“Souvenirs sur Buster Keaton”–A 1930 Article You’ve Probably Never Seen

Well hello there, patient readers! Having recently gone through the endless job of packing everything I owned, the stress-filled excitement of moving it to a new place, and enduring the equally endless job of UNpacking everything I owned, I’m back in the Silent-ology saddle! Since starting this blog 8 years ago, I really haven’t taken a break longer than a couple weeks or so, so having a breather was probably overdue. But now my brain is starting to itch again, wondering why I haven’t been musing over obscure Essanay shorts or the merits of brilliantined hair. So may regular postings resume!!

Like the roaring '20s,' but not for everyone: What history tells us about  life after COVID-19 | CBC Radio
It’s alright, don’t get too carried away by excitement!

As a token of my appreciation for how nice y’all are to keep dropping by, here is a genuinely fascinating 1930 article from the French magazine Pour Vous. A Damfino (can’t recall who, sadly–if it was you, let me know!) found it on the fine site La Belle Equipe, which had originally shared it in 2016 in recognition of the 50th anniversary of Buster’s passing. The fullest of credit goes to La Belle for making it available–and for clipping the images, too. Thank you, thank you! Merci!

As you can see, it is part of a series published in the fall of 1930. The other pieces are fun too but mostly recount Buster’s familiar life story. This particular piece, however, caught my eye. It seems to be relying on previous interviews with Buster and the Talmadge sisters taken in Santa Monica, along with the author’s glowing impressions of Buster and his appeal. Despite being published in 1930, there’s nothing to indicate that Buster was no longer an independent filmmaker at this point.

The English translation is Google’s doing, which created some…odd turns of phrase, so please note that I did touch up a sentence or two. You’ll see that the style of the piece as a whole is quite gushingly poetic–the French adored them some Buster. You can read the original French or see Google’s original translation here. Enjoy!

Memories Of Buster Keaton (part 5) by John D. Williamson

In what condition does Buster attend the presentation of his films?

PUBLISHED IN POUR VOUS ON  SEPTEMBER 11, 1930

For You of September 11, 1930

What more will I tell you about Buster Keaton’s career? Specific facts? You know them. Since Buster Keaton rose to fame, you’ve seen all of his movies. These films of such a sure comic character were great events in our hero’s life. He lived for them. He thought about them all day. He dreamed about them at night.

Nathalie Talmadge told me that when he prepares a film, Buster sleeps only a light sleep cut off by confusedly whispered words, gasps and grunts. Sometimes he gets up, goes out into his garden, whistles a step, comes back to bed, gets up, drinks a whiskey and soda, and wanders around the house all night chasing the comic idea, the invincible “gag” that is missing in his film. When he has found it, whatever the hour, Buster wakes the whole household, turns on all the phonographs and performs in front of the whole family the “gag” or the scene he has been looking for. It is not by boasting. Rarely was a man less marked by the histrionic’s faults than this simple man endowed with all the virtues of childhood. Showing his latest find–is it not the gesture of a child who ignores intellectual selfishness and wants everyone to share in its joys? It is the poetic side of this character that I would like to put before your eyes.

For You of September 11, 1930

Buster still thinks he is on the verge of entering a fairytale world. He is on the same level as the fairies. When spotting the most mundane office door, he always wonders if it will not give him access to a world entirely different from ours. At any time of day or night, he is ready to find adventure and the unknown. If he had not lived in the world of theater and cinema, which allows every escape into the imagination, without a doubt he would have been one of those heroic daredevils who, in the columns of newspapers, share the best spots with criminals and earthquakes. He always has some chimera in mind. Traveling to the center of the earth, exploring the moon by plane or shell, and communicating with Mars are his hobbies.

Self-taught, he forged a culture more scientific than literary, but curious, abundant and varied. Were you the most competent specialist in the matter, you could not teach him anything about Vaucanson’s automata and the dozen cosmogonies that men have invented to explain the inexplicable birth of worlds. He certainly ignores the achievements of Tamerlan and the quarter pound of Rabelais, but he does know the latest hypotheses on the constitution of the material and knows by heart the names of all the champions of boxing, swimming, tennis, baseball, and high jump.

A man of today, as you can see, with a culture that is too clearly scientific but who knows how to supply it with an impetus, a freshness of imagination which our contemporaries so often lack. Add to that a strong penchant for philosophical readings (Schopenhauer, Aristotle, David Hume), and you will have a fairly complete and in no way flattered intellectual portrait of the “clown” Joseph Francis Keaton.

Do not imagine from this description that our Buster is a sort of powdery scholar who deigns, from time to time, to come out of his folio to put on the livery of the comic and earn his living, with the thought in the back of his mind that he is prostituting his dignity. Nothing is further from him. I showed him playing alone, at daybreak, on the beach in Santa Monica, with shells, which represent actors; I told you about his nocturnal nervousness when he was preparing a film.

For You of September 11, 1930

All this should give you an idea of ​​the seriousness with which he considers his art. And all this is nothing. You have to have seen Buster Keaton after he showed one of his new films to understand his passion for cinema.

Twenty-four hours in advance, he is sick with anguish. He doesn’t eat anymore. He withdraws from his wife and children and talks about abandoning the studios forever if his film is not successful. He is already making plans, decides to invest his fortune in this or that business, offers Natalie a trip to China, etc. The time for the presentation finally arrives. Buster goes to the small room next to the studio where the finished films are shown, shakes hands with his friends as if he is leaving them forever, and sits down in the armchair reserved for him as if it was an electric chair.

During the projection, he does not breathe a word. Upon leaving, he escapes congratulations, runs away, disappears. But then, he goes to see his friends one by one. He begs them to tell him the truth, however “appalling” it may be to him. He does not want to believe them when they tell him that he has never done anything better and is not reassured until after the film has been shown in public. The total support of the spectators, the praises of the critics give him calm and sleep. It was then that he began to worry about his next film.

That is Buster Keaton. If, with these few notes, I did not know how to make you love him, do not doubt it is because I am the most proud fool who has ever walked this earth. In this terrible scenario, all I would have to do is apologize to you and advise you to go see my friend in one of his many incarnations. If my little papers had brought just one more spectator to Buster Keaton, I would consider myself satisfied.

End.

John D. Williamson

For You of September 11, 1930

A gem, yes? The description of Buster being so deeply, passionately invested in his films–and so nervous about them being good!–really rings true to me. Might that, perhaps, explain Buster’s shelving of The High Sign? He must’ve felt so much pressure behind his first solo release, especially on the heels of working with the world-famous Arbuckle. No doubt he felt that it had to be perfect, and when the idea for One Week came along–well, you can understand why he put the first film aside.

Bonus content! If you’re curious about that Santa Monica beach reference, here’s the relevant excerpt from part 4, published September 4 1930:

“The next morning, at daybreak, I went down to the beach. There was no one there yet. However the front cabin of Keaton, a bathrobe was lying. I looked towards the sea. Far away, a black dot was moving slowly. He was approaching the shore. Soon I could recognize the daring morning swimmer. It was Buster Keaton . I could observe him without being seen. So I did not move. Buster Keaton got back on his feet, snorted, dried himself off, and soon began a little job that seemed extremely mysterious to me. On a small rectangle of sand carefully flattened and strictly delimited by pebbles, he had arranged seashells which he was looking at with a deeply absorbed air. Every now and then he would move one and fall back into his deep meditation.

“I approached without making a sound. I was able to get close to Buster without his noticing my presence. Suddenly, impatiently, muttering a curse, he dispersed with a punch the mysterious assembly of shells. He stood up and found himself face to face with me.

“‘What the devil were you doing there?’ I asked him.

“‘I was working on my next film,’ he replied. ‘There is a scene that I can’t quite see. See, you understand, see how I see you there. This is why I use these little shells which represent actors in this rectangle of sand which represents the “set” of the studio. This is how I work on all my films, with shells, pieces of paper, coins…‘ A man who gets up so early and work so hard could not fail.”

These snippets of Buster are like puzzle pieces, each one revealing a bit more of who he was and how he thought about things. Although as Eleanor Keaton said, we may never fully “know” Buster–but we fans just can’t help giving it a try.

12 thoughts on ““Souvenirs sur Buster Keaton”–A 1930 Article You’ve Probably Never Seen

  1. Great article, thanks for the translation to English! I always loved it very much, especially this last part (when I first read it about two years ago, I thought that the author was going too far about Aristotle and Hume, but over time I came to the conclusion that most likely he wasn’t ;).

    Although it was published in 1930, I believe, Williamson visited Buster in Santa Monica in the summer of 1925, after he finished Go West, when Keatons have sold last big home and temporarily lived in four-room beach house there; and what Buster was staging using seashells actually was a box-training routine for Battling Butler (he bought the rights to that moment). This is also indicated by the fact that the author calls MGM simply Metro-Goldwyn, even without Mayer – the triple name did not take root immediately

    • Thanks for the insights Olga! (You don’t happen to be the Damfino who shared this originally, do you? 🙂 )

      This is the second time I’ve seen the reference to Buster reading Schopenhauer, etc. It’s kind of thrown me for a loop too, but I have some theories. We know that in the 1920s it was “in” to be cultured, or at least appear to be cultured. We also know that the big name comedians tried to distance themselves a bit from the old “custard pie” slapstick. It’s possible Buster tried reading some philosophy, etc. just to be informed on what everyone was talking about. Or maybe his publicist put it out there to keep him associated with quality, “artistic” comedies.

      • If I may, on the fact to appear cultured, it is often a carachteristic of artists known for their comic roles: most of them were coming from “lawer” social class and thought that to be accepted by “famous” or “rich” people they would need to be cultured. IA Groucho Marx wrote many books, Chaplin perfectly knew he was not and would never be completely part of the “high society” but in some way they were wishing to appear (in their private life, at least) as such. Maybe something inconscious. Nevertheless, it does not change anything to their great talent. Many thanks for this very interesting article. Very nice reading you

        • That’s what I’m thinking, too–to be a “legitimate ” comedian, you’d want to seem cultured, or at least put out publicity alluding to that fact.

          Thanks to his theater upbringing, Buster certainly would’ve been cultured with or without reading philosophy, if you think about it. He would’ve been raised around operettas, poetry recitations, famous plays, etc. I strongly believe that the average American of the early 20th c was much more cultured than we are, just by virtue of “higher pursuits” being strongly referenced throughout pop culture.

        • Indeed through his background, Buster Keaton should have been quite cultured (as many other actors coming from theatre). But with the film you are on a completely different dimension respect to theatre: you may become famous worldwide. Chaplin, travelling around the world, met with Prime Ministers, Presidents or kings. In Spain, standing ovation at the corrida show was for Buster Keaton and not for the Torrero (around 1937). And I think that since they are meeting “high level” people, they really want to understand and, in some way, integrate some of their codes.
          This very spedific topic was part of a full chapter in a tv program on French television dedicated to Chaplin recently. It has been mentioned several time separately for other actors also but I never found a study as such on the topic in general.
          Concerning the average level of culture of American people, I am definitely not able to judge as I am not american nor leave in america (nor am I English native speaker, so sorry for my language tweaks).

        • That’s a good point. Plus, the very famous Chaplin consistently being called an “artist” and discussed so much by the intelligentsia really set the standard for the other top comedians.

          As far as Americans and culture, I’m talking more about pop culture here as a whole (and probably not exclusive to Americans either). In the ’20s, it was common to see fan magazine writers make casual references to mythological figures or to see comedies quote lines from 19th century poems. It was simply expected that audiences would understand the references. Not so much nowadays…!

  2. This is AWESOME. And so are you, for bringing this article to our attention in English! 👍🏻❗️❤️

  3. I love that detail with him using seashells to stage a scene. Keaton kept using that sort of method well into the 1960s from what I’ve read.

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