The Second Annual Buster Keaton blogathon: Imogen Sara Smith’s “Buster Keaton: The Persistence of Comedy”

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There are two books that I reread every year without fail: Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights and Imogen Sara Smith’s Buster Keaton: The Persistence of Comedy. The latter is the finest interpretation of Keaton’s style, persona, comedy, and impact that I have ever come across, freed of over-intellectual tosh and sordid Freudian rambling that turn some of the funniest and most dazzling pictures ever made into psychodramas of abuse and loneliness. Like Keaton himself, the book is beyond category, touching upon Keaton the artist, Keaton the man, how audiences in the 1920s reacted to him, his modern resurgence and acclaim, his place in popular culture, the weird fascination academics have with him, and a decent focus on his post-1933 career that does not treat the remaining thirty-three years of his existence as a tragedy worthy of Shakespeare, but as a triumph over adversity and despair.

It’s not a book for Keaton neophytes: I would suggest having some familiarity with his life. If you haven’t already, watch Kevin Brownlow’s three hour documentary Buster Keaton: A Hard Act to Follow and then tackle this one, which you can snap up for fifteen dollars on Amazon. Smith is a marvelous writer: her analysis is easy to read, passionate and not burdened down with dry academia, so if you’re intimidated by the likes of a light read like Buster Keaton and the Dynamics of Visual Wit, then this may be more your speed and style. Few critics have been able to break down Keaton’s style the way Smith does. There’s no comparing him to Beckett or Kafka; Smith knows about a little thing called context and shows how Keaton was far more influenced by the world of vaudeville than absurdist philosophy.

The biographical elements are well done. Unlike certain authors who yearn for dirt, dirt, and more dirt when it comes to Keaton’s familial and romantic relationships, Smith displays good taste. She also has the good sense to shrug her shoulders when dealing with issues that we can never comprehend 100 percent, like just what went wrong between Keaton and Natalie Talmadge. (Smith wisely observes we have little documenting Talmadge’s side of the story and thus that first marriage will always be a mystery to the Keaton scholar and fan.) The biographical sections mainly focus on the things that tell us how Keaton’s screen persona and comedy developed, from his vaudeville roots and days at Comique with Roscoe Arbuckle and Al St. John. Smith breaks down Keaton as a director, how he preferred long shots since they allowed you to see that a great deal of the action was real and not faked, or how his minimalist acting style tended to rub off on his supporting players. There is an entire chapter analyzing the artistic success of The General, going into depth as to why people love that movie so much. Like me, Smith sees that film, and indeed Keaton’s oeuvre as a whole, as mastering the art of comic understatement. Reading her analysis and commentary always has me running to my Keaton Blu-ray collection, ready to revisit them once again.

Some have criticized the book as being too gushing in tone. I’ve come across those who take issue with the moments where Smith makes it clear she finds Keaton physically attractive, such as in the passage where she finds the feminine scorn directed at Keaton in the MGM bedroom farce Parlor, Bedroom, and Bath to be eye-roll worthy, saying “in fact, he looks particularly sexy in this film—sporting some very jazzy art deco pajamas” (190). Personally, I did not find the book overly gushy and uncritical. Smith is no doubt an enthusiast, but her enthusiasm is balanced, without fan-ish disregard for logic or anything else. She does have criticism for the mediocrity of shorts like the lackluster Daydreams and The Blacksmith, as well as the racist jokes in Seven Chances. She even argues that the final battle in The General can be seen as that film’s sole flaw.

What seals my affection for this book is the ending section, where Smith broadens her scope from Keaton to his place in the larger culture of the first half of the twentieth century, a time Smith deems “the golden of popular art” (244). She describes this period as being a time when “art and entertainment, highbrow and lowbrow, used to meet and mingle (if not always amiably) instead of drinking at separate water fountains.” Nowadays, we consider so many of the movies and pulp novels and music made for the masses back then to be classics. Heck, let me just give you her excellent rundown:

“[In the first half of the twentieth century, a]rtists and intellectuals were fascinated by vernacular forms, while the masses yearned to better themselves, worshipping paragons of ‘class’ like Fred Astaire, who was really a former vaudevillian from Ohio. In the twenties Anna Pavlova and the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo barnstormed around America performing for audiences who had never seen ballet before. In the thirties Benny Goodman played in Carnegie Hall; Hollywood films featured music by Alan Copland and choreography by George Balanchine… Jazz-classical hybrids like Rhapsody in Blue drew scorn from snobs and purists but generated enough excitement to drown them out…

This invigorating exchange of influences has grown scarce in an age when silent comedies are mostly seen in museums and film classes. Once scorned by the high-minded, they are now embraced by a minority of serious film buffs and scholars, who are often at a loss to do them justice without transporting them into a loftier cultural stratum than the one where they originated…

Passing through the phases of modernism and postmodernism, all of the arts have experimented with extremes of obscurity… Culture became a series of endurance tests: marathon theater performances, dances presented without music or sound scores that assault the ears, artworks that dare viewers to declare, that’s not art. Deliberately arcane art rewards a self-selected minority with the sense of ‘getting it,’ having the superior taste or erudition needed to meet its challenge. Difficult art can reward the effort needed to decipher it—Ulysses proves that—but not to a very broad audience… The divorce between art and entertainment has diminished both, though pop culture has suffered more. Driven solely by commercial motives, entertainment dives for the lowest common denominator, producing disposable, cynically vapid products. As artists fear the accusation of accessibility,the rest of society fears being labeled ‘elitist,’ getting down and dirty to prove their regular-guy credentials.” (245-46)

This is far, far different from today’s artistic and entertainment landscape. True “art” has to be inaccessible. “Entertainment” must be as dumbed down as possible, made to appeal to the 18-35 male demographic almost without fail. Not to say that is the case for every modern art film or big studio release, nor is that to say every film cranked out in pre-1970 Hollywood wasn’t pandering schlock, but there is a certain divide present.

At any rate, this is a fabulous book, for what it says about Keaton, his Hollywood, and how his legacy endures almost a century later. Keaton fans will devour it.

This post is part of the Second Annual Buster Keaton blogathon, hosted by the fabulous Silentology. Check out her website for more Buster-themed goodness!

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4 thoughts on “The Second Annual Buster Keaton blogathon: Imogen Sara Smith’s “Buster Keaton: The Persistence of Comedy”

  1. Ah, The Persistence of Comedy–if ever there were a refreshing antidote to mean-spirited books like Cut to the Chase, it’s Smith’s thoughtful work. I adore it too. She really GETS Buster, and obviously took a great deal of care to try and understand him as he truly was. Few things annoy me more than writers of the “over-intellectual tosh and sordid Freudian rambling” crowd insisting that Buster’s work is uniformly dark and cynical. It’s not.

    Yes, Smith’s definitely not gushy or fawning–certain critics must not have read the same book! As far as anyone complaining about her praising Buster’s looks…well, that’s a little like a male historian writing a book on Audrey Hepburn without once mentioning her world-famous beauty!

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  2. “Persistence” is good. After your article, I’m going to have to reread it. One of the great things about Buster is that you can examine him from so many different perspectives–high brow or low brow. Whether his genius was intentional or not, his influence touches filmmakers today. I just saw the Coen Brothers movie “Hail, Ceasar!” (A film that doesn’t quite come together and is only funny if you’re familiar with classic Hollywood … disappointing really, but anyway…) In that movie, I swear, the Coens lifted a bit from “Free and Easy”–the one where the director, Fred Niblo, instructs Buster on how to say a line–Ralph Fiennes and Alden Ehrenreich do a spin-off of that scene and it’s one of the best in the movie. It just goes to show that even from a marginal film like “Free and Easy” Buster’s reach is long.

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  3. Thanks for the introduction to this book and the Kevin Brownlow documentary. Happily, there are clips on YouTube that can tide a person over until a person locates the actual film.

    This book sounds really appealing, especially the fact that the author doesn’t get into all the nitty-gritty about his personal life. Thanks for recommending!

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  4. I’m sold. I get tired of books that try to psychoanalyze silent comedians. i like her approach to the Keaton-Talmadge marriage. We don’t know much about it and we never will unless we dig up a huge cache of letters between them or Natalie’s diary.

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