This is my own post for the Ninth Buster Keaton Blogathon. Please enjoy, and don’t forget to check out all the other wonderful posts, too!
If there was an official “gentle giant” of silent comedy, in my book it would have to be “Big” Joe Roberts, of Buster Keaton film fame. The jowly, 6-foot-3-inches performer played a number of intimidating “heavies”–and at least one bashful farm hand–in nearly twenty of the famed (and more diminutive) comedian’s films.
But Buster and Big Joe weren’t just coworkers but long-time pals, vaudeville veterans who spent their summers in the same quiet neighborhood of Muskegon, Michigan and shared countless memories of lakeside fun and hijinks. In fact, Big Joe’s house was just down the hill from the Keaton family.
Sometimes a silent film book comes along that you never knew you needed, about silent era performers you hadn’t looked at too closely, and somehow, that book clocks in at a mighty 480 pages of historical info, trivia, and rare photos. And, it has a fantastic cover. (The designer is the talented Marlene Weisman, who also did covers for Slapstick Divasand various Undercrank Productions releases.)
Pokes & Jabbs: The Before, During And After Of The Vim Films Corporation by film archivist and historian Rob Stone is just such a book, and it’s not only a mighty trove of information but certainly a labor of love, first taking shape during the research process for Stone’s 1996 book Laurel or Hardy: The Solo Films of Stan Laurel and Oliver “Babe” Hardy. (Ollie was in quite a few of the Pokes and Jabbs films, and starred in Vim’s “Plump and Runt” comedies.) Historian Steve Massa points out in the forward of Pokes & Jabbs that this research was begun in the pre-Media History Digital Library days, when–gasp!–you had to travel to archives around the country to find surviving copies of trade magazines. This is a fact that you’ll quickly learn to appreciate once you take in the hundreds–and I do mean hundreds–of film stats, synopses, and contemporary reviews packed into this book.
If the combination of “Edward Everett Horton” and “silent comedies” just made you do a double take like, well, Edward Everett Horton, I don’t blame you. A very familiar “fussy gentleman” type in ’30s and ’40s films, and also known for working in television, Horton isn’t someone we associate with “silent clown.” Yet a silent clown he was for a short series in the late 1920s, and it’s only recently that his two-reel comedies have been hauled out of archives and restored. And, all eight of them are available on Undercrank Productions‘ new DVD collection!
One of the most charming “Fatty and Mabel” comedies, Fatty and Mabel’s Simple Life (1915) manages to hit a number of birds with one stone: it’s rural-themed, it riffs on the popular “evil mortgage collector threatens the farm” theme, it riffs on the equally popular “evil mortgage collector threatens the farm unless he can marry the pretty daughter” theme, adds a romantic triangle, has hijinks around a hand-cranked well, throws in a couple Keystone Kops, and finds time for some surrealism.
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?”
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.
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.
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.
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!!
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
What more will I tell you about BusterKeaton’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.
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.
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.
John D. Williamson
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 BusterKeaton . I could observe him without being seen. So I did not move. BusterKeaton 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.
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!
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!
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!
The silent era boasted an incredible number of stars, from sweet ingenue types to “grotesque” comedians to dashing heroes. But not all stars were fashionable flappers or svelte sheiks–some were more on the…hairy side. Or even came on four legs. Yes, I’m talking about the animal stars–could you tell?–and there was a virtual zoo of them back in the day.
This is my own post for the Seventh Buster Keaton Blogathon. Enjoy, and please check out all the other wonderful posts, too!
When you love a performer from classic Hollywood, it’s not uncommon to make little “pilgrimages” to the places where they used to live and work: studios, filming locations, former homes, gravesites, and, of course, their hometowns. Seeing where your favorite star grew up can give you insight into what shaped them and their future career. And, of course, it’s just plain fun–some towns are tourist destinations simply by for being the hometown of a beloved performer.
But what of a performer like Buster Keaton? Since he was the child of travelling medicine show performers, his birthplace was a matter of happenstance. Joe and Myra Keaton were travelling through the tiny town of Piqua, Kansas (today its population hovers a little above 100) when Buster arrived. Their stay was necessarily short, so while tiny Piqua had the honor of being Buster’s birthplace it would be a stretch to call it his hometown. (Fun fact: in the 1960s Buster and his wife Eleanor did stop there briefly while they were on his State Fair tour!)
But despite an upbringing spent travelling from theater to theater, there was a spot on earth that Buster considered his true hometown: Muskegon, Michigan. A mid-sized town with the vast waters of Lake Michigan along one side and sparkling Lake Muskegon along another, the Keatons chose it for their summer home in the 1900s. It turned out to be a match made in heaven. In his biography on Buster, written not long before Buster passed away, Rudi Blesh wrote: “Those long-ago summers must have been, in a special way, one of the wonders of his life. Whenever he speaks of them he seems to be turning on the lights of a faraway stage.”