Buster reading

I’m just returning from vacation, jumping from Phish tour into a load of work left behind at the office and at home. So, this week’s Buster Keaton post will be short, and not on a particular film.

For this edition, I want to focus on the resources I’ve been using to contextualize my watching of Buster Keaton’s cinema of the 1920s. They’ve proven useful to me; maybe they will to you, too.

First, the movies themselves. For viewing, I’m using Kino Lorber’s Buster Keaton: The Short Films Collection, 1920-1923. When I (finally) get to the features this fall, I’ll go ahead and plunk down the hard cash for The Ultimate Buster Keaton Collection, which will overlap with the shorts I already have but will include all the full movies (pre-1930) in one fell swoop. Kino does God’s work in its archiving and distribution of early cinema, and the company’s collections are the places to start for all things Buster.

As references, and for making GIFs, I turn to the Internet Archive’s Buster Keaton section. The intrepid folks there have collected and uploaded most of the films. They can be streamed or downloaded in lo-res versions. The movies distributed prior to 1923 are in the public domain, while everything else can be seen only in snippets. Well, OK, that’s not true at all—Sherlock Jr. (1927) is there in full, and are other post-1923 classics. I’ve never figured out the Archive’s legal status to my satisfaction, so I hesitate to recommend it, exactly, but it’s a useful starting point. Then again, since Keaton’s two sons are dead, as is his last wife Eleanor, I can’t discern the Keaton Estate’s legal status, either. Hell, almost everything can be found on YouTube as well, so go nuts.

I’ve mentioned the key books in passing but I want to give more attention to them here:

My Wonderful World of Slapstick by Buster Keaton, with Charles Samuels: Buster’s memoir-of-sorts. Rollicking, funny, gossipy, and full of technical insights, it’s a great read. As with most memoirs and autobiographies, I have my doubts about the book’s veracity in parts—it’s very much a book that’s about creating and sustaining the myth of Buster Keaton, and sometimes myth outstrips reality. That’s a running theme in Buster’s cinema, so we should hardly be surprised. So, it’s heavily weighted toward the pre-1930 years of vaudeville and his early, best works, when he owned and controlled a studio. The alcoholic years and decades of depression, divorce(s), and the diminishing returns of TV are here, sure, but not in as much detail as an impersonal biographer might give. And that’s okay, ultimately. You can’t expect Buster to rub salt and lemon juice into those wounds, though he owns up to his major mistakes like a champ, in such chapters as “The Chapter I Hate to Write” and “My Worst Mistake.”

Buster Keaton: Interviews, edited by Kevin W. Sweeney: This one collects sixteen interviews and interview-based profiles with the actor/director, mostly from the 1950s and 1960s. (Full disclosure: I worked with Sweeney on this book, when I worked for University Press of Mississippi, the book’s publisher.) The timeframe of the interviews reflect how little critical attention was given to silent comedy during the period in which they flourished; interviewers such as Kevin Brownlow, Penelope Gilliatt, Studs Terkel, and Rex Reed were rediscovering him—and other silent stars—during the final decade of Keaton’s life. There’s considerable overlap in the questions asked and anecdotes told, as Keaton was perfecting his late-period interviewee persona by this point, but they are good stories and offer enough sides of him to be interesting. This book’s filmography and biographical chronology have been my grounds zero for basic info on Keaton.

The Parade’s Gone By… by Kevin Brownlow: For years, the definitive tome on early American cinema, and still a go-to book. Brownlow’s 20-page interview-based profile of Buster is one of the earliest, and still one of the best. As a whole, Parade is all over the place. Some chapters are profiles of stars and directors, while others are blow-by-blow accounts of the making of particular films, while still others are essentially critiques of films and/or film artists, and others are more-or-less straight reportage. Brownlow interviewed over 100 folks involved in early movies, in a mad dash to get these folks on tape before they died, and the seams often show. What the book lacks in cohesion is made up for by its breadth—Brownlow really did talk to every big name available, and he asked the best, sharpest, most detail-oriented questions he could.

Two articles have proven invaluable to me in my thinking about the silent era. Matthew Dessem’s long essay, The Gag Man,” was published for The Dissolve (RIP) on 24 April 2014. Ostensibly about Clyde Bruckman, a gag writer on the periphery of every silent comedy you can imagine, it really uses Bruckman as a lens through which we can view and understand early American cinema. It’s one of the best-researched and most vividly written essays on cinema I have read in years, heartbreaking and deeply learned all at once. “The Gag Man” has given me a true understanding of how silent comedy got made, why it’s so hard to attribute proper credit to its most brilliant jokes, and what cinema looked like before it became domesticated.

The second essay, more specifically on Keaton, is Charlie Fox’s Buster Keaton’s Cure,” for Cabinet (Winter 2014-2015). It concerns Keaton’s oeuvre after he gave up Buster Keaton Studios (aka, “My Worst Mistake”), giving the genius’s work in the 1940s and 1950s their due, and placing it in a continuum with the 1920s masterpieces. Fox and Dessem’s essays, collectively, offer a fully formed vision of Keaton’s whole career.

Subjects for further research: In the fall and winter, I plan to read—or at least skim—the following: Marion Meade’s biography, Buster Keaton: Cut to the Chase; Edward McPherson’s Buster Keaton: Tempest in a Flat Hat; Lisle Foote’s Buster Keaton’s Crew: The Team Behind His Silent Films; and the encyclopedia A-Z of Silent Comedy. If you’ve got suggestions or, hey, wanna send me free books/resources, let me know.


About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Atlanta, GA. He is the co-author (with Daniel Couch) of Bob Mould's Workbook (Bloomsbury, 2017). His work has been published in The Quarterly Conversation, RogerEbert.com, Bookslut (RIP), The Comics Journal, The Baseball Chronicle, and other periodicals. Twitter: @walter_biggins.
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