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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 young person, and had been considering of him rather a lot for the reason that loss of life a couple of months in the past of NPR’s most fervent fellow Keaton devotee, Petra Mayer.
So the arrival of two severely researched and insight-filled volumes? Pure catnip.
In Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker’s Life, James Curtis gives an in depth portrait of the comic who smiled so seldom he was often called “The Nice Stone Face.” Digicam Man by Dana Stevens relates his comedies to the instances he lived in. Each approaches are instructive, and generally revelatory, although I might have mentioned I used to be fairly well-versed in Keaton’s work.
Again after I was designing film advertisements contemporary out of school, a theater I labored for gifted a month-long Silent Clowns pageant, impressed by critic Walter Kerr’s e book of that title. It had organist Lee Irwin doing stay accompaniment on a pair of keyboards down entrance, and daily a brand new program — two full-length options and a brief topic. And for 4 superb weeks, I spent daily watching the nice clowns of the silent period strut their stuff. Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp was the one everybody knew greatest, all-American daredevil Harold Lloyd was the one who hung from that clock-face and made essentially the most cash, and Buster Keaton was the genius.
A tug on Dad’s pants leg, and a star is born
In response to the accounts of each Curtis and Stevens, Keaton got here to slapstick naturally. As a toddler, he saved crawling onstage throughout his dad and mom’ 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 may see him slide to the ground.
The place most children 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 referred to 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 may 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 advised tales and invented gags. However Keaton discovered early tips on how to manipulate this new medium of movie — tips on how to use its flatness and silence for sight gags that may astonish even different filmmakers.
Whereas his friends had been slipping on banana peels, he’d leap by means of home windows that all the time appeared to line up uncannily with one thing surprising on the street. And when he whacked a grizzly bear over the pinnacle 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 one in every 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 just about actually did not occur. Nonetheless, if it had, it will clarify rather a lot — like why his gags on display so typically incorporate a unusually cooperative universe — one which sends a hurricane, say, to blow down the entrance wall of a constructing on high of him, however supplies 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 virtually two tons — which made the stunt so harmful that even the man cranking the digital camera 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 data of him ended.
The brand new books deal largely with what got here later: consuming, despair 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, beneath 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 nice comedian’s first line on TV?
A recorded bark.
Issues didn’t get higher when he really spoke. The writers gave him a dream about being a Sam-Spade-style non-public eye, with such traces as, “She had two of essentially the most stunning 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 tip for Keaton, whose movie negatives had 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 instructing audiences about movie grammar.
- Refused to cheat on stunt work, though it meant breaking greater than a dozen bones in pursuit of guffaws, together with his neck.
- Made an excellent civil struggle epic — The Basic — set virtually totally on shifting trains, with stunts and gags that no insurance coverage firm would enable a film star at present.
Keaton bought to indulge 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 nice past.
Now, his work is accessible on-line. As these books introduce him to a digital technology virtually 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.