Camera man Buster Keaton, the dawn of cinema, and the invention of the Twentieth Century

Dana Stevens

Book - 2022

"As one of the most famous faces of silent cinema, Buster Keaton was and continues to be revered for his stoic expressions, clever visual gags, and acrobatic physicality in classics such as Sherlock Jr., The General, and The Cameraman. In this spirited biography, every aspect of Buster Keaton's astonishing life is explored, from his humble beginnings in vaudeville with his parents to his meteoric rise to Hollywood stardom during the silent era. Based on vigorous research of both Keaton and the film industry, it also delves into the dark sides of fame, such as Keaton's ill-advised businesses deals and alcoholism, to his unexpected resurgence in the 1940s as his contributions as both an actor and director were finally celebrate...d. This is a fascinating and uniquely astounding look at both the classic era of Hollywood and one of its most beloved stars"--

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2nd Floor 791.43028092/Keaton Checked In
New York : Atria Books 2022.
Main Author
Dana Stevens (author)
First Atria Books hardcover edition
Physical Description
ix, 415 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm
Includes bibliographical references.
  • They were calling it the Twentieth Century
  • "She is a little animal, surely"
  • "He's my son, and I'll break his neck any way I want to"
  • "The locomotive of juveniles"
  • A little hell-raising Huck Finn
  • The boy who couldn't be damaged
  • "Make me laugh, Keaton"
  • Speed mania in the kingdom of shadows
  • Pancakes at Childs
  • Comique
  • Roscoe
  • Brooms
  • Mabel at the wheel
  • Famous players in famous plays
  • Home, made
  • Rice, shoes, and real estate
  • The shadow stage
  • Battle-scarred risibilities
  • One for you, one for me
  • The "darkie shuffle"
  • The collapsing façade
  • Grief slipped in
  • Elmer
  • The road through the mountain
  • Not a drinker, a drunk
  • Old times
  • The coming thing in entertainment
  • Coda: Eleanor.
Review by Booklist Review

Film critic Stevens astutely aligns Buster Keaton's kinetic cinematic artistry with the velocity of innovation and change in the twentieth century. Born on the road to vaudevillian parents in 1895, "poker-faced, rubber-bodied" little Keaton achieved fame as a "juvenile slapstick prodigy" and continued to support his family in spite of his father's drinking and violent temper. Welcomed into the new world of film by the wrongfully maligned Roscoe Arbuckle (one of many fascinating people Stevens brings out of the shadows, including early film director Mabel Normand and writer Robert Sherwood), Keaton quickly excelled as an ingenious and daring director and performer, creating a string of silent masterpieces, indelible works of "high-density comic action" that Stevens analyzes with expertise and ardor. She herself is a plate-spinner, balancing enlightening forays into newspapers, pop culture, historic events, the movie industry, and film criticism. As sound transformed film, Keaton was subsumed into MGM, his independence lost, his vision, "dexterity and grace" squandered. Stevens marks striking parallels between Keaton and F. Scott Fitzgerald; both were ground down by MGM and struggled with severe alcoholism. With a film persona whose "defining trait is his ability to move through chaos while remaining miraculously unperturbed," Keaton did resurge, and Steven's incisive, encompassing, and invigorating portrait will deepen and revitalize appreciation for his genius.

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

Slate film critic Stevens debuts with a masterful mix of cultural history, biography, and film criticism to consider of the work and legacy of silent film star Buster Keaton (1895--1966). She tracks Keaton's rise from a juvenile vaudeville performer, who as part of the Three Keatons family act skirted emerging child labor laws at the turn of the century; assesses his "solidly-constructed" two-reelers, including the classic One Week; highlights his famous roles in such films as Sherlock Jr. and Steamboat Bill, Jr.; and describes his walk-on cameos in such '60s B-movies as Beach Blanket Bingo. His career saw him work as an MGM gagman, commercial pitchman, and a creative force, and Stevens argues that Keaton's career arc mirrors America's evolving cultural tastes, making a strong case that "Buster Keaton belonged to the twentieth century, and it to him." Stevens also includes wonderful mini-biographies of Keaton's contemporaries, among them groundbreaking silent filmmaker Mabel Normand and vaudevillian Bert Williams, who inspired Keaton's own work. Combining the same ingredients that made Keaton's movies indelible--an elegant narrative, humor, and pathos--Stevens's account isn't one to miss. Agent: Adam Eaglin, Elyse Cheney Literary Assoc. (Jan.)

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Library Journal Review

In this thoughtful, engaging, and moving work, Slate writer Stevens posits that Buster Keaton's life is an entry point to understanding the 20th century--and vice versa. She follows Keaton from his days as the toddler star of the Three Keatons vaudeville act, to his late-career years making cameos in movies and television. The bulk of the biography focuses on Keaton's celebrated silent film career and his rocky entry into the talkies, which was derailed by bad personal and business decisions and further complicated by his alcohol addiction. Stevens enhances the work by contextualizing Keaton's life. His abusive childhood stage experience is juxtaposed against a discussion of early 20th-century child labor laws. An examination of blackface in Keaton's work leads to a more in-depth exploration of depictions of race and humor in pop culture at the time. A section on his repeated hospitalizations from drinking binges leads to an exploration of history of the rise of Alcoholics Anonymous. Stevens's acumen and analysis further elevate this book, offering insights and entertaining extrapolations on the myriad films and entertainment figures discussed within. VERDICT More than a biography of Buster Keaton, this is a stunning, extensively researched, and eminently readable cultural history.--Terry Bosky

(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Review by Kirkus Book Review

A film critic assesses the career and times of one of the geniuses of cinema. "Keep your eye on the kid," Joe Keaton wrote in an ad tagline in 1901, and was he ever right. That kid, his 6-year-old son Buster, was the star of the family stage act The Three Keatons, "the child star as prop, as projectile, as the personal belonging of a father who casually employs him as a household cleaning tool." He was also a natural performer who revolutionized cinema with his silent films of the 1920s before bad business decisions, alcoholism, and changing times brought him down. In this erratic book, Slate film critic Stevens describes the high and lows of Keaton's life--his early success in Roscoe Arbuckle's two-reel comedies, triumph with his own studio, disastrous association with MGM, three marriages--while addressing societal events of the day such as child abuse in textile mills, women's rights, and Black culture. Yet the author doesn't flesh out these larger events, and attempts to connect Keaton to them are often misguided. Stevens rightly bemoans the poor treatment of women in the cinema of that era, so it's odd she doesn't note that many lead actresses in Keaton's great films--Sybil Seely in One Week, Kathryn McGuire in The Navigator, Marion Mack in The General--more than hold their own and are every bit the Keaton character's equal. The author devotes eight pages to Spite Marriage, a 1929 MGM mediocrity Keaton didn't control, but she provides far less detail about Our Hospitality, Go West, and other superior films where Keaton was in charge. Stevens devotes more space to Charlie Chaplin's 1952 Limelight, a plodding film in which Keaton has only a small role, than some of Keaton's directorial gems. Readers hungry for details of how Keaton made his pictures should look elsewhere. An appreciative but wildly uneven look at a brilliant filmmaker. Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Chapter 1: They Were Calling It the Twentieth Century 1 They Were Calling It the Twentieth Century The Three Keatons, ca. 1901. (Photo courtesy of Bob and Minako Borgen) New Year's Eve 1899 must have felt momentous even if you weren't a four-year-old backstage at Proctor's Twenty-Third Street Theater, still buzzing from last week's Christmas gift: a big brown stitched-leather ball meant for playing an American game less than a decade old, which was just beginning to organize into professional leagues. Of course, Buster was still too young to grasp what it meant for one century to turn into the next, or for that matter what it meant that his parents--who had struggled so hard to find work in New York that winter that the three Keatons had at times gone cold and hungry--were suddenly flush enough to buy him such a lavish present. The answer: after Joe and Myra's acrobatics-and-cornet duo act had flopped hard at Tony Pastor's continuous-vaudeville house in early December (as Joe himself would later concede in one of the columns he occasionally contributed to the New York Dramatic Mirror , "the act didn't go... 'twas bad"), 1 he had somehow wrangled them a year-end week of bookings at the prestigious Proctor's chain, earning the cash to buy the ball for his boy. The basketball would have a long life as a Keaton prop. Just nine months later, during the family's first paid engagement as a trio at the Wonderland Theater in Wilmington, Delaware, Buster got laughs by bouncing that ball off his father's head as the old man stood downstage, holding forth on the importance of patience and gentleness to proper child rearing. ("Father hates to be rough," went a common opening line.) In what became the template for their act for years to come, Buster's continued interruptions--sometimes verbal, but most often taking the form of some prop-based provocation or audience-distracting piece of upstage business--would cause Joe to wheel around and witness his authority being flouted. Joe would then give both the audience and his son a more practical tutorial on day-to-day parenting by seizing the suitcase handle Myra had sewed to the back of her son's costume and flinging the boy against whatever backdrop, curtain, or piece of scenery was available. The contrast between the roughness with which this small child was handled and the equanimity with which he seemed to spring back from every mishap provided the wellspring of the act's humor. Whatever anxiety this comic premise created in the audience--which, given the demographics of vaudeville attendance, would have included many families with children--was no incidental side effect of the merriment but part of the point. The Keatons were not just funny, they were thrilling , with real-time risk an essential element of the program. As a grand finale in the early years, Joe sometimes hurled Buster clear into the wings, from whence a stagehand would reappear after a few suspenseful seconds with the grinning boy in his arms: "This yours, Mr. Keaton?" 2 Many years later, having grown too big for Joe to throw around the stage--and having learned, after many hissed paternal reminders, that the laughs got bigger when he ditched the smile--a somber teenage Buster would stand in the middle of the stage on the Keaton act's one consistent prop, a sturdy wooden table. (In the years before his son joined the act, Joe had sometimes billed himself as "The Man with the Table.") Whirling a basketball on a rubber rope over his head, Buster would approach his father's head in gradually widening arcs, first knocking off Joe's hat and, on the next revolution, clobbering the paterfamilias himself, thereby inviting whatever hair-raising act of retribution Joe proceeded to visit upon him. Another, even more patricidal variation involved Joe shaving onstage with a straight razor, whistling in blissful ignorance as Buster's whirling basketball-on-a-rope slowly approached him from behind to the audience's mounting gasps. In what must have made for an absurdist touch, Myra, a tiny woman known for her impeccably dainty Gibson Girl fashion, sometimes stood at the front of the stage playing the saxophone, serenely ignoring the melee while her son and husband courted death behind her. Most impossible for the four-year-old Buster to comprehend was that, in some way, the century to come would be his, in a much more lasting way than the basketball. Though he was born five years before it officially began, Buster Keaton belonged to the twentieth century, and it to him. It was as essential in inventing him as he was in inventing it, and it's impossible to imagine either one turning out the same without the other. For the first three decades of the new century, Buster's life as a performer and creator traced a steep and steady upward trajectory, catapulting his family from the greenhorn fringes of the entertainment industry to its topmost tiers in a remarkably short span of time. It was in late October 1900 that the just-turned-five-year-old made his first paid appearance in his parents' act, earning the Keatons an extra ten dollars a week at that Wilmington engagement. Buster's acrobatic and comic gifts were about to become so crucial to the family's reversal of fortune that, before New Year's Eve of the same year rolled around, Joe Keaton would be rounding his son's age upward by two years in a letter to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. Joe was requesting special permission for Buster to appear onstage on the prestigious Proctor's circuit in New York State, where state law banned children under seven from performing theatrical work of any kind without a permit from the SPCC. 3 That organization was better known in its time as the Gerry Society after its cofounder and longtime president, the powerful and controversial lawyer turned child welfare czar Elbridge T. Gerry. This prominent philanthropist and social reformer was a grandson of the founding father of the same name, a signatory of the Declaration of Independence who served as vice president under James Madison and whose skill at slicing up voting districts to his own advantage while governor of Massachusetts gave the American language the term "gerrymandering." We should pause here to learn a bit about the later Mr. Gerry and the child-protection movement he was instrumental in helping to launch, since we'll be hearing more from him and the "Gerrymen." Lord knows the Keaton family did. Excerpted from Camera Man: Buster Keaton, the Dawn of Cinema, and the Invention of the Twentieth Century by Dana Stevens All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.