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Monday, March 07, 2022

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 these 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. Ones of us 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 industrial shorts were developed from scratch, Buster told generally what the sales pitch was, then 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.

22 Comments:

Blogger Beowulf said...

There are too many great cinematic moments to pick one, or even two or three, so I'll turn to TV. Buster's amazing, charming, and hilarious performance--live!--in an episode of CANDID CAMERA. Buster was a hapless older gentleman just trying to enjoy coffee and a meal. His bits are classic and warmly human. The GOAT.

10:00 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

In the 1980s I was introducing the 1926 BEN-HUR. I said, "I better keep this short. This is a three hour movie." A man in the front row said, "I could listen to you for three hours." On the basis of that I decided to do a 2 1/2 hour performance piece based on what I knew of Buster Keaton after having read every book I could find and watching his films scores of times as I screened them. The trick was according to what I had read, Keaton never rehearsed. There as only one way to do it as Buster. That was to do it as Buster did it. I had chosen 2 1/2 hours after reading Shaw on his Saint Joan. That, with a half hour intermission was the length of classic Greek theatre. When the night of the first performance came it was to start at 8pm. If I did it right it would end at 10:30 pm. Keaton had learned his art by observing from the wings during his vaudeville years. I had been observing Buster for two decades. I asked a man with a watch in the front row to let me know when it was 8pm. He signalled me. When I ended I asked what time it was. He said, "10:30." Classically we learn from observation. I urge the young to stay out of school. They have been observing on television an incredible amount of information. They already know what to do. Few listen. “The educational process prepares those with second-rate intellects to thrive in a bureaucratic environment. Obedience, rote memorization, and neatness are enshrined as intellectual achievements…Like the belief of the terminally ill in medicine the belief of the legitimately frightened in the educational process is a comforting lie.”—David Mamet, TRUE AND FALSE.

Now and then comes along one who does. The latest is WIZTHEMC. He just made FORBES: https://reghartt.ca/cineforum/?p=33438 . All of James Curtis's books are must reading by me. Thanks for turning me on to this one.

12:57 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

Does the book mention "The Comic" (1969)?

That movie, written and directed by Carl Reiner and starring Dick Van Dyke, presents the rise and fall of a fictional silent comic, Billy Bright. Bright is unsympathetic and largely responsible for his own fate; he narrates from his coffin at his sparsely-attended funeral, grousing and blaming. While it's not explicitly based on Keaton's life, it draws on some of high-profile moments: messy divorce, alcoholism, young bride, and TV commercials. In the latter part of the film Van Dyke's old age makeup is very evocative of late-period Keaton, and he dies alone in a cheap flat. Audiences might well believe they were seeing the story of the old man they knew mainly from beach movies.

In real life, Keaton -- who had died before "The Comic" was made -- had a happy third act: Happy marriage, steady work, and increasing recognition and acclaim. And if anything, it was his willingness to accommodate others that ended his days as a top star. So why did "The Comic" hint so broadly he was the model for the antihero Billy Bright?

My theory: Dick Van Dyke was a friend and disciple of Stan Laurel (also long dead before the movie), and Carl Reiner a big fan at the very least. Van Dyke did impressive imitations of Stan on TV, and many of the re-creations in "The Comic" evoke Hal Roach silents. But Van Dyke and Reiner were doing a story about an SOB, and they didn't want anybody to think this was based on their late friend and idol (and it wasn't, except for some borrowed gags). Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd were both still alive, and famously prosperous -- and possibly litigious, if they thought they were being slandered. Keaton, the one other silent clown many people recognized, had died. So some broad allusions to Keaton's early scandals were there to make Billy Bright NOT Stan Laurel.

4:47 PM  
Blogger Dennis69 said...

I saw Dick van Dyke on a Dick Cavett show the other night. And it was apparent he was a big fan of Buster whom he say he met through Stan Laurel.

7:59 PM  
Blogger Dave said...

I watched the Keaton/Brown episode of Route 66 for the first time in years the other night.

The thing that I most appreciated about the episode -- which is actually pretty good (maybe not as good as the Karloff/Lorre/Chaney episode, but still good) -- is that the writer (William R. Cox) and director (David Lowell Rich) knew enough to stand back and let Buster do his stuff. There are extended fishing-related gags (done silently), numerous Keaton takes and gestures -- and even what seemed to be a touch of undercranking that gave him back some of his speed.

3:07 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer reflects on Buster Keaton:


Fascinating review of a book I'll certainly want to read.

I have several biographies of Keaton, each with its own strengths in discussing his movies or the circumstances of his life and times, but all somewhat removed from the man himself. Invariably, he comes across as uncouth, inarticulate, and not terribly bright. There is a sense of him as a clever vaudevillian, but as to film making, he seems like an idiot savant blessed with a massive talent unrelated to his mind or personality.

Perhaps that is so. I'll wait to read the Curtis book to find out. I suspect, however, that if there is a misunderstanding, it is by those other writers, not by Keaton and not of himself.

As for his marriage to Natalie Talmadge, I quite agree with you. Had that never occurred or had he found a relationship with a woman more understanding and supportive than the grasping Nat, his life and career might have been very different. Any arrangement with M-G-M would have been problematical, but he would have been better able to assert his own interests without the distraction of that marriage or the booze he used to dull the pain from it. Freed from the need to provide the tangible wealth the Talmadges had to have, however, he might have continued as an independent, content with the slimmer margins of profitability for the joy in his work.

The pity is that such a possibility is seen only in retrospect, against the unchangeable backdrop of what actually occurred. The movies remain, though, and they're marvelous.

7:36 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

I love Keaton. And while I loathe Metro's treatment of him, I wonder if his talkie career as an independent producer would have been any different from that of Harold Lloyd -- fewer movies of gradually diminishing quality. Sound gave comedies an entirely different pace and style. It seems like only Laurel & Hardy made the leap without a problem -- or, in the case of Chaplin, getting rid of his classic character.

It's fascinating that Keaton found the most post-stardom freedom in television, a medium not always known for treasuring creativity.

9:11 AM  
Blogger Neely OHara said...

Great recommendation, John, thanks!

A bit of Keaton trivia regarding his final film, FILM (1964) written by Samuel Beckett and directed by Alan Schneider. My late husband, Melvin Bernhardt (DA, THE EFFECT OF GAMMA RAYS…, CRIMES OF THE HEART) was Alan’s assistant in ‘64, and told me that he himself named the film.

It was originally called THE EYE, but apparently nobody was happy with it. According to what I was told, MB was present at a meeting between the Schneider, Beckett, and Keaton to discuss the title. Recalling that Beckett had written a play called PLAY, MB said, “So I piped up and suggested FILM, and everybody liked it.”

I have no corroboration, but, having been married to the guy, I can attest that he lived a fascinating life, and had no need to invent. :-)

2:30 PM  
Blogger Dave said...

I think we can see the path Keaton would have followed by looking at the Educational shorts. While they were apparently quite popular, I find most of them hard to watch. I know "Grand Slam Opera" is usually hailed as the best of the bunch, but when I see it, I don't laugh at all -- which is hard for me to do with Buster.

I'll posit an alternate worlds theory: In 1931 or so, Buster is released from his Metro contract and signs with Warners to be re-teamed with an Arbuckle who doesn't have that heart attack.

4:57 PM  
Blogger IA said...

The quality of the Educational shorts was variable to say the least, but the first couple of shorts he made there, "The Golden Ghost" and "One Run Elmer," are a breath of fresh air after the suffocation of MGM. "Allez Oop" and "Jail Bait" are also worthwhile. The best Educational shorts did a better job of adapting Keaton’s style to sound than the MGM features. I'd say the same about the best Columbia shorts (my picks would be "Pest from the West," "Nothing But Pleasure," "Pardon My Berth Marks," "The Spook Speaks," and half of "The Taming of the Snood").

Also worth tracking down is the hard-to-find industrial film "Paradise for Buster," which gives Keaton 37 minutes to rework several treasured gags. Keaton also did a fantastic job as a dramatic actor in a TV production of "The Awakening" (1954, on the DVD "Keaton Plus").

During the silent era Keaton was lucky to run an independent unit with external financing that allowed him creative freedom. As Hollywood continued consolidating into the sound era, his independence was doomed. After 1928 he might have had better luck going to Paramount and working under a producer like William LeBaron, who was a patron and protector of W.C. Fields and Preston Sturges. In any case, I doubt Keaton would have been able to make masterpieces under the direct regimen of the studio system during the sound era.

4:02 AM  
Blogger Filmfanman said...

I first saw Buster in "The Railrodder", way back in grade school. The film must have been close to brand-new then; I was attending a Canadian school, and as that film was a Canadian production, educational in its way about Canada's geography, they showed it to us kids - I guess the school boards were able to get it for little or no money.
It was a decade or more before I saw any of his other films at all, at college as part of a "film class" taken to get a necessary "English credit" ( the class watched "The General" and "Sherlock Jr.") - before that, I didn't recognize the name "Buster Keaton" at all; and it wasn't until some years after that that I once again saw "The Railrodder" on TV, and only then did I realize who that was whom I had seen all those years ago in that funny movie about the Canadian railroad back in grade school. I liked that movie even more the second time around.
Now - several decades later still - I have many of Buster's old silent-era films on the shelf in HD, and they really are great - they have aged very well.

12:39 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

As good as Keaton's contemporaries are, he was ahead of his time.

3:50 PM  
Blogger gscarfe said...

OK, I just can't stand it anymore. Can someone clear up the mystery?

In the photo with Buster, just what the hell is Jimmy Durante holding up and what is he doing?

10:04 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Mike Mazzone answers a reader's inquiry:


Someone asked what Jimmy Durante is holding up to his face, I’m pretty sure it’s a cigar lighter.

3:05 PM  
Blogger William Ferry said...

On an unrelated note, Durante was often referred to as The Great Schnozzola, at least when I was a lad. I'm always struck at the spelling of "Schnozzle" in 30's ads. When did it change? I keep pronouncing that word to rhyme with "nozzle", unless the e is pronounced like a, as in "bubbele" (thus, Schnoz-zo-la").

9:16 AM  
Blogger Dave K said...

Can't wait! Just ordered the Curtis bio as well as the 'other' new BK book "Camera Man: Buster Keaton, the Dawn of Cinema, and the Invention of the Twentieth Century" by Dana Stevens

5:10 PM  
Blogger Mark Mayerson said...

It's a shame that Adolph Zukor turned down Keaton when Keaton was searching for an alternative to going to MGM. Zukor's excuse is that they already had Harold Lloyd. But Paramount also had Fields, the Marxes and Lubitsch. It's impossible to know how Keaton would have fared at Paramount, but it was probably the studio with the best comedy chops in the early 1930's. MGM's track record with comedy was never anything to brag about.

8:32 PM  
Blogger lmshah said...


The problem with Paramount is more complicated than most realize, and that complication was Harold Lloyd himself. Lloyd's distribution contract with Paramount stated that Paramount agreed to promote no contract comedy talent over Harold, and it basically was one of the reasons that led to comics like Raymond Griffith and W. C. Fields being shown the door in 1927-28. Lloyd was extremely competitive, and really wanted no competition for the Paramount dollars, and would certainly not have been happy having Keaton under the same roof as he. This is also why Paramount started chafing at Lloyd's demands the minute he began to slip in the early 1930's. Their refusing to distribute THE CAT'S PAW was the indication that they would not put up with attitudes he held when his pictures were earning two million or more. The success of the Marx Brothers and later Mae West and later the returning W. C. Fields put Lloyd on Paramount's back burner, but in 1928, Harold could call the shots, and was not likely to have Keaton working in his own back yard.

RICHARD M ROBERTS

8:10 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

My copy of the book arrived. The font is driving my 75 year old eyes crazy. Keaton should have listened to Chaplin. As an independent producer/director/writer/star he would have been able to weather every storm. Regardless, he weathered every storm anyway. I have everything I could get. I'm interested in all of his work. Paramount almost sold off the Famous Players theatre chain to stay in business. Mae West saved the company. Then they watered her down.

8:37 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

Bought mine today at a local independent bookstore, and consequently feel more virtuous than self-indulgent.

2:31 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

I showed this book to some friends. The font used made their younger eyes go crazy.

Learned something. I have always felt that seeing Buster let that house fall on him in STEAMBOAT BILL scared off his producers. Knowing the risk involved it is a truly terrifying moment.

It means either Buster was crazy or knew exactly what he was doing though still crazy to risk his life that way,

I learned the decision was made before he shot that gag.

That I did not know.

The difference between Chaplin and everyone else is that Chaplin grew up in Hell.

Those fires forged him.

Buster Keaton could never have made THE GREAT DICTATOR, LIMELIGHT or MONSIEUR VERDOUX.

Buster was an entertainer. He was and remains a great entertainer, perhaps the greatest.

Chaplin was and remains the greatest artist the cinema has produced. In his MY AUTOBIOGRAPHY Chaplin wrote, "I thought the doors open to the sons of the rich closed to me until I read Emerson's ON SELF RELIANCE. It seemed to me I had been handed a golden birthright."

On the basis of that I read ON SELF RELIANCE.

Chaplin understood the importance of self reliance. Keaton didn't. Few do.Emerson writes, "The reliance on Property, including the reliance on governments which protect it, is the want of self-reliance. Insist on yourself; never imitate. Your own gift you can present every moment with the cumulative force of a whole life's cultivation; but of the adopted talent of another you only have an extemporaneous half possession. That which each can do best, none but his Maker can teach him. No man yet knows what it is, nor can, till that person has exhibited it. Where is the master who could have taught Shakespeare? Where is the master who could have instructed Franklin, or Washington, or Bacon, or Newton? Every great man is unique. The Scipionism of Scipio is precisely that part he could not borrow. Shakespeare will never be made by the study of Shakespeare. Do that which is assigned you, and you cannot hope too much or dare too much...Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist. He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore if it be goodness. Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind. Absolve you to yourself, and you shall have the suffrage of the world. I remember an answer which when quite young I was prompted to make to a valued advisor who was wont to importune me with the dear old doctrines of the church. On my saying, 'What do I have with the sacredness of traditions, if I live wholly from within?' my friend suggested, '--But these impulses may be from below, not from above,' I replied. 'They do not seem to me to be such; but if I am the Devil's child, I will then live as one from the Devil.' No law can be sacred to me but that of my own nature. Good and bad are but names transferable to that or this; the only right is what is after my constitution; the only wrong what is against it...I am ashamed to think how easily we capitulate to badges and names, to large societies and dead institutions."

Those words stirred the fire in me, too,

2:36 PM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

I have to applaud James Curtis's thoroughness. The book is filled with details that you've never heard of -- and I've got a bookshelf lined with Keaton bios. I think the biggest surprise for me was Keaton's input during pre-production of THE BUSTER KEATON STORY. Mr. Curtis reveals that Keaton's choice of leading man was George Gobel, which shows how hip Keaton was about what was going on in show business. Gobel was riding high on TV at the time and was being groomed for movies by Paramount. Gobel's slight frame and dry, deadpan style -- and his midwestern roots -- made him an excellent match for Keaton. When Donald O'Connor became available, Keaton was amenable: O'Connor's athleticism as a dancer would help in the physical comedy scenes.

As a longtime supporter of the Educational and Columbia two-reelers, I enjoyed seeing how much space Mr. Curtis devotes to them. It isn't chapter-and-verse, but it's much more than other Keaton books include.

Nice to see Mr. Curtis give credit where it's due: during his discussion of the Columbia shorts, he discloses the box-office take -- as first reported by our own John McElwee at Greenbriar.

5:32 PM  

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