Readers of James Agee's agile and marvelously brief essay from 1949, "Comedy's Greatest Era," remember the lyric forcefulness of the paragraphs on Buster Keaton, their acute sense of his harrowing acrobatics and ennui. In contrast, Robert Knopf's sober study of the Great Stone Face, for all its scrupulousness, looks like a footnote to Agee. His argument is not uninteresting: in Knopf's view, the family vaudeville act (called The Three Keatons) affected Buster's work forever. Out of it Keaton developed his hallmark style, an original combination of the high and the low reminiscent of Samuel Beckett and embraced by Salvador Dalì and Luis Buñuel. Knopf also maintains that a generation of commentators mugged Keaton's movies when they falsely celebrated his "classical Hollywood style." Keaton--the virtuoso acrobat, master of long shots, and ransacker of vaudeville rhythms and routines--pursues anti-narrative impulses that belong to a pre-1917 "cinema of attractions," to absurd theater and surrealism. These styles deflect attention from the plot to Buster's wringing stillness, his flat hat and flap shoes, his elaborately rigged Rube Goldberg stunts. Knopf's thesis is a narrow one, but it is solidly researched and probably true. His prose is another matter. Almost immaculately arid and inflexible, it utterly fails the improvisatory comic who could do so much with so little--for example, love: in a crowd scene in The Cameraman
, Keaton leans his body so far leftward toward a girl that you wonder at his pact with gravity. --Lyall Bush
From Library Journal
Buster Keaton ranks as one of the foremost clown princes of Hollywood. As a child, Keaton learned his craft as one of vaudeville's Three Keatons, where he was the target of knockabout comedy so rough many observers considered it a form of child abuse. Sadly, personal problems, alcoholism, and a lack of business acumen caused Buster to lose artistic control over the making of his films in later years, and he was reduced to taking bit roles in "Beach Party" films. Knopf (theater, Univ. of Michigan) offers a timely, academic appreciation of the great stoneface, examining why Keaton's films intrigued surrealists and intellectuals such as Salvador Dal!, Federico Garc!a Lorca, and Luis Bu?uel. (One of Keaton's final appearances was in a short film scripted by Samuel Beckett.) Knopf also does an excellent job of tracing the vaudevillian roots of Keaton's stunts and gags. On the other hand, Bengtson's Silent Echoes shows more than 100 sites from early Keaton films, comparing the film view with the scene as it exists today. (Unlike other silent film figures, Keaton preferred natural settings for his pratfalls. As a result, his early films offer a wonderful view of early Hollywood landmarks that are, like some of Keaton's films, now lost to posterity.) This dedicated bit of detective work will be of great interest to Hollywood and urban historians. Although the definitive history of Keaton's life and career has yet to be written, both books will nicely supplement the collections of libraries that already own earlier studies, like Keaton's Wonderful World of Slapstick, Marion Meade's Buster Keaton: Cut to the Chase or Tom Dardis's Keaton: The Man Who Wouldn't Lie DownAnot to mention Kino on Video's ten-volume The Art of Buster Keaton. Recommended for all academic and large public libraries and specialized film collections.AStephen Rees, Levittown Regional Lib., PA
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--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.