In this genre-defying “new kind of history” (The New Yorker), the chief film critic of Slate places comedy legend and acclaimed filmmaker Buster Keaton’s unique creative genius in the context of his time.
Born the same year as the film industry in 1895, Buster Keaton began his career as the child star of a family slapstick act reputed to be the most violent in vaudeville. Beginning in his early twenties, he enjoyed a decade-long stretch as the director, star, stuntman, editor, and all-around mastermind of some of the greatest silent comedies ever made, including Sherlock Jr., The General, and The Cameraman.
Even through his dark middle years as a severely depressed alcoholic finding work on the margins of show business, Keaton’s life had a way of reflecting the changes going on in the world around him. He found success in three different mediums at their creative peak: first vaudeville, then silent film, and finally the experimental early years of television. Over the course of his action-packed seventy years on earth, his life trajectory intersected with those of such influential figures as the escape artist Harry Houdini, the pioneering Black stage comedian Bert Williams, the television legend Lucille Ball, and literary innovators like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Samuel Beckett.
In Camera Man, film critic Dana Stevens pulls the lens out from Keaton’s life and work to look at concurrent developments in entertainment, journalism, law, technology, the political and social status of women, and the popular understanding of addiction. With erudition and sparkling humor, Stevens hopscotches among disciplines to bring us up to the present day, when Keaton’s breathtaking (and sometimes life-threatening) stunts remain more popular than ever as they circulate on the internet in the form of viral gifs. Far more than a biography or a work of film history, Camera Man is a wide-ranging meditation on modernity that paints a complex portrait of a one-of-a-kind artist.
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Chapter 1: They Were Calling It the Twentieth Century
The Three Keatons, ca. 1901.
(Photo courtesy of Bob and Minako Borgen)
New Year’s Eve 1899 must have felt momentous even if you weren’t a four-year-old backstage at Proctor’s Twenty-Third Street Theater, still buzzing from last week’s Christmas gift: a big brown stitched-leather ball meant for playing an American game less than a decade old, which was just beginning to organize into professional leagues. Of course, Buster was still too young to grasp what it meant for one century to turn into the next, or for that matter what it meant that his parents—who had struggled so hard to find work in New York that winter that the three Keatons had at times gone cold and hungry—were suddenly flush enough to buy him such a lavish present.
The answer: after Joe and Myra’s acrobatics-and-cornet duo act had flopped hard at Tony Pastor’s continuous-vaudeville house in early December (as Joe himself would later concede in one of the columns he occasionally contributed to the New York Dramatic Mirror, “the act didn’t go... ’twas bad”),1 he had somehow wrangled them a year-end week of bookings at the prestigious Proctor’s chain, earning the cash to buy the ball for his boy.
The basketball would have a long life as a Keaton prop. Just nine months later, during the family’s first paid engagement as a trio at the Wonderland Theater in Wilmington, Delaware, Buster got laughs by bouncing that ball off his father’s head as the old man stood downstage, holding forth on the importance of patience and gentleness to proper child rearing. (“Father hates to be rough,” went a common opening line.) In what became the template for their act for years to come, Buster’s continued interruptions—sometimes verbal, but most often taking the form of some prop-based provocation or audience-distracting piece of upstage business—would cause Joe to wheel around and witness his authority being flouted. Joe would then give both the audience and his son a more practical tutorial on day-to-day parenting by seizing the suitcase handle Myra had sewed to the back of her son’s costume and flinging the boy against whatever backdrop, curtain, or piece of scenery was available.
The contrast between the roughness with which this small child was handled and the equanimity with which he seemed to spring back from every mishap provided the wellspring of the act’s humor. Whatever anxiety this comic premise created in the audience—which, given the demographics of vaudeville attendance, would have included many families with children—was no incidental side effect of the merriment but part of the point. The Keatons were not just funny, they were thrilling, with real-time risk an essential element of the program. As a grand finale in the early years, Joe sometimes hurled Buster clear into the wings, from whence a stagehand would reappear after a few suspenseful seconds with the grinning boy in his arms: “This yours, Mr. Keaton?”2
Many years later, having grown too big for Joe to throw around the stage—and having learned, after many hissed paternal reminders, that the laughs got bigger when he ditched the smile—a somber teenage Buster would stand in the middle of the stage on the Keaton act’s one consistent prop, a sturdy wooden table. (In the years before his son joined the act, Joe had sometimes billed himself as “The Man with the Table.”) Whirling a basketball on a rubber rope over his head, Buster would approach his father’s head in gradually widening arcs, first knocking off Joe’s hat and, on the next revolution, clobbering the paterfamilias himself, thereby inviting whatever hair-raising act of retribution Joe proceeded to visit upon him. Another, even more patricidal variation involved Joe shaving onstage with a straight razor, whistling in blissful ignorance as Buster’s whirling basketball-on-a-rope slowly approached him from behind to the audience’s mounting gasps. In what must have made for an absurdist touch, Myra, a tiny woman known for her impeccably dainty Gibson Girl fashion, sometimes stood at the front of the stage playing the saxophone, serenely ignoring the melee while her son and husband courted death behind her.
Most impossible for the four-year-old Buster to comprehend was that, in some way, the century to come would be his, in a much more lasting way than the basketball. Though he was born five years before it officially began, Buster Keaton belonged to the twentieth century, and it to him. It was as essential in inventing him as he was in inventing it, and it’s impossible to imagine either one turning out the same without the other.
For the first three decades of the new century, Buster’s life as a performer and creator traced a steep and steady upward trajectory, catapulting his family from the greenhorn fringes of the entertainment industry to its topmost tiers in a remarkably short span of time. It was in late October 1900 that the just-turned-five-year-old made his first paid appearance in his parents’ act, earning the Keatons an extra ten dollars a week at that Wilmington engagement. Buster’s acrobatic and comic gifts were about to become so crucial to the family’s reversal of fortune that, before New Year’s Eve of the same year rolled around, Joe Keaton would be rounding his son’s age upward by two years in a letter to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. Joe was requesting special permission for Buster to appear onstage on the prestigious Proctor’s circuit in New York State, where state law banned children under seven from performing theatrical work of any kind without a permit from the SPCC.3
That organization was better known in its time as the Gerry Society after its cofounder and longtime president, the powerful and controversial lawyer turned child welfare czar Elbridge T. Gerry. This prominent philanthropist and social reformer was a grandson of the founding father of the same name, a signatory of the Declaration of Independence who served as vice president under James Madison and whose skill at slicing up voting districts to his own advantage while governor of Massachusetts gave the American language the term “gerrymandering.” We should pause here to learn a bit about the later Mr. Gerry and the child-protection movement he was instrumental in helping to launch, since we’ll be hearing more from him and the “Gerrymen.” Lord knows the Keaton family did.