Buster Keaton is the stuff legends are made of. The house falling in Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928). The amazing stunts in Sherlock Jr., during one of which Keaton broke his neck (and kept on working). Before stunt doubles were commonplace, Keaton performed some of the most dangerous stunts ever captured on film. His athleticism was as epic as his knack for comedy. His deadpan face, gaining him the nickname the “boy with the funeral expression,” brilliantly contradicted the outrageous situations in which his characters found themselves.
Fans of Keaton, as well as classic cinema, will be delighted to read James Curtis’s new book, Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker’s Life. The biography is a massive undertaking, offering over 800 pages on Keaton’s life and work. The idea of tackling Keaton’s life was suggested by storied editor Victoria Wilson, who has written her own tour-de-force biography of Barbara Stanwyck. Curtis himself is an old hand to the genre, having penned award-winning biographies of W. C. Fields and Spencer Tracy.
Researching silent Hollywood can be daunting, but there has been a growing renaissance of classic histories thanks in no small part to the digitization of many essential primary documents. For decades, biographers could simply talk to their subjects and the people who knew them. Curtis conducted the interviews that were available, but he also relies heavily on historical newspapers and the treasure trove that is the Media History Digital Library. Thanks to the brilliant curatorial management of Eric Hoyt, professor of Media Production at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and author of Ink-Stained Hollywood: The Triumph of American Cinema’s Trade Press (2022), historians, writers, and students of all kinds can now access a wealth of trade press, fan magazines, and technical journals of Hollywood’s Golden Age. This archive allows writers to rely less on the deteriorating (or selective) memory of the few living practitioners from the era. Because of copyright lapses, the 1920s are particularly open to researchers, who can readily delve into back issues of Photoplay and Variety.
Curtis’s biography diligently reconstructs Keaton’s origins growing up in a vaudeville family. Born in 1895, Joseph Frank “Buster” Keaton’s childhood has become the stuff of legend. There are many stories of Buster’s performer mother taking spills and suffering accidents during her pregnancy, the kind of beginning one might expect for such a legendary stuntman. Yet the truth is much plainer. Buster’s father, Joe, took his small-tent blackface act to small towns around the country and also performed in group acts with his wife. Buster was first credited on a program before he was a year old. He joined the act permanently at age five. Often biographies feel bloated with lengthy coverage of the subject’s childhood, but in this case it’s necessary. As soon as he could walk, Buster was learning to roll (or get thrown) across the stage without getting hurt. As a result, Joe was constantly battling the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, the first children’s rights group founded in 1874.
There are also numerous accounts of how Buster got his nickname. Curtis maintains that actor and playwright H. O. Pardey saw the small boy “as he bounced down a flight of stairs” sometime in 1896, when he would have been about one year old. Amused at the sight, Pardey said “he’s a regular buster,” referring to “the act of falling heavily.” Of course, as Keaton liked to tell it, this event occurred a few months later and the nickname was given by Harry Houdini. The truth is difficult to determine, though we know the Keatons traveled with Houdini and his wife for a short time before they broke into larger vaudeville venues.
Buster was first asked to try his hand at movie acting after meeting either Lou Anger or Joseph Schenck (depending on the source). Keaton familiarized himself with the medium once he got to know Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. Buster had enjoyed Arbuckle’s films while Fatty had appreciated Keaton’s stage work. Arbuckle taught Keaton how to work a camera and how to study a script laugh by laugh. Their friendship led to Buster’s first film, The Butcher Boy, released in 1917. As Curtis explains, Arbuckle saw the audience as a bunch of giggling kids, whereas Keaton saw the potential for greater meaning and coherence between gags. Keaton’s films have aged so well largely because of his ability to pull both laughter and emotion out of his stories.
Keaton’s life took a tragic turn when Arbuckle hosted a Labor Day party in San Francisco that has been forever tied to the death of actress Virginia Rappe. Though the Arbuckle trials have sparked numerous debates over the last century, Curtis maintains that the comedian was set up by serial extortionist Maude Delmont (who would soon be arrested for bigamy, adding to her already scandalous reputation). When news came out that Rappe had died and Arbuckle was being accused of manslaughter, Keaton stopped work on his current film, The Boat, and offered to testify as a character witness. Between a district attorney looking for publicity and a scam-artist madame, Keaton knew Arbuckle was being railroaded. Curtis cites film historian (and medical doctor) Tracey Goessel, who confirms that Rappe’s condition would not have been created by any man’s weight on top of her and was, in fact, the result of a catheter tearing into her, causing fatal peritonitis. Arbuckle saw two hung juries before getting an acquittal, an exoneration that came with a public apology for being dragged through the mud in the court of popular opinion.
The next crisis came when Will Hays, a freshly minted censorship czar, took to cleaning up the industry. Producer and director William Desmond Taylor had also been recently murdered (a case still unsolved today), which added to the public’s view of a Hollywood Babylon. Anyone associated with nefarious narratives, whether guilty or not, would no longer have free rein in Hollywood. Adolph Zukor pressed Hays to ban Arbuckle’s films, despite the actor’s recent exoneration. Too many of the local (and deeply religious) censorship boards had been swayed by the nasty press coverage of the Arbuckle case. Curtis cites Zukor in the 1950s admitting that he knew Arbuckle didn’t have the capacity to hurt anyone, but he felt that they could not keep spending money trying to change the minds of a stubborn public. Keaton’s standing with moviegoers, however, was still golden. Joseph Schenck helped establish Buster Keaton Productions, Inc., which would take the place of Arbuckle’s outfit as a comedy powerhouse.
Keaton and Arbuckle were already discussing ways to push comedy into the feature-film market. At the time, most comedies were shorts, and the filmmakers had to come up with new material every couple of months. Keaton was determined to see that comedy features would become the next major step for the genre. One of Keaton’s strengths was his sense of character development. He didn’t need a laugh in every scene. He wanted the audience to believe in his characters, which only made the comedy that much more impactful. Keaton’s deadpan expression, underreacting to incredible gags and stunts, sold every scene. Curtis quotes Keaton, who gave many candid interviews during his life, at length throughout the book. Here is a taste:
It’s just my way of working, I guess, I have found — especially on the stage — that when I finish a stunt, I can get a laugh just by standing still and looking at the audience as if I was surprised and slightly hurt to think that they would laugh at me. It always brings a bigger laugh. Fatty Arbuckle gets his humor differently. The people laugh with him. They laugh at me.
Keaton knew how to hook the audience, keeping them engaged in the characters, and surprised by the exaggerations and gags:
The best way to get a laugh is to create a genuine thrill and then relieve the tension with comedy. Getting laughs depends on the element of surprise, and surprises are getting harder and harder to get as audiences, seeing more pictures, become more and more comedy-wise. But when you take a genuine thrill, built up to it, and then turn it into a ridiculous situation, you always get that surprise element.
Keaton instinctively knew that he needed to evolve with his audience. The simple slapstick routine common in shorts would get tired when stretched out across a feature-length film. Throughout the rest of his career, Keaton would mix comedy and drama to make some of the most compelling and influential silent films, including Our Hospitality (1923), The Navigator (1924), The General (1926), Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928), and The Cameraman (1928). Each of these films gets a chapter in this biography. In Curtis’s view, “Our Hospitality was a mature work of visual storytelling, richly textured and combining the comic and the tragic so deftly it marked an astonishing advancement for a man who had been directing his own films for just three years.”
Readers are only halfway through the book when synchronized-sound movies arrive on the scene. Curtis thoroughly covers Keaton’s response to sound and its impact on comedy, his thoughts on getting fired by Louis B. Mayer, and his artistic and commercial struggles from the 1930s to his death in 1966. For those interested in personal details, Curtis takes us through Keaton’s three marriages, his drinking problems, and his stints on television toward the end of his life. Given its size, Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker’s Life could easily have been published in two volumes, but its heft makes it a treasure trove for Keaton’s most dedicated fans.
Another, rather slimmer new Keaton biography is Dana Stevens’s Camera Man: Buster Keaton, The Dawn of Cinema, and the Invention of the Twentieth Century. Less intimidating at around 400 pages, Camera Man is more focused, as its subtitle implies, on Keaton’s relationship with the evolving American culture of the 20th century. The book not only chronicles Keaton’s brilliant career but also situates the immortal comic within the development of cinema during his lifetime. Stevens details Keaton’s frustration with the antisemitic Henry Ford, the connection between his 1920 film One Week and new prefab homes, and, of course, the elephant in the room, his support of Arbuckle. Both Curtis and Stevens agree that Arbuckle was wrongly dragged through the mud and that Keaton’s unwavering support of his old friend is nothing short of commendable.
Stevens uses her well-trained critical eye (she has been a film reviewer at Slate since 2006) to assess Keaton’s films during a time when women had a higher number of powerful positions in Hollywood than they do today. Mabel Normand, Alice Guy-Blaché, and Lois Weber were all important producers and directors during Keaton’s heyday. Stevens also discusses rare instances when Keaton’s brilliance missed the mark with audiences. The General, for example, has sometimes been referred to as “the Heaven’s Gate of the ’20s.” Stevens rightly calls such a claim hyperbole, comparing the problems The General encountered with the fates of other epic flops, such as Erich von Stroheim’s Greed (1924). In short, Keaton was not a maniacal auteur like von Stroheim (or Michael Cimino).
Camera Man manages to be at once a critical study, a biography, and a personal journey. Stevens’s words beam with the joy of sharing her love for Buster Keaton with the world. The book concludes with a moving story of her trip to visit Keaton’s grave at Forest Lawn Memorial Park, which turned into a long walk and conversation with her driver, whose father was buried in the same cemetery.
Keaton fans will be well served by these two books for the foreseeable future. They should be seen less as dueling biographies than as complementary studies. The two authors take different approaches that highlight their individual strengths. Curtis offers a fine-tuned deep dive into Keaton’s life and work, relying heavily on primary documents and press archives. Stevens’s focus is broader: while still drawing upon primary sources, she puts Keaton’s achievements in context by assessing his films through the lens of a cultural critic and historian.
What’s clear from both books is that Buster Keaton’s influence has not waned since his career peaked in the 1920s. Comedians have been studying his work for generations. I was once told by a producer on the hit TV series Family Guy that many contemporary comedy writers study Keaton and his contemporaries of silent cinema as a way to fine-tune their own comic timing. Keaton’s work lives on, much of it easily accessible today on YouTube. It has never been easier to explore Keaton’s cinematic accomplishment. One hopes that these two books will provide the groundwork for new generations to fall in love with the famed comedian. Of course, those of us who have been fans for eons are welcome to fall in love with Buster’s work all over again. I know I did.
All images courtesy of the Media History Digital Library.
Chris Yogerst is associate professor of Communication in the Department of Arts and Humanities at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. His latest book, Hollywood Hates Hitler! Jew-Baiting, Anti-Nazism, and the Senate Investigation into Warmongering in Motion Pictures, was published by the University Press of Mississippi in 2020.