Book Review: “Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker’s Life” By James Curtis

It was late last year when I first heard the welcome news that a new Buster Keaton biography was on the way. And not only that, but it was going to be a very long, detailed, and thoroughly professional biography by James Curtis, author of acclaimed books such as Spencer Tracey: A Biography and William Cameron Menzies: The Shape of Films to Come. It was going to be An Event, you might say, the first truly major biography on Buster in years. And, it would be ready to go in February 2022, sooner than I expected!

And now, having carefully waded my way through its 800 pages (yes, this is a substantial tome!) I can say that Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker’s Life was not only worth waiting for, but it’s the kind of book that Buster fans needed–indeed that anyone interested in film history needed.

The first clue that the Curtis bio (as we shall now call it) is going to be more than your standard march through the usual Keaton tales is the front cover, featuring one of Keaton’s George Hurell portraits from the early ’30s. (These were commissioned by the MGM studio.) No makeup, no flat hat–just the man himself, up close and personal, in a simple white sweater. Hurrell’s sumptuously-lit portraits–more like glamour shots–were some of the finest in Hollywood, and the choice of this portrait is both eye-catching and hints at the book’s high standards.

Another marvelous Hurrell portrait from the same session.

And did Curtis ever live up to those standards…! It only took the first paragraph of Chapter 1 to convince me that this biography was a milestone. Curtis doesn’t waste a sentence, packing in names, dates, locations and trivia in a breezy, easily-digestible style. You’re swept up in Buster’s life (beginning with his parents’ backgrounds) right away, and if you can bear to put the book down before blasting through a few chapters you’re a stronger soul than me.

Unlike many prior books on Keaton, Curtis devotes over half the book to his post-silent years, if not more–which is fantastic considering that “post-silent” spans about four decades of Keaton’s life. The portrait of our Buster finally feels full and complete. I was also struck by how skillfully it kept the focus on its subject without wavering off too much into, say, extensive backgrounds on the people Keaton encounters or long explanations of various historical events. Curtis keeps everything succinct, including just the right amount of context without losing focus.

Refreshingly, he largely keeps personal opinions out of the book (aside from the normal love of Buster and his work), and anything he does venture on occasion is well reasoned. The usual suspects Anita Loos and Adela Rogers St. John are quoted sparingly (they certainly aren’t the main sources like they are in some books) and happily, some of the fabulous Eleanor Keaton interviews from Oliver Scott’s The Little Iron Man are finally utilized (if you haven’t heard of it: it’s a rare, well-researched, self-published book stuffed with great interviews–and it’s crazy expensive).

With most books on Keaton I’m always leery of how they’re going to cover the most drama-filled portion of his life–the unhappy period of 1930-1935. It’s nigh impossible for most writers to keep from milking the drama for all its worth, and in fairness, Keaton’s life was a soap opera at the time. Curtis clarifies much of what happened during the divorce from Natalie and the strange second marriage to the erratic Mae Scriven (managing to find a good amount of info on her, too) and covers it in a well-balanced way. The wealth of info that follows in the next few chapters–again, Curtis covers Keaton’s last few decades thoroughly–makes it clear that this was a tragic time for Keaton, but not the defining period of his very full and busy life.

Now, not only is A Filmmaker’s Life immensely detailed–you can practically track where Keaton was every month–but the sheer amount of trivia is exactly what every fan dreams of. Here’s just a random sampling, some new to me, some with even more details added:

  • The famed “‘Buster’ Nickname Origin Story” is clarified as having stemmed from George A. Pardney, English comedian and manager of the Umatilla No. 27 travelling medicine show (which employed the Keatons for a time). Pardey was apparently the one who saw 1-year-old Buster fall down a flight of stairs, exclaiming “He’s a regular buster!” “Buster” was an English slang term for a hard fall.
  • The portrait of the 11-year-old Buster that appeared on the cover of the New York Clipper was partly arranged to combat the Gerry society (which was zealously against the mistreatment of child performers) by showing how healthy and happy he was as a famous child actor.
  • The shoot of Arbuckle’s short The Rough House was, well, rough, with expensive opening scenes set at Churchill’s Broadway cabaret getting scrapped, as well as the backstory for Mr. and Mrs. Rough involving the mother-in-law moving into their seaside home.
  • Antique camera expert Sam Dodge explained that the famous “nine Busters” scene from The Playhouse couldn’t have been done with matting in front of the lens, but behind it, so there wouldn’t be any blurring caused by combining the multiple exposures.
  • When Buster’s Belgian police dog Captain died during the production of Three Ages (he was hit by a car), Buster was inconsolable and stopped production to have his crew build a coffin. Captain was laid to rest on the grounds of Buster’s studio the following day.
  • Eleanor Keaton had some amusing first impressions of Buster, who she would see around the MGM studio where she worked as a dancer in musicals: “He used to have a whole series of slacks and shirts–he had ’em made–in tans and grays. And when he wore the gray ones, he used to sort of blend in–he looked like this little gray thing going by. He blended right in. And that was my impression: I wish he’d put some color on, or some makeup or something, because he blended into his clothes.”

A new touch added by Curtis is giving each major “section” of Keaton’s life (childhood, entering films and getting his own studio, going to MGM, etc.) a postscript of sorts by recounting scenes from Buster Keaton Rides Again, the documentary filmed during the making of The Railrodder (1964). One of the rare films simply showing Keaton discussing filmmaking while on the job and generally just being himself, it adds reminders of who Keaton was as both a person and a filmmaker. This might’ve seemed gimmicky if it was added too many times, but Curtis again knows how to be succinct.

So to no one’s shock, I couldn’t recommend Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker’s Life more highly if I tried. It will absolutely be the new gold standard in Keaton biographies, and indeed, it’s hard to imagine it ever being topped. I couldn’t be more pleased to have it on my shelf, the one truly great Buster Keaton biography we fans have all been waiting for.

Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker’s Life is available from pretty much every major book seller, so pick your favorite and don’t hesitate to treat yourself. Many thanks to Random House for my review copy! It is much appreciated.

14 thoughts on “Book Review: “Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker’s Life” By James Curtis

  1. We had gotten the Curtis book from the library but did not have time to finish….it’s BIIIG. Your review convinced me to buy a copy. Thanks, Lea!

  2. 800 pages! Is there anything missing? Any questions unanswered? Anything left to be unearthed by yet another biographer? Looking for and finding original source material and then presenting the material as is – leaving US to form our own opinion of its relevance – is what separates a great biographer from a hack who rehashes the legends.

    John Gilbert should be so lucky to have such a biographer. Many questions about HIS downfall could be answered by examining the documents in the files of MGM. Both Gilbert and Keaton were at MGM in the early 30s and both were floundering when they both were considered for roles in ‘Grand Hotel.’ Had they been cast, what a difference that would have made to their careers. I assume Curtis has this missed opportunity thoroughly documented within the 800 pages. Even so, because of this superb review, I’m considering reading it.

    • You should! If you are even a little interested in Buster’s life, you’ll love it. I’m sure there’ll always be bits and pieces to keep researching, but as far as a big professional biography goes– this is it.

  3. My schedule doesn’t allow a lot of time for me to read but I’m on page 288 and can’t wait to keep going!!!! I have loved every word!!!!! 🙂

  4. I wanted to read this one right away, but my mother already snapped up a copy for my birthday, so I’ll have to wait a few more months. I’m excited to read it! So many Buster books are wanting, so I’m hoping this will live up to the hype.

  5. I finished my copy today and, after reading Marion Meade’s “Cut to the Chase” prior to this one, I feel like I finally have a balanced portrait of Buster Keaton. This is incredibly well-documented and well researched.

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