Saturday, April 12, 2014
K IS FOR BUSTER KEATON
Joseph Frank Keaton was born in a trunk, as the saying goes. This may not have been literally true in his case, but it is true that by the age of three (which would have been in 1898), he was appearing in his parents' vaudeville act, dressed like his father as a bald, bearded stereotype of an Irishman.
This was the benign part of Buster's entry into show business. And if you don't like that part, you'll probably really hate the part about his mother sewing a suitcase handle onto the back of his little jacket so that his father could get a good grip when he flung his son off the stage and out toward the back wall of the theater. Seeing how the little boy would just get up calmly from wherever he landed, as if nothing had happened, a fellow performer (some say it was Houdini) said to his father, "That's quite a buster you've got there!" And the name stuck throughout his life.
When he grew up (despite what seem to have been his parents' best efforts to prevent it), Keaton casually found his way into a career in the movies, and he proved himself to be a genius of silent film. He wrote, directed and starred in hilarious comedies through the 1920's and 30's. His two hallmarks as a comic actor were his permanent deadpan expression - he was known as The Great Stone Face - and his extraordinary gift for physical humor. A superb natural athlete, Keaton always performed all of his own movie stunts, and some of them have to be seen to be believed.
Everyone knows who Charlie Chaplin was, but the same is not true about Keaton, and that's a tragedy. To me, Keaton had an innate delicacy and vulnerability that Chaplin lacked. The Little Tramp was a poignant figure, but in such a studied way. Keaton's persona was of course studied too: he never allowed himself to be photographed smiling, even when not in character. But he still somehow managed to project both outrageous humor and a deep melancholy at the same time, while making it look like he wasn't even trying. "The General," a full-length feature film starring Keaton as a train engineer in the South during the Civil War, is widely regarded as his masterpiece. But if you don't want to start learning about Keaton by watching a two-hour film, I urge you to turn first to You Tube. Start with the compendium of his best stunts, move on from there to some of his short films, and I hope and believe that by that point, you'll be hooked.
Keaton died of lung cancer in 1966 at the age of 70.
Remember those ads, "You don't have to be Jewish to love Levy's?" Well, here was Buster as an old man. Same porkpie hat, same Great Stone Face, eating a deli sandwich on rye. He always had the world's saddest eyes.
Buster's midlife descent into alcoholism robbed the world of so many brilliant films that he could have made, but I want to focus on the positive. Buster was physically beautiful, incomparably graceful, and madly talented, and I have a huge crush on the young man he once was. Do yourself a favor and get to know him. You will be richly rewarded.