A Filmmaker's Life

By James Curtis



810pp/$40.00/February 2022

Buster Keaton
Cover by John Gall

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

James Curtis has produced a wonderfully complete examination of his subject in Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker's Life. Originally a Vaudeville performer who went on to appear in, and helped create, numerous essential silent films, Keaton's career waxed and waned throughout the twentieth century until his death in 1966. Previous biographies have incorporated many of the myths that have grown up around Keaton and Curtis' work is a welcome attempt to separate the facts from the fiction.

Beginning before Keaton's birth with background about his parents, Joe and Myra, Curtis shows them as distinctly mid-level Vaudeville performers who were merely squeaking by until Buster was added to their act. From the beginning, Curtis demolishes some of the myths surrounding Keaton, beginning with the origin of his nickname. He also provides detail about what their act entailed, describing it in terms that make it vivid for the reader, a technique he continues throughout the book when talking about Keaton's films and television appearances.

The focus of the book, of course, is on Buster Keaton with her various friends and relatives making appearances as appropriate. In addition to performing with his parents when young, his family remains close to him throughout his life, even when his mother and Keaton must deal with his father's drinking. Both his parents and his siblings would appear in his films, and at various times Keaton supported his family members, including offering them places to live or moving in with them at times of his life. When they aren't active participants in Keaton's career, Curtis provides some indication of their activities before he returns to his primary subject. The same can be said with Keaton's business associates, like Roscoe Arbuckle, Joseph M. Schenck, and less well-known names who helped Keaton on his films. Keaton, himself, comes across as a consummate professional who understands his craft. When he is around like-minded people, he is able to thrive, but when he is surrounded by people who try to fit him into their own method of working without understanding what made Keaton sui generis, he can unhappily work with them, but the result is less than what Keaton is capable of.

In the popular imagination, there have always been some "villains" in Keaton's life, most notably his first two wives, Natalie Talmadge and Mae Scrivens, although Louis B. Meyer has also come in for his fair share of opprobrium. Curtis re-examines their roles in Keaton's life and depicts them as well-rounded individuals whose lives intersected with Keaton's. They are not villains, but merely people. Although Curtis makes it clear that Keaton loved Talmadge, even during their period of courting, it isn't clear why there was a sense of affection for each other. Curtis does chronicle the degeneration of their marriage, but in a way that makes the reader desire a book length study of the Talmadge sisters and their mother (his treatment of Joseph M. Schenck similar cries out for a full-fledged biography). Curtis does demonstrate the loving partnership between Keaton and his third wife, Eleanor Keaton, so his depiction of Keaton and Talmadge's marriage may be due to a lack of reliable information and it is clear that Curtis has supporting documentation for all of his claims, avoiding inserting speculation.

Curtis' use of documentation is one of the strengths of the book, and his footnotes run to more than fifty pages. It means that when he addresses things that "everybody knows" about Keaton, such as his drinking problem, Curtis has the authority to debunk that common knowledge and present a well-rounded, well-researched version of Keaton. The result of Curtis' research is that Keaton comes across as a man who went through some rough patches, but was mostly content with his life, although his needs did not necessarily match up with popular expectations. While many people in the industry, including his wife, needed fancy houses to show their success, Keaton was happy with more modest living arrangements, as demonstrated by the house he arranged to have built for Natalie, which she rejects, and the house Keaton and Eleanor eventually wound up living in. Understanding Keaton's definition of happiness is a major part of understanding Keaton himself.

There are a few organizational quirks to the book. One of them is a mostly chronological discussion of Keaton's work. This means that in the middle of discussing, for instance, the making of Steamboat Bill, Jr, Curtis will suddenly backtrack to provide the critical and financial reaction to College, Keaton's previous release. While a completely defensible, and even logical, decision as those results would have an impact on Keaton and his backers at that point in time, from a narrative point of view, it has a tendency to muddy the waters. The other quirk is that when describing the action in one of Keaton's films, it is not always entirely clear if Curtis is discussing the activities of the characters within the confines of the film or the actors who are working to create those situations.

Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker's Life is a long book, but a well-researched and well-written book. The reader comes away from it with a strong understanding of who Buster Keaton was and what made him tick, certainly a better understanding of him than many of the people who worked with him seem to have had. Curtis' style keeps things moving apace and the biography does not feel as if it is as long as it is. While Curtis does a good job in detailing Keaton's gags in so many of his movies, the reader is also left wanted to watch or re-watch those films to see how Keaton was able to make his stunts seem so natural.

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