- Vancouver, British Columbia - With an ambitious film project coming up, my brothers and I trudged to the library a month back to get the scoop on some background info regarding our film’s subject material. Although not the principle focus of our project, there will be allusions to Buster Keaton, but we had to admit that there was very little we knew about the life of one of the silent era’s best known comic stars. It can be an intimidating prospect to go from almost complete ignorance to being well-versed in someone’s life, but finding this book proved to be exceptionally helpful.
Written by Buster Keaton’s third wife, and true love, Eleanor, this book takes the rather daunting task of summarizing both Buster’s life and his career. But, aided by film archivist Jeffrey Vance, the two authors succeed in compiling a book that is not only concise and informative, but delightful and easy to read.
The book is starts off with a couple introductions, one on his upbringing and background, and the second by Eleanor about their marriage and later life together. After that, small chapters abound with one chapter per film (for the most part – some of his later films are omitted save for a brief mention, and his earliest films with Fatty Arbuckle are collected in one chapter). There are a couple side chapters detailing his first two marriages, to keep the timeline of his life in perspective, but Buster’s life was defined by his work and that would be how he’d wish to be remembered.
Eleanor explicitly sets the record straight in this book as well. Keaton sold the rights to his life story to Paramount back in the late 1950s, culminating in the film The Buster Keaton Story (1957) that depicted him as an alcoholic womanizer. Keaton didn’t realize the extent of the hyperbole until he and Eleanor went to the screening. Eleanor wrote that they “felt like crawling out on [their] hands and knees. It was outrageous the way they fictionalized his life and magnified his drinking.” In truth, Keaton did suffer from alcohol related problems, but only for about five years during his divorces (which were within a couple years of each other) and while his film career was being wrested out of his hands. After that, Keaton was able to fight back and remained sober for the rest of his life.
Keaton was a workaholic – he couldn’t understand comics and actors who would wing it on set and improvise. Everything was meticulously planned out with Keaton, in his head and on paper. He had no use for a lavish lifestyle, but his first wife demanded one, so Keaton felt he had to provide. As such, most of the money he earned went to her at first. Keaton’s work ethic came from his vaudeville past with his family, which in and of itself would be a fascinating book.
I have to mention the amazing job that went into selecting the photographs to accompany this book. Apparently the authors had to sift through thousands to get to the ones that best represented what they wanted seen, and they are phenomenal. Keaton’s very energy seems to leap off the pages, and I must very guiltily admit that I have seen almost none of his films. This will have to change.
The balance achieved by this book is excellent. With each film, not only do we get a plot synopsis and production details, but also Buster’s look at and feelings with the film (as Eleanor remembers). It speaks mountains that even with the films that Buster was displeased with, he still put all his effort into it and was able to find redeeming virtues. Vance, on his part, is pretty quick to place judgment on the films as well, but he takes note of Buster’s performance and tries to find particular scenes that he likes.
This leads into my only complaint with the book. On far too many occasions, the authors (probably Vance) use phrases like “best known,” “favourite”, and “most successful.” It started to seem like every other film had at least one (and usually more) of this qualifiers attached. They can’t all be the best guys. However, from the impression I got, the films to check out from Keaton’s catalogue are The General (1926), The Navigator (1924), and Limelight (1952). And hey, if you’re not sure, there’s a complete filmography of his work at the back.
Surprisingly, even with the sheer volume of detail in the book, it honestly didn’t feel like a long read. Exceptionally enjoyable, and a tribute to not only Buster Keaton, but the affections of his wife Eleanor, who died shortly after completing her contribution to the work in 1998.
Rating: 5/5 Sour Grapes