By Marion Meade

Go to the first chapter of "Buster Keaton"

Go to Chapter One

Anything for a Laugh

By Dennis Drabelle

Sunday, October 1, 1995; Page X11

JOSEPH FRANK KEATON, who wrote, directed and starred in dozens of ingenious and soaringly clever movies, wasn't just born in a trunk (in 1895); he was cradled in a suitcase. His parents -- performers in medicine shows and vaudeville -- had such limited means that they bedded the baby down in open luggage.

Unpacked, he became the original Buster. Buster Brown, the shoe-dwelling boy of advertising fame, came along several years later, and the name was almost surely lifted from young Keaton, who by then was performing with his parents. He had gotten it after falling downstairs as an 18-month-old toddler: A friend of his parents remarked, "Gee whiz, he's a regular buster," and the term stuck.

As well it should have: A few years later, while audiences gaped, the boy's father was making an airborne prop of him, with some of the flights ending in collisions with scenery and walls. Decades after that, an aged, feeble Buster shocked onlookers by the heedless way he fulfilled a command in a script -- running headfirst into a tree while playing Erronius in "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," his last movie role, his final bust.

These details come from Marion Meade's thoughtful and fast-paced new biography of Keaton; collecting and presenting them adroitly is one of her skills. Concision is another: In an era of almost obligatory biobloat, Meade gets Buster on and off stage in just over 300 pages. Except for some wobbles in the writing -- the occasional cliche, for example (look no further than the subtitle) -- this is an exemplary work.

Keaton had little use for the movies -- until the day he watched one being made and became camera-struck. He spent hours taking one of the contraptions apart and seeing how it worked. After that, he was hooked. Much of his early work was as second banana to his friend Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle (whom Keaton stuck by after his scandalous -- and undeserved -- downfall). But Keaton's superb physical coordination and growing mastery of cinematic technique were too prodigious for him to be relegated to supporting roles in other people's movies. His development of a persona -- the stone-faced loser who triumphs by sheer persistence -- allowed him to build an audience and become a star. Eventually he had his own production unit under the aegis of independent movie magnate Joe Schenck, who was then also his brother-in-law.

Keaton's comedy was feverishly physical. In "Sherlock Jr." a railroad water tower empties its massive contents on him. In "College" he fails in tryouts for every activity in track and field, only to perform them flawlessly when they count -- his girlfriend has been kidnapped, and he's got to rescue her. (And here, for once in his life, Keaton resorted to a stunt double, in the scene where he pole-vaults into the room where she's being held. It wasn't that he couldn't have done it himself, just that he would have delayed the filming too long till he got it right.)

His most famous stunt obliged him merely to stand still. "Steamboat Bill Jr." was originally supposed to climax with a flood, but the occurrence of real-life floods gave Schenck the vapors (he was afraid of diminished box-office), and he demanded a new ending. Keaton came up with a hurricane that blows down a building; the facade falls toward him, and he's going to be crushed. But, no, his life is spared (on film and in actuality) because as the structure crashes down an open window covers precisely the spot where he stands. "The window," Meade notes, "was just big enough to give two inches clearance on either side." Keaton said later that he might not have stood there if he hadn't been so furious with Schenck for having just canceled their arrangement.

Keaton's movies are rife with world-class gags. In "Hard Luck" he dives into a swimming pool, misses the water, hits the tiles at the edge and disappears downward. Years later (as we know from the moss that has grown over the hole he made), he emerges wearing a coolie outfit (not, as Meade calls it, a "kimono") and followed by his Chinese wife and kids. "Sherlock Jr.," which begins with shy projectionist Buster walking into the film he has been screening and continues to pile up delirious set-pieces for the rest of its five reels (about 45 minutes), is in my judgment the most inventive movie comedy ever made.

ABOVE ALL, Keaton was a moviemaking technician. "Like {Mack} Sennett," Meade writes, "Arbuckle did pure physical comedy, while Keaton was primarily interested in mechanical comedy and would achieve his most memorable laughs with exotic camera effects involving houses, trains, and boats." Those effects have influenced other technically ambitious directors, from Bunuel to Scorsese. The apotheosis of Keaton's tinkering came in "The Playhouse," where culture-vulture Buster enters a theater to find everyone inside it a duplicate of himself -- the conductor, the musicians, the stagehands, even the members of the audience (some of whom are Buster in drag). "The multiple-image effects were achieved," Meade writes, "by placing the camera in a special light-proof box with a lens mask that blocked out the entire frame except for a narrow slit in which Keaton was performing. After each sequence, the film would be rewound and the process repeated."

In private life, Keaton was a flop -- all but illiterate, a lukewarm husband several times over and a virtually nonexistent father, a passionate bridge player because he thought that command of the game gave him an aura of intelligence. After Schenck let him go in 1928, he went to MGM, which bore down on him with hierarchical strictures. He drank heavily, his sound movies failed, and his writing and directing career dissolved.

He kept working, though -- there were dozens of appearances in movies (most memorably as one of the bridge-playing fossils in "Sunset Boulevard" and in support of his great rival Charlie Chaplin in "Limelight") and then practically a new career on television, where his sad eyes and trademark derby hat made him instantly recognizable. Rumors circulated that he was broke; but although he had to sell the estate he'd built in the '20s, he continued to live well.

Most of this later work was at the hack level, but at least it kept Keaton busy until the end, in 1965. At times he disparaged his silent movies, but the stone face softened before the tributes he received as an old man. He had been careless with his output -- the James Masons, who bought his estate in the 1940s, found crumbling reels of film left behind -- but more than enough has survived to bear witness to his genius.

Dennis Drabelle writes frequently on movies.

© 1995 The Washington Post Co.

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