ON BOOKS: Biography puts Keaton in the limelight

Something interesting happens in the Buster verse; Last month, Buster Keaton played a small but vital role in Renee Braum’s excellent debut novel ‘Defenetrate’, now two major biographies of the silent film star have appeared.

I haven’t yet read Slate film critic Dana Steven’s ambitious title “Camera Man: Buster Keaton, the Dawn of Cinema and the Invention of the 20th Century” (Atria, $28), but I did. fairly devoured “Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker’s Life” (Knopf, $40) which sounds like the definitive statement on the man’s life. Unfortunately, it debunks some of the captions Braum used in his fiction, including the story of how the child Keaton acquired his nickname.

Keaton was in a boarding house in Piqua, Kansas, born in 1895 while his parents, Joe and Myra Keaton, were visiting as members of a traveling medicine show.

According to Curtis, it was a British vaudeville comedian named George A. Pardey who, after watching young Joseph Frank Keaton fall down a flight of stairs in no apparent distress, announced “Gee whiz! He’s a regular guy!” – not Harry Houdini. (Keaton himself sometimes said that Houdini gave him the nickname, but even in the 19th century, the Akron Beacon Journal gave credit to Pardey. But Houdini was a family friend who toured with Keaton’s parents.)

It’s also unlikely that the stories told by Keaton’s father, Joe, of Houdini helping him hunt a runaway tent blown by a cyclone the night the future Buster was born, or of the 3-year-old Buster being sucked in by the window of a boarding house, have no basis in fact either. But there was something remarkably resilient about the young boy, who even as a baby was embedded in the brutal act of his parents, who presented themselves as “the eccentric Tad and the Chic Soubrette”. Joe specialized in a very physical brand of comedy that involved lots of kicking, dropping, and silly walks, while Myra provided musical accompaniment on piano and saxophone.

By the time Buster was 5, he was part of his father’s “raw Irish specialty” act which involved father and son dressing in tartan suits and bald wigs with taped mustaches. Joe would begin attempting an elaborate physical stunt, only to be interrupted by a wisecracking Buster, prompting the angry fake Joe to throw the boy – who even then maintained a stoic expression – alarming distances. The crowds apparently loved it.

“You can’t speak highly enough of the ability of my little comedian Buster…” Joe wrote to his friend Houdini in April 1901. “There’s no other act like it.” The child is 11 years old. And he hasn’t grown since you saw him. He weighs 40 lbs. And he’s a butcher. The ushers left work when he made the troop.

The fact that Buster is actually 6 years old, not 11, might say something about Joe’s care as a parent. Buster acquired another nickname – “The Boy Who Can’t Be Damaged” – and the act persisted for years, despite the efforts of Elbridge T. Gerry and his eponymous company, a group that sought to control and to regulate child actors.

This acrobatic workout – if that’s what it was – served Buster well as he aged out of the family number and started making movies, starting with two reels he worked in with Roscoe “Fatty”. Arbuckle. In the 1920s, Keaton established himself as a multi-talented actor and director at the helm of his own studio, producing classics such as “The General,” “Steamboat Bill Jr.”, “Sherlock Jr.” and “The Navigator”.

Then, in 1928, Keaton signed a contract with MGM, Hollywood’s biggest studio, which marked the end of his glory days. Keaton struggled to cope with his loss of creative control and felt trapped in a bad marriage. He started drinking heavily and for a time was considered unemployable.

But Curtis busts another myth here – that drink and the arrival of walkie-talkies effectively ended Keaton’s career. The truth is, he was a trouper and bounced back from the depths of the 1930s to work regularly in film and TV (where he starred in commercials for Alka-Seltzer and hosted a local variety show in the Los Angeles market). He often took on self-deprecating roles that hinted at his faded stardom – he played one of Norma Desmond’s failed “waxworks” in the deck of cards in “Sunset Boulevard”.

He appeared in TV series like “The Twilight Zone” and “Candid Camera”. He performed in a French circus. In 1959 he received an honorary Oscar, the only one he ever won. In 1964, he shot a 24-minute short film in New York directed by Samuel Beckett, which was at the height of his literary success. He died in February 1966, a relatively happy and contented man who prided himself on keeping pace with the times. Keaton had heard the Beatles, he had become an advertising icon, and he felt silent films were being discovered and enjoyed by new audiences.

Curtis is not a flashy writer and his text is perhaps more than anything Keaton’s most devoted fans could possibly need; but there is a stable and balanced air to this book that suits its subject. It is a down-to-earth majesty that avoids the pitfalls of idolatry and hagiography. Like his subject, he downplays all emotion.

But Buster Keaton was not indestructible, not bulletproof, not the boy who couldn’t be damaged.

“There were those who would not see the humanity in him,” Curtis writes, “who preferred the emotion that Chaplin brought fully to his images, but for audiences who viewed the viewing experience as a collaborative effort, he instinctively invited them to action, and what they saw in return was a reflected humanity, a bit of themselves in what was superficially seen as an empty pan.

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