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Two new books revisit the legacy of silent film comic Buster Keaton

Hulton Archive, Getty Images
Getty Images
Buster Keaton in a promotional still for 'The Cameraman', which came out in 1928.

Updated February 21, 2022 at 4:22 PM ET

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

I've been nuts about the silent-film comic since I was a teenager, and had been thinking of him a lot since the death a few months ago of NPR's most fervent fellow Keaton devotee, Petra Mayer.

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

In Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker's Life, James Curtis offers a detailed portrait of the comedian who smiled so seldom he was known as "The Great Stone Face." Camera Man by Dana Stevens relates his comedies to the times he lived in. Both approaches are instructive, and sometimes revelatory, though I'd have said I was pretty well-versed in Keaton's work.

Back when I was designing movie ads fresh out of college, a theater I worked for presented a month-long Silent Clowns festival, inspired by critic Walter Kerr's book of that title. It had organist Lee Irwin doing live accompaniment on a pair of keyboards down front, and every day a new program — two full-length features and a short subject. And for four glorious weeks, I spent every day watching the great clowns of the silent era strut their stuff. Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp was the one everyone knew best, all-American daredevil Harold Lloyd was the one who hung from that clock-face and made the most money, and Buster Keaton was the genius.

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

According to the accounts of both Curtis and Stevens, Keaton came to slapstick naturally. As a toddler, he kept crawling onstage during his parents' vaudeville act, and his father, Joe Keaton, noting the laughs he was getting, started staging those interruptions. Buster would tug on dad's pants leg, and, barely glancing down as he continued with the act, Joe would grab his kid and toss him into the wings, where a stagehand caught him, or hurl him at a cloth backdrop so the audience could see him slide to the floor.

Where most kids would've giggled at being tossed around, Joe instructed Buster to keep a straight face, and audiences howled. Before long, he was the star of the act, now called The Three Keatons.

As Buster grew, the roughhousing got rougher — Joe drank quite a bit — and the act became about Buster escaping his father, leaping and somersaulting out of the old man's grasp. By the time he came to film at the age of 21, he was a virtual acrobat.

Sight gags that would astonish even other filmmakers

Now, that background wasn't what made Keaton special. Chaplin also came from vaudeville. So did most film comics. And they all told stories and invented gags. But Keaton figured out early how to manipulate this new medium of film — how to use its flatness and silence for sight gags that would astonish even other filmmakers.

While his peers were slipping on banana peels, he'd leap through windows that always seemed to line up uncannily with something unexpected in the street. And when he whacked a grizzly bear over the head with a rifle, it was apt to shoot between his legs on impact — and kill a second grizzly that he hadn't realized was behind him. That only works if your world's as flat as the screen (and you don't hear the grizzlies).

The new books either dismiss or debunk one of my favorite legends about Keaton: that in real life, when he was still a baby, a cyclone plucked him from a hotel window and deposited him unhurt three blocks away. That almost certainly didn't happen. Still, if it had, it would explain a lot — like why his gags on screen so often incorporate a strangely cooperative universe — one that sends a hurricane, say, to blow down the front wall of a building on top of him, but provides one small open window on an upper floor so he'll emerge unscathed.

In Steamboat Bill Jr., Keaton wanted that collapse to look real, so he had the wall built of brick and mortar — it weighed almost two tons — which made the stunt so dangerous that even the guy cranking the camera turned his eyes away when they filmed it.

The coming of sound and the near-death of a career

The coming of sound and the interference of producers who thought they knew comedy better than he did all-but-killed Keaton's career when he was barely in his 30s. That's where my previous knowledge of him ended.

The new books deal in large part with what came later: drinking, depression at the turn his career had taken. By the time TV came along, well, no one knew what to do with him any more. In the first episode of 1950's The Buster Keaton Show, under the opening credits he's seen munching crackers, and — old silent film gag — picking up a dog biscuit by mistake. Then the talking starts, and the great comic's first line on TV?

A recorded bark.

Things did not get better when he actually spoke. The writers gave him a dream about being a Sam-Spade-style private eye, with such lines as, "She had two of the most beautiful legs I'd ever seen. I know, I counted them."

It's like they didn't want him to be alone in never smiling.

Rediscovery and renewed acclaim

That could've spelled the end for Keaton, whose film negatives were in tatters by that time. Silence was history, his original audience was, too. But just a couple of years later, decent copies of his old comedies surfaced in Europe, and when film festivals took notice and struck fresh prints, a new generation discovered him.

They discovered the guy who:

  • climbed up onto a screen within the screen in Sherlock Jr. and got hilariously tripped up by film edits, while teaching audiences about film grammar.
  • Refused to cheat on stunt work, even though it meant breaking more than a dozen bones in pursuit of laughs, including his neck.
  • Made a brilliant civil war epic — The General — set almost entirely on moving trains, with stunts and gags that no insurance company would allow a movie star today.

Keaton got to bask in renewed audience acclaim before he died. And a generation later, as that Silent Clowns festival I attended in D.C. toured the country, he was getting seat-shaking laughs from, I guess, the great beyond.

Now, his work is available online. As these books introduce him to a digital generation almost a century after the silent era, Buster Keaton will still prompt a joyful noise from anyone who watches.

NPR's Danny Hensel produced this story for broadcast.
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