Parade of Lonely Faces: On Buster Keaton and Greta Garbo

By Emina MelonicMay 4, 2022

Parade of Lonely Faces: On Buster Keaton and Greta Garbo

Camera Man: Buster Keaton, the Dawn of Cinema, and the Invention of the Twentieth Century by Dana Stevens
Garbo by Robert Gottlieb

THE LINE BETWEEN the private self and the public persona is thin and indeterminate, for few more so than for movie actors. They oscillate between circulating as aesthetic commodities, playing fictional characters on-screen, and retaining interior selves that fans are not privy to. In its studio heyday, Hollywood was charged with the moving image experience; this is before television, iPhones, tablets, and the plethora of screens we encounter every day. And, then as now, people cannot look away from that parade of faces, faces of the silver screen that intrigue audiences as actors wear masks of tragedy and comedy. But who is the person behind the mask, and can we find them if we look hard enough? Two recent books — one on Buster Keaton, and another on Greta Garbo — reach into the lives of their subjects, making an effort to remove the mask and find the person in the persona without diminishing the allure of the image.

Dana Stevens’s Camera Man: Buster Keaton, the Dawn of Cinema, and the Invention of the Twentieth Century (Atria Books, 2022) is a well-researched work that goes beyond the great Buster Keaton to investigate the cultural milieu that Keaton was part of and helped to create. Stevens has respect for her subject, but it is not a blind love that drives her work. Rather, it is the elusive personality of Buster Keaton that led Stevens into familiar and unfamiliar territories. She plunges into the depths of not only the character of Keaton but also the character of America.

That Keaton and America are so interchangeable speaks to the common uniqueness of the performer and the nation at the turn of a new century. The possibilities seemed endless: cinema was emerging, and its novelty (like with most technological advances) was both exhilarating and frightening at the same time. And as Stevens writes, “Cinema’s displacement of theater as the nation’s most popular and influential form of mass entertainment took approximately a generation, a span of time that happened to coincide with Buster Keaton’s first twenty or so years of life.”

Starting out as a child performer in his parents’ vaudeville act, “The Three Keatons,” Keaton took advantage of the openness of a new industry and found himself both behind and in front of the camera, first at the small Comique Studio, and then later at the grand Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio. Though performing impressive slapstick routines on stage presented its own challenges, “[a]fter spending one day in front of and one night inside a motion picture camera, [Keaton] knew, for the first time in the last few restless and troubled years, exactly where he wanted to be.” Although there were many “funny men” moving from the stage to the silent screen in this moment, two of the most significant being Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton remains a performer whose on- and off-screen presence is difficult to access. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that, as Stevens notes, the actor himself was “notoriously unloquacious.” While other silent film performers were expressive, even histrionic, Keaton’s on-screen persona was stubbornly, beautifully impenetrable.

Known for his deadpan, almost lifeless facial expression, Keaton always remained on the outside of a cultural consciousness that was being created. He was famously apolitical; unlike Chaplin, his visions were rooted in the marvels of his virtuosic physicality. His films, including Sherlock, Jr. (1924), The General (1926), and The Cameraman (1928), still touch on the problems of American society, especially issues of race relations and women’s rights, which Stevens covers with great care, intelligence, and objectivity. For example, Keaton didn’t do much to advance women’s rights, but, as Stevens notes, “even movies that show little interest in their female characters’ social freedom or lack of it — which is to say, most movies made in the 1920s — can’t help but reflect the conditions of their time.”

While it is somewhat difficult to know Buster Keaton the man, Stevens uncovers instances of Keaton’s generous spirit that go beyond his immovable visage. We witness Keaton helping his fellow performer and friend Roscoe Arbuckle, whose career never recovered after false accusations of the rape and murder of Virginia Rappe. Arbuckle’s acquittal didn’t matter; his name was dragged through the mud and then some by the likes of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst and production code Commissar Will Hays. The scandal tanked his career, and, during this time, Keaton supported him financially and tried to find him meaningful work as well.

Keaton also took care of his alcoholic father all his life, and, indeed, the devil in the bottle hounded Keaton “junior” in turn. In many ways, this discussion is when Keaton becomes most human. Stevens’s discussion of Keaton’s continuous addiction to alcohol, and his refusal to seek help from Alcoholics Anonymous (a nascent movement of the 20th century when Keaton was at his lowest, and an organization that continues to this day) brings forth a man burdened by suffering. Stevens notes that essentially

Keaton lived life as what AA literature of the time called a “dry drunk,” someone […] who had not profoundly transformed his life by surrendering his will to a higher power or reaching out to help other alcoholics. Between his lifelong atheism, his characterological stubbornness, and his aversion to confrontation in any form, it seems hard to imagine a world where any such thing could have happened.

It is impossible for any biographer to present an entire and true picture of the subject, as much as it is to know any person completely. But even Keaton’s stone face, which shows seemingly nothing, becomes more legible as Stevens teases out the interior life of this man. Can we be so bold as to assert that Keaton was running from the world or himself because of two failed marriages, the halt in his career (later revived), and alcoholism? Stevens’s project is not a tell-all, nor does it profess to be, but her evocative readings of his most miserable on-screen performances begin to tell the story of a famous face who, at times, wished to vanish entirely.

It is fitting, then, that, toward the end of his life, Keaton would take part in Alan Schneider and Samuel Beckett’s Film (1965), which is based on an unsurprisingly avant-garde premise: a camera is chasing an object in an effort to capture it, the object being none other than Buster Keaton. Stevens notes that Keaton and his third wife, Eleanor, were not too keen on the project in the first place. She writes that “Both [Buster and Eleanor] grew up on the old-school ethos that an entertainer’s job was to amuse and impress audiences; in Buster’s words, ‘the audience’s duty ended when they paid to get in.’”

The production of Film was strange as well. Keaton was treated as a curiosity, as if he were on display in a circus tent, a mere concept representing cinema rather than an active participant in the development of the medium. Given Beckett’s propensity for creating absurdity and disorientation and Keaton’s gift for being a multitalented everyman, it is no shock that Keaton had such an unpleasant experience. Still, the metaphor remains: Who is Buster Keaton? Does he want to be seen? More importantly, how does he want to be seen? How many metaphorical and metaphysical masks must he wear until Keaton the man disappears into the foggy distance?

Such questions certainly also apply to the queen of silent cinema, Greta Garbo, who may or may not have wanted to be alone. Robert Gottlieb’s superb biography simply titled, Garbo (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021), is a journey into the soul of this mysterious woman. Gottlieb’s writing style is flawless and entertaining, yet he takes his subject very seriously. He maintains a proper distance from Garbo, treating her with care and respect, avoiding any tabloid-like digressions. And there is a great sense of humor in his tone, much like we unexpectedly find in Garbo herself.

Like Buster Keaton, Garbo too wore many masks and exhibited many selves, often conflicted and contradictory ones. Her own impassive face — with eyes that don’t give a damn about us, yet pierce us with love and perpetual sadness — has become infinitely famous, an integral part of American cinematic consciousness. As Roland Barthes writes, Garbo’s face is not just a face but an idea. (By contrast, Audrey Hepburn’s face is an “event.” Make of that what you will.) Garbo, born in Sweden to a disadvantaged family, lost her father early in her life. This event seems to have pierced her soul to the core, and she remained distant from the rest of her family, as well as the world.

Throughout Gottlieb’s account, her stoicism is on full display. Reflecting on her father’s death, Garbo said,

To my mind a great tragedy should be borne silently. It seemed disgraceful to me to show it in front of all the neighbors by constant crying. My own sorrow was as deep as theirs, and for more than a year I cried myself to sleep every night. For a time after his death I was fighting an absurd urge to get up in the night and run to his grave to see that he had not been buried alive.

These are words of a wounded daughter and a sorrowful woman. “Vulnerability” is not a description typically associated with Garbo. Her face alone represents a perpetual grief, one carefully guarded and that no human being is privy to.

Still, her yearning to be an actress was there from a young age. At eight years old, Garbo would walk quite a distance to the theater and watch the actors as they exited the stage. (An image of a wide-eyed Eve Harrington in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1950 All About Eve comes to mind.) And at 18, she met Mauritz Stiller, the Swedish director credited for renaming little Greta Gustafsson and, in a flash, discovering Garbo. After starring in Stiller’s The Saga of Gösta Berling, Garbo made it into Hollywood. She hated almost all of it. She didn’t like the shooting schedules, and she was “lonely, lonely.” She writes to her dear friend Mimi Pollack: “This ugly, ugly America, all machine, it is excruciating.”

As she spent more time in America and her career was on the rise, the shyness that she experienced as a young actress dissipated, and her stoicism, once again, emerged. She knew what she wanted and how to get it. She made demands of the studio heads and never budged. Many wanted to take credit for creating “Greta Garbo,” but not even Mauritz Stiller could do it. She kept to herself and, in the process, belonged entirely to herself. But did she invent herself? Gottlieb correctly explains that “she herself didn’t understand what she was all about. The world simply grasped that she was unique and to be treasured, and it flocked to see her.”

Garbo played a variety of characters — vamps, spies, and she could even be funny as seen in Ernst Lubitsch’s Ninotchka (1939) — but it was her role as the Swedish Queen Christina in Rouben Mamoulian’s 1933 eponymous film that seem to have been dearest to her heart. A telling anecdote emerges out of the filming, one that captures the metaphysical complexity of Greta Garbo. When she asked Mamoulian what kind of facial expression she should have in the final shot, he said, “Nothing, absolutely nothing. You must make your mind and heart a complete blank. Make your face into a mask; do not even blink your eyes while the camera is on you […] This was one of those marvelous spots where a film could turn every spectator into a creator.”

It is impossible to know what went on in Garbo’s mind, and how much of herself she was hiding from the view. Actors have reasons unknown sometimes even to them why they wish to be alone. Yet, there are hints that allow us to peer into Garbo’s soul. Gottlieb wonderfully points out a conversation that Garbo had with David Niven. Recollecting on the encounter, Niven asked, “Why did you give up the movies?” She was silent, and then, recalls Niven, she “considered her answer so carefully that I wondered if she had decided to ignore my personal question. At last, almost to herself, she said, ‘I had made enough faces.’”

Should we, as Mamoulian implied, make and remake her in our own image? Do we own her? Or is it only the camera that in the end “owns” the actor? Both Garbo and Keaton were ineffable celebrities, neither entirely known to their fans or, as their biographers suggest, to themselves.

In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche famously wrote, “Whatever is profound loves masks; what is most profound even hates image and parable.” Garbo’s stoicism sometimes gets in the way of determining whether she even liked wearing metaphorical masks, whether it was the characters or the actress herself projecting such gorgeous misery. She revealed herself only to few, but she also emerged as a profound performer. We say that an actor or an actress can be captivating, and, in turn, actors are held captive by the camera, frozen in time. Perhaps this is just what Garbo was trying to escape.

There is, however, a certain fluidity of an actor’s being, available even after they’ve become imprinted on celluloid. As spectators, we are both blessed and cursed with remaking the actors’ masks into our own image, desperate to fit them to our own expectations and hopes. The search for the authenticity of the human face never ceases, and this is the uneasy and unspoken “contract” between spectator and star. Neither can exist without the other.


Emina Melonic is a book and film critic who resides in East Aurora, New York.

LARB Contributor

Emina Melonic is a book and film critic who resides in East Aurora, New York. She is an adjunct fellow at the Center for American Greatness and a regular contributor to The New Criterion, Law & Liberty, and Splice Today, among other outlets.


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