Buster Busted


by Rudi Blesh
Macmillan, 395 pp., $8.95

Buster Keaton
Buster Keaton; drawing by David Levine

Skimming this large book, a casual reader may be daunted by the gasps of showbiz enthusiasm (“it was a glorious and preposterous hodgepodge with a happy madness all its own”), no less than by the more thoughtful efforts: “This is more than visual semantics; it is graphic epistemology. It is also metamorphic magic.” Turning to the index, in search of a laugh, he may read this entry:

Preven, Zey see Reiss, Sadie

Prevon, Zeh see Reiss, Sadie

Prevost, Zeb see Reiss, Sadie

That looks promising. Turn to page 181 and you find it’s not funny at all. The polyonymous Sadie Reiss was a witness against Keaton’s senior colleague, Fatty Arbuckle, in a case headlined: “Raper Dances While Victim Dies.” Reading Rudi Blesh’s account of Arbuckle’s persecution, you realize that this is, after all, quite a serious book, about the maltreatment of artists by middlemen, the dictatorship of employers and landlords over productive workers, and the exploits of publicity men, whose conception of art and truth is governed by a commercial prediction of what “most people” will want (and pay) to see and believe.

When I first saw Fatty Arbuckle in Chaplin comedies, I was alienated by the lurid tales which schoolfellows told about rape and death by fellatio—which seemed the more horrid in connection with so large a man. No doubt we wanted to believe it; but it was all lies. How did it spread around the world? Another question to which Rudi Blesh supplies material for an answer concerns Buster Keaton himself. I first saw the great comedian when I was about fourteen, but it was only in a war-time light comedy, San Diego, I Love You, and I had no idea of the level this amusing old bit-part actor had already achieved. I’ve caught up since, but still haven’t seen a fraction of the hundred-odd good films listed here by Blesh; nor am I likely to. Why? The answers are engraved on the revered images of our society, free enterprise, and (in the case of Arbuckle) the free press.

ROSCOE ARBUCKLE was honorably acquitted by the law but condemned by something called “public opinion,” with the collusion of the controllers of Hollywood, who required a scapegoat. Buster compared Arbuckle with his unfortunate father, Joe Keaton: “Joe had it and threw it away. Roscoe had it and it was taken away.” He could see the dangers in a situation where truth was less important than a public “image.” (Keaton told Blesh how he himself was falsely accused of assaulting a girl and sued for $10,000. The MGM authorities said only: “Gotta kill this fast. Give her the ten grand.”) Blesh maintains that the “fatalistic elements” in Keaton’s comedies were connected with the sufferings of Arbuckle; but this author can be treated more respectfully when he deals with organizational matters than when he attempts interpretation of a…

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