“He Really Can Smile”–A Charming 1921 Buster Keaton Interview

Hold onto your slapshoes, Buster fans! This is one of the most fantastic interviews I’ve seen with the twenty-something Keaton. Unlike some of the more well known interviews with him from the Jazz Age (those published in Buster Keaton: Interviews, up for free viewing in the great Taylorogy site, and circulating in various biographies), this one was not taken while Keaton was in “shy mode” and captures a bit more than his responses to the usual “why don’t you ever smile?” and “how do you come up with your gags?” questions (he answered these approximately seventy-four thousand times). How this one has managed to slip under the radar so much, I’ll never know. It’s a charmer.

Some background: The interview was taken some time in the spring of 1921 while Keaton was recovering in the hospital from the broken ankle he had gotten when a stunt for The Electric House (1922) went awry. Although the interview clearly took place before his May 31, 1921 marriage to Natalie Talmadge, oddly enough it didn’t make its way into Picture-Play Magazine until July 1921, naturally without any context (oh twenties fan magazines, how I love thee).

could’ve just added a link to the article and gone about my day, but I was so overcome with delight that I decided to feverishly transcribe the whole thing so you can read it here whenever you want. Any punctuation, capitalization and spelling oddities are directly from the magazine, because…why not. Enjoy!

HE REALLY CAN SMILE

And strangely enough it was in the hospital that “Buster” Keaton first proved it. There’s a good reason for his smiling, and her name is Natalie Talmadge, soon to be Natalie Keaton.

By Emma-Lindsay Squier

“Well, Mr. Keaton,” I said kindly, “I’m sorry to have to interview you here.”

“Well, Miss Squier,” said Mr. Keaton just as kindly, “I’m sorry to have you.”

That made it unanimous. I, the interviewer, was standing at the foot of a bed. Buster Keaton, the interviewee, was in the bed. The bed was in a hospital. So was Buster.

All around the white walls of the perfectly antiseptic room various sign cards were posted, all typically Keatonesque. Having one’s ligaments wrenched out of place doesn’t deaden one’s sense of humor–if one happens to be a screen comedian.

“Standing Room Only.” One of them read. Other masterpieces were: “We Close Saturdays at One O’Clock.” “No Shooting Allowed on These Premises. “Not Responsible For lost Valuables.” “Furnished Room For Rent.”

One effusion was hand printed, and was the result of Buster’s bump of poetry–which, however, is not the bump that put him in the hospital.

“Hi diddle diddle,
The cat and the fiddle,
The cow jumped over the moon.
If an old cow can do it
I thought I’d improve it–
I’ll be out of the hospital soon!”

Strangely enough, Buster Keaton was smiling. And that’s more than you’ve seen Buster do, even if you’ve watched him through his sixteen years on the stage, and his subsequent three or four years on the screen. They call him the “melancholy comedian” in pictures, because his sadness never lifts. Kicked or kissed, it is all the same to him. His expression of gentle gloom doesn’t change. They tell me that when he was in the army no one ever saw him smile–but then, the army is no laughing matter at best.

Buster illustration pic play mag Jul '21

As I said before, he was smiling, though his leg was in a cast, and his face was a trifle wan. His sense of humor seems to be always on the alert. His mother sat besides the bed. She was smiling, too. The joke was a page from a Muskegon, Michigan, paper. It contained an ad for one of Buster’s comedies, and it read “Muskegon’s Own! Buster Keaton! His latest picture to-night, straight from the Capitol Theater, New York!”

“‘Muskegon’s Own!'” repeated Buster. “Sounds like a bottle of catsup.”

“Where you born there?” I asked.

Buster and his mother grinned at each other. She looks young enough to be his sister, and you can see that they are great pals.

“No, but I lived there between seasons on the road and went to school–oh it’s the old home town, all right–I get an awful kick out of that ad. When I come back from the East after getting married, I’m going to stop off and see all the gang. Maybe get up a little impromptu act for one of the theaters.

“The reason I smiled when you asked about my birthplace,” he went on, “was because the place where I was born isn’t there any more. It was in Kansas, and shortly after I arrived, there was a cyclone that demolished the place. They never did build it up.”

We talked some more about the prospect of returning to Muskegon.

“I will probably have the same experience that Will Rogers did,” he said. “He went back to his home town–somewhere in Wyoming I think it was–and met one of his old cow-puncher friends on the street.

“‘Is that you, Will Rogers?’ the old friend said. Will owned up that it was.

“‘Well,’ said the other wonderingly, ‘where have you been all these years?'”

I asked Buster when he and Natalie Talmadge were going to be married.

“I don’t just exactly know,” he smiled, showing a long dimple in his cheek that you’d never guess was there. “That’s up to my better nine-tenths–meaning Natalie–and, of course, the condition of my leg has something to do with it. I’ve been in bed now for five weeks, and the doctors think that I’m in for three more. Then I’ll have to dash around on crutches for a while–and after that–New York!”

He sighed ecstatically. What he really meant, was, “Natalie!”

I was curious to know the details of his accident–the first one he has ever had–but he was reticent. On a revolving stairway the mechanism had gone wrong, he leg was caught–that was all. His mother regarded him with pride.

“He has never hurt himself in a fall–and he has been doing acrobatic tumbling ever since he was a small child.”

Buster illustration pic play mag Jul '21 2

I wanted to know if the falls he takes weren’t rather painful.

“They don’t hurt,” he replied. “Great Scott, if they did, they’d kill me off. It’s all in knowing how to take the fall. It isn’t nearly as difficult as it looks.”

He picked up his ukelele from the foot of the bed. He strummed a few chords softly and hummed a tune. I had heard somewhere that Buster turns out clever parodies of popular songs. I asked for one.

He smiled, a ran a chromatic scale on the E string. When Buster handles a ukelele it does everything but speak in Scandinavian.

“Here’s one,” he said, and commenced:

“A good girl is hard to fined,
You always get the other kind,
Just when you think you’ve got a regular pal
Lew Cody drives up in his Marmon,
And it’s good-by, gal!
And then you swear,
You tear your hair,
But it don’t get you anywhere,
So don’t go near Alex,
Take this little tip,
Stay away from Vernon,
Don’t take her to the Ship,
For a good girl nowadays is hard to find!”

There were other parodies, too, “Rose of Universal Square,” and a paraphrase of “Here We Are Together Again,” that commenced, “Here I am, together again, together again, together again,

They have called me the little iron man,
But there are some things that iron won’t stand–“

On the set, they tell me, Buster is the “life of the party.” He is never at a loss for an original song.

“Why don’t you ever smile in your comedies,” I asked, when the concert was over.

“Oh, I don’t know,” he answered, “it’s just my way of working, I guess. I have found–especially on the stage–that when I finish a stunt, I can get a laugh just by standing still and looking at the audience as if I was surprised and slightly hurt to think that they would laugh at me. It always brings a bigger laugh. Fatty Arbuckle gets his humor differently. The people laugh with him. They laugh at me.

Buster Keaton commenced his theatrical career when he was just a toddler. He toured the county many times with his mother and father. They were billed as “The Three Keatons,” and later he travelled by himself. He played in Roscoe Arbuckle’s company for three years, and is now making his own comedies under the Metro banner. “Convict No. 13,” “Seven Days,” and “Hard Luck” are some of the comedies in which he has starred.

A screen comedian, he says, has little future. About four years is as long as any one can hope to keep on thinking up new ideas to make people laugh.

“I made eight comedies in the last year. I intend to make that many next year. And each one has almost a hundred ‘gags’ in it–just figure that out and see what happens to your imagination at the end of three years. That’s why practically all comedians go sooner or later into five-reel stories with a comedy angle. It’s easier to let some one else worry about the laughs. I string all my stuff together–no, not alone, because every one in the company helps. But I mean that I’ve never yet bought a scenario, and I’ve had thousands of them offered me. I can’t find funny scenarios. If I could, I’d play a wonderful price for them.”

The nurse “ahemed!” politely. I took it that the visiting hour was over.

“Come and see me at the studio in New York,” he invited. “Or, better still, stop off in Muskegon, Michigan, on your way East. The folks there are mighty nice to strangers and–”

But I don’t think I will. If Buster was there, what chance would I have? None, with “Muskegon’s Own” taking up all the attention.

Picture-Play Magazine, July 1921.

So I have so many thoughts about this interview that I’ve organized (a few of) them with a handy bullet point list:

  • Decorating his hospital room with gag signs and poetry spoofs–to say that he lived and breathed comedy is an understatement.
  • Okay, Keaton certainly did laugh and smile on the vaudeville stage and onscreen (in Arbuckle’s “Comique” series). The twenties writer was probably using typical magazine hyperbole.
  • Awww, he’s hanging out with his mom.
  • Interesting how he offhandedly mentions that he “went to school” in Muskegon, since the official story is that he attended school only one day in his life. Something the writer later threw in? Perhaps he received some tutoring there or the actors whipped up some sort of educational program for their children during the off-season. Or maybe he was sensitive about his lack of schooling even then, because as you know nothing is more embarrassing than having been born with prodigy-like engineering and filmmaking skills in spite of never having gone to school. Nothing.
  • Awww, “you can see that they are great pals.”
  • Keaton fans tend to have a Pavlovian reaction to any mention of his first wife Natalie. But let’s try and clear our minds of hindsight, together, with great determination (we can do it!) and remember that this article was written when all seemed rosy for the young couple. Thus we can easily appreciate Keaton smiling (revealing a “long dimple”) and referring to Natalie jokingly as his “better nine-tenths.”
  • “He sighed ecstatically”–cute. Perhaps a bit of “starry-eyed romantic” spoofing?
  • My favorite line in this interview–“When Buster handles a ukelele it does everything but speak in Scandinavian.”
  • Rare glimpses into the kind of satirical songs Keaton liked to create–thank you, Miss Squier! Notice the Lew Cody reference (one of his good friends). “Alex” and “Vernon” I’m not too sure about.
  • Friends of Arbuckle said they always called him Roscoe–why, then, the “Fatty” here when “Roscoe” is named in the next paragraph? Was this how the writer wrote it down, or did Roscoe not mind his friends referring to his stage name in the press?
  • Seven Days–must be an alternate title for a reissue of One Week that I hadn’t heard of.
  • “A screen comedian, he says, has little future.” Ah the sober practicality of those early comics.
  • Hearing Keaton talk about the work that goes into coming up with enough gags to pack a two-reeler reminds me of how he would later end his T.V. series for the same reason.
  • Have any of you watched Buster Keaton Rides Again, the documentary about the 1965 short film starring Keaton? Both old and young Buster Keaton sure are similar.
  • Gag signs, Muskegon, Myra Keaton, ukelele playing, Arbuckle referencing–seriously Miss Squier, you are the best.

If you’d like to see a scan of the magazine interview, the link is here. Try not to get too lost in the fun of paging through vintage movie magazines (although you probably will!).

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10 thoughts on ““He Really Can Smile”–A Charming 1921 Buster Keaton Interview

  1. What a kick this was to read! Delightful stuff. Thank you for snuffing this article out, Lea, and presenting it with your well-written and in-the-spirit observations. Love your writing.

    BTW, Buster mentions The Ship, Alex, and Vernon in his song. The Ship was a very lively restaurant in the Los Angeles area….I think in Venice or Santa Monica, near the beach, frequented by “movie people.” I’m not sure about the reference to Alex. But Vernon was a small municipality in the area (still is) where alcohol was served and gambling was legal, and in general it was a pretty loose town. Vernon had had nightclubs, bars, etc. where many the movie people back in the “silent” era liked to go to unwind and have a good time. It was a happening place.

    • Wow, thanks Shaune! The Ship sounded like it was probably some sort of nightlife hotspot, but I had no idea what it was in particular. And “Vernon” was lost on me (let’s just ignore Alex for now 😉 ). Thanks for helping to add some more historic context!

  2. Thanks for sharing. I started to get lost in paging through the magazines (seems to be several months of the same magazine in the file). Will have to go back and take a longer swim through the pages. Seeing them on the computer screen makes them seem contemporary (in a stlyeized way). Get away from yellowed paper and musty scents and they still seem new.

    • It must, my guess is that it was a reissue title. Makes you wonder how many other shorts of his had alternate titles! Vernon was indeed a municipality where Prohibition was…well, prohibited, as my friend Shaune informed me above. But the great mystery remains: just what was “Alex”?

  3. Great find, Lea. Once again Silentology has unearthed something previously unknown to this Buster Keaton fanatic. It’s an interesting read, with a small caveat that I suspect you know already: those old 20’s movie fan magazines were notorious for playing fast and loose with genuine quotes. The “charming” verbiage of this is likely more Emma-Lindsay Squier than Buster Keaton. The actual interview may have been something more in line with Buster’s familiar way of speaking, but was spiced up in this playful manner for reader appeal. If you study enough of these old fan magazine interviews one finds a pattern: a concerted effort to present comedians as “fun” and “playful” offscreen. My guess is the reason this was left out of the Buster Keaton: Interviews book is that so much of it is probably paraphrased to the point that it’s not his real voice. Of course, this is an assumption on my part in this particular instance, but it is consistent with how these things used to be done. Hence the red flags such as Ms. Squier’s misstating “Fatty” for “Roscoe,” or erroneously stating Buster claimed to have been schooled in Muskegon, which was possibly merely an assumption. But, regardless, this article is a nice addition to anyones collection of Keaton ephemera. Keep up the great work. Love your blog.

    • Hi Marty! Thanks for chiming in. Ohhhh yes, I’m very familiar with just how unreliable fan mags can be, mostly through spending ludicrous amounts of time hunting for goodies in them. As you said, the best way to view most interviews like this is to maybe trust the “gist” of them, but not expect verbatim wording. (Although I do argue that some magazines are more reliable than others–trade magazines, particularly.) To be honest, I don’t find Buster’s phrasing, etc. as “recorded” in this interview to be that much different from the ones published in the Interviews book. For instance, his answers to questions about acting and film work seem pretty par for the course. The charming part of it for me is less the the actual words he possibly said than their subjects–Muskegon, Natalie, Arbuckle–and the little snapshots we get of him playing his ukelele and chilling with Myra. Warm fuzzies, lemme tellya. p.s. That’s a good possible explanation for the mention of school in Muskegon though–didn’t think of that one!

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