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Buster Keaton: Tempest In A Flat Hat Hardcover – May 12, 2005

4.3 out of 5 stars 28 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

McPherson pays homage to Keaton's two-reelers and full-length movies by detailing the iconic filmmaker's plot lines and notable sight gags. Between 1920 and 1929, Keaton rivaled Harold Lloyd and Charlie Chaplin as one of Hollywood's silent masters. Grabbing his title from Keaton's signature porkpie hat, McPherson, who's written for I.D. magazine and the New York Observer, has culled the narrative of the star's personal and professional life from earlier biographical works. His contribution is to adroitly describe the extraordinary visual lunacy Keaton produced on screen to achieve cinema art. Responsible for writing, acting, editing and directing, Keaton took what he knew—"the ingenuity, athleticism, and wit of vaudeville—and applied it to a burgeoning medium." On-screen physical catastrophes were his trademark, though many of his most treasured films, such as The General, were not initially well received. McPherson also remarks on Keaton's disastrous marriage to Natalie Talmadge (her sister, Norma, was a major star), his adjustment to talkies and his descent into alcoholism, a demon he battled for decades. In his prime, Keaton lived a life of luxury, but he paid for his excesses. When his films lost favor, he was reduced to taking studio day jobs. Yet he saw his silent classics reissued and achieved happiness with his third wife, a sunny ending for this loving tribute. 40 b&w photos. (May)
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"A lighthearted and captivating romp through Hollywood's golden age... [McPherson] captures Keaton's antic, madcap energy."
--The New York Times Book Review

"In this spiffy new biography, McPherson is especially good at describing the ingenuity at the heart of Keaton's career... McPherson evokes [Keaton's work] with insight and enthusiasm."
--The Washington Post Book World

"One of Hollywood's funniest filmmakers--that's the Buster Keaton we remember today, and McPherson nicely reminds us of how he got that way."
--The Wall Street Journal

"McPherson is right on the money throughout this admirably brief book ... there is no gainsaying the vigour in McPherson's analyses of Keaton's art."

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Newmarket Press; First Edition edition (May 12, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1557046654
  • ISBN-13: 978-1557046659
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.3 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (28 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #762,516 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Rob Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 1000 REVIEWER on May 25, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Almost forty years after his death, Buster Keaton is increasingly appreciated as a comic artist. The movies of his only real competitor for silent film clown, Charlie Chaplin, are usually marred by sentimentality, but Keaton was having none of that. As Edward McPherson writes, in _Buster Keaton: Tempest in a Flat Hat_ (Newmarket Press), "Keaton's films are witty, beautiful, unsentimental, moving, and - most of all - funny." McPherson writes that his book is "merely a fan's notes," a celebration of Keaton's work. As such, almost all its pages are lovingly devoted to Keaton's films of the twenties. There was a Keaton after the silent film days were over, and he did make a triumph over various adversities, but his silent shorts and full-length films are wonderful, and are still being mined as examples of timing and technical wizardry. This is not a full biography, but a celebration, and it is all the better for that.

Young Keaton joined his parents in vaudeville performances. He literally joined them by wandering onstage; the parents tried tying him offstage or putting him into a trunk, but it turned out that the best way to keep an eye on him was to bring him into the act. The usual skit involved Joe's helter-skelter efforts to discipline his son, and Keaton simply was tossed around on the stage, thrown into the orchestra pit, or used as a mop. It sounds rough, but Keaton was a ham and loved it, and always denied that he had anything to complain about. Fatty Arbuckle was a fan of the Keatons' act, and had already "borrowed" some of their gags for celluloid. When Keaton wandered into Arbuckle's studio in New York in 1917, he was invited to take part in a scene involving a mess of gooey molasses and being knocked for a backwards summersault from a store out into the street.
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Format: Hardcover
This book was a "nice little surprise", in that I didn't really expect to enjoy it as much as I did. - I bought it on impulse, in that I always buy books on Buster Keaton, as well as on a number of other subjects that are of great "collectible" interest to me. For the most part, I've enjoyed almost every book on Keaton I've ever purchased, going back to Blesh's "Keaton", which I read when I was 17, way back in 1966. I was burned severly by one purchase, a slight little paperback biography (by an author whose name I can't remember) that was one of the most poorly written, error-strewn messes I've ever seen. I tossed it! But I love Blesh, Bengston, Lebel, Robinson, Moews, Meade, Rapf & Green, Oldham, Dardis, Horton (why does everyone hate this one? I enjoyed it immensly), Knopf, Weed & Lellis, Vance & Keaton, Benayoun, Kline, and of course, Buster's own "World Of Slapstick". To my mind, they all contribute something new to the picture.

When I started reading this new McPherson book, I had a bit of a feeling of "ho-hum". But, surprisingly, I was drawn into it. I found that the author had, indeed, added new insights into Keaton's personal life, a few new facts here & there. Most importantly, his comments regarding the films themselves are lively, insightful, and unique. This is a most welcome addition to my Keaton library, in a plain, unexceptional cover and design that falsely led me to believe that the book would be dull and pedestrian. I'm one Keaton fan who is glad to own this book.

The only reason I've not given the book a fifth star, is that the author rather awkwardly telescopes the last 20 or so years of Buster's life into a rather sketchy summary, somewhat out-of-keeping with the wonderful treatment given the earlier years. For this reason, I would not recommend this as a "starter", or a new Keaton fan's "only" book on the subject. But, to add color and nuance to what is learned in other volumes, this is a fine compliment and a satisfying Keaton read.
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Format: Paperback
While the number of biographies on Buster Keaton has increased greatly since the re-discovery of his silent work took off for real in the 1960's, to date there is still no book available that can be rightly evaluated as the "definitive" biography. His largely ghost-written memoirs MY WONDERFUL WORLD OF SLAPSTICK, Rudi Blesh's KEATON, Jeffrey Vance's and Eleanor Keaton's collaboration BUSTER KEATON REMEMBERED, the more recent BUSTER KEATON: INTERVIEWS as well as the splendid documentary A HARD ACT TO FOLLOW make for a thorough examination of his life in total, but it is still disappointing that the comedian has not yet been gained a study of his life and work on par with David Robinson's Chaplin-biography. He deserves it, as anyone can tell; and the longing from fans for such a book to emerge is probably why this book, A TEMPEST IN A FLAT HAT by Edward McPherson, has received some rather harsh comments.

Make no mistake: there is little new in this biography to anyone familiar with the other books mentioned above. McPherson's biography is a pretty straight-forward examination of Keaton's life, with its main focus directed at his vaudeville roots and film-making up till around 1930, whereas his later years are hastily covered. The neglection of Keaton's work in talkies is disappointing; quite typical, but it is my opinion that all of Buster's work from after his golden period is at least worthy of attention, even when the results are devastating, and on some occasions the comedian did manage to recaptivate some of the magic which had been present in his earlier work. However, if one is to view FLAT HAT as just what it is, a summary of Keaton's life which is mostly concerned with his earlier years, the book all in all stands as very good.
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