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.

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THANK YOU Fellow Bloggers!

The last two days have flown by (I’m still working my way through all your pieces) and the Eighth Annual Buster Keaton blogathon is officially a wrap! So to all the participants, I wanted to say a heartfelt…

…from Buster and from Silent-ology, too! (And from Alice Mann–hey, she’s been enjoying the posts too. 😉 ) And many thanks to all you fine readers who took the time to stop by, I hope you’ve had fun reading through all the posts and maybe you discovered some thoughtful new blogs to follow, too!

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Reviewing All Of Buster’s MGM Features

This is my own entry for the Eighth Annual Buster Keaton Blogathon. I hope you enjoy!

When Buster Keaton went through the transition from silents to talkies, as all fans know it wasn’t smooth–he was talked into giving up his studio and moving to the fancy megastudio MGM, and basically had to adapt to being treated as an actor, not a filmmaker. His personal battles behind the scenes with alcoholism and his failing marriage are also well known to fans, and it’s safe to say that all of the above can…color our opinions of his MGM films (to put it mildly). Of the nine features Buster starred in from 1928-1933, the seven talkies in particular are often dismissed as inept embarrassments for someone who made so many silent classics.

Aaaand images like this don’t help.

So I guess this is my segue into saying: I’m now going to give mini reviews of all his MGMs!

To be clear, I’m going to examine some of the differences between the MGMs and his independent films but I’m also going to try to review them more objectively. Too often we Buster fans seek out the MGMs just to scrutinize every frame for evidence of inferiority to his silent pictures, gawking at the sad beatdown of our creative genius and basically wallowing in whatever misery we feel we can detect onscreen–not really watching them just as movies. This mindset’s hard to escape, it’s true, but it doesn’t hurt to look at the MGMs for what they were–popular films that were pretty similar to other popular films from the time.

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The Eighth Annual Buster Keaton Blogathon

UPDATE: Day 2 of the blogathon has begun! Be sure to check out any new posts, more are trickling in!

And just like that, our annual Busterthon is back–for year eight!!

And I’m proud to say that we have a great turnout this year and a wide range of topics–participants always do an amazing job, and this year’s no exception. So find your coziest chair, make a pot of your favorite tea, and please enjoy!

Bloggers: Please send me the link to your post whenever it’s ready today or tomorrow. (Many thanks if you already have!) I’ll be updating periodically throughout the blogathon. Don’t forget that I’ll be holding a drawing for all participants, the winner receiving a copy of the fabulous new James Curtis biography Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker’s Life. The drawing is scheduled for March 16.

Readers: Drop by often to see the latest posts–and don’t forget that we bloggers adore comments!

Wondering what the previous ‘thons were like? Here are the links to the First, SecondThird, FourthFifthSixth and Seventh Annual Buster Blogathons–whew! Just in case you were hoping to find something to read about Buster…!

The Roster:

Silent-ology | Reviewing All of Buster’s MGM Features

Cinematica | The Scarecrow (1920)

University of Iowa Libraries blog | Article on the Marion Meade research paper collection

La Pantalla Enmudecida | “Buster and My Nieces: A Personal Story” essay

Silver Screenings | The Haunted House (1921)

Realweegiemidget Reviews | Beach Blanket Bingo (1965)

dream in dizzy sunlight | Go West (1925)

The Thoughts of One Truly Loved | “How I Fell For Buster Keaton” essay

Taking Up Room | College (1927)

Way Too Damn Lazy to Write a Blog | “Mr. Keaton Goes to the Columbia Shorts Department” article

Big V Riot Squad | “Buster’s Silent Shorts–Reel 2” article

Century Film Project | Cops (1922)

nitrateglow | Reviews of the books The Vampire Diary of Buster Keaton and Bluffton

Whimsically Classic | The Great Buster (2018) documentary

MovieRob | The Cameraman (1928)

Inimitable BK | “Adventures With Horses” essay

The Wonderful World of Cinema | Buster Keaton’s appearance on The Donna Reed Show

Critica Retro | Buster Keaton: The Genius Destroyed by Hollywood (2016) documentary

Rekha’s Sousaphone | Modern adaptations of Our Hospitality in Indian cinema

One Week Until Buster Blogathon 8!

Only seven days to go, everyone, until the great annual Busterthon returns for the 8th year in a row!!

I’m excited to see all your posts, everyone! (And I’m, ahem, still working on my own…!) The official roster is below–and if you’re a Keaton-loving blogger who’s just hearing about all this, you’re still welcome to join! The more the merrier, I say.

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ANNOUNCEMENT: The Eighth Annual Buster Keaton Blogathon!

I’m sure you knew it was coming–and it’s here! I’m officially announcing that the great Busterthon is coming back, for an eighth year in a row!

When: Monday, March 14 and Tuesday, March 15, 2022.

Where: Right here on Silent-ology!

Senseless Cinema: Buster's Blockbusters: The Commercial Success of Buster  Keaton's Features

How: To join in:

  • Please leave a comment on this post and let me know which Buster film or Buster-related topic you’d like to cover. (Or you can feel free to send me a message).
  • Help spread the word about the event by adding one of my banners to your blog! (I went with more of a “classic banner” look this time–it’s always fun coming up with different designs!)
  • During the blogathon itself, when you publish your post please leave me a comment with the link to it (or you can send me a message). Publish whenever you have time during March 14th and 15th!
  • Don’t forget to mention Silent-ology and the blogathon in your post, if you please, to help publicize the event.
  • You can definitely publish your post before the 14th if you want (many do), just give me a head’s up. Just know that Silent-ology will be putting up the official blogathon post with all the new links only on the blogathon dates.

What to write about: Anything and everything Buster! (Check out his filmography for some ideas.) You can write about one of his short films, one of the actors who appeared onscreen with him, his costume in a particular film, his influence on a certain actor/director, an experience you had at a Buster screening, a piece of art you made about him–whatever you like! There’s infinite ways to celebrate our brilliant comedian. Also: Duplicate topics are 100% allowed! Everyone has a different perspective, so 2-3 posts on the same film are welcome.

Buster Keaton! | Il Cinema Ritrovato Festival

I will be hosting a drawing for all blogathon participants on March 16 as a “thank you” to everyone who joined in. The prize will be announced closer to the blogathon dates–although I already have a good idea of what it’s going to be!

As always: Make Buster Proud! There’s a lot of dubious information out there about his life and career, so let’s try and steer clear of those myths and rumors as best we can. Just imagine you were going to have Eleanor Keaton look at your piece before you published it. *wink*

Buster Keaton, 1960 | Hollywood, Busters, In hollywood

For ideas and inspiration, here’s the links to the FirstSecond, Third, FourthFifthSixth and Seventh Buster Blogathons. Just look at all those links–what a library! I love it, my friends.

Banners:

The Roster:

Silent-ology | Reviewing All Of Buster’s MGM Features

The Thoughts Of One Truly Loved | How I Fell For Buster Keaton

Cinematica | The Scarecrow (1920)

nitrateglow | Reviews of the books The Vampire Diary of Buster Keaton and Bluffton

Taking Up Room | College (1927)

Whimsically Classic | The Great Buster (2018) documentary

Realweegiemidget Reviews | Beach Blanket Bingo (1965)

The Wonderful World of Cinema | The Donna Reed Show episode “A Very Merry Christmas”

Century Film Project | Cops (1922)

Critica Retro | Buster Keaton: The Genius Destroyed By Hollywood (2016) documentary

Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog | Buster’s Columbia shorts

Big V Riot Squad | “Buster Keaton’s Silent Shorts — Reel Two”

Silver Screenings | The Haunted House (1921)

Rekha’s Sousaphone | Our Hospitality adaptations in Hindi pop cinema

Silent Locations | Video tour of Buster’s 1920s studio

University of Iowa Libraries blog | Article on the Marion Meade research paper collection

A Glimpse Of Christmas With Buster Keaton

MERRY CHRISTMAS to one and all! I hope your holiday’s been merry and bright so far–mine sure has!

A fellow Buster fanatic reminded me of this fun clipping that I shared on social media some years ago. It’s a little glimpse into what Christmas was like at Buster Keaton’s house back in the late ’20s (or early ’30s?), and it simply must be shared again!

No photo description available.

If the clipping’s a bit challenging to read, here’s a handy transcript:

“Although the sun shines at Christmas in Hollywood, and thin dresses are worn, the good old Christmas spirit is not lacking in the homes of film stars.

“Parties are given on Christmas Eve as well as Christmas day. In the homes of Jack Holt and Buster Keaton for instance, where children form such an important part of the festive season, the decoration of a Christmas tree for the kiddies is made an excuse for a Christmas Eve party for the grown-ups.

The Academy — Buster Keaton, seated next to a Christmas tree in...
Buster and his boys posing with a mini tree.
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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.

Behind The Scenes Of “The General”

Howdy everyone! It’s been longer than usual since my last post, but for happy reasons–I’m moving soon, and thus any spare time has been devoted to sorting/cleaning/preliminary packing. So you might say that a sabbatical was in order. I’ll admit that the rest of this spring might have to be lighter on posts too, but a new theme month’s in the works for this summer and a possible blogger event is coming this September. So keep Silent-ology on your “pop in now and then” list, my friends!

The General (1927) - Turner Classic Movies

One of the best-loved films from the 1920s is certainly Buster Keaton’s masterwork The General (1926). Fans are very familiar with the stories behind it–how it was filmed up in sleepy little Cottage Grove, Oregon, how the risky train stunts were pulled off, how the famous train crash into the river was orchestrated, and so on.

While researching an upcoming column on The General for Classic Movie Hub (a slight plug, but it is relevant), I had the happy opportunity to look through some behind-the-scenes photos. I knew a bunch were in circulation, but the more I searched the more kept popping up. There were even a few I swear I hadn’t seen before, chilling on Pinterest as if they were just any other photos or something. Many were on my friend Sara Zittel’s board–credit where credit is due!

A sneak preview (isn’t this cool?).

So I thought we’d look at a few of them today, to get a fuller picture of what it was like to film The General back in that summer of 1926. It was a much more public event than we might realize!

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Many Thanks And High Fives All Around!

Because Roscoe and Al always supported their good friend Buster–and I’m sure they appreciate these blogathons too!

Well my friends, another successful blogathon has come to a close! We had a beautifully curated selection of posts this year, and I extend both an official high five and a hearty THANK YOU to each of you fine bloggers who participated! Your time and efforts are so appreciated.

Buster keaton GIF - Find on GIFER
Buster’s ecstatic!

High fives go out to all the readers who stopped by, too! And if you’re new here, feel free to visit again–I cover everything about the silent era from soup to nuts!

According to hallowed tradition, I held my Very Official Cloche Hat Drawing for this year’s blogathon participants. This year the prize is the essential book Buster Keaton: Interviews, a must for any Buster fan’s personal library. (I praise it from personal experience!)

Here’s the hat waiting patiently for me to draw a name:

And that name is:

Congratulations, Once Upon A Screen, we’ll be in touch! If you see this post before hearing from me, feel free to contact me on my “About Silent-ology” page so we can email each other.

And that’s a wrap! See you at next year’s ‘thon, folks–year 8!

Incredible…

Buster Keaton Posters and Prints | Posterlounge.com