Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker's Life
“From start to finish Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker’s Life, with all its rich detail and Curtis’s genuine love for his subject, is the biography that Keaton deserves.”
The familiar take on Buster Keaton is that he was a brilliant star of the silent film, one of the Big Three comedians alongside Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd. Of that trio, as far as the biographies go, Keaton is washed up with the advent of talking pictures. There are his cameo appearances as one of the bridge-playing “waxworks” in Sunset Blvd (1950) and an aging clown in Chaplin’s Limelight (1952), but also an ignominious role in Beach Blanket Bingo (1965), a year before his death. There is some solace at the end of his life when he is rediscovered by new generations. Critical studies concentrate on Keaton’s 1920s masterpieces like One Week or The General. But once those films are examined, it seems as if there are only dismal things to say about Keaton’s work after the golden age of silent film had ended.
James Curtis doesn’t take that point of view in his definitive new biography, Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker’s Life. Almost of half of this 696-page book is a comprehensive exploration of Keaton’s post-silent career, a period longer far longer than his much-lauded 1920s films. This is a life story filled with triumph, joy, broken dreams, hardship and—above all—a solid work ethic that continued for decades. The myth is that Keaton was tossed into the offscreen movie world waxworks, but the reality is that he never stopped plying his craft.
Curtis covers familiar territory emblazoned in the minds of Keaton’s fans and silent film enthusiasts. As a child Keaton was the star attraction of the family vaudeville act, The Three Keatons. Visually, they were a striking comedy combination: his father Joe topped out at nearly six feet tall, mother Myra was four foot eleven, and baby Buster joined the act as a toddler when he crawled onto the stage and got bigger laughs then his parents. Their knockabout style of comedy would qualify today as child abuse. Joe would fling his son around with controlled but seeming wild abandon. A suitcase handle was built into Buster’s costume, which made it easier for Joe to hurl the boy in any direction.
Audiences couldn’t get enough of this wild act. Though it was violent, it also prepped Buster, however unintentionally, for his future as a film comedian/director with a genius for daring comedy stunts. “I could take crazy falls without hurting myself,” Keaton recalled, “simply because I had learned the trick so early in life that body control became pure instinct with me.”
Good skills to have and fortunate timing, as vaudeville was rapidly being replaced by the new medium of moving pictures. Film comedies relied on non-stop energy, filled with manic chases, car crashes, pratfalls, explosions, and inevitable food fights, just the right fit for Keaton’s talents. At age 22, he was ready to leave the family act and strike out on his own.
Keaton’s life seemed to take a destined turn through a chance meeting with Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle on a busy New York boulevard. In 1917, Arbuckle was one of the most recognized men in America, a confident screen presence who could play subtle boyish humor or over-the-top slapstick, often within the same moment. Having seen Keaton onstage, Arbuckle thought Buster had what it took to make it in the picture business. He became a sort of mentor, giving Keaton a showcase role in the two-reel comedy The Butcher Boy (1917).
The two developed a close working relationship. Before long, Keaton was directing his own comedies. Arbuckle said of Keaton “He lived in the camera.” They remained tight friends and collaborators, even after Arbuckle’s life went into a tailspin when he was accused of manslaughter. On Labor Day weekend of 1921 Arbuckle threw a booze-laden party at a San Francisco hotel. One attendee, a young bit player named Virginia Rappe, fell ill and died a few days later of a ruptured bladder. Arbuckle was accused of sexual assault that resulted in Rappe’s death. Two trials ended with hung juries, but the third acquitted Arbuckle in a matter of minutes.
He was poised for a comeback, but self-appointed moralizers bullied studio chieftains to keep Arbuckle off the screen lest he taint the minds of young filmgoers. Keaton never gave up on his friend, helping Arbuckle get work as a director. Curtis tells this oft-told story with genuine empathy. There is a real sense that Arbuckle could have been a fourth major comedy name during the 1920s. Instead, he remained a sorrowful figure in Keaton’s professional and personal life until Arbuckle’s death from a heart attack in 1933.
Keaton’s comedy innovations were fearless. Curtis provides considerable details of two of Keaton’s finest moments as a director: the crash of a speeding train into a river gorge in The General (1926); and the carefully-constructed moment in Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928) where Keaton is perfectly positioned as a brick wall falls down, leaving him standing in the space where the open window lands. The heavy building façade left Keaton with just inches to spare. One wrong move and he would be crushed. Keaton later claimed that two women on the set passed out as the stunt unfolded and even the cameramen—who had only one chance to get the shot right—turned their backs rather than watch any potential disaster.
Keaton’s fortunes changed for the worse in 1928 when he traded his independence for a contract with MGM, an offer both Chaplin and Lloyd warned Keaton not to take. “It’s not your gang,” Lloyd told him. “You’ll lose.”
Lloyd was correct. Critic Bob Sherman called the end of silent film “the new Noise Era.” Chaplin had the wherewithal to continue making films his way, while Lloyd made a few sound features before retiring. Keaton directed a couple of good pictures (though he was not credited as the director), and then floundered. “There I was on the top of the world—on a toboggan,” he later said. He was restricted by the new sound technology which demanded actors stand still so microphones would not pick up any extra noise. It was antithetical to Keaton’s way of doing things.
Meanwhile, his personal life was a shambles. Keaton’s marriage to Natalie Talmadge, his one-time costar and sister of the better-known actresses Norma and Constance Talmadge, fell apart. The divorce was bitter: Talmadge demanded Keaton’s two sons take on her surname rather than his. It was a perfect storm of misery. Keaton turned to booze as to numb himself from it all.
Alcohol took its toll. In some scenes in his 1930 film Doughboys Keaton is visibly drunk. MGM tried teaming him with Jimmy Durante, a combination that didn’t work. And then, the inevitable. Tired of the drinking and with no sense of how to use Keaton’s talents, studio boss Louis B. Mayer fired off a termination letter, dumping Keaton from MGM “for good and sufficient cause.”
And that, it seems, would be that. But it wasn’t. Curtis gives us the whole man. Though Keaton floundered through his alcoholism and a disastrous second marriage, he still had gifts that could not be denied. He was hired by Educational Pictures, a low-rent outfit without much money. The new films weren’t great but were filled with wonderful small moments. Consider the 1934 film The Gold Ghost, which is available on YouTube. Keaton plays a self-appointed sheriff in an abandoned Western town. The film harkens back to Keaton’s silent masterworks in a marvelous sequence where he interacts with the specters of gunfighters and a saloon gal. The other actors are shot in double exposure, creating a proper ghostly appearance. It wasn’t another Steamboat Bill Jr., but it certainly displayed the old Keaton magic.
When Educational Pictures went out of business. Keaton had no choice but to become a show business journeyman, living from job to job, paycheck to paycheck. Keaton briefly returned to MGM as a gag writer. There was talk of him joining Buddy Ebsen and Ted Healy (creator of the Three Stooges) as a possible replacement for the Marx Brothers, who went to RKO studios to make Room Service (1938).
Instead, when Groucho, Chico, and Harpo returned, Keaton wrote material for their next picture At the Circus (1939). It was another bad fit: Keaton was fired after just ten days. He bounced around some more, writing mediocre material for Laurel and Hardy and Abbott and Costello, but with some nice turns for Red Skelton in the Civil War comedy A Southern Yankee (1948), a loose remake of Keaton’s The General. A series of short films for Columbia Pictures also ensued, again without much success.
A new force came into his life when he married his third wife, Eleanor. She was the true love of his life. With her help, Keaton got off the booze and got steady film work, including a co-starring role with Judy Garland in In the Good Old Summertime (1949).
Two things changed Keaton’s fortunes that same year, both artistically and financially. First, his old films gained new prominence when critic James Agee penned an appraisal of 1920s cinema for Life magazine, “Comedy’s Greatest Era.” He described Keaton’s face as “haunting, handsome, almost beautiful, yet it was irreducibly funny.” Keaton’s other career advent was television. Whereas the majority the film business wrote off TV as a passing fad, Keaton in this new medium was filled with unlimited potential. “Along came television and I was back in business,” he declared.
Keaton was a regular presence on the orthicon tube throughout the 1950s with an eponymous show in Los Angeles, guest star spots on sitcoms, and plenty of jobs in the world of advertising. Keaton saw commercials as a new take on the old two-reel comedy formula: short and punchy little films that used physical humor to pull in an audience. “Comedy is comedy,” he said. “The same things get laughs no matter what the setting.” His many ads for Alka-Seltzer provided Keaton with the double bonus of new fans and steady paychecks.
A Keaton renaissance went into full swing. Donald O’Connor starred in The Buster Keaton Story (1957) a mostly fictional recreation of Keaton ‘s earlier triumphs; and another factually challenged work, a largely ghostwritten 1960 autobiography, My Wonderful World of Slapstick. His old films were bought and repackaged by Raymond Rohauer, a shady figure who is something of both a hero for getting Keaton’s films back in the public eye and a villain for exploiting Keaton for many years (along with other comedians of the silent era) for every penny he could get.
With the resurgence came better television parts, including an unexpected turn in 1961 as a time traveler on an episode of Rod Serling’s series The Twilight Zone and a charming comedy partnering with Lucille Ball in a 1965 tribute to Keaton’s colleague, Stan Laurel (Keaton and Ball were old pals, back to when they met in the 1940s and Keaton coached Lucy on the art of slapstick comedy). Movie moguls had a mea culpa of sorts, presenting Keaton with an honorary Oscar in 1960 and two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, one for film and one for television. More work came with a part in a touring company of the musical Once Upon a Mattress, the Broadway show that made Carol Burnett a star. Keaton even directed a 7-Up commercial featuring the folk group The Kingston Trio; and he wrote material for the Ice Capades.
Keaton had well-received return to form with The Railrodder (1965), a silent short produced by the National Film Board of Canada. He starred as a hapless soul who accidentally travels from the east Canadian coast to west, making temporary traveling home on a small one-man train filled with a seemingly endless fuel supply and compartments stuffed with all sorts of gag props.
The same year he also appeared in Film, a strange silent short by Samuel Beckett. Beckett had no understanding of how to use Keaton, who is shot mostly from behind. For his part, Keaton couldn’t figure out Beckett wanted from him. The playwright asked Keaton to play the character of Lucky in a production of Waiting for Godot, which Buster turned down. He told Eleanor, “I can’t make any sense out of this thing. I have no idea of what it’s about.” (Despite his renewed artistic popularity, Keaton still needed money and took whatever jobs he could get despite his failing health. In 1965 he also appeared in another beach movie, How to Stuff a Wild Bikini and shot his last film, Richard Lester’s romp A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, released in October 1966 after Keaton’s death on February 1.)
In a pair of appendices, Curtis includes comprehensive summations of Keaton’s film and television works. They are grand lists of considerable length, a marvelous coda to a wonderful book. From start to finish Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker’s Life, with all its rich detail and Curtis’s genuine love for his subject, is the biography that Keaton deserves.