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Keaton Hardcover – January, 1966
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Here is the story of Joseph Frank "Buster" Keaton, the director, producer, writer and star—the sad-faced little man who was one of the prime masters of silent film comedy. The book includes hilarious accounts of the filming—usually without script—of some of his now-classic films and more the 100 photographs.
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This is one I'm keeping for my archives. No way I'll resell. Thanks so much!!
The book focuses on, in particular, his vaudeville days (1895-1917) and the silent film period that followed (1917-28). Little is written about the years after 1928. This may be because the book was written in cooperation with Buster, and it is likely that the years up to 1928 were the happiest of his career. Because it was written in cooperation with Buster, we get interviews, verbatim, straight out of his mouth. These unedited "tape recorder" parts are the best pages of the book because we get to hear his down-to-earth speaking style such as referring to his father as "the old man", his own face as "the puss", and the garbage as "the ash can" (several times), and also his abrupt incomplete-sentence style of talking.
However, there's much to be annoyed by here. The 60's began a nauseating self-awareness period that even spilled over into the subject of Buster Keaton. This era began the absurd psychoanalysis of his films and Blesh seems to endorse it ("the pale mask projected our own feelings"). These innocent films, which were only meant to make people laugh (and make a profit), are analyzed as being a study of Man's Competition with the Machine Age or blubbery about Man Against Modern Mechanisms ("the Keaton mythos is one more of being mastered than of being master"). The best way to really appreciate Buster is to ignore this hooey, and instead watch the unbelievable bravery that's proven in the deadly stunts he performed in the films made up to 1928.
Blesh also gives us descriptions of the plots to Buster's films. Almost all of them are described with errors, in fact on one of them, "The Electric House", Blesh incredibly rewrote both the characters and the plot! There's also included a photo of Buster and some others standing with their backs to the camera in front of the Keaton Studio on its opening day, which would have been in early 1920. The caption reads that it's Buster, his family members, and Fatty Arbuckle. It's actually the cast of "Neighbors", a film he made at the end of 1920.
Then Blesh continuously calls Buster's first 2-reel short "The High Sign" (1920) a "turkey", most likely because Buster kept referring to it as that in the interviews he did with Blesh. As an artist, Buster is naturally going to be more critical of his work than anyone else is. For this reason, it's out of place for the author to agree that "The High Sign" is a "turkey", especially since it's not that bad.
A relatively short section at the end is devoted to his MGM years (1928-33). Both these guys thrive on criticizing how bad the MGM pictures were, none of which were bad at all. There are so many errors in the book that I'm skeptical about how true the following is (because it's compiled by Blesh and not verbatim out of Buster's mouth), but one of the most interesting pages in the book is Buster's harrowing experience with his alcoholism and the D.T.'s he suffered (attacked by squirrels and ants) in his attempt to dry out, following his discharge from MGM, and the trip to the Arizona desert afterwards, ending with an experience with a bunch of hobos alongside some train tracks.
Since Buster was by the author's side during its composition, the book is worth reading because we get personal information that his future biographers weren't capable of gathering. One morning, I was so engrossed in something Mr. Keaton was saying that I missed a bus stop and had to walk a half mile to work because of it.