Reviewed by Ed Lengel
Buster Keaton, one of a trio of silent movie comedy greats that also included Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, spent the whole of his life–from 1895 to 1966–entertaining audiences in diverse settings. Beginning when he was a toddler, Buster plied the Vaudeville circuit, traveling from end to end of the country with his parents Joe and Myra, and mastering the art of slapstick comedy. Working in especially close tandem with Joe, he became the indestructible kid, teasing his father and usually ending up tossed and battered on and off the stage (a handle was surreptitiously affixed to his back to that he could be more easily thrown). His father’s alcoholism and changing popular tastes which coincided with the advent of movies, propelled Buster to Hollywood. Just before World War I he began a partnership with film comedy pioneer Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, whose career was destroyed by false allegations of sexual misconduct eerily reminiscent of the excesses of the #MeToo trend today.
Striking out on his own in the 1920s, Keaton created, directed, and starred in a series of ever-longer and more brilliant features that included The Frozen North (1922), Our Hospitality (1923), Sherlock, Jr. (1924), and Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928), peaking in his timeless masterpiece The General (1926). This last-named feature, now regarded as one of the greatest comedy films of all time, was a financial failure. Unsophisticated audiences and film critics, as Chaplin would also learn over the course of his career, balked at anything requiring thought or attention.
Sadly, for Keaton, his efforts to further develop his craft ran afoul not only of low-brow audiences, but of the evolving Hollywood studio system. Ensnared in the production web created by movie mogul Louis B. Mayer and his collaborator Irving Thalberg at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Keaton lost his creative independence. Worse than that, as movies transitioned from silent to talkies, he was forced to star in a series of wretched movies that misconstrued and wasted his talent, casting him perpetually as a hapless oaf—in effect, the clown who gets slapped., endlessly. Unlike his peers Chaplin and Mary Pickford, Keaton was an unassertive artist and a worse businessman, who slipped further and further into alcoholism as he was forced to submit to this humiliating treatment, until Mayer unceremoniously fired him in 1933; at the same time, he endured a succession of bad marriages, depression, and obscurity.
Beginning in the late 1940s, however, the aging silent movie star enjoyed a rebound. Appearing in a series of memorable cameos that included Sunset Blvd. (1950) and Limelight (1952), he demonstrated an artistic range heretofore unrecognized. In Limelight, Keaton quietly intersected on his way up with star Chaplin, then on his way down into obscurity from which he would never emerge. Buoyed finally by a happy marriage that would last until the end of his life, Keaton discovered success in the new medium of television, art movies (such as 1965’s Film by Samuel Beckett), and even the French circus.
Camera Man strives to capture the essence of Buster Keaton’s compelling rise, fall, and rebound. But it is an odd sort of biography. Seeking to distinguish her work from James Curtis’s just released Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker’s Life, Stevens doesn’t chronicle Keaton’s life so much as she presents him in the context of his times. The results are uneven. Although she reveals her longstanding fascination with him early on, she often diverts the reader’s attention by straying from the subject; Stevens will talk about somebody else–like F. Scott Fitzgerald–who he probably never knew.
A film reviewer at Slate and a superb writer, Stevens often finds herself at pains to apologize for elements of early films that modern viewers might find challenging or offensive. Thus, she ushers readers away from 1920s-era presentations of gender and race relations with apologies for the feelings of “shame” and even “ickiness” (to use the author’s own words) they might evoke–as if her readers are children who need to have towels thrown over their heads before they see something upsetting and burst into tears. This pandering to the priggish sensitivities of modern readers evokes a certain dark irony. Stevens scoffs at cultural sensitivities of the early twentieth century, for example, while simultaneously echoing the sanctimonious, late-Victorian prudishness that grips popular thought a century after Buster Keaton’s heyday.
Ed Lengel is an author, a speaker, and a storyteller.