I think that during the Seventies Buster Keaton replaced Chaplin as the master of movie comedy most admired by Americans seriously interested in cinema. The reasons are aesthetic and historical. College (1927) is generally considered the weakest of the twelve feature-length comedies Keaton made in the Twenties, his creative period.1 But it is superior to The Gold Rush (1925), much the best of the four long comedies Chaplin made in the Twenties. College is superior in photography, casting, plot continuity, and consistency of style, for Keaton’s aim—though he would never have admitted it—was to make a work of art. But Chaplin didn’t bother with such trivia: he had in mind not art but himself.
Keaton’s comedies were all of a piece while The Gold Rush is five or six disparate shorts (one, the long sequence in the cabin, brilliant) Scotch-taped together with barely a stab at a plot line. The whole thing is rigged up, with plentiful close-ups, to show the comic expressiveness of every muscle in the great clown’s face and body. So hack photography, scripts, direction, and the cheapest stock sets satisfied Chaplin, who was thinking not of making a work of art but rather of displaying himself as one. Being a comedian and not a mere pantomimist, he had to widen his angle of vision enough to include resistant human foils to play against, and so his leading ladies, notably the talented and durable Edna Purviance, were on a level with Keaton’s, as were his villains, who were literally “heavies.” But for secondary parts, always carefully chosen by Keaton, he took whatever came cheapest from Central Casting.
Chaplin’s one triumph in the Twenties was A Woman of Paris (1923), which he wrote and directed but in which he did not appear. In view of the date, it was a bold achievement: a quietly sophisticated film that clashed head-on with the style of every director of the period from the commercial Cecil B. DeMille to the great D.W. Griffith, telling the story of a cocotte (Edna Purviance) and her rich “protector” (Adolph Menjou) with subtle understatement. In script, direction, and acting everything is implied rather than melodramatically overstated. Its novel combination of humor, pathos, and realism, always with a light touch, inspired Ernst Lubitsch, newly arrived in Hollywood from Germany, to abandon historical drama for this kind of comedy. His The Marriage Circle appeared the next year and was a facsimile right down to Menjou playing the lead. From then until his death in 1947, Lubitsch specialized in such comedies, developing the form far beyond Chaplin’s model to such heights as Trouble in Paradise (1932) and Cluny Brown (1946). But in the beginning, “the Lubitsch touch” was “the Chaplin touch.”
A Woman of Paris was a success with the critics but not at the box office. It was the first Chaplin film to lose money and for a long time the last. The cash customers then, as now, preferred to slip into something more comfortable, such as the warm, relaxing sentimentality of The Kid, co-starring Jackie Coogan, round-eyed and, in a word, cute.
In their two-reel shorts, Chaplin and Keaton are evenly matched, twenty minutes being Charlie’s natural habitat, long enough to fully display his talents as a clown but not so long as to make any great structural demands. Shoulder Arms, The Rink, Easy Street (his Cops), The Cure, The Pawnshop, The Immigrant—these measure up to the best of Keaton’s shorts. Chaplin was the first in Hollywood to see that the future of screen comedy lay with the sixty-minute feature; he released The Kid in 1920, the year Keaton began to make shorts. (One reason for his perceptiveness may be that he had made all his shorts already, between 1914 and 1919.) But he never understood, or cared, that sixty minutes require a different style and structure from twenty.
In The Parade’s Gone By, his fascinating history of American silent movie-making compiled from interviews with survivors from that era thirty years later, Kevin Brownlow quotes one of Keaton’s cameramen: “After we stopped making wild two-reelers and got into feature-length pictures, our scenario boys had to be story-conscious. We couldn’t tell any far-fetched stories…. An audience wanted to believe every story we told them. Well, that eliminated farce comedy and burlesque. The only time we could do something out of the ordinary had to be in a dream sequence.” (The greatest such sequence, which anticipated the surrealist films of Buñuel, Dali, and Cocteau by ten years, is movie-projectionist Buster’s dream that runs a wild half-hour in the middle of Sherlock Junior.) The cameraman was echoing his boss: “We learned in a hurry that we couldn’t make a feature-length picture the way we had done the two-reelers,” Keaton told an interviewer from Sight and Sound in 1965. “We couldn’t use impossible gags like the kind of things that happen to cartoon characters. We had to eliminate all these things because we had to tell a very logical story that the audience would accept. So story construction became a very strong point with us…. There is nothing worse with us than a misplaced gag. Someone may suggest a good gag or even an excellent one, but if it doesn’t fit the story I’m doing and I try to drag it in, then it looks dragged in on the screen. So it’s much better to save it until some time when it does fit in with what I’m doing.”
“In retrospect,” Mr. Brownlow writes, “Buster Keaton was probably the best comedy director in the business.” Not only did he understand “story construction” but also his features were delightfully free of the sentimentality that blights Chaplin’s. The late James Agee has called Keaton “the only major comedian who has kept sentiment almost entirely out of his work.” The opposite is true of Chaplin. Another reason, besides structure, that Chaplin’s shorts are so much better than his features is their comparative freedom from sentimentality—indeed, they often go too far the other way, becoming heartless.
In his movie encyclopedia, The Filmgoer’s Companion, Leslie Halliwell writes: “Chaplin’s two-reel comedies are held superior by many to his later, more pretentious features.” (The “many” have become “most” since 1967.) I agree, with the partial exception of two silent movies that are by far the best of his long films: City Lights (1931) and Modern Times (1936). The dates are interesting. A millionaire by the end of the Twenties, Chaplin could loftily disregard sound for seven years; also, for the same reason, he could and did spend more freely on better scripts, photography, actors, and sets. City Lights is his funniest, best acted, and most coherent long film, but he couldn’t resist tacking on an incongruous and atrociously sentimental ending; and Modern Times has the same Scotch-tape nonstructure as all his other long comedies.
History may also have something to do with the present taste for Keaton. Perhaps the World War II horrors have changed our cultural climate. Perhaps in this postwar age of disillusion, one feels more responsive to Keaton’s gentle “coolness”—in McLuhan’s terms—and deadpan bewilderment than to Chaplin’s “hot” certainties, his stance of the wise guy who is one up on the yokels, including God, to Whom, in Monsieur Verdoux (1947), as he struts to the gallows as a mass-murderer, he gives, via the prison chaplain, some suggestions on how He might order His world better. Keaton is the fall-guy, puzzled but not helpless, and always courteous, who wins or loses without hurting anybody else; while Chaplin is the aggressive, know-it-all, take-charge type. In this somber period, when confusion invades us; with which comedian can we identify more easily?
This is the Age of Keaton. Or is it? In 1977, the American Film Institute asked its members to select the fifty best American movies to date. Only five silent films were chosen: Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance, Chaplin’s The Gold Rush and City Lights, and Keaton’s The General. On the other hand, in Lewis Jacobs’s The Rise of the American Film: A Critical History, the standard work on our pre-1939 cinema, Chaplin gets a whole chapter (twenty-two pages), while Keaton gets just one sentence: “Buster Keaton’s satires (The General, The Navigator) poked fun at convention and pomposity, Buster being a weakling lost in a world of he-men.” (I wonder if Mr. Jacobs had ever actually seen a Keaton comedy?) This whimsically titled “critical history” is still the standard one, it seems, since a new edition, unchanged at least on Keaton, was printed in 1968. A living fossil.
But before jumping too hard on Mr. J., remember that the 1977 poll did select two Chaplins to one Keaton. Or consider a recent, and far more sophisticated work, Gerald Mast’s The Comic Mind: Comedy and the Movies, which is de facto a standard text since it is the only book on the subject. Published in 1973, it seems at first glance to elevate Keaton to a parity with Chaplin, Section III being headed “Chaplin and Keaton,” but actually Chaplin gets three chapters (sixty-three pages) to Keaton’s one (twenty-one pages), a three to one ratio in Chaplin’s favor, which is about what it had fallen to forty years ago when Keaton was a drunken has-been and the bulk of his work was thought to have been lost forever. Hard to explain, given Mr. Mast’s reputation as a serious movie historian, but there it is—one more mystery enshrouding Keaton’s reputation.
Finally, The Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature for the Seventies lists thirty-two Chaplin to only five Keaton items. The large number of Chaplin articles may be explained by the fact that the two most important books on Chaplin appeared very late, stimulating reviews and articles: his own redundantly titled My Autobiography (1964) and the first serious biography, John McCabe’s scholarly, objective, and well-written Charlie Chaplin (Doubleday, 1978). The jacket blurb is accurate: “At last—the definitive Chaplin biography.” But only five articles in the Seventies on Keaton? Unexpectedly inexplicable—another mystery.
So maybe Chaplin still reigns, and there isn’t any Keaton vogue and those plausible aesthetic and historical arguments are so much moonshine. Possibly, but it can’t be demonstrated by statistics, which are too crude—and tricky—to settle such impalpable questions. One thinks, feels, talks to friends and listens at parties, sniffs the atmosphere in a dozen ways, none of them statistical or even hard-fact “objective.”2
In 1975 Walter Kerr’s The Silent Clowns arrived to offset Mast to some extent. A huge, generously illustrated 373-page work, it is the most extensive (and minutely intensive) treatment of the subject I know, combining close analysis with sophisticated appreciation. Mr. Kerr gives Chaplin and Keaton equal space (twenty-four pages); indeed, he gives Keaton a slight edge with another ten pages on the comedies he made with Fatty Arbuckle.
At present the Keaton vogue is limited to an elite (ghastly word!) that is as small as the general public is large. This is a familiar situation that’s never bothered me because I know it won’t last. Time’s jocose sneers in its first issue (March 3, 1923) at Ulysses and The Waste Land as “incomprehensible” nonsense were followed presently by two respectful “cover stories” on Joyce and one on Eliot. So, too, the conventional wisdom in my boyhood was that Cézanne and Van Gogh “didn’t know how to draw.”
In fact, the pendulum of taste among the advanced cinéastes who initiate vogues may now be swinging too far against Chaplin. After all, he was the greatest of all movie clowns and “Charlie” is still the best-known twentieth-century personage to everyone, from Argentine gauchos to Left Bank Cahiers du Cinéma types, outstripping Churchill, Einstein, Freud, Stalin, and both Roosevelts. He was a pantomimic genius to whom Buster in single combat, mano a mano, is not just inferior—he isn’t even in the same league. That Buster doesn’t try to compete, that he has his own Little League, so to speak, in which he wins every game against the great Charlie, this is one of the many curious aspects of his genius.
In Keaton: The Man Who Wouldn’t Lie Down, Tom Dardis has produced the definitive life. I don’t think it will ever be superseded except in the unlikely event someone discovers a new cache of important documentary material Dardis has overlooked. It is scholarly yet readable, the fullest, most objective and factually detailed book on virtually every aspect of Buster’s career and personality: artistic, financial, and psychological.
Since the author’s object was simply to dig out the truth, or at least the facts, about just what happened and why and how in a life that touched the heights and the depths, his book is full of the most interesting (and surprising) information. Dardis is no respecter of idées reçues: he’s a genial iconoclast who doesn’t hesitate to reverse (always with solid evidence) many of the most common assumptions about Buster’s personal and professional life. He has compiled a syllabus of errors, an index of popular delusions, beginning with the comfortable myth that as a child of six Buster enjoyed being kicked, slapped, and generally used as a human football by his father in the “Three Keatons” skit, notorious in its day as “the roughest act in vaudeville.” Dardis shows that this paternal brutalization left traumatic scars which permanently shaped Keaton’s persona as man and artist, so strangely silent, passive, withdrawn. And the general pre-Dardis impression that Keaton’s career ended when sound came to Hollywood and Buster lost his independence and, after four years of increasing alcoholism, his job—this is rebutted in the subtitle and refuted in the text.
The book also contains seventy-nine photographs, mostly of Keaton on the set or with his parents, wives, friends, and Hollywood peers; they are of the greatest interest, at least two-thirds were new to me. Also fifty-nine pages of appendices that include a thirty-three-page filmography that is to previous efforts as Leviathan to minnows, and ten pages of “Notes and Sources” which scrupulously identify, page by page, just where he got what.
Dardis first became seriously interested in Keaton only four years ago when he was researching his first book: Some Time in the Sun: The Hollywood Years of Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Nathanael West, Aldous Huxley and James Agee. Reading Agee’s famous tribute to Keaton stimulated Dardis to look into him as a subject for his next book. He was impressed by the comedies when he re-viewed them systematically; he discovered that a sister, a wife, and a close friend were still around—and eager to talk; and he found that a mass of archives and other documentary material existed which no one had thoroughly examined. So, with his customary energy, he researched and wrote the book in less than three years.
Daniel Moews’s Keaton: The Silent Features Close Up is a product of academe that offers an unexpected contrast to Dardis’s popular book: it is weightier in form and lighter in content. It applies an elaborate thesis to the subject with Procrustean rigor. But Dardis has no thesis and his modest aim is to dig up facts, many of them hitherto unknown to print. So there are many surprises in Dardis, few in Moews. 3
Dr. Moews summarizes his theory at length (thirty-nine pages) in his first chapter, which is jauntily titled “A Preview of Coming Attractions.” I think the following passage fairly gives the gist:
The fantasy element is most evident in a formula central to the structure of the features: the Keaton hero must fall asleep halfway through his adventures. Following a prologue, which quickly establishes characters and situation, the main action of the films is neatly balanced about this sleep, an action that, with classical deference to the unity of time, usually occupies one day or, if the sleep is at night, two consecutive days. The sleep is generally elliptical, abbreviated into a few shots and a single title, and it is always pivotal to the action, marking a brief but decisive turning point for the hero. Waking, he will…be astonishingly improved and will therefore astonishingly succeed.
Moews is fatally attracted to the myths which Dardis, two years later, demonstrates rather conclusively to be—myths. “After what must have been one of history’s most agreeable childhoods, spent traveling with his family’s knock-about act and learning the tricks of the comic trade…,” his preface begins, “Buster Keaton…entered the movies.” And he ends his last chapter, “A Final View,” with three pages of biography headed “The Collapse” that make the usual assumption that Keaton’s career ended with his silent comedies, i.e., that he did lie down. “The shift from silence to sound was…obviously basic in destroying Keaton,” he writes. But it isn’t obvious to Dardis, who argues that Keaton’s gravelly monotone on the sound track was well matched to his image on the screen and that what destroyed his creativity wasn’t sound but what came with it, the taking over of movie-making by big capital and a consequent “rationalization” (cost-accounting, efficiency rating, tight budget control) that couldn’t afford maverick geniuses like Keaton, who was instantly and permanently reduced from director to actor.
Although he never made another film of his own, Keaton was profitably employed, in every sense, throughout the latter half of his life as actor, gag writer, circus clown, and, above all, consultant. Keaton had perfect pitch, so to speak, about what would and what wouldn’t “go” in any form of comedy—TV, movies, stage, night club—and in his later years became a kind of sage of comedy whose laconic wisdom, or savvy, was respected and sought after, especially in France, which became his second homeland.
To return to Dr. Moews: the fact is that, for all his academic panoply, he is a Keaton groupie who adores every film his idol has made. “I like them, all of them,” he writes. “I like the two-reelers…even though they vary considerably in quality.” He also likes the features, all of them. Dardis is “sérieux,” not a fan but a discriminating realist who can admit he doesn’t admire College (which even Moews admits “falls slightly below the others in quality,” cheerily calling it “the ninth best of nine good Keaton comedies”) because he cares about Keaton’s work for itself and not merely as academic fodder.
David Robinson’s Buster Keaton, originally published by the British Film Institute, is by all odds the best short introduction to Keaton’s life and works I know. (Indeed it is the most intelligent and well written of the books considered here.) His interpretations are subtle, his speculations interesting, and his easy but economical style packs a surprising amount of factual information into 199 pages. One of his better speculations is: “Keaton used film as freely and easily as ordinary speech and as unself-consciously. It is because the cinema was to him an entirely personal mode of expression…that his films have not dated.” Of the seventeen chapters, four are biographical, one (“The Keaton Studio”) deals with the history and technique of the two-reel shorts, and eleven cover, one to a chapter, his long comedies from The Three Ages (1923) to Spite Marriage (1929). The last chapter, “Method and Mystery,” is a brilliant exposition of Keaton’s aesthetic—a term he would have loathed—analyzing the pleasure his films give us, and the whys and hows of that mystery. There is also an eight-page filmography.
In writing Keaton’s life, Tom Dardis had two advantages over his predecessors, Charles Samuels and Rudi Blesh. One was access to the files on Keaton at MGM and to those of the long defunct Buster Keaton Productions, Inc. The other, and more important, was that, with three exceptions, by 1978 all the principal figures were safely dead: Keaton’s first two wives, his parents, his protector and producer, Joseph M. Schenck, and last but definitely not least, the reclusive Buster himself. The exceptions were, in ascending order of importance as sources: William (“Buster”) Collier, Jr., for many years his best friend; his sister, Louise, who was always close to him; and his third wife, the loving Eleanor, who helped make his last twenty-five years an Indian Summer as unexpectedly benign as when it comes along late in our American fall. They talked about the intimate details of Buster’s life—and practically everything about himself except his batting average was “intimate” to Buster—with an affectionate freedom that would have appalled him.
Charles Samuels’s “as told to” book, My Wonderful World of Slapstick (1960), now out of print, was hopelessly distorted, to put it politely, because all the information came from Buster, who hated rows, disagreements, and unpleasantness of any kind and was therefore almost pathologically euphoric. He even thought, or rather insisted to Samuels—not quite the same thing—that he had always loved his father. And he romanticizes his experience as a battered child in “The Three Keatons” into an enjoyable learning experience under the benevolent tutorship of his kindly (but “strict”) papa. Every kick a step forward.
Rudi Blesh wrote the original version of Keaton in 1955 and so was largely dependent on Keaton himself for biographical data, though he did a lot of research in other quarters as well. But he must have been aware of the still very much alive Buster breathing down his neck. Blesh’s book is delightfully written and tells the story of Keaton’s life and, especially, his movie making with verve, sympathy, and insight. He writes apropos of The General:
He was changing and…transforming the traditional idea of “low” comedy in the movies. Once he had worked strictly for laughs. Then gradually his fate-ridden character had taken on other dimensions…. The little man who was trouble’s bait became as real as life.
This perceptive statement is by no means unique in Keaton, which is a fine professional job and a major source for Dardis. One might call Rudi Blesh the doyen of premature Keatonians.
Like all pre-Dardis writers from Dr. Moews to the intelligent Mr. Robinson, Blesh accepts the euphoric myth, fabricated by Keaton, that his boyhood life with father was idyllic. And he accepts another Keaton-made myth Dardis demolishes: that the silent features made money. “The Keaton films were uniformly profitable,” he writes apropos of The General. It was an unfortunate film to pick. Although The General has long been considered one of Keaton’s greatest achievements, in his chapter on “The Masterpiece that Failed” Dardis shows that when it was released in 1926, it was a total fiasco, unpopular with both the critics and the public. Not unexpectedly, it was a record money loser at the box office. “The domestic gross was only $474,000,” writes Dardis, “over $300,000 less than his previous film, Battling Butler. The General had been an expensive film to make: its negative cost was $415,000. For a film even to begin to make a profit, it had to at least double the negative cost, and [The General] emerged as a complete financial disaster for Schenck and United Artists.”
Blesh wasn’t the only writer to have illusions about profitability. The late James Agee had the most exuberant fantasy: “A Keaton feature cost about $200,000 and reliably grossed $2 million.” David Robinson is more cautious: “Keaton kept his budgets down to a steady $200,000…. They never grossed less than a million.” But Dardis shows that the grosses weren’t two or one million but about half a million. The grosses on the first four features, for instance, were: The Three Ages, $450,000; Our Hospitality, $540,000; Sherlock, Jr., $450,000; The Navigator (another expensive film to make), $680,000. As we have seen with The General, such grosses would barely cover negative costs. The inflated grosses, like the myth of his happy days with the “Three Keatons” act, were a fabrication by Keaton, who told interviewers in the late Fifties (also Charles Samuels, who put it into their book) that the features grossed between $1 million and $1.5 million, a statistic uncritically adopted by pre-Dardis writers—though God knows where Agee got his $2 million.
“It has been widely believed that Buster’s sound films for MGM were financial failures compared with his great silent films; in fact, the reverse is true,” Dardis writes in his preface. The irony of Buster’s brief career in sound movies was that the more he loathed the clumsy farces he had to act in, the more money they made—a double bind whose increasing pressure drove him into acute alcoholism and out of the industry in three years.
I have been careful to call Keaton: The Man Who Wouldn’t Lie Down a “life” rather than a “biography,” a discrimination that seems to me as important as, and similar to, that between “chronicle” and “history.” Tom Dardis’s very competence as a collector of facts, allowing no personal bias or ideas to affect their presentation, has prevented him from writing a biography, which is a work of art, not craft, and so requires a personal viewpoint and personal ideas and judgments plus a distinctive prose style and general culture Dardis just doesn’t have. A biographer, for instance, would hardly be content with his one-sentence treatment of Moews’s complex, if jejunely Procrustean, thesis: “As the critic Daniel Moews has indicated, all the Keaton films contain an elaborate system of symmetrical effects or balances.” I’m not sure what this means, if it means anything, but I am sure it is lavishly inadequate. On the other hand, David Robinson’s four chapters on Keaton’s life, for all their errors, are a biography, mini-style, since they meet the requirements.
But not to end on a downbeat note about a book that is, of its kind, excellent and valuable, let us consider a specimen of Dardis at his best: the account of Buster’s courtship of and marriage to his third, and only suitable, wife, the loving Eleanor. It is authentic, and new, because he had the brilliant notion, as was his wont, of interviewing one of the principals:
In May 1940 Buster married his third wife, Eleanor Norris. It was the best thing that had happened to him in a decade…. Eleanor studied dancing from an early age, quitting school at not quite sixteen to embark with five other girls on an around-the-world trip as part of a nightclub act called “Six Blondes from Hollywood.” At seventeen she was working at Harry Richman’s nightclub in New York. At MGM she danced in films like Rosalie and Born to Dance.
She quickly realized that Buster needed a “gofer” just as much as he needed a girl friend or a wife. To Eleanor a gofer meant a combination valet, cook, housekeeper, bill payer, constant reminder, and anything else that seemed appropriate to the job.4 She took it all on, starting the twenty-ninth of May 1940, despite a great deal of advice from both her own friends and Buster’s that it was idiotic to marry an aging, alcoholic ex-movie star twice her age whose future looked decidedly dim. At the time of the wedding, Eleanor was just twenty-one, whereas Buster was nearing forty-five. She listened to the advice carefully and married him. The marriage proposal was in the form of a duet, for one night she asked him, “Do you think there would be anything wrong if…” He interrupted her with “…we got married?” There was nothing wrong and they were.
The wedding itself had some of the elements of an early two-feeler. The ceremony was conducted in the judge’s chambers in the Los Angeles courthouse…. Eleanor was accompanied by her mother, and Judge Brand assumed that Buster wished to marry Mrs. Norris, who seemed much closer in age to him than Eleanor. Totally igoring Eleanor, the judge attempted to marry her mother to Buster. When the identity situation was cleared up, the judge remained flustered and addressed Eleanor as Morris throughout the rest of the ceremony. Halfway through, earsplitting sounds of what seemed to be all the fire-fighting equipment in Los Angeles assailed the ears of the wedding party and didn’t let up until the couple were finally pronounced man and wife by a screaming judge.
Eleanor was extremely pretty, and Buster’s ability to capture such an attractive young wife did a lot for his battered self-esteem…. It seems clear that Buster found in Eleanor the deep affection that “Buster” Collier claimed he’d always been looking for, which had been lacking in his first two marriages. Sharply laconic in manner, Eleanor quickly adapted herself to the ways of a man famous for his long silences. Besides all her household duties at Cheviot Hills, she kept on with her dancing job at MGM. She got along extraordinarily well with Buster’s family…. Myra [Keaton’s mother] and Louise [his favorite sister] were convinced that this was the marriage that would last.5
My own conversion to Keaton came embarrassingly late. I don’t remember seeing any Keaton films in the Twenties though of course I must have, since I’ve been a movie addict since the age of ten (1916)6 when every Friday night the family, after dinner in a spaghetti palace, walked up Broadway to a movie palace (the Rialto, long reduced to porn flicks, is the only survivor), to enjoy anything from Griffith’s latest to The Vampires, a lurid French crime serial which haunted my nightmares. But I do remember Chaplin and Harold Lloyd clearly. Perhaps I was too young for the subtler artistry of Keaton, perhaps, like many adult moviegoers of the Twenties, I found his unsmiling, frozen face boring or repulsive or even scary compared to Chaplin’s lively clowning.7 Or perhaps, by the time I entered Yale in 1924, Chaplin had become the only movie comedian the intellectuals paid attention to, with disastrous effects on his ego and his work. And I was ever the culture-snob.
It was at Yale, in 1927, that I began to correspond with another youth, four years my junior, who also considered movies art as well as entertainment. In fact, we agreed, the most exciting and significant art form of this century.8 James Agee, like me, had gone to Phillips Exeter Academy. We had just missed each other but an English teacher had put us in touch thinking that, as two of his brightest literary stars, we might like to correspond about books and writing. But we speedily discovered that we were both tired of writing and longed only to make movies. Failing that, we settled for film criticism. It was the beginning of a long friendship.
To judge by “Comedy’s Greatest Era” in the September 3, 1949, Life, Agee remembered Keaton’s work as vividly as I didn’t—for in 1949 it was twenty years since any of it (with two important exceptions) had been seen in this country.
Agee’s is still the finest essay on Keaton, as much a poem as a critique:
…His pictures are like a transcendent juggling act in which it seems that the whole universe is in exquisite flying motion and the one point of repose is the juggler’s effortless, uninterested face.
Keaton’s face ranked almost with Lincoln’s as an early American archetype; it was haunting, handsome, almost beautiful, yet it was irreducibly funny; he improved matters by topping it off with a deadly horizontal hat, as flat and thin as a phonograph record. One can never forget Keaton wearing it, standing erect at the prow as his little boat is being launched. The boat goes grandly down the skids and, just as grandly, straight on to the bottom. Keaton never budges. The last you see of him, the water lifts the hat off the stoic head and it floats away.
No other comedian could do as much with the dead pan…. When he moved his eyes, it was like seeing them move in a statue. His short-legged body was all sudden, machine-like angles, governed by a daft aplomb. When he swept a semaphore-like arm to point, you could almost hear the electrical impulse in the signal block. When he ran from a cop his transitions from accelerating walk to easy jog trot to brisk canter to headlong gallop to flogged-piston sprint—always floating above this frenzy the untroubled, untouchable face—were as distinct and as soberly in order as an automatic gearshift.
…Beneath his lack of emotion he was also uninsistently sardonic; deep below that, giving a disturbing tension and grandeur to the foolishness for those who sensed it, there was in his comedy a freezing whisper not of pathos but of melancholia. With the humor, the craftsmanship and the action there was often, besides, a fine still and sometimes dream-like beauty….
Perhaps because “dry” comedy is much more rare and odd than “dry” wit, there are people who never much cared for Keaton. Those who do cannot care mildly.
“The first sure signs of the reflowering of Keaton’s reputation had already begun, signaled by…Agee’s famous 1949 essay, ‘Comedy’s Greatest Era,’ ” writes Dardis. “When Agee wrote, Buster had slipped into partial oblivion. Although Agee found conversation with Buster not as engrossing as with Chaplin, he loved Buster’s work. In his article Agee noted that Buster had ‘gallantly’ refused to consider himself retired, which did not go unnoticed in Hollywood…. It was Buster who derived the most benefit from Agee, in being offered work in films again. His cameo performance in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950) also helped him greatly.”
By the Thirties I had grown up to Keaton and was delighted when the film department of Alfred Barr’s newly founded Museum of Modern Art began showing The General and The Navigator every now and then without causing undue excitement except among a few of us who longed for more. But there weren’t any more it seemed because the careless and hard-drinking Buster had mislaid them or Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer had scrapped them or something.
So everybody assumed, until one night in 1955 Keaton dropped into a showing of The General at the Coronet Theatre in Los Angeles and the owner, Raymond Rohauer, recognized him. As he was leaving, Rohauer asked him, on a hunch, if he still had any of his old films and Buster answered, casually, that he had kept a few to show to friends and, when Rohauer asked if he might duplicate negatives of them, said sure why not? That was the first step. The next was to acquire, with Buster’s absent-minded blessing, after complex negotiations with the trustees of the long-defunct Buster Keaton Productions, Inc., the rights to the first eight of the shorts and most of the features. Further inquiry revealed that they had been right next door in MGM’s vaults all the time and, by mistake, had been treated just as if they belonged to MGM, which they didn’t, unlike Keaton’s sound films, which did. So MGM kept renewing their copyrights and preserving them along with the sound films they did own.
Another source was the British actor James Mason, who had rented in the Fifties the big Italianate villa where Buster had thrown famous parties thirty years before. (He was a celebrated barbecuer and a genial host so long as the subject of conversation wasn’t himself.) Poking around in the private projection room one day, Mason was startled to find in a corner several dozen cans containing prints of high quality that Buster had stashed away and forgotten when he moved out. These, too, were added to Rohauer’s hoard. The first thing he did, as always, was to transfer them from the perishable old nitrate stock onto modern safety stock. The Paris Cinémathèque probably filled in some other gaps, for the French, unlike his compatriots, have always admired Keaton and his work.
In the late Sixties Rohauer began releasing Keaton films that had not been seen for forty years and the foundations were laid for the Keaton Vogue—or rather, since “vogue” implies a passing fashion and I think Buster is here to stay, the Age of Keaton.
October 9, 1980
Seven I would call masterpieces: Our Hospitality (1923), Sherlock Junior (1924), The Navigator (1924), Seven Chances (1925), The General (1926), Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928), and The Cameraman (1928). Of the nineteen two-reel shorts he turned out in 1920-1923, eight are of this quality. One Week (1920) was the first film he made after his amicable parting from Fatty Arbuckle, in whose comedies (second only to Chaplin’s in popularity) he had played a strong second fiddle since 1917. It is one of the three high points in his two-reelers, along with Cops and The Boat. In 1920 he also made Neighbors and The Scarecrow; in 1921 The Goat, The Playhouse, The Boat, and The Paleface; and in 1922 Cops. ↩
I’ve found two interesting exceptions, however: ↩
One reason is the meagerness of the academic writer’s sources—”reviews in Variety” plus the Keaton family scrap-book of press clippings—again a paradoxical contrast to the nine pages it takes to list the popular writer’s sources. But, to be fair, Moews doesn’t pretend to be interested in anything about Keaton except fitting the films neatly into his Rube Goldberg theoretical contraption. ↩
Eleanor must soon have also realized. what Buster’s first wife, Natalie Talmadge, discovered: “that the man she had married was an extremely dependent person, requiring someone to help him get places on time and even to get dressed. Buster’s dependence had started with Myra’s [his mother’s] devoted attention to these matters, and it never left him. In his richer years he used the services of his manservant, Caruthers, for these function.” ↩
And it did, for twenty-five years, until he died in 1966 at seventy. ↩
My first movie was earlier, before the war. On a rippling open-air screen near our summer cottage at Sea Girt, New Jersey, I remember being thrilled by the flickering shadows of The Shooting of Dangerous Dan McGrew, a cinematization of Robert W. Service’s poem that was even cornier than the original. ↩
“Right from the beginning,” Dardis writes, “there were those who found Buster’s comedies disturbing rather than funny . This is the main reason Buster never rose to the level of universal acceptance achieved by Chaplin and Lloyd.” ↩
Serious movie addicts were rare in those days among the young, in contrast to the last two decades when I found students in my movie courses who knew as much as I did, sometimes indeed more. From their erudition, and pallor, I suspected they spent most of their waking hours looking at movies. ↩