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 movie’s “meaning.” Cops, that masterpiece of athletic humor, was indeed begun at a time when Arbuckle’s third trial was approaching and Keaton was anxious for his friend. This fact makes Blesh over-ready to discover in it large generalizations which will be invisible to many. Cops is “tragic,” he holds, “an intensely personal document,” supported by “deeply underlying feelings of apprehension and inadequacy.” The feeling of inadequacy will be shared by any insensitive viewer who has to admit that all he saw was a very funny film about Keaton being chased by hundreds of policemen. Blesh says it’s not only “one man against the police” but “it is man against fate; it is man against himself.” Such thoughts may well have been present in the makers’ minds—and Blesh has held intensive discussions with Keaton and his colleagues—but they’re not immediately apparent on the screen. I wonder why his interpretation is not stretched to cover Seven Chances, in which Keaton is pursued by hundreds of brides. Perhaps simply because Cops is a better film, for few metaphysicians would claim that sex is of less profound cosmic significance than policemen.

Over-weighted with huge-sounding concepts, quoted with grateful acknowledgement to Gilbert Seldes, this book often seems grandiose. Man, Machine, and Miracle are principal constituents. That genial farce, Balloonatics, is seen as an Absurdist fantasy that “foretold” Ionesco: “It is only in fantasy that fate stays its hand. In every story Keaton says something…. Here he appears to be saying in effect, ‘Don’t look now but a miracle just saved me’.” Quite a statement. The trouble lies in Blesh’s contention that Keaton (unlike Chaplin and Harold Lloyd) “made you laugh, then think.” The kind of thought induced consists largely of far-fetched analogies with more “serious” or, at any rate, unfunny work. In The Navigator, Keaton “came to grips with the manversus-machine theme; now he faced the father-son theme. But this being Buster and not the Oedipean Sigmund, it is no crude victory of power, id or ego.” This is a curious way of telling us that Keaton was different from Freud—which we knew already. And what kind of compliment is it to say that a shot from Cops resembles a Chirico painting?


Isn’t it enough to say that Keaton was a great clown, a perfectionist of unusual skill, grace, and indeed beauty? Blesh seems to think him the personification of everybody’s gloomy thoughts about Life. Perhaps it’s Keaton’s physical presence that encourages such fancies. The handsome, pokerfaced athlete could have been Gary Cooper, George Raft, or Alan Ladd (as he proved, In The General); yet he preferred to play the Saphead, the Mollycoddle, Rollo, and Bertie. This seems odd to hero-worshippers. The Navigator shows us a soft young American millionaire, who can scarcely shave him-self self, becoming strong and resourceful—though, happily, never “tough.” (Kipling’s Captains Courageous is comparable, if we must have an unfunny literary parallel.) Faced with almost certain death, the hardened sap is rescued by an improbable submarine in the last few seconds. Blesh would have liked this hero and his heroine to die. Keaton told him: “It was in the books for us to die, all right. But not in the joke books. We were making a comedy, remember?” In this sensible remark, Blesh sees profundities of tragic irony.

RETURN FROM LIFE to the life-story. Keaton had started his career in vaudeville—an unbreakable boy slung across stage by his parents. But vaudeville was too good to last: its popularity was seen as a wasted asset, demanding more efficient exploitation:

The monopoly builders’ strategy was simple: control the theaters and you control booking; control booking and you control the actors; then you enter the monopolistic heaven of low wages and high prices.

Minor impresarios had to cave in, before the United Booking Office. Disobedient artists, like Joe Keaton’s family, were banished to “the vaudeville Siberia, the second-run three-a-day Western Pantages circuit.” They became the property of a business machine—a foretaste for Buster, this, of his future with MGM. Vaudeville died, but the middlemen’s pickings were good while they lasted. A smooth-running business, it had been worked into the ground.

It’s easy to say that “vaudeville was killed by the movies.” But what kind of combat led to this killing? Did audiences and actors—consumers and producers—want vaudeville to die? Hardly. The “economic factor” was responsible—that is, the middlemen, the owners, the men who controlled theaters. They decided that it would be most profitable to standardize, to show nothing but movies—not even everybody’s movies, but only those in whose production the exhibitors had a financial interest:

If money was the power, theaters (just as in vaudeville) were the weapon. Anyone with a camera could make a film. But could you show it?

Blesh describes the difficulties of actors trying to make their own movies, against the will of the theater-chain controllers, who refused to show independent work. As always, the only hope was combination: Chaplin, Fairbanks, and Pickford—as “United Artists”—managed to hold their own against the monopolists, and Keaton could have got in on this scheme if he had been businesslike.

His father, Joe, didn’t like the movies. He couldn’t get on with machinery and didn’t want to see his act “on a dirty sheet, at a nickel a time.” Buster himself made the move in 1917, at Arbuckle’s invitation; he liked the idea of perfecting his improvisations and making them permanent. Also he was naturally skillful with gadgets: His fictional struggles with machinery (even now inspiring Peter Hall’s new film, Work is a Four-Letter Word) are a thin disguise for his mastery and appreciation of technology. He was the first, incidentally, to combine live action with simultaneous cartoon action; when he appeared, some forty years ago, as a complete minstrel show—nine black-face Keatons singing and dancing in unison—the multiple-exposure technique was his own invention. He could theorize successfully about scripts. Silent comedies had been based on a postcard-plot (“You have two men carrying a grand piano over a narrow, one-way suspension bridge. Halfway across they meet an escaped gorilla coming the other way.”) The rest of the script Harold Lloyd called “islands—four or five gags planned in advance. In between the islands you had to shift for yourself.” Keaton preferred to develop what he called “main laughing sequences.” encouraging suspension of disbelief by his fidelity to laws of causation. Blesh illustrates this point quite convincingly, in his solemn way.

IT IS MONEY, not new media, that troubled Keaton. He could manage every aspect of filming except the business side: accustomed, through his father, to literally paternalistic treatment, he wisely let himself become the property of the Keaton Film Company which, from 1920 to 1928, allowed him to make good pictures as he wished (nineteen two-reelers and ten features) without having to know about money. It couldn’t last, says Blesh:


The assembly lines were then being laid out in the cinema factories. In the customary American hocuspocus—or “ledger-domain”—tradition, an art was being subverted into a business with jungle ethics.

Keaton was taken over as a property by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer—and his talent wasted. It may be too easily assumed that Keaton was lost when sound came in and silents went out. Blesh insists that he fought hard to make good talkies, that his voice was apt and popular, that he had original ideas for combining sound and silence. He made five feature films for MGM in the three precarious years that followed The Singing Fool. Those over which he had some control were good and well-liked; others “he salvaged more than seemed possible.” The danger of sound was not the technical challenge but the cost:

Big investment called for strong protection; safety lay in the surefire plots, the time-proven clichés.

Combined with the money-men’s fear of originality was their concern for the status, the “image,” of the new medium they controlled: the success of Keaton’s Doughboys prompted the criticism that “such slapstick is undignified and unsuited to the modern sound picture.” Keaton didn’t fit into MGM’s machine for mass-production. So he went on the bottle and was eventually fired, for disobeying Louis Mayer.

Blesh is very bitter about MGM, instancing their treatment of Gable and Garbo. Artists were forced into a pattern, an image devised by the middlemen on the lowest-common-denominator basis, and if they didn’t fit into the framework they were thrown away. This kind of standardization is inevitable when a popular art form gets into the hands of a really successful business organization: to try and break it down (in the American “anti-monopoly” tradition) into smaller, less profitable units is one of the contradictions of liberal capitalism. You can’t go back; and the idea of moving forward, bringing the system under public control, is anathema. Yet, for a man like Keaton who needed paternalist treatment, the protection of people who respected his art and whom he could trust, a public corporation might have been the answer.

One of America’s problems is that the only consistent, principled, and effective interference with commercial freedom seems to come from half-baked puritans. Among their achievements was the absurd censorship of the Hays Office: The businessmen were pleased to cooperate in the maintenance of muddled and unreal ethical convictions, since it helped in the proces of standardization and commercial forecasting. (We have read elsewhere of American parents’ demands, in the early days of cinema, that villains should be not knifed or shot—but drowned.) The repressive ethics of prudes and the amorality of commerce combined to destroy Arbuckle: The businessmen were glad of the chance to present an image of Hollywood as a glamorous but clean-living society, by throwing out the innocent comedian as a monstrous exception to the rule. Blesh’s philippics against the entire system might be hard to substantiate in detail, but they ring true. Press comment on Arbuckle, at the time, closely resembles the prurient moralizing of the evil Cardinal in The White Devil: the public had contracted a “fantastic dream marriage” with the cinema world and claimed marital control over the work and life of the artists.

BLESH HAS A GOOD METAPHOR here, for “marital control” is often a combination of financial pressure and self-righteous priggishness. This dynamic duo destroyed Arbuckle’s screen career as surely as they had ruined Keaton’s juvenile years in vaudeville: it is characteristic that the Gerry Society, intended to protect child artists, was as damaging to Keaton’s stage career as the businessmen were. Perhaps actors in the situation of Keaton and Arbuckle (or Marilyn Monroe) can be imagined not only as subjugated wives but, even better, as children—wards of some wholly amoral accountant who treats them as an investment and can only be influenced by their hysterical aunt, a well-heeled religious maniac.

In the 1930s the cinema monopoly came under attack from the US Department of Justice

with anti-trust suits against the industry. It was not unfortunately within Justice’s jurisdiction to ask the question: “Where do art and the artist fit into all this?” But certainly it was a germane question. It was the question Buster Keaton did not face.

Nor in fact does Rudi Blesh. He is indignant that the Russians in the Thirties were renting American films long enough for the State laboratories to make copies and release them as Stateowned. (This explains all those references to Hollywood in Ilf and Petrov’s satires.) “There’s something rotten in Russia,” said Douglas Fairbanks, after a triumphal tour of the country (where he found, incidentally, that he, Pickford, and Chaplin were not quite so popular as Keaton). Fairbanks and Blesh couldn’t appreciate the Russians’ persuasion that works of art, if politically inoffensive, are meant to be widely shown—not “withdrawn” or “released” (non-political prisoners) according to the state of the market. Whatever may be urged against Soviet culture, the popular and serious arts don’t get worn out by the “inevitable” economic processes of the Market State. Their poets, musicians, and choreographers are not wasted by these processes: nor are their clowns.

This conclusion may sound naive or even heartless, since we all know that some of the finest Soviet artists have been silenced and persecuted; yet we also remember that Pasternak did not accept Khrushchev’s unfriendly offer of a passage to “the free world.” If dedication to an art has any meaning, some artists are bound to prefer an arrogant, even cruel, father whom it is dangerous but necessary to defy. Even this might seem better than the American combination of business and “public opinion”—the mindless, standardizing accountant and the deluded aunt. What we must seek is a method of organizing cultural media which avoids the destructiveness of both these systems.

This Issue

December 15, 1966