Buster Keaton: Still making us laugh
BUSTER KEATON IN HIS OWN TIME by Wes D. Gehring. Published by McFarland. 242 pages. $39.95 retail (softcover).
What more can be said or written about the comic genius of Buster Keaton that hasn’t been said or written already?
Before answering, one would do well to pick up author Wes D. Gehring’s latest volume, Buster Keaton in His Own Time. The book is subtitled What the Responses of 1920s Critics Reveal, but that only scratches the surface. This is not a biography in the standard sense, although there’s plenty of biographical data, nor is it strictly a critical assessment of Keaton’s output in the 1920s. It’s more a treatise or even an academic thesis. If college courses were taught about Buster Keaton – and rest assured, there are – Buster Keaton in His Own Time would be an ideal textbook.
In his prologue, which certainly sets the stage, Gehring sums up the critical assessment of the giants of silent screen comedy: “(Charlie) Chaplin is God, (Harold) Lloyd is Mr. Consistency, and Keaton is a rollercoaster ride of brilliant oddity or disappointment.”
Gehring then sets out, in extremely thorough fashion, to give Keaton – nearly 100 years after the fact – his just due. Of course, in the years since Keaton’s death, his status has risen considerably, and Gehring points out how and why. For each and every Keaton film of the ‘20s, be it short or feature, Gehring discusses, debates, and dissects each one in almost exhaustive fashion.
Several of these films are undisputed classics: 1924’s Sherlock, Jr., which inspired Woody Allen’s 1985 comedy Purple Rose of Cairo; 1924’s The Navigator, which Gehring posits as perhaps Keaton’s greatest film; The General (1926), which many consider Keaton’s masterpiece, although it was not a hit at the time (possibly because of lingering resentment over the Civil War!); and Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928), which marked Keaton’s last independent production.
As the title indicates, Gehring has amassed an extensive array of reviews of and articles about Keaton’s work, comparing (and frequently contrasting) them with more contemporary observations. Not only does Gehring point out what critics said about each film, both good and bad, but also takes into account the specific point in time and history when each was released and the impact of one upon the other. It’s like a miniature history lesson with Keaton at the forefront or, if you prefer, as the star. Keaton was only in his 30s when he made these films, and never again did his star shine as brightly, for various reasons that Gehring also delves into.
Buster Keaton in His Own Time is both an assessment and re-assessment of Keaton’s work and his enduring legacy. In no way is it a breezy, easy read. Deeply detailed and richly researched, its overall impact is almost overwhelming. Gehring throws a lot at the reader, and much of it sticks because of his perceptive and persuasive analysis. In discussing The General, he even makes a surprising comparison to the 1974 film Chinatown. What’s particularly surprising is that, in a few short sentences, Gehring’s observation is made wholly credible.
It’s common knowledge among Keaton devotees that his career was severely compromised – if not derailed — when he left United Artists for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, for which he earned more money but lost artistic control. The onset of sound was another hurdle, much as it was for Chaplin and Lloyd. It should be noted that Chaplin’s City Lights (1931) and Modern Times (1936) bucked the trend by being silent, and Chaplin only made five features after that, with the Hollywood Blacklist resulting in his self-imposed exile in Switzerland. Lloyd made some talkies in the ‘30s (none particularly successful) and the ill-fated (but reappraised) 1947 comeback The Sin of Harold Diddlebock and concluded his career on radio and television.
The Great Depression was another factor, with audience tastes changing. A costly divorce from actress Natalie Talmadge in 1932, combined with Keaton’s alcoholism, led to what might now be called a nervous breakdown.
Keaton spent years wandering in the proverbial show-biz wilderness, ignored and forgotten by a public that had once showered him with adoration. But in the post-war years, Keaton enjoyed an unexpected renaissance that included his first and only appearance with Chaplin in the latter’s 1952 drama Limelight, which some consider Chaplin’s masterpiece; the publication of Keaton’s well-received – and remarkably humble autobiography My Wonderful World of Slapstick (co-authored with Charles Samuels), and an honorary Academy Award in 1960.
Keaton, his proper place in the pantheon of comedy giants now solidified, found domestic stability with second wife Eleanor Norris. He regularly appeared on television, including Once Upon a Time, a much-beloved 1961 episode of “The Twilight Zone,” in which he played the time-traveling curmudgeon Mulligan, who journeys from the 1890s to the 1960s. The ingenious gimmick is that the 1890s setting is depicted as silent and the 1960s setting as having sound.
Big-screen cameos in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), the Frankie-and-Annette romp Beach Blanket Bingo (1965), and How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (1965) – in which he played a Tahitian witch doctor called “Bwana” – may not have been vintage Keaton, but they put money in his pocket and exposed him to younger fans. His final feature film, Richard Lester’s 1966 adaptation of the musical smash A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, was a pleasing farewell, with Keaton holding his own against such inveterate scene-stealers as Zero Mostel and Phil Silvers, as well as performing many of his own stunts despite being terminally ill.
Whether Buster Keaton in His Own Time would have brought a smile to the “Great Stone Face” will never be known, but for legions of his fans – who simply can’t get enough of Keaton – it’ll surely put a smile on theirs. This may not be the definitive Keaton study, but in terms of the decade that defined him, the argument could certainly be made.
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