Buster Keaton was born on October 4, 1895 and died on February 1, 1966. Keaton, along with Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, are today considered the most popular three performers from the late silent era. But how did their contemporaries view these now legendary movie stars in the 1920s?
Back in 1995, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston unreeled a Keaton retrospective. In my position as a reporter for the then leading alternative Houston weekly newspaper Public News, your humble scribe solicited some quotes from leading directors of the day about Keaton’s silent films.
Steven Soderbergh: “Keaton’s whole quality is so much more subtle than Chaplin. I find myself drawn to him like none of the other silent film directors. It’s just his demeanor.”
Peter Jackson: “I think Buster Keaton was extraordinarily inventive. His humor is very modern, but at the time he was never as popular as Chaplin. Looking at the films today, Chaplin’s humor seems dated, whereas Keaton seems as vibrant and lively as he ever was. Keaton was appealing to a sense of humor that was not very wide in the 1920s; almost like a Monty Python sense of humor. It’s a fine line balance of intellectual humor and silly humor.”
Peter Chelsom: “If you compare Keaton and Chaplin — Chaplin used to win. For me, Chaplin was a display of brilliance. He was a man displaying his craft; he left me slightly cold because of that. Keaton’s work was very, very personal. You were always aware of a deep something that went into those comic moments. With Keaton, you laughed and you were warmed at the same time. With Chaplin, you laughed. Don’t know if you were warmed.”
Theodore Thompson: The silent comedians, particularly Keaton and Chaplin, were an enormous influence on the development of character animation at the Disney studios. Their principals of communicating through pantomime were required study for all the animators. Up to the time he became a contract player over at MGM, Keaton basically made his films on his own time schedule. There’s none of the scheduling of pictures like you’d schedule out an industrial product the way we do movies now.”
All of these previous quotes become relevant again in the light of a new book by film historian Wes D. Gehring, who uses the reviews of Keaton’s feature films to discover facts that have been previously lost to time.
Buster Keaton In His Own Time: What the Responses of 1920s Critics Reveal, from McFarland, was published this March.
Gehring teaches at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, and has written over thirty-five books on respected actors and directors like Robert Wise, Charlie Chaplin and Steve McQueen.
Gehring makes some breakthrough discoveries that have not been previously known about Keaton. By examining reviews from the 1920s, the exact time when Keaton started directing independent feature films and concluding with the films he made for MGM later in the decade, we can view Keaton with new eyes.
Some of the movie critics who admired Keaton include Robert Sherwood (later a successful playwright) and Robert Benchley (both he and Sherwood were members of the Algonquin Round Table). Poet and prize-winning biographer Carl Sandburg wrote about Keaton for a Chicago newspaper.
Gehring also mines trade publications as well as reviews from magazines geared towards theater owners.
Keaton’s stunts and dark humor are broken down with direct lines to modern classics like The Purple Rose of Cairo and Being John Malkovich or actor Jackie Chan, who would recreate Keaton’s famous stunt of standing in an exact position while the façade of a two-story house falls on him and escapes injury by being where the second level window makes a precise opening. If nothing else, reading Buster Keaton In His Own Time makes one appreciate the history of cinema.
Each of Keaton’s silent feature films — The Three Ages, Our Hospitality, Sherlock, Jr., The Navigator, Seven Chances, Go West, Battling Butler, The General, College, Steamboat Bill, Jr., The Cameraman and Spite Marriage — are given a detailed examination.
One of Keaton’s last film appearances was in the short subject from 1965 aptly titled Film, which was the only screenplay written by Samuel Beckett.
Gehring makes some unique discoveries, including that Fatty Arbuckle was originally slated to direct Sherlock, Jr. It’s best left to the reader to discover the multiple revelations, including that Harry Houdini probably didn’t give Buster his nickname.
Buster Keaton In His Own Time is available through McFarland (www.mcfarlandpub.com) or through their order line (800-253-2187), as well as all major ebook providers.