Joseph Frank Keaton – the silent film star affectionately known as Buster – was born the same year, 1895, that the Lumière brothers presented the first motion pictures to a stunned Parisian audience. It’s a nifty piece of trivia and a clever narrative framing device in Dana Stevens’ Cinematographer: Buster Keaton, The Dawn Of Cinema and The Invention Of The Twentieth Centurya sort of triple biography whose subtitle sums up her story well.
Buster Keaton was not only an early filmmaker of exceptional skill, Stevens claims, but his life and work serve as a lens through which to view the emergence of cinema and the arrival of the American century. camera operator is essential reading if you are interested in any of these subjects, and a great starting point for the budding busterphile.
Though Keaton and the cinema share a birth year, Piqua, the birthplace of Baby Buster, Kansas, was just another monotonous stop for his struggling vaudeville parents, Joe and Myra. He performed acrobatic feats; she played the cornet. “The deed didn’t work,” read one review. “It was bad.”
Buster joined the family bond when he turned 5 and bounced a basketball off his father’s head for a laugh. Joe’s scripted response was to grab a suitcase handle sewn to the back of his son’s costume and throw the boy across the stage. He was a “human projectile hurled into the twentieth century,” Stevens writes. Three years before the Wright brothers flew, the tiny prop named Buster flew through the air.
The Keatons now performed as a trio, earning the family an additional ten dollars a week and rave reviews. “An infant phenomenon,” rang a trader. In the commercials, Buster was billed as “The boy who can’t be hurt.” “You think you were treated roughly as a child,” read one ad. “Wait till you see how they handle Buster.”
“Keep an eye on the kid,” Joe Keaton advised the audience after teaching young Buster to take his rough treatment without a flinch or a smile. A star with “poker face and rubber body,” to use Stevens’ words, was born.
That abuse caught the attention of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, a two-year ban from performing in New York, and ongoing showbiz apocrypha involving Buster’s intact body, often propagated by the actor himself — most famously the myth Houdini bestowed the nickname on “Buster,” after seeing the toddler fall down a flight of stairs.
Buster, along with his mother, left the alcoholic and increasingly volatile Joe in 1916, despite fears of going alone. “What a beautiful thing [our act] was,” he recalled decades later. “Nice to see, nice to do … but look at what happened to get up and blow each other like a cheap movie.”
Luckily, Buster soon met Roscoe Arbuckle and played the third banana with a pork pie hat in a two-reel series alongside the early comedian known as Fatty. Despite the small parts involved, Busters was “always on the move, often in danger,” writes Stevens, “always at the heart of the action.”
After making 15 short films with Fatty, Buster teamed up with Arbuckle’s producer to open his own studio. His early independent films feel like they’re building cinema from the ground up while simultaneously deconstructing the moving image through celluloid-shredding chaos. Experience the Rube Goldbergian set pieces of his 1920 masterpieces: the DIY house in One week, the food scene in scarecrowand the wooden fence hijinks by Neighbors. Or relive the groundbreaking performances of his full-length gems: climb onto the cinema screen Sherlock Jr., trust physics Steamboat Bill, Jr.and to create what is arguably the greatest cinematic chase of all time The general.
Watching Buster perform is not just asking, “How did he do that?” but “Why would he do that?” His films don’t contain the pure pathos of Charlie Chaplin, but they aren’t pure moronic slapstick either. His work is subversive, tongue-in-cheek anti-authoritarian without being socially or politically satirical. Buster disrupts the feigned stability of home and family in almost every film. He’s a wordless, constantly moving hurricane trying to outrun cops, women, thieves, trains, and even the wind.
“He can impress a weary world,” wrote one critic-fan in 1922, “with the vital fact that life is, after all, a foolishly trivial matter.”
Stevens does a fine job of documenting the weary world that was America in the early 20th century. There are chapters on the gender imbalance among Hollywood filmmakers (“a higher percentage of American films were directed by women in 1916,” she notes, “than has been the case in any year since”) and the ubiquity of blackface (one film historian counted 18 separate jokes related to race or ethnicity in Buster’s 1920s edition). Stevens also traces the rise of the film critic, the development of modern celebrity, and the transformation of film from “a novelty to be admired for its own sake” to an industry where individual films now often gross billions. Just one lengthy chapter on Buster’s parallels with Hollywood wannabe F. Scott Fitzgerald — though the two likely never met — feels like filler.
Perhaps inevitably, Buster could only soar so high. He signed with MGM, despite warnings from his silent film rivals Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, and made derivative, often dreary, films that were almost always box office hits. He comforted himself with a bottle of whiskey a day, got divorced, married his sober nurse while he was in Tijuana, and squandered his contract. Years later he described this time as “on top of the world – on a toboggan”. Still, camera operator traverses the lows of Buster’s middle years to find hope in his artistic and critical renaissance in the 1950s and ’60s.
“Who was this serious, beautiful, constantly floating man,” Stevens asks. He was the only Buster Keaton.