Buster Keaton’s legacy plays center stage in two new books : NPR


Buster Keaton in a promotional nonetheless for ‘The Cameraman’, which got here out in 1928.

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Buster Keaton in a promotional nonetheless for ‘The Cameraman’, which got here out in 1928.

Hulton Archive/Getty Photos

To say I all-but-devoured two new books about Buster Keaton understates the case.

I have been nuts in regards to the silent-film comedian since I used to be a teen, and had been pondering of him quite a bit because the demise just a few months in the past of NPR’s most fervent fellow Keaton devotee, Petra Mayer.

So the arrival of two significantly researched and insight-filled volumes? Pure catnip.

In Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker’s Life, James Curtis presents an in depth portrait of the comic who smiled so seldom he was often called “The Nice Stone Face.” Digital camera Man by Dana Stevens relates his comedies to the occasions he lived in. Each approaches are instructive, and typically revelatory, although I might have mentioned I used to be fairly well-versed in Keaton’s work.

Again once I was designing film adverts contemporary out of faculty, a theater I labored for gifted a month-long Silent Clowns pageant, impressed by critic Walter Kerr’s guide of that title. It had organist Lee Irwin doing reside accompaniment on a pair of keyboards down entrance, and day-after-day a brand new program — two full-length options and a brief topic. And for 4 superb weeks, I spent day-after-day watching the good clowns of the silent period strut their stuff. Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp was the one everybody knew finest, all-American daredevil Harold Lloyd was the one who hung from that clock-face and made probably the most cash, and Buster Keaton was the genius.

Two new books in regards to the silent movie star Buster Keaton are out: Digital camera Man is by Dana Stevens and Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker’s Life is by James Curtis.

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Two new books in regards to the silent movie star Buster Keaton are out: Digital camera Man is by Dana Stevens and Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker’s Life is by James Curtis.

Catie Uninteresting/NPR

A tug on Dad’s pants leg, and a star is born

In accordance with the accounts of each Curtis and Stevens, Keaton got here to slapstick naturally. As a toddler, he saved crawling onstage throughout his mother and father’ vaudeville act, and his father, Joe Keaton, noting the laughs he was getting, began staging these interruptions. Buster would tug on dad’s pants leg, and, barely glancing down as he continued with the act, Joe would seize his child and toss him into the wings, the place a stagehand caught him, or hurl him at a fabric backdrop so the viewers might see him slide to the ground.

The place most youngsters would’ve giggled at being tossed round, Joe instructed Buster to maintain a straight face, and audiences howled. Earlier than lengthy, he was the star of the act, now known as The Three Keatons.

As Buster grew, the roughhousing bought rougher — Joe drank fairly a bit — and the act grew to become about Buster escaping his father, leaping and somersaulting out of the outdated man’s grasp. By the point he got here to movie on the age of 21, he was a digital acrobat.

Sight gags that will astonish even different filmmakers

Now, that background wasn’t what made Keaton particular. Chaplin additionally got here from vaudeville. So did most movie comics. And so they all informed tales and invented gags. However Keaton discovered early easy methods to manipulate this new medium of movie — easy methods to use its flatness and silence for sight gags that will astonish even different filmmakers.

Whereas his friends have been slipping on banana peels, he’d leap by home windows that all the time appeared to line up uncannily with one thing sudden on the street. And when he whacked a grizzly bear over the top with a rifle, it was apt to shoot between his legs on influence — and kill a second grizzly that he hadn’t realized was behind him. That solely works in case your world’s as flat because the display (and you do not hear the grizzlies).

The brand new books both dismiss or debunk considered one of my favourite legends about Keaton: that in actual life, when he was nonetheless a child, a cyclone plucked him from a lodge window and deposited him unharmed three blocks away. That nearly definitely did not occur. Nonetheless, if it had, it might clarify quite a bit — like why his gags on display so usually incorporate a surprisingly cooperative universe — one which sends a hurricane, say, to blow down the entrance wall of a constructing on high of him, however gives one small open window on an higher ground so he’ll emerge unscathed.

In Steamboat Invoice Jr., Keaton wished that collapse to look actual, so he had the wall constructed of brick and mortar — it weighed nearly two tons — which made the stunt so harmful that even the man cranking the digicam turned his eyes away after they filmed it.

The approaching of sound and the near-death of a profession

The approaching of sound and the interference of producers who thought they knew comedy higher than he did all-but-killed Keaton’s profession when he was barely in his 30s. That is the place my earlier information of him ended.

The brand new books deal largely with what got here later: ingesting, melancholy on the flip his profession had taken. By the point TV got here alongside, effectively, nobody knew what to do with him any extra. Within the first episode of 1950’s The Buster Keaton Present, underneath the opening credit he is seen munching crackers, and — outdated silent movie gag — selecting up a canine biscuit by mistake. Then the speaking begins, and the good comedian’s first line on TV?

A recorded bark.

Issues didn’t get higher when he truly spoke. The writers gave him a dream about being a Sam-Spade-style personal eye, with such strains as, “She had two of probably the most lovely legs I might ever seen. I do know, I counted them.”

It is like they did not need him to be alone in by no means smiling.

Rediscovery and renewed acclaim

That would’ve spelled the top for Keaton, whose movie negatives have been in tatters by that point. Silence was historical past, his unique viewers was, too. However simply a few years later, first rate copies of his outdated comedies surfaced in Europe, and when movie festivals took discover and struck contemporary prints, a brand new technology found him.

They found the man who:

  • climbed up onto a display throughout the display in Sherlock Jr. and bought hilariously tripped up by movie edits, whereas educating audiences about movie grammar.
  • Refused to cheat on stunt work, although it meant breaking greater than a dozen bones in pursuit of snickers, together with his neck.
  • Made a superb civil battle epic — The Basic — set nearly fully on shifting trains, with stunts and gags that no insurance coverage firm would permit a film star at this time.

Keaton bought to delight in renewed viewers acclaim earlier than he died. And a technology later, as that Silent Clowns pageant I attended in D.C. toured the nation, he was getting seat-shaking laughs from, I suppose, the good past.

Now, his work is on the market on-line. As these books introduce him to a digital technology nearly a century after the silent period, Buster Keaton will nonetheless immediate a joyful noise from anybody who watches.

NPR’s Danny Hensel produced this story for broadcast.

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