How To Tell If Your Relative Was REALLY A Keystone Kop

One of the most common questions I get through my blog is this: “My great uncle/grandfather/great grandfather was an original Keystone Kop, his name was John Doe, how can I find out more about him?”

Hmmmm.

99% of the time when I try to help with this question–usually by consulting my other Bible (Mack Sennett’s Fun Factory) or asking around in the film history community or looking up old studio directories–I’m finally forced to reply: “There doesn’t seem to have been anyone named John Doe who worked at Keystone. Is it possible he went by a different name at the time? Or worked at a similar comedy studio?” What I don’t say is, well, this: “Hate to break it to ya, but it looks like ol’ John was lying for a few decades. Or maybe the ol’ family lore wasn’t that accurate…!”

You see, over the years a surprisingly large number of actors claimed that they totally used to be Keystone Kops. Their numbers really swelled during the ’50s and ’60s, when silent comedy nostalgia was peaking. Sometimes it seems like every guy who had ever accidentally wandered on camera in the 1910s had somehow been a Kop–forget such petty details like whether they were even living in California at the time. Oh, and they usually weren’t just any old Kop, mind you, but an original Kop.

Like, from this still. (Technically this 1914 short, In the Clutches of a Gang, is a bit late in the game for them to be “original” Kops.)

But how many of these claims were true, and not merely hearsay? Thanks to my timely experience delving into all things Keystone Kop, I’ve rounded up some handy tips to help figure out if granddad had, in fact, been part of Sennett’s farcical police force.

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Was Gloria Swanson Really A Sennett Bathing Beauty?

Hollywood legend Gloria Swanson–whose name is basically synonymous with “glamour”–had an endearingly humble start in the 1910s as a star in Mack Sennett shorts. The petite actress was paired with the equally petite Bobby Vernon in a number of successful films like The Danger Girl (1917) and Teddy at the Throttle (also 1917)–and yes, they sometimes shared top billing with Teddy the Sennett Dog.

File:Bobby Vernon, Teddy the Dog, and Gloria Swanson - Talking Screen,  September 1930.jpg - Wikimedia Commons
Teddy in the center, his rightful place.

Pretty different territory from the tuxes-and-ballgowns dramas Gloria later made with Cecil B. DeMille! Yes, as you’ve no doubt heard, the actress that would one day earn millions and pose in furs and jewels got her start as a frolicking Bathing Beauty in slapstick films, running around the beach in various striped, ruffly, puffy (or all of the above) bathing suits. Oh, Hollywood history–the gift that keeps on giving.

Ah, but is that bit of Hollywood history really accurate? Gloria herself would always insist that she was never actually a Sennett Bathing Beauty–and stuck to her story like glue, too. (I believe the phrase “vehemently denied” has also been tossed around.) She once said, somewhat dramatically: “I was never a Sennett bathing beauty. Those glossies that sometimes turn up were pulicity stills that I unfortunately made as a favor when I had a free hour. And I’ve paid for it all of my life.”

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Happy Independence Day!

To all my U.S. readers enjoying what I hope is a well-deserved, relaxing holiday–Happy 4th of July! And may all my readers have a fine summer weekend, preferably near a lake or seashore of some sort (says this writer from a state accurately nicknamed “The Land of 10,000 Lakes” 🙂 ). Cheers!

Book Review: “The Rise And Fall Of Max Linder” By Lisa Stein Haven

The Rise & Fall of Max Linder: The First Cinema Celebrity: Haven, Lisa  Stein, Cormon, Catherine: 9781629337128: Amazon.com: Books

If you love film history, you’ve probably heard that the dapper French comedian Max Linder is credited as being the first “name on all the posters” screen star. No less a celebrity than Charlie Chaplin would refer to Linder as “the professor.” But aside from that, many folks’ exposure to Linder is likely confined to viewing a couple short comedies, seeing a few portraits and stills, and hearing that the man’s life ended in some kind of tragedy.

Credit: ullstein bild via Getty Images/ullstein bild Dtl.

Surprisingly for such a seminal figure, Linder’s been the subject of very few books…but that’s starting to change. Recently released from BearManor Media, Lisa Stein Haven’s The Rise & Fall of Max Linder is helping to fill a noticeable gap in silent comedy fans’ book collections.

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“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.

The Seventh Annual Buster Keaton Blogathon

UPDATE: Day 2 of the blogathon has begun! More posts will be trickling in today, so make sure to check back and see what’s new!

Well that was a long 12 months, wasn’t it? But happily, in spite of everything, we’ve made it back to:

Our excellent Buster Keaton Blogathon has made it to year 7! Once again we will be celebrating the life and brilliant legacy of one of cinema’s most beloved comedians–the guy whose work is the gift that keeps on giving.

BusterLove on Twitter: "Austrian poster for "Spite Marriage", 1929. # BusterKeaton #DorothySebastian #BusterArt #posterart #movieposter  #BusterLove🍀… https://t.co/wAgUnucuJ8"

Bloggers: Please send me the link to your post whenever it’s ready today or tomorrow (and thanks to those of you who sent me a link early!). I’ll be updating periodically throughout the blogathon. Don’t forget that I’ll be holding a drawing for the participants, as a little “thank you”! The winner will receive a copy of one of my favorite Buster books, Buster Keaton: Interviews. The drawing will be held on Wednesday, March 24th, barring any wacky unforeseen difficulties. (After 2020, you just…never know anymore.) I’ll be in touch with the winner!

Readers: Please drop by often today and tomorrow to check out the latest posts–and don’t forget that we bloggers live for comments!

vintage Russian poster - The General Buster Keaton 1929

Wondering what the previous ‘thons were like? Here are the links to the First, SecondThird, Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Annual Buster Blogathons–whew! I guess you could say if you’re looking for anything Buster-related, we’ve probably got it. 😀

Let the binge-reading begin!

The Roster:

Silent-ology | Buster’s boyhood summers in Muskegon, Michigan

Once Upon A Screen | The High Sign (1919) and Hard Luck (1921)

The Thoughts of One Truly Loved | Free and Easy (1930)

MovieMovieBlogBlog | Cops (1922)

Big V Riot Squad | Buster’s 1920-21 Silent Shorts

Cinematica | Steamboat Bill Jr (1928)

Century Film Project | The Goat (1921)

Taking Up Room | The General (1927)

Critica Retro | The 1954 TV episode “The Awakening”

Helen Gibson, Pioneer Stunt Woman

There seems to be a common stereotype, fondly believed by too many people to count, that women in “the olden days” weren’t allowed to do…much of anything, really. That while not being squeezed into rib-cracking Victorian corsets (even when it wasn’t even the Victorian era, apparently) and dressed in twenty layers of clothing, they were basically confined to fainting couches or forced to stitch samplers. Why they weren’t just stuck in closets and taken out once in awhile to make sure they didn’t loosen those corsets is beyond me.

Based on my various attempts to comment on corset-related or otherwise women-in-olden-days-related threads on social media (said attempts being obviously authoritative and scientific), any sort of mild pushback on this black-and-white view is…surprisingly unwelcome. Of course women had a rougher time back in the day–of course they had less freedom and fewer options outside of marriage, as is patently obvious to anyone who takes a look at history. But *she puts forth meekly* that doesn’t mean it was abnormal for women to, you know, do things. Like ride horses, or play sports, or get jobs, or even own stores or patent inventions. Yes, even with corsets on. By the way, normal corsets weren’t that–

“What!” folks reply, shocked to the cores over such unwelcome and offensive information. “Are you trying to say women weren’t repressed? Because they were.” *Drops mic they carry around for just such occasions*

“Of course I’m not saying that–just that your idea of a ‘typical’ meek, seen-and-not-heard early 20th century woman is a little off the mark.” And here’s where I could’ve added: “Have you heard, for instance, of stuntwoman Helen Gibson?”

Still from To Save the Road (1916)
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So Long, Farewell, Auf Wiedersehen 2020–The Silent Community Year In Review

Happy New Year’s Eve, my friends–and how. As I look back on the year that has been 2020, I can’t help recalling what I wrote for 2019’s “Year in Review” post: “I, for one, welcome the impending return of the Twenties. Let’s make ’em Roaring!”

Errr, I’m not detecting any roaring, are you? And we’re definitely not partying like a 1928 Joan Crawford movie, which was also one of my predictions for 2020. At least, not partying yet.

Six Degrees of Joan Crawford: The Flapper and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. — You  Must Remember This
Slow your roll, Joan. All in good time.

Anyways, it’s time for my hopefully helpful annual review of silent film-related news. It was a lighter news year than most, it seems, probably because so many projects and festivals were either cancelled or postponed, but I hope you find this roundup interesting nonetheless! Also, me spending extra time outdoors this year + having crappy or intermittent Internet for months = more news sneaking past me, so please, feel free to chime in with any significant info I might have missed.

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Obscure Films: “Santa Claus” (1925)

A very Merry Christmas to one and all! I’m happy to announce that after a gigantic Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer-style blizzard yesterday, we folks up here in Minnesota are finally getting a white Christmas–and how. So this year’s holidays will seem extra cozy–and what goes better with “cozy” than Victorian and Edwardian Christmas silents?

This year my pick for a fun novelty holiday film to show to family is the little-known three-reeler Santa Claus (1925), which I stumbled upon out of the blue recently. (Those are always the best kinds of films, you know.) This charming film gives us the inside scoop on Santa’s life at the North Pole, in a whimsical old-timey way, of course–I’d expect nothing less.

Maybe a less fake-looking beard, but eh, I’ll take it.
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