Review: Two New Buster Keaton Biographies

Keaton was as much a technical innovator as a comedian, and Curtis’ book painstakingly details how these effects were achieved. (The rot...


Keaton was as much a technical innovator as a comedian, and Curtis’ book painstakingly details how these effects were achieved. (The rotating house was built on a turntable whose drive belt was buried in dirt and grass.) the talking ones. This myth is partly a function of Keaton’s persuasiveness as an actor in his later years: staring gloomily at his losing hand as one of Hollywood’s old “waxworks” who plays playing cards with Norma Desmond in Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Boulevard” (1950) and impassively twist dancing with bikini-clad starlet Bobbi Shaw in the teen exploitation film “Beach Blanket Bingo” (1965, a year before her death) .

Curtis isn’t afraid of Keaton’s 1930s, when he lost his creative autonomy at MGM, pulled out of a loveless marriage to his first wife, Natalie Talmadge, and drank so much he was , for a time, unemployable. But the big picture he paints is of a balanced lifelong showbiz that was just happy to keep working. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Keaton never despised television, warming up early to its potential to reach millions. He hosted a variety show on a local station in Los Angeles and starred in clever commercials for Alka-Seltzer; Curtis notes that Keaton viewed television commercials “as little comic shorts akin to the two-reel movies” he made in his youth. One Easter Sunday in the 1960s, he stopped by a party hosted by Mary Pickford and took pity on the silent film stars present. “I found out we had nothing to say,” Keaton said. “Some of them had never heard a Beatles record. They hadn’t kept up with the times.”

Keaton’s final act was a contented victory lap in which he lived modestly in the San Fernando Valley town of Woodland Hills, married to his third wife, Eleanor Norris, and aware of the renewed esteem in which his silent films were required. The lack of operatic ups and downs in Keaton’s life may make Curtis’ straight-forward, sequential biography a slog if you’re not a committed Buster Boi, but it’s such a definitive account of the comedian at sad face one would hope for.

Dana Stevens’ “Camera Man: Buster Keaton, the Dawn of Cinema and the Invention of the Twentieth Century” is a welcome addition, as Stevens, film critic for Slate, contextualizes Keaton’s accomplishments in a way that Curtis doesn’t. In an elegant preface, Stevens positions 1895, the year of Keaton’s birth, as a crucial period of transition, “not yet the 20th century but the still unreadable sign of what it might become”. Marconi has just succeeded in “transmitting radio waves over a considerable distance”. Freud is struck by the idea of ​​analyzing his patients by interpreting their dreams. And in the basement of a Parisian café, the Lumière brothers project their animated images for the first time in front of a paying audience.

Buster appears in the new century as an agent of what we would today call disruption. He, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Chaplin and Keaton’s film mentor, is not just a comedian, but an entrepreneur, an early adopter of new technologies whose wits and foresight earn him tons of money and of admiration. Like today’s tech bros, they encounter a bag of mixed fates. Chaplin is the most revered but spends his later life in a gilded prison of his own importance and melancholy. Arbuckle is beaten down by a scandal in which he is accused of killing a young actress and later exonerated, but not before his career is left in shambles. (Stevens, a fierce defender of Arbuckle, portrays Keaton as a loyal friend who gives Roscoe post-scandal work as a gag writer and uncredited co-director.) ending the gigs — but most purely creative, a workaholic whose passion is to imagine gags.

Stevens clearly adores his subject, describing him as a “solemn, handsome, perpetually airborne man”. “Camera Man” is less a traditional biography and more a series of reported essays on 20th century advancements with Keaton at their center. Sometimes Stevens ventures too far, as when she devotes most of a chapter to a pointless examination of the Hollywood struggles of F. Scott Fitzgerald – a man Keaton apparently did not know – on the grounds that the two men were alcoholics with marriage. troubles who were unfortunately employed at MGM at the same time.

But Stevens is sharper when she focuses on ancillary phenomena such as the emergence of serious film criticism, an entirely new discipline of writing. She points to the precise moment, in a review of Keaton’s 1923 feature “Three Ages”, when Robert Sherwood of Life magazine “pushes film criticism in a new direction as he brings events outside the theater to influence his experience inside” praising Keaton’s ability “to keep this much-molested human race in good spirits, in a time when they have nothing but high taxes, US senators, strikes from the coal, banana shortages, wrong numbers and Signor Mussolini to think about.”

Nearly a hundred years later, while we face an almost identical list of vexations, give or take a surname, Keaton’s lovingly crafted shorts and features still have that beneficial effect. Curtis and Stevens did well to bring the boy with the funereal expression back from the dead.

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