Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle once said of Buster Keaton that he “lived in the camera.” It was Arbuckle who gave the 22-year-old Keaton his film debut as an actor in his 1917 two-reeler The Butcher Boy, where he is seen wearing his trademark porkpie hat for the first time. At the end of the first day’s filming, Keaton asked Arbuckle if he could take the movie camera back to his boardinghouse, so as to disassemble it and put it back together in time for the next day’s shoot.
As Dana Stevens shows in Camera Man, Keaton never encountered a new technological medium without wanting to find out exactly how it worked.
A similar epiphany occurred some 30 years later with Keaton, whose storied career as an actor and director had by then withered on the Hollywood vine, as he encountered a television set for the first time. “My dad came over the first weekend we had it,” recalled Keaton’s son Jim. “All afternoon he sat mesmerized in front of this thing.... At dinner I remember him saying, ‘This is the coming thing in entertainment.’”
One of Keaton’s occasional regrets was that he never received much of a formal education. Stevens vividly describes Keaton’s early life on America’s vaudeville circuit—performing as a child star alongside his parents in a hugely popular act known as the Three Keatons—as one of growing up “between railway sleeper cars and theatrical boardinghouses.” She likens this pillar-to-post existence to the itinerant characters that Keaton played in some of his best loved silent films, such as The General (1926) and Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928).
Stevens, a longtime film critic for Slate whose first book this is, describes these characters’ defining trait as an “ability to move through chaos while remaining miraculously unperturbed.” Keaton was famously nicknamed “the Great Stone Face,” after the 1850 short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne, for his unsmiling and stoic on-screen countenance.
The story goes that Chuck Reisner, Keaton’s co-director on Steamboat Bill, Jr., persuaded him to smile for the last shot of that picture. “You’ve never smiled, it’s a surefire natural gag,” Reisner said. “It’s a misfire gag,” said Keaton, “but I’ll try it for you.” Keaton was proved right when an early preview audience booed the film’s ending, so they went back and shot it over again.
Keaton’s slapstick vaudeville act, which began when his parents shuffled him onstage as a three-year-old, had taught him that the laughs only got bigger when he ditched the smile. It was on the stage that Keaton would master the many circus skills, such as pratfalls, juggling, wire walking, and trick cycling, that he would employ with impressive dexterity throughout the rest of his career as a big- and small-screen actor. Stevens’s book is not so much a straightforward biography as a remarkable cultural history with Keaton as the “bridge between the stage-based entertainment of the nineteenth century and the mass-produced technology of the twentieth.”
Keaton, who died in 1966 at the age of 70, had a Zelig-like quality, working with such luminaries as Arbuckle, Irving Thalberg, Charlie Chaplin, the Marx Brothers, Samuel Beckett, and Lucille Ball, whose comic timing he called “impeccable.” Camera Man distinguishes itself from past biographies of Keaton by underlining the resilience of his career, which latterly encompassed a circus act in Paris, several cameos in big films such as Sunset Boulevard, a syndicated television show, and numerous TV commercials, as opposed to what is most often perceived as a sad, alcohol-fueled decline.
Whereas Chaplin whined about being an artist, Keaton contented himself by finding work where and whenever he could get it. “No man can be a genius in slapshoes and a flat hat,” he told one interviewer, who he felt was making more of him than was entirely necessary. This is perhaps the biggest failing of James Curtis’s 800-page biography, Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker’s Life, which is exhaustively detailed and as dry as circus sawdust.
Whereas Stevens conjures up an image of Keaton as “a human projectile hurled into the twentieth century,” Curtis takes the prosaic route: “He was a tabula rasa of emotionless energy onto which audiences could project their aspirations, triumphs and misfortunes.” This is also untrue. Keaton may not have been a smiler, but deep wells of emotion, often the thwarted frustration of a man spurned, pooled in those saucer-like eyes.
Nevertheless, Curtis, who has also written a 1,000-page biography of Spencer Tracy, is a consummate digger, and there are plenty of nuggets to be gleaned from his book.
Many of these come straight from Keaton’s mouth. Among the things that have been lost in modern on-screen comedy is how everything is scripted down to the last beat. There wasn’t a screenplay on most of the classic silent films that Keaton directed or co-directed. “The director, a couple of scenario writers, and I sit around and discuss a scene,” Keaton said. “That is how the gags are made. Then we shoot the scene.” In the 1970s, Keaton’s sister, Louise, told an interviewer how she remembered her brother “would spend hours moving silently through the house, absorbed in the mental composition he called his writin’.”
Keaton seems to have interiorized not just his work but also anything to do with his private life. Stevens describes a “deep-rooted unwillingness to face confrontation of any kind.” This extended to his first two marriages, which left him deeply unhappy and prone to drink. He finally found a soulmate in the American dancer Eleanor Ruth Norris, to whom he remained married for the last 26 years of his life. Yet Keaton was never the doting kind, and Stevens notes that in his earlier films romance was “as likely to be sent up as swooned over.”
These same films are Keaton’s most enduring legacy and the clearest guide to what he felt about the universe. They “stand as proof of his belief in the immanence of the material world,” Stevens writes, “a place where the only higher powers are the laws of physics: speed, weight, force, gravity.”
Tobias Grey is a Gloucestershire, U.K.–based writer and critic, focused on art, film, and books