By Dana Stevens



432pp/$29.99/January 2021

Camera Man

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

Camera Man, the new book by Dana Stevens, has an ambitious agenda as declared in its subtitle. Over the course of her study, Stevens offers an exploration of comedian Buster Keaton, whose career began when he was a child on the Vaudeville stage, continued into the silent film era, made the transition to sound films, and finally included numerous appearances on television in shows and commercials. In addition to looking at Keaton's life, Stevens also explores the growth of the film industry during the period Keaton was active as well as the societal changes that were occurring in the United States during Keaton's 71 year life.

Stevens' primary focus is on Buster Keaton, and he is the glue that holds the book together. She begins with his birth in the town of Piqua, Kansas, where his family never returned and follows his life through his start of the Vaudeville stage. The impact of the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, which wanted to ensure children were not abused and which was concerned about Keaton's treatment in the act, leads to the first of many detours Stevens takes to cover the "invention of the twentieth century," as the subtitle promises. She follows his family's career and the impact on his father, Joe's, alcoholism, on him. Although mention is made of his siblings, Harry and Louise, they are mostly absent from Stevens' story, with Harry only getting the most cursory mention.

Of course, most of the book follows Keaton through his glory years, firs working with Roscoe Arbuckle and Comique, his own studios and relationship with his brother-in-law, Joe Schenck, and his eventual personally disastrous work at M.G.M. Throughout, Stevens' interest is focused on Keaton's work and his tie to society as a whole. His relationships, although discussed, don't seem to have a lot of depth, except where they connect to his work. This is not the story of Keaton and Arbuckle, Keaton and his wife Natalie Talmadge, or any of his crew, some of whom Stevens notes he had long-term professional relationships with. Her version of Keaton is mostly of a professional who worked with people in order to create the best films he possibly could, suffering when his ability to control his work was taken from him.

In writing about Keaton's life, Stevens tries to avoid some of the pitfalls of focusing on the sensational. His breakup with his first wife, Natalie Talmadge, is discussed, but Stevens does not go into salacious details. She attempts to provide a balanced look at his second wife, Mae Scrivens, although notes that there is something of a dearth of information about her. When writing about Keaton's alcoholism, she notes that his third wife, Eleanor, was upset by the focus it was in some of the past biographies of Keaton, but Stevens also notes that it can't be glossed over. Although it was a relatively small period of Keaton's life, it had a major impact on him and made the period after his worst bouts of alcoholism that much more of a triumph as he finally found a life-partner and was able to rebuild a career in the every-changing world that Stevens continues to describe.

Exploring the shifts in the film industry, Stevens often departs from using Keaton as her focal point for significant stretches of the book, spending a good deal of time talking about, for instance, Mabel Normand and other female film makers who found themselves pushed out of positions of power as the industry became more formalized. She also focuses on the establishment of the studio system at the expense of the independent studios like those run by Normand, Charles Chaplin, and, more nominally, by Keaton. Later, she uses Keaton's appearance in Limelight for a long detour into Chaplin's career. Looking at the changing industry, however, does tie directly into Keaton's life and interests. Stevens relates the familiar story of Keaton borrowing a camera from Roscoe Arbuckle, taking it apart, and reassembling it in his hotel room to see how it worked. Later in the book, she shares the less well known story of Keaton's first experience with television at his son's house, demonstrating that Keaton's interest and acceptance of new technology was a constant in his life.

Stevens also takes a look at some of the societal changes the occurred during Keaton's life. These sections of the book work best when they have the most direct link to Keaton. His interest in technology ties in well when she discusses those changes and his unfortunate bouts with alcoholism provide a link to the period when the United States experimented with prohibition. However, while Stevens' discussions of the changes in the film industry come across as a natural extension of Keaton's experiences, many of the societal changes seem more intrusive, with less of a direct tie to her primary focus. In a minor way, this is exemplified by her repeatedly drawing attention to people or events that tied in to the year 1895, the year of Keaton's birth.

Occasionally, Stevens shifts from the relatively formal style of writing she employs throughout most of the book to a more informal first person, noting her own likes or dislikes or commenting that she'll return to a topic in later chapters. This shift is abrupt enough that it is noticeable, however at the same time, it isn't enough to detract from the plentiful information about Keaton and his world that Stevens provides.

Throughout the book, as Stevens writes about Keaton's various films, whether shorts like Cops to features like College, which she notes does not hold up well in the modern age due to outdated representations, her writing makes the reader what to watch the films to see how Keaton is performing the gags and stunts Stevens describes. Of course, Keaton was involved in a visual art and no matter how detailed a biographer is in writing about him, no matter how skilled she is in explaining how Keaton was tied to the advancement of film, or how much she links him to the changes the country underwent throughout his life, Keaton's life, work, and personality can't be fully understood without watching the way he moved in his films and understanding the work that he put into them to create the masterpieces that made Buster Keaton worth writing about 125 years after his birth and 55 years after his death.

Purchase this book

Amazon BooksOrder from Amazon UK




Audio book

Return to