Thursday, 21 February 2013

SOME BOOKS ABOUT... Buster Keaton

Pavilion Books/Michael Joseph Ltd, 1984
ROBERT BENAYOUN The Look of Buster Keaton (1984)

Benayoun is a French film critic whose book attempts to analyze Keaton's major silent films in the language of Cahiers du Cinéma and other French 'high art' film journals –– something which may or may not be to everybody's taste, depending where they stand on the issue of Keaton's work being compared with that of European artists and intellectuals such as André Breton, Luis Buñuel, René Magritte and Giorgio de Chirico (all of whom Benayoun cites as reference points in his book, using pictorial examples to illustrate and support his theories).  Was Buster Keaton a great auteur or simply the product of the long-standing vaudeville tradition which Hollywood first absorbed and then permanently destroyed?  Personally, I believe the latter.  Keaton would have been the first person to deny that he had anything of the auteur about him.  His attitude to comedy and filmmaking –– indeed to life itself was famously intuitive and anti-intellectual.  He liked playing bridge and tinkering with machinery and would gladly stop shooting in the middle of a scene if it wasn't going well to play baseball with the members of his crew.  Although he appeared in the arty 1965 short titled Film and was probably quite grateful to earn the small fee he was paid for it, he claimed to have no idea what it was about or why its writer, Samuel Beckett (who allegedly never spoke to him on set), insisted that he, and only he, must play the starring role.  

Benayoun seems content to overlook most of this, pursuing a private agenda more concerned with describing his over-intellectualized responses to Keaton's films and his subject's position as a 'significant artist' than discussing the films themselves.  The Buster he sees is the Buster he wants to see –– a post-modern auteur whose raison d'être was to identify and comment upon the soullessness of the machine age.  

What makes The Look of Buster Keaton a book worth owning, if you can find a copy, are its illustrations, many of which I'd never seen before stumbling upon my copy many years ago.  The book is packed with beautiful black and white studio portraits of Keaton and many stills and posters from classic silent films like The Navigator, Steamboat Bill Jr and The General.  It also contains a filmography which includes a complete listing of the largely forgotten films the comedian made for cut-rate studios like Educational Films and Columbia during the late 1930s and early 1940s.  It's not an indispensable book, but it is a useful and interesting one to have in your Keaton collection if you're willing to overlook some of its author's more outlandish speculations and enjoy it for the photographs.

The Look of Buster Keaton, originally published by Michael Joseph Limited in its 'Pavilion' series, has long been out of print.  Second-hand copies may still be available via specialized online retailers like ABE Books.

Collier Books, 1971
RUDI BLESH Keaton (1966)

Rudi Blesh was inspired to write this biography after New York's Museum of Modern Art began re-screening many of Keaton's most famous silent films in the late 1940s following his 'rediscovery' by American film critic (and underrated novelist) James Agee.  Blesh spent many hours interviewing Keaton and even moved into his house for a time, questioning him about his early days as the child star of his parents' knockabout vaudeville act, the momentous 1917 meeting with Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle which led him to abandon the stage to try his luck in the movies, and his subsequent rise to fame as the world's third most popular screen clown after Chaplin and the equally gifted if often underrated Harold Lloyd.  

Unfortunately, Keaton didn't live long enough to see the book published.  Although he supposedly finished writing it in 1955, Blesh was unable to find a publisher for his biography until 1966, by which time the comedian had been dead for several months.  This probably explains why it skims over the fiasco that was Keaton's post-silent career at MGM, where he was reduced from being a well-treated star to the lowly status of a paid-by-the-job gag man whose task it was to contribute bits of comic 'business' to films featuring new stars like The Marx Brothers and Red ButtonsNor does it discuss his eventual conquering of the new medium of television and how appearing regularly on programs such as The Ed Wynn Show and Candid Camera helped to reestablish his career and return him to the spotlight.

Blesh, a trumpet player and an expert on early jazz and ragtime, does a fine job of defining Keaton's importance as a cultural phenomenon without straying into the pretentious auteur territory explored by Robert Benayoun.  Blesh is particularly good on Keaton's childhood his birth in Kansas in 1895 (allegedly during a tornado), his parents' constant traveling from city to city as vaudeville performers and the problems they encountered with 'the Gerry Society', an early child protection agency which tried to have their act banned because much of it consisted of Keaton's father Joe literally throwing him around the stage.  The reader is left with a real sense of what a tough life it was in vaudeville and what a fine training ground it was for Keaton's future career as a film comedian, although it has been suggested by some silent cinema historians that Blesh's material isn't entirely accurate.  That doesn't matter so much if, like me, you're more interested in gaining a sense of how it felt to live in that forever vanished world than in having every name, date and place triple checked and stamped 'historically verified' by academically qualified 'experts.'  My copy of the book is lavishly (if cheaply) illustrated and also contains – you guessed it –– a complete filmography.

Again, this book has been out of print for quite some time.  ABE Books recently had one copy for sale and may have others available. 

Scribners first US edition, 1979
TOM DARDIS Keaton: The Man Who Wouldn't Lie Down (1979) 

This is an acceptable biography if you're looking for a clear, concise, unpretentious examination of Keaton's career and his often troubled life.  Unlike Blesh, Dardis doesn't shy away from delving into all the unpleasant and sometimes harrowing facts –– Keaton's alcoholism, his unhappy first marriage to Natalie Talmadge (sister of silent film stars Norma and Constance Talmadge, who thought their sister had married 'beneath her' by marrying a comedian) and the devastating psychological impact their divorce and the subsequent loss of his two sons had upon him for the remainder of his life.  Dardis is equally good when it comes to detailing Keaton's apparently dreadful head for business and for any kind of decision-making not directly related to his work –– a failing which cost him creative control of his career and, for a time, his career itself.  Keaton was a perfectionist when it came to his films and never lost his comic instincts, even when alcohol slowed his reactions to the point where it becomes painful to watch some of the two-reel shorts he made during the booze-soaked 1930s.  

Dardis' tone remains admiring and respectful despite these revelations, showing how Keaton the man influenced and shaped the decisions – ill-considered and often quite foolish decisions –– made by Keaton the disgraced drunken movie star.  He's much better than Blesh when it comes to describing the comedian's 'dark' years, beginning with the selling of his contract to MGM in 1928 and continuing through another failed marriage (which he claimed not to remember because he was drunk for most of it) and his subsequent firing by Louis B Mayer.  The one quibble I have is that Dardis tends to confuse Keaton's on-screen persona as 'The Great Stone Face' with his frequently masochistic real life personality.  This, I feel, was probably a marketing decision.  After all, this is a mass market biography aimed at a mass market audience, big on juicy facts, short on probing analysis.  But for what it is it reads quite well, containing a lot of useful quotes and anecdotes and even some interesting financial statistics which demonstrate why Mayer was so reluctant to let the comedian run his own career after buying his contract from his original producer (and husband of Norma Talmadge) Joseph M Schenck. 

In addition to the obligatory filmography, the book includes an appendix containing a short surrealist play by Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca –– his reaction to visiting New York for the first time in 1930, a city he described as 'a Senegal with machinery' and saw as being the perfect setting for a bizarre little adventure featuring his favorite movie clown.  Again, this may not be to everybody's taste, but it's interesting for what it reveals about just how wholeheartedly Keaton's screen persona was embraced by the European intelligentsia, who viewed the absurd comedy of his films as being uncannily representative of the social and psychological dilemmas being faced by modern man.

A 2006 reissue of Keaton: The Man Who Wouldn't Lie Down is currently available from The University of Minnesota Press in both print and eBook editions

DaCapo Press, 1988
BUSTER KEATON & CHARLES SAMUELS My Wonderful World of Slapstick (1960)

Ironically, this is probably the least interesting book about the life and work of Buster Keaton I've read.  Written in part to cash in on the buzz created by the 1957 biopic The Buster Keaton Story (in which he was portrayed by Donald O'Connor of Singin' In The Rain fame) and his TV-inspired resurgence, it's good on his childhood and vaudeville/early Hollywood years but conspicuously (if understandably) silent on the problems which led to his decline and subsequent banishment to the MGM equivalent of the doghouse.  He (or Samuels, no one can seem to agree on whose words these actually are) rarely discusses his filmsEven when these are mentioned, they tend to be dismissed in a few throwaway lines which reveal little, if anything, about how they were devised, staged, directed and photographed.  The anecdotal style of the book makes it fun to dip into if you're in the mood for it, but it's not by any means an essential or even particularly insightful look at the life and career of one of America's greatest-ever filmmakers.  Nor is it especially revealing about the off-camera world of early Hollywood –– a place that only seems to become more fascinating the further it recedes into the unrecapturable, sepia-tinted past.

My Wonderful World of Slapstick was last reissued by the DaCapo Press in 1988 and is probably still available via your local bookstore or favorite online retailer.

Alfred A Knopf Inc first US edition, 1975
WALTER KERR The Silent Clowns (1975)

There are two books you need to own if you're even the least bit interested in the history of silent cinema The Parade's Gone By by British film historian Kevin Brownlow and The Silent Clowns by American film and theater critic Walter Kerr.  While Kerr's book isn't exclusively devoted to Keaton, he devotes eight chapters to the comedian's now-legendary silent film work, beginning with his first 1917 appearance in The Butcher Boy with Fatty Arbuckle and ending with a comparison between The General and Chaplin's even more ambitious 1925 masterpiece The Gold Rush.  Keaton was the author's favorite silent clown and he also had the advantage of having seen all his films as a boy, loving them for what they were and were always intended to be –– cheap entertainment for working class people, many of whom were uneducated and illiterate and preferred comedies to dramas because they featured fewer title cards (required for dialogue and scene-setting purposes) and actors they could relate to more readily than the exotic, often impossibly glamorous megastars of the time.  (Comedians always used fewer title cards in their films and Keaton used fewer title cards than anyone else in Hollywood.  His face, body and inimitable comic timing were all he needed to establish his character and tell a funny story.)

Of course, this groundbreaking book has never been reprinted –– a fact which saddens me as much as it amazes me, given how popular the work of some silent comedians has now become with the visually-obsessed YouTube generation.  The Silent Clowns is balanced, intelligent without being intellectual (ie. pretentious), and magnificently illustrated.  (The illustrations alone make it worth buying even if you never plan to read the text.)  What also makes it a must-own book is the light Kerr casts on the careers of other silent comedians, many of whom – Larry Semon, Raymond Griffiths, the great French clown Max Linder –– have been totally forgotten since reaching their respective peaks of popularity during the mid-1910s and early 1920sIn comparing and contrasting Keaton's achievements with those of his peers, including his two greatest rivals Chaplin and Lloyd, he shows us just how special and important he was and how much was lost when the introduction of sound swept the world of silent cinema away with it forever.

The good news is that there are plenty of second-hand copies of The Silent Clowns waiting to be bought out there for those prepared to look for them.  Again, ABE Books is a good place to start.   

Several new books about BUSTER KEATON have appeared in recent years, the most recent of which is The Fall of Buster Keaton: His Films for MGM, Educational Films and Columbia by JAMES L NEIBAUR, published by the Scarecrow Press in July 2010.  I can't comment on them because I haven't read them, but you can learn more by visiting, a website founded and maintained by PATRICIA ELIOT TOBIAS, VICTORIA SAINTE-CLAIRE and AMY CONDIT, and clicking on the 'Resources' tab on the left side of your screen.

Happily, most of BUSTER KEATON's greatest silent films are now widely available on DVD, either via your local DVD retailer or online suppliers like AmazonThe website is a great source of information for anyone interested in buying KEATON films and other re-released classics from the pre-sound days or, indeed, in silent cinema generally.  (**Please note that you will need to own a DVD player which plays Region 1/US DVDs to watch films purchased from the Silent Era website.)

You might also enjoy:
STUART HAMPLE Dread and Superficiality: Woody Allen as Comic Strip (2009)
BENTLEY RUMBLE The Second Chance (2004)

No comments:

Post a Comment