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Buster Keaton: Cut to the Chase

Buster Keaton: Cut to the Chase

1.9 9
by Marion Meade

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Esteemed biographer Marion Meade presents the definitive biography of one of the 20th century's greatest comic geniuses.


Esteemed biographer Marion Meade presents the definitive biography of one of the 20th century's greatest comic geniuses.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Silent film star Buster Keaton (1895-1966) developed his trademark deadpan expression and acrobatic artistry, according to the author, as a result of the abuse he received from his father, Joe. As part of a vaudeville act, Joe began brutally throwing five-year-old Buster around the stage and beat him at the first sign of fear. When he was 21, Keaton left his uncaring parents and began acting in silents made by comedy star Fatty Arbuckle. His career blossomed from 1920 to '28, when he established his own company and wrote, starred in and directed films like The Navigator (1924). After the company was dissolved, Keaton's career declined until the 1950s, when he made a comeback and appeared in Charlie Chaplin's Limelight. Alcoholism hastened the end of his marriages to Natalie Talmadge (the couple had two sons) and Mae Scriven. He achieved control over his drinking, and his third marriage, to Eleanor Norris, was a success. This is an engrossing portrait of a tormented comedic genius, with an extensive filmography (67pp). Photos not seen by PW. (Oct.)
Library Journal
Released to coincide with the centenary of Keaton's birth, this comprehensive biography fills gaps in the silent-film comedian's life history while dispelling a few rumors. Meade (Dorothy Parker, Villard: Random, 1987) rehashes familiar territory with a fresh eye: Keaton's brutal upbringing in a vaudeville family, his liaison with Fatty Arbuckle (whom he eventually upstaged), the unlimited artistic freedom he enjoyed under Joseph M. Schenck, and the subsequent quashing of that creative control when his company was absorbed by MGM in 1928. The lost years of gag writing and bit parts, the wives and women, the chronic drinking are not glossed over but, rather, make his later rediscovery by historians and critics all the more poignant. With journalistic aplomb, Meade reaffirms Keaton's legend as the master of the sight gag and proves that, despite his technical virtuosity as a filmmaker, Keaton's effects are special because they are human. Meade shows that the man himself was just that. Recommended for most collections. [For another recent biography of Keaton, see Larry Edwards's Buster, LJ 4/15/95.-Ed.]-Jayne Plymale-Jackson, Univ. of Georgia Libs., Athens
Ray Olson
Meade's is a better book than Edwards' "Buster" , but it isn't the biography admirers of the great solemn-faced silent film comedian would have liked to mark the centenary of his birth. Meade chose to focus, she says, "on Buster's personal life" rather than the qualities of his comedy and his films. She read everything there was about Keaton's life and interviewed whoever could tell her more, fill in gaps, or add color. But she fails to meaningfully work out the salient themes of Keaton's life--most important, how toleration of the physical abuse he endured from his father in the vaudeville act that made the family's fortunes might have influenced his style of comedy and his blind loyalty to associates who exploited and mistreated him. This is a fact-and-reasonable-speculation-filled life but not one that accounts for how and why the lifelong barely literate performing genius who was Buster Keaton created his art. Any library concerned with the movies should get the book, anyway, for its superficial thoroughness.

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.45(w) x 9.50(h) x 1.48(d)

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Cherokee Strip

Summer lingers like death on the prairie. It had not rained since spring, and by September the heat had burned cattle trails and dried creek beds. Underfoot the crust of the earth was cracking. A hot wind tumbled past skeletons of abandoned houses, their hulks framed by fences about to keel over. Off to the north, amid the tallgrass of Kansas, nature was syrup sweet and the voice of the turtledove swirled throughout the land, but in the north-central Oklahoma Territory there was no sign of people, not even tombstones.

The Cherokee Strip was a slice of land sixty miles wide and two hundred miles long just south of the Kansas border and west of the Arkansas River. In earlier years the country had been considered a wilderness fit only for prairie dogs and Cherokees, who along with the Chickasaws, Choctaws, Creeks, and Seminoles inhabited the region until they were shoved westward by the government to make room for homesteaders. Sections of the Oklahoma Territory, not a state for another fifteen years, had first been opened in 1889 under the Homestead Act. Four years later the Indians were paid to vacate, and their six and a half million acres was declared open for white settlement. Anyone hardy enough to stake a claim, pay the modest administration fees, and farm for five years would own a 160-acre tract.

All six and a half million acres were claimed on the day of the last great land run, Saturday, September 16, 1893. A hundred thousand pioneers enticed by the promise of a free farm or a lot in one of the four already platted town sites had been crowded into makeshift camps that week, suffering in the 100-degree heat as theyprepared to race into the territory on covered wagons, buggies, buckboards, carts, and surreys, or on the backs of horses, ponies, and mules, even on bicycles or on foot. Masses of United States cavalry straddled the border at regular intervals, as if they feared a monstrous traffic jam.

At high noon the Strippers were stretched in a line across the prairie for as far as the eye could see. To the din of trumpeters and soldiers firing their guns into the air, with a gigantic yell, they stampeded across the border in search of the best land. By nightfall every acre, every lot, every blade of grass had been taken.

In the following days, on the heels of the Strippers, came droves of brew peddlers, powdered dancing girls in feather hats, amateur banjo players, thugs and con artists, faro and shell-game men, and gamblers galore. Among them was a troupe of Iowan actors and musicians who had spent the summer working the small towns south of the Cherokee Strip. The Cutler Comedy Company was a family Indian medicine show, comprised of Frank Cutler, an imposing man of forty-three who enjoyed writing poetry, and his wife, Elizabeth, and two adolescent children, Burt and Myra. The versatile Cutlers provided a variety of entertainments—miniversions of Uncle Tom's Cabin or The Drunkard, banjo solos, magic tricks, and the staple offering of all medicine shows, blackface comedy featuring Sambo or Jake in slapshoes and oversized trousers held up by elastic suspenders.

The Cutlers arrived from Edmond, thirty-five miles to the south. Just as soon as their caravan appeared on the government square, a man stepped up to speak with Cutler. He was a young roughneck with very long legs, who stood with a slouch that one day would be associated with Gary Cooper and hordes of other movie cowboys. He told Cutler how he had staked a homestead claim on behalf of his father. Then he asked for a job. Cutler asked about his experience, and the young man said that he could sing and make clownish faces and he could also do "flip-flaps," backward somersaults, though he admitted he had never performed before a paying audience.

Cutler could see that Joe Keaton was a drifter. He claimed to have ridden boxcars all the way from California, determined to reach the Cherokee Strip in time for the land run, not for his own gain but to win a farm for his parents. Still, the young man seemed eager to learn the medicine-show business, and Cutler needed somebody to double as a stagehand and bit performer. He offered Keaton three dollars a week and meals.

Joe Keaton lied about staking a claim. When his father arrived seven months later, he had to fend for himself.

Joe accomplished as little for himself as he did for his father. He did, however, develop a repertory of Bunyanesque tales, such as his account of his trip from Truckee, California, on board a boxcar, from which the crew threw him into forty-foot drifts of snow, leaving him to die.

Tales of his exploits as a hobo, told with a raconteur's skill, captivated pale, dainty, dark-haired Myra. Frank Cutler's daughter weighed barely ninety pounds and looked like a china doll. Sixteen in March, she was a wisp of a thing who stood four feet eleven. Her face was unremarkable. The mouth was thin, she had a noticeable overbite, her chin was weak, her gaze remote. Onstage these shortcomings were overshadowed by a lively manner and her musical accomplishments. Myra could play the piano, cornet, bull fiddle, and saxophone. Moreover, her singing and acting were passable, and from a distance she looked cute as a button.

Joe Keaton's grandiosity impressed Myra, who was too young and naive to see that his stories were complete invention. Her father, however, eyed the newcomer with hostile vigilance.

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Buster Keaton: Cut to the Chase 1.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 9 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Most people who knew Buster were dead by the time this book was written. Lots of speculation. The author clearly hates men.
TINAID More than 1 year ago
Poorly researched.  Directly contradicts other well researched books.  Author claims Buster Keaton was illiterate.  There is absolutely no basis for that claim at all.  It seems to be a matter of not having anything original to say about a wonderfully talented, albeit former alcoholic, man, so the author invents "facts".
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
one star
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Enjoyable read about an America's formost physical comedic genius. This faults and all recounting of his rags to riches and crushing fall is lesson to us all. Check out his movies and shorts on You Tube as you read. So much enjoyment!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
one star
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I like buster keton hes my foumes silnt filme acter i like his movies