Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker's Life

Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker's Life

by James Curtis
Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker's Life

Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker's Life

by James Curtis


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**One of Literary Hub’s Five “Most Critically Acclaimed” Biographies of 2022**

From acclaimed cultural and film historian James Curtis—a major biography, the first in more than two decades, of the legendary comedian and filmmaker who elevated physical comedy to the highest of arts and whose ingenious films remain as startling, innovative, modern—and irresistible—today as they were when they beguiled audiences almost a century ago.

"It is brilliant—I was totally absorbed, couldn't stop reading it and was very sorry when it ended."—Kevin Brownlow
It was James Agee who christened Buster Keaton “The Great Stone Face.” Keaton’s face, Agee wrote, "ranked almost with Lincoln’s as an early American archetype; it was haunting, handsome, almost beautiful, yet it was also irreducibly funny. Keaton was the only major comedian who kept sentiment almost entirely out of his work and . . . he brought pure physical comedy to its greatest heights.”
Mel Brooks: “A lot of my daring came from Keaton.”
Martin Scorsese, influenced by Keaton’s pictures in the making of Raging Bull: “The only person who had the right attitude about boxing in the movies for me,” Scorsese said, “was Buster Keaton.”
Keaton’s deadpan stare in a porkpie hat was as recognizable as Charlie Chaplin’s tramp and Harold Lloyd’s straw boater and spectacles, and, with W. C. Fields, the four were each considered a comedy king—but Keaton was, and still is, considered to be the greatest of them all.
His iconic look and acrobatic brilliance obscured the fact that behind the camera Keaton was one of our most gifted filmmakers. Through nineteen short comedies and twelve magnificent features, he distinguished himself with such seminal works as Sherlock Jr., The Navigator, Steamboat Bill, Jr., The Cameraman, and his masterpiece, The General.
Now James Curtis, admired biographer of Preston Sturges (“definitive”—Variety), W. C. Fields (“by far the fullest, fairest and most touching account we have yet had. Or are likely to have”—Richard Schickel, front page of The New York Times Book Review), and Spencer Tracy (“monumental; definitive”—Kirkus Reviews), gives us the richest, most comprehensive life to date of the legendary actor, stunt artist, screenwriter, director—master.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780385354219
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/15/2022
Pages: 832
Sales rank: 440,218
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.70(d)

About the Author

JAMES CURTIS is the author of William Cameron Menzies: The Shape of Films to Come, Spencer Tracy: A Biography, and W. C. Fields: A Biography (winner of the 2004 Theatre Library Association Award, Special Jury Prize), among others. He lives in Brea, California.

Read an Excerpt

“I staged it exactly the way it happened,” Keaton liked to say of the Andrews Raid. “The Union agents intended to enter from the state of Kentucky, which was a neutral territory, pretending they were coming down to fight for the Southern cause. That was an excuse to get on that train which takes them up to an army camp. Their leader took seven men with him, including two locomotive engineers and a telegraph operator, and he told them that if anything went wrong they were to scatter individually, stick to their stories that they were Kentuckians down to enlist in the Southern army, and then watch for the first opportunity to desert and get back over the line to the North. As soon as they stole that engine they wanted to pull out of there, to disconnect the telegraph and burn bridges and destroy enough track to cripple the Southern army supply route. That was what they intended to do. And I staged the chase exactly the way it happened. Then I rounded out the story of stealing my engine back.”

However useful Clyde Bruckman’s scenario had been in organizing the contours of the plot, it was remarkably free of the comedy highlights that would distinguish the picture. “The script they took with us they hardly went by at all,” said Marion Mack, “except just the next sequence because they had to write the gags that weren’t in it.” Historically, the Andrews Raid ended at Ringgold, Georgia, when the General ran out of steam some twenty miles south of Chattanooga. But in the picture Keaton and Bruck-man kept the engine in play so that Johnnie could come upon a meeting of Union generals and learn of plans for their supply trains to unite with the Northern Division at Rock River Bridge, then advance for a surprise attack.

Throughout the early filming, much was made of a spectacular shot planned for the third act in which Union soldiers attempt to drive a sup-ply train over a bridge Johnnie has set on fire. The weakened span collapses under the weight of the engine, and it plunges into the river below. It was an idea that came from The Great Locomotive Chase in which the thieves attempt to torch a bridge on the Oostanaula River near Resaca, Georgia, but the dampness of the structure will not permit it to burn. Keaton was dead set against attempting the effect in miniature, knowing the size and spectacle of the thing would make for a thrilling big- screen experience. He surveyed every existing trestle in the region trying to find one suitable to the visual and logistical demands of the scene, and at various times no fewer than four had been picked and rejected, complicating factors being a necessary elevation of seventy- five to a hundred feet and easy access by a spur from the OP&E. Finally, in desperation, a team of four men, headed by Gabe Gabourie, was dispatched one Saturday into the surrounding counties on a mission to identify the best possible candidate. Their conclusion at the end of the day was that the ideal trestle didn’t exist and that Rock River Bridge would have to be built from scratch.

On July 1, a contract was let to begin the design and construction of a 250- foot bridge rising some fifty feet above the jagged rocks of Row River. It would need to be capable of supporting twenty tons of rolling stock, yet collapse into the water on cue. To bring the river up to a depth of twelve feet, a dam at the site near the Culp Creek settlement would also have to be built. By July 7, work had commenced on the span, with a spur five hundred feet in length designed to connect to the main line of the OP&E. The next day, a third engine arrived from Hood River, remodeled to period and renamed the Comet. On July 13, an appeal was made for National Guardsmen from Eugene, Springfield, and Cottage Grove. On July 15, a call went out for five hundred additional men, with tourist sleepers from the Southern Pacific parked on the tracks to accommodate those traveling from long distances. Four days later, confirmation came that the big battle scenes were to be filmed over three days beginning Thursday, July 22, with the collapse of the flaming bridge likely to take place on Friday, July 23.

While preparations went forth, Keaton busied himself playing scenes with Marion Mack, who, as Annabelle Lee, has been held captive by the raiders since the theft of the train. Johnnie rescues her, and the two steal away under the cover of darkness. At daybreak, they discover the General at a bustling army encampment being loaded with supplies. “We’ve got to get back to our lines somehow and warn them of this coming attack,” he tells her. Then he stuffs her into a burlap bag, loads her like a sack of pota-toes, and in a quick, decisive move, clobbers a Union officer and brazenly hijacks the engine from under their noses. Soon, Johnnie, Annabelle, and the General are being chased by the Texas and the Comet, both loaded with Union troops.

Mack quickly learned how unpredictable Keaton could be when the cam-eras were grinding. Stopping briefly when they had to take on water, she was unexpectedly drenched when he artfully positioned her directly in front of the spout. “It really knocked me down,” she said. “It’s a good thing we didn’t have sound movies at the time.” Later, she suggested a gag of her own, where Annabelle, trying to make herself useful, picks up a broom and starts sweeping the cab as the Texas is rapidly gaining on them. Alarmed, Johnnie yanks it from her hands and tells her to add wood to the fire. Compliantly, she picks up a tiny piece, opens the door, and primly tosses it in. Disgusted, he finds an even smaller piece, hands it to her, and watches as she does exactly the same thing. Impulsively, he reaches over and takes her neck in his hands and begins to throttle her. Then, just as quickly, he shifts gears and gives her a kiss.

“I think I got that kiss more for thinking of the gag than anything else,” she said.

The General beats the Northerners to Rock River Bridge, giving Johnnie time to set the bridge on fire before continuing on to Calhoun, a Southern stronghold. At division headquarters, he warns the commanding general of the enemy’s plan, which sends hundreds of Confederate soldiers streaming northward. Back at Rock River, the supply trains are stymied as General Parker arrives on the scene. “That bridge is not burned enough to stop you,” he tells the engineers, “and my men will ford the river.”

Thursday, July 22, was devoted to preparations for the fateful crossing. At two o’clock, a train carrying eight hundred men and about ninety horses arrived at Cottage Grove, where they were marched to the wardrobe depot at Sixth and Main Streets. There they were joined by two hundred boys from the local guard company, and all were issued uniforms and battle parapher-nalia. Later the same afternoon, the special train, powered by two logging engines, carried them fifteen miles to a camp at Culp Creek. Only a handful of shots would be made the following day. If all went according to plan, one of them would cost $40,000— the most expensive take in the history of the screen. Were anything to go wrong, the added cost of another run would surely break the bank.

Cars began arriving on Thursday afternoon, with spectators planning to camp near the bridge all night. By four on Friday morning, they lined Row River Road from a quarter mile above the location site to a point about a mile below Culp Creek, leaving hardly any room to get through. Cottage Grove, in fact, cleared out so thoroughly that most merchants closed for the day. Dev Jennings had brought four cameras to Oregon: three Bell & How-ells and an Akeley, a versatile camera expressly designed for shooting action footage under field conditions. Two additional camera units were ordered up from Hollywood, making a total of six on hand to capture the fiery crash. Jennings’ own crew consisted of Boots Haines, assistant Elmer Ellsworth, and stills cameraman Byron Houck, who was carrying an eight- by- ten East-man and a five- by- seven Graflex. Jennings’ principal cameras were stationed down the river about three hundred yards, while two others were on a plat-form directly across the river on its south side, high above the far end of the bridge to capture the approach of the supply trains and Union troops.

The atmosphere had grown tense by the time Keaton decided he was ready. Rehearsals coordinated the movements of the key visual elements— the cavalry, the foot soldiers, the two engines. “I marched more there than I did in the army,” said Ronald Gilstrap, who belonged to the National Guard and volunteered for picture duty. “We came down this road towards the crossing four times, I think, before they got a shot. The first time some kids were in the road, and another time something else happened. Then Buster Keaton took the engine across the trestle and back.” The General had previously crossed over as Johnnie and Annabelle went about the business of starting the fire.

As director, Keaton was ever present, methodically checking and recheck-ing things as the morning wore on. “Not satisfied to stand on the camera platform and give orders through a telephone with megaphone attach-ment, he was here and there on all angles of the location,” the Eugene Guardrecorded. Co- director Clyde Bruckman, clad in a red jacket and matching hat, was more conspicuous than useful. “He didn’t direct much of it at all,” said Marion Mack. “He was more like an assistant in the whole film.”

With the timing perfected, the span was weakened by sawing into the timbers from underneath. “There was an awful lot of apprehension about it,” said Grace Matteson, whose father worked as a carpenter on the film. “I can remember my father talking about the decisions they had to make in order to get it just right. There was quite a bit of figuring and arguing.” They eventually decided that strategically placed dynamite would also help the bridge to collapse on cue. Shortly before noon, the structure saturated with gasoline, Keaton called for camera. “Start your action!” he signaled, but then he decided the flames were no good and aborted the take. A custom water cannon powered by a six- cylinder automobile engine extinguished them before any damage was done.

Dinner was called, and the extras went off to mess as the livestock were cared for and watered. Spectators, estimated at three to four thousand, crowded around the numerous hot dog stands and refreshment booths that sprang up like toadstools. It wasn’t until two o’clock that everything was in place for another attempt. The bridge was once again ignited, action again was called, and again the shot was abruptly scuttled as the engine dutifully approached its fate. Down at the far base of the bridge, directly below the flaming timbers, a group of small boys could be seen swimming in the river. The powerful water pump again was trained on the flames, the Texas was once more backed into position, and while the bluecoats retreated with their mounts, Bruckman stormed and fumed at the children. A third attempt was spoiled when some of the soldiers waded into the water at the wrong time, causing yet another half- hour delay.

Before a fourth take was attempted, Keaton had a pile of wood placed at the center of the bridge. Sawdust was strewn all about, and everything was once again saturated with gasoline. Now getting past three o’clock, time was running short. Silence was politely requested of the spectators, and down-river the temporary dam was opened, causing water backed up some three hundred yards to flow through the gorge. Now all eyes were on Keaton as he took his place on the camera platform and signaled powderman Jack Little. Activating a series of electric ignitions with the press of a button, Little caused the bridge to burst into flames. As the fire built, the smell of gasoline permeated the air. At last satisfied, Keaton called “Camera!” and the words “Start your action!” As the Texas charged toward the burning trestle, Union cavalrymen made for the river. When the cowcatcher on the locomotive reached the exact center of the trestle, Little detonated the dynamite charges at the centermost pilings and the span began to buckle. With the Texas and its tender now perfectly centered over the water and clearing the banks on both sides, it fell and dug deep into the bed below. As it sank, black smoke erupting skyward, steam forced from the boiler caused the whistle to blow a mournful dirge. There was an audible gasp from the crowd, and screams could be heard as realistic dummies representing the engineer and fireman were thrown clear of the wreck. One woman fainted, and another grew hysterical as the papier- mâché head of the engineer floated downstream.

With the bridge and the locomotive now a smoldering mass of wreck-age, the horses and infantry waded into the river, where they discovered the dam had left the water deeper in places than they expected. Weighted down with heavy uniforms, rifles, and the like, some of the costumed extras had trouble making it across. “I was pulling them out,” said Gilstrap. “I’m a good swimmer, and there were several of us. I pulled four or five fellers up and got them on the bank.” Two men nearly drowned when they found themselves in deep water, and a third, a fifteen- year- old, was hospitalized in critical condition. Visibly relieved when the scene was finally in the can, Keaton was, the Cottage Grove Sentinel reported, “happy as a kid.”

“Come on, gang,” he said, “let’s call it a day.”

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