Vaudevisuals Bookshelf ~ Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker’s Life

Buster Keaton (1895–1966), a director and star of silent comedy classics, emerges as a great auteur and a martyr to Hollywood in this vibrant biography. Film historian Curtis (Spencer Tracy) recaps Keaton’s spectacularly rough-and-tumble career beginning with his childhood vaudeville act in which he was thrown across the stage by his father. He covers Keaton’s hair-raising stunts in the silent train-chase epic The General (as well as in other films); his career fizzling in the 1930s when MGM bought his contract, stripped him of creative autonomy, and stuck him in ill-chosen pictures that made no use of his genius for poetic sight gags; and his 1960s swan songs doing everything from variety shows (at the age of 69, he hoisted Lucille Ball on his shoulders for a stunt) to a Budweiser commercial and a Samuel Beckett–penned art film. In Curtis’s telling, Keaton’s life is a picaresque worthy of his comedies: he was once blackmailed by an ex-mistress who smashed up his office, and when his agent hired a man to keep him from drinking on the set, Keaton paid the man to let him drink. The story is evocative, entertaining, and laced with lyrical detail. This is an engrossing portrait of a Hollywood legend. Photos. 

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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.”

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.”

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Jim R. Moore


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