"Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker's Life" by James Curtis

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Ed Watz
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Re: "Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker's Life" by James Curtis

Postby Ed Watz » Thu May 19, 2022 10:27 am

May 17, 2022
From The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

At 810 pages, 'Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker's Life' is a commitment worth making
by Carol O'Sullivan

You might wonder why, in the age of TikTok, anybody would be interested in reading about a silent film star born during the Gilded Age. But the story of a fascinating life is timeless. Such is the case with Buster Keaton (1895-1966), known for his deadpan comic style, acrobatic stunt work and clever high jinks that coincided with the rise of cinema.

There already were several biographies, plus an autobiography, and a couple of documentaries before two additional bios were published this year. “Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker’s Life” by James Curtis is one of them.

At 810 pages, this history of the film artist’s life is quite a commitment. But it is also beautifully written. Those with even a cursory knowledge of Keaton should find the book compelling.

The stunning cover photo of Keaton as a young man suggests he could’ve been a matinee idol rather than comedian — had he any interest. Additionally, Keaton’s granddaughter Melissa Talmadge Cox, who was a new resource for this bio, provides many wonderful candid snapshots.

Known as the “Great Stone Face” through most of his career, what Keaton figured out as a youngster, crashing about the stage with his parents, was this: the more serious his expression, the bigger the laughs.

The author calls that famous mug “unsmiling, but certainly not without feeling.” He points out, “...for audiences that considered the viewing experience a collaborative effort, he instinctively invited them into the action, and what they got in return was reflected humanity….”

Although he had no formal schooling, Keaton was always drawn to the study of physics. One Keaton legend, oft repeated, claims 3-year-old Buster was plucked right off the ground by a cyclone and gently dropped on the other side of town — thus underscoring his fearless relationship with the forces of nature. Sadly, Curtis implies this probably never happened.

We get expanded stories about his upbringing and the vaudeville lore: all the towns and theaters where “The Three Keatons” performed, all of the (often dangerous) physical gags that made audiences roar, all the injuries, all the siblings, all the friends he made.

When Keaton was asked, circa 1917, if he’d like to try a movie, he jumped. “I had been traveling on the road for over 20 years,” he says. “I took my gamble and cast my lot with the pictures,” sealing his fate.

No surprise, Keaton was a quick study, first becoming an apprentice then assistant director. The book offers detailed descriptions of the set-up and execution of gags in many of those early shorts, showing us what made them funny.

Thriving on the creative new art form, Keaton’s movie career took off, and his reputation as a comic genius soared. His silent masterpieces include “Cops,” “The Navigator,” “The General,” “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” and many more.

In a gleaned interview, Keaton explains that making films was always collaborative, calling himself a “producer, player, principal scene planner, chief gag writer, and director.” His ego didn’t get in the way; he didn’t care about getting credit. He just loved the work. “I would have done it for free.”

After much fame and fortune in Hollywood, his personal life begins to feel like a bad mini-series. Will alcoholism, mounting debt, and two nasty divorces take him down? Fortunately, about halfway through the bio, we learn Keaton pulls that plane, so to speak, out of a death spiral. He dries out (mostly), adapts to changes in the industry, gets a dog, and moves on.

It helps that his third and last wife, Eleanor, was devoted to him. But more than anything, he was most content when working, rarely turning down a job. He transitioned to sound films just fine (even teen movies), live theater and television. He acted in TV commercials, as well as popular shows such as “Playhouse 90,” “The Donna Reed Show,” “Twilight Zone,” “Route 66” and “Candid Camera.”

Keaton lived long enough to see a multitude of tributes and retrospectives. Audiences honored him with standing ovations all over the world.

Meticulously (maybe excruciatingly) researched, this book includes facts surrounding a complex fight over copyright issues. Keaton, though, was pretty democratic about his legacy. One day, he told his wife “I’ll turn my movies over to television … and let them stay on TV forever.”

Today Buster Keaton’s films live on YouTube. He probably would’ve liked that.

Carol O’Sullivan is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh. She taught film history for more than three decades.

https://www.post-gazette.com/ae/books/2 ... sy6f_cAc9k
"Of course he smiled -- just like you and me." -- Harold Goodwin, on Buster Keaton (1976)

Ed Watz
Associate
Posts: 343
Joined: Wed Oct 26, 2011 7:35 pm

Re: "Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker's Life" by James Curtis

Postby Ed Watz » Mon Sep 19, 2022 9:46 am

The rave reviews for James Curtis' magnificent book keep on coming:

Master of the silver screen
Definitive biography of Buster Keaton a comprehensive, riveting account

Reviewed by Barry Craig
Winnipeg Free Press, September 3, 2022

He had all the ingredients of an old-timer waiting for his pension — baggy pants, soiled hat and a chest that drained into his waistcoat.

That’s how I described comedy legend Buster Keaton in 1964 when he was standing on a railway handcar on the CNR tracks at Rivers, making a silent movie.

I was a 26-year-old reporter and Mr. Keaton was 245 kilometres west of Winnipeg starring in a flick called The Railrodder for our National Film Board. He was in his late 60s and he loved small towns, he told me, because they always act themselves.

Now, 58 years later, American writer James Curtis has brought Buster back to us.

In an impressive biography, the writer renowned for his portraits of the lives of W.C. Fields and Spencer Tracy has done it again. His Keaton is literary excellence marinated in facts.

Curiously, Curtis opens his exceptional book with a description of Buster at work at Rivers the day I was there. The Railrodder became a 25-minute comedy travelogue showing off Canada’s beauty to Keaton as he pumped and bumbled his way across the nation on a railway handcar.

Curtis, who lives in Brea, Calif., writes with ardour about Buster Keaton as one of the greatest comics the world’s ever seen — maybe better than even Chaplin, certainly a genius of physical comedy and, behind the camera, one of history’s finest filmmakers.

Buster and the likes of Harold Lloyd, Fields and Chaplin were idolized by early moviegoers. Their humour was a potion that refreshed their fans when life for most of them was more sour than sweet. It was the laughter of forgetting that stilled their drudgery. And many believe that Keaton was the best clown of them all — and not just an astonishingly nimble comic who’d shame an Olympic gymnast but also the maker of masterpieces that remain ageless — a bonanza of silent movies produced primarily in the 1920s that were estimated to be making him as much as $4,000 a week around 1926 ($60,000 or more today).

According to Curtis, today’s movie greats as varied as Mel Brooks and Martin Scorsese worship Keaton as a comedic master so good his extraordinary looked easy — until the ordinary tried it. With his trademark deadpan look that would make a gravestone blink, the Great Stone Face provided the world with more mental therapy than an army of do-gooders.

The Buster that Curtis describes in such detail lived a life that ran the gamut of human experience — love and rejection, glory and defeat, alcoholism and sometimes-sobriety, financial ruin, adulation and humiliation and, finally, a measure of peace. It’s all here.

Joseph Frank Keaton was born in 1895 to Joe and Myra Keaton, medicine show performers and, later, vaudevillians. He was nicknamed Buster after he fell down a flight of stairs.

At nine months, he somehow got out of his crib backstage (it was a trunk) and crawled out front where his father was doing a monologue. Two months later he joined his parents on the billing.

Buster, says Curtis, started school at age seven and was kicked out on his first day and told not to come back. Myra (and, later, a governess) had to teach him.

Curtis quotes Buster as saying: “And they asked (the teacher) for silly things like ‘Give me a sentence with the word DELIGHT.’ I sez, ‘The wind blew in de window and blew out de light.’….and the kids go into hysterics.” But not the teacher.

Keaton was an actor, writer, director — sometimes all three — between 1917 and 1966. Others who tried to match his physical comedy usually ended up in hospital. The arrival in 1927 of Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer, the movie industry’s first synchronized sound picture, marked the beginning of the end for silent films.

Keaton’s co-wrote and directed his masterpiece, The General, in 1926. Of course, he also starred in it.

And in 1989, when the Library of Congress established the National Film Registry of significant motion pictures, The silent General was among the first picked for the registry, alongside Casablanca, Gone with the Wind, The Maltese Falcon and The Wizard of Oz.

Curtis says Keaton’s most famous stunt was in 1928 in Steamboat Bill, Jr. Buster thought it up and planned it down to the last detail. A fake full-size house was built with the front of it on hinges attached to cables that could pull down the entire front. The fake front weighed 4,000 pounds. It was to fall on Buster, but he would be unhurt because the open front door would land exactly where he was standing with his back to the collapsing front. If something was off in Buster’s planning he’d be killed.

The front of the house came crashing down and the frame of the open front door brushed one of Buster’s shoulders. Two female extras fainted.

There is so much more to Keaton’s story. He was presented with an honorary Oscar in 1960. A smoker, he died of lung cancer in 1966. He was 70.

When movies were silent, Mr. Keaton spoke louder than words.

Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker’s Life By James Curtis. Knopf, 809 pages, (128 illustrations)
"Of course he smiled -- just like you and me." -- Harold Goodwin, on Buster Keaton (1976)


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