were all actresses of varying success. (Buster’s wife, Natalie, was more of a homebody than stars Norma and Constance; the entire family was run by mom Peg, and Buster was viewed as little more than a necessary accessory by the Talmadge women.) Keaton made about 20 short films and only 10 features. His “friend” and in-law Schenck sold his contract to MGM (where Schenck’s brother Nick was in charge) and that’s when Buster’s life fell apart. Working at his own studio with United Artists distributing his films, Keaton had total autonomy to create the films he wanted to make. MGM took that all away from him, and mogul Louis B. Mayer, who had at best an adversarial relationship with Keaton, forced him into filmmaking by committee with an assigned producer who didn’t quite get comedy in general and Buster in particular. When the talkies came in, MGM paired Keaton with Broadway personality Jimmy Durante, a song-and-dance man/comedian, whose appeal has always been totally lost on me. He was loud, brash, obnoxious, and extremely untalented, the polar-opposite of Keaton.

Three of Keaton’s best, including his last great solo film, The Cameraman ... I always loved that poster illustration.

Beaten down by his studio bosses and his failing marriage, Keaton turned to whisky and eventually—in the 1930s—suffered a complete breakdown, brought on by his alcoholism, his career failure and his divorce. An opportunistic “nurse” latched onto him, further causing a nosedive and it wasn’t until after a sanitarium stay and a couple of risky and questionable “cures” that he started to rise again, finding work in short films at a company called Educational Pictures and Poverty Row studio Columbia Pictures. He divorced the nurse and became a gag writer and sometime-director back at MGM and at other studios, working with the likes of the Marx Bros. and Red Skelton. He met the love of his life, Eleanor, a young dancer at MGM, who stayed with him for the rest of his life despite their 20-year age difference. In the late 1940s he immediately recognized the value of television and did a lot of work in that new medium, everything from his own, very early series to guest shots and commercials. He lived long enough to enjoy the first renaissance of his silent film work in the 1960s, especially his signature film The General, a Civil War epic about a train which included one of the most amazing shots in silent film history: The wreck of a train off a high bridge into a river, a shot that could only happen once and said to be the most expensive single shot in any silent film (the subsequent flames from the train caught the Oregon woods in which they were filming on fire). Keaton died in 1966 at age 70, still working up to the last minute, still writing gags, still breaking the secret code of movies and how to make them, like no other.

I’ve just finished reading James Curtis’s Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker’s Life, an exhaustive biography on the star and the first substantial book on Buster in decades. An additional book, Camera Man, by Slate movie critic Dana Stevens, was also recently released, but Curtis is known for his movie-related biographies, including ones on director James Whale, comedian W. C. Fields, and actor Spencer Tracy, so that was the book I gravitated towards first. Curtis’s book is wonderful, a virtual treasure trove of information, especially on Keaton’s film work. His sensitive and honest portrayal of Keaton’s life off the screen is great, too, especially his later love story with Eleanor, a life partner in the truest sense of the word.

“With Buster Keaton’s passing, another Buster Keaton replaced him—the immortal one captured so perfectly on film in the dizzying years of his youth when the movies were new and the horizons infinite. If the middle years represented times of struggle, there was a sense of contentment to the third act of Keaton’s life, the awards and festivals and the gradual rediscovery of the Keaton canon as prints surfaced and audiences celebrated. Wherever he went in the last decade of his life, he was respected, honored, and acclaimed. All that need to happen now was to put his films back before the public, a body of work virtually unique in the annals of film, and let them make their own eloquent case for the man who made them.”

James Curtis, Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker’s Life

There is a wonderful documentary produced in England in the late 1980s by Thames Television called Buster Keaton: A Hard Act to Follow. You can find it on YouTube (all three parts of it, including—if you’re interested—its companion piece on Charlie Chaplin: Unknown Chaplin). The Thames doc chronicles the entire arc of Keaton’s life and show-biz career, with movie excerpts, interviews with Keaton and Eleanor, and various other silent film luminaries (most, sadly, unidentified). It’s about three hours long and a great way to discover this amazing artist. Some people find silent film tedious and hopelessly old-fashioned. I find them beautiful, engrossing, and at times, astonishing. Those adjectives describe Buster Keaton, too, a once in a lifetime star who came back from the dead and lived to see his work embraced by a whole new audience decades later. It’s time to embrace him again.

A painting I did of Keaton in the 1970s.

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