By Buster Keaton

Da Capo Press



My Wonderful World of Slapstick

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

In 1960, silent film comedian Buster Keaton worked with Charles Samuels to produce his autobiography, My Wonderful World of Slapstick. The book would present his view of his life and career, although in a mostly antiseptic way. He refers to some of the scandals that surrounded him and his personal life, but mostly focuses on his successes.

In many ways, the focus of Keaton's book is on his early years, when he was appearing with his parents as part of the Three Keatons and earning the attention of various groups like the Gerry Society. Keaton describes his act and his interactions with, primarily, his father and the various subterfuges they enlisted to get around child labor laws that were springing up. It is clear that Keaton was hurt more by the accusations that he was abused as a child and that his parents didn't treat him wellthan by any of the injuries he may have suffered as part of the act. The only injury he really details was one he did to his father and his discussion about its circumstances makes the reader wonder if there was more animosity towards his father than Keaton would permit himself to say. An interesting parallel that Keaton doesn't comment on is when he talks about breaking up the act and leaving his father alone on the west coast while he and his mother returned to the family home in Muskegon and later in the novel when his wife, Natalie Talmadge, took his sons and disappeared on him, indicating his own marriage was over. In the first instance, Keaton is depicted as acting resolutely and in the later as a victim.

Since it is told from Keaton’s point of view, it is understandable to gloss over details which make Keaton look bad, although at times he does so at his own expense, since he can look foolish instead. This comes across particularly when discussing his divorce from Natalie Talmadge, who is never referred to by name in the book. In fact, Keaton doesn’t even acknowledge his connection to the Talmadge family, mentioning Natalie’s sister twice, although not in connection to himself, and referring to his wife and “two of her sisters,” implying that there were more than three siblings. Similarly, although Keaton discusses the incident in which Kathleen Key ransacked his dressing room, he doesn't mention her by name and his description of the incident makes him seem more guilty by what it leaves out.

One of the more interesting, and sad, revelations in My Wonderful World of Slapstick is Keaton’s opinion of his leading ladies. Although he had the opportunity to work with Sibyl Seeley, Virginia Fox, and Kathryn McGuire, he wrote “She was there so the villain and I would have something to fight about. The leading lady had to be fairly good-looking, and it helped some if she had a little acting ability. As far as I was concerned I didn’t insist that she have a sense of humor. There was always the danger that such a girl would laugh at a gag in the middle of a scene, which meant ruining it and having to remake it.” Perhaps if Keaton had built up a recurring working relationship with his leading ladies, as Harold Lloyd did with Bebe Daniels, Mildred Davis, and Jobyna Ralston, he would have seen the role as something more than a prop and a plot device, but his leading ladies were as interchangeable as his comment indicates.

One of the most pointed sections of the book is one in which he compares his own fortunes to those of other silent film comedians Charles Chaplin and Harold Lloyd. Even while pointing out how happy his is with his success, it feels as if he realizes that Lloyd may have been the most content of the three with his life following the silent films he made. At the same time his depiction of Chaplin as buying into the critics’ claims that he was a genius seems to be quite on point.

Despite its problems, and as long as the reader is willing to take Keaton's own viewpoint with a grain of salt, his discussion of the events of his life, his technique, and what he was trying to do offer insight into not only the days of Vaudeville and the silent film era, but also the transition from silent films to talkies and eventually to television. Keaton was the only one of the major silent comedians to make that transition. Chaplin made wonderful sound films but refused to go into television (and Keaton discusses Chaplin's reaction to television) and Lloyd simply retired from films, making only a few appearances on television as himself.

Keaton’s autobiography was written by Charles Samuels, who worked with Keaton on the book. Although generally written in the first person, at times it seems to slip into the third person, which is a little jarring. Because of the way Keaton glosses over so many things, even as the reader is vicariously enjoying living Keaton’s successful life, there is the constant reminder that Keaton is only telling part of the story. My Wonderful Life in Slapstick presents Buster Keaton as he wanted to be remembered and forms a pleasant starting place to understand the comedian and filmmaker, although more than sixty years of scholarship since its publication, as well as easy access to all of his greatest films, provides readers interested in Keaton with a more detailed and nuanced view of Keaton.

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