The Eighth Buster Keaton Blogathon: The Vampire Diary of Buster Keaton and Bluffton

It’s finally here!!

Like any geek, I am protective of my favorite artists, particularly when it comes to the way they are portrayed in fiction. Biopics and historical novels that get these favorites wrong in the worst possible ways make my skin crawl. For example, seeing the multi-talented Mabel Normand portrayed as a shrewish hack in the 1992 Chaplin film makes me want to smash the DVD to atoms.

Ugh! This movie might merit its own post from me one day. Image source: https://haphazardstuff.com/chaplin-1992-a-review/

Of course, Buster Keaton ranks highest among my favorite creative people. He’s my favorite filmmaker, bar none, and a major inspiration to me both as an artist and a human being. He was flawed like anyone, but he was also persevering, loyal, and unpretentious.

If you’re a Keaton fan, don’t even try watching this thing. Image source: https://film.nu/filmer/the-buster-keaton-story/10197395.film

This makes certain portrayals of Keaton in fiction frustrating. Let’s take that oh-so charming load of slop The Buster Keaton Story as an example.  It stuffs Keaton’s life into a predictable 1950s biopic framework: a talented star on the rise is undone by a personal vice. All the focus goes to Keaton’s drinking problem and post-sound career slump. We have no idea what distinguished him as a man or as a comedian, let alone as a cinematic master. As far as this movie is concerned, he was a professional alcoholic who did pratfalls on camera now and then.

That’s why I wanted to highlight two excellent Keaton-centric novels for this blogathon: The Vampire Diary of Buster Keaton by Tracy Lord and Bluffton: My Summers with Buster by Matt Phelan. On the surface, these books are wildly different: one’s a vampire thriller for adults, the other is a gentle graphic novel for children. But both present Buster Keaton as a nuanced personality without making him a Genius-Saint or a Pagliacci.

The Vampire Diary of Buster Keaton by Tracy S. Wolfe

It’s 1927 and Buster Keaton is having it rough. His marriage to Natalie Talmadge is crumbling, his latest movie The General is not performing as expected, the studio system is starting to swallow up independent creators like himself– oh, and he’s being stalked by two fans. Fans who happen to be vampires.

Vida and Lee Anne decide to make Keaton their latest “pet,” threatening the lives of his loved ones to keep him under their control. However, Keaton starts to enjoy the sensually-charged escape vampire bites give him and he’s particularly drawn to the mysterious, soulful Vida. Unfortunately, Lee Anne is a jealous sociopath and the vampire underworld is not pleased about two of their own threatening undead anonymity by hooking such an illustrious snack.

I admit I am not the biggest vampire aficionado. I’ve read Dracula a few times and love George Romero’s revisionist Martin, but that’s about as far as my love for the blood-sucking undead goes. Wolfe’s book has not converted me into a vampire lover, but it is a good read, especially for Keaton fans.

What stands out most is Wolfe’s historical research. She knows Keaton inside out and even weaves her knowledge of his family history into the vampire narrative. She thoroughly nails the Roaring Twenties down too, from the social attitudes to the slang.

I also loved the little nods to other vampire stories. The most obvious is the book’s epistolary framework, evoking the articles, journals, and transcriptions that make up Stoker’s Dracula. The main meat of the book takes the form of journal entries narrated from Buster’s perspective, but these are bookended by emails between the discoverer of this “vampire diary” and individuals seeking to contest or accept the validity of the document. While this never ties into the overall narrative in any deep way, it is amusing.

Wolfe’s crowning achievement is her characterization of Buster himself. Narrated in first person, you can practically hear that deep, gravelly voice in your head. Buster is funny, self-deprecating, creative, and reserved. He is loyal to his family and friends, even if his relationships with his father and his wife are strained. He loves his work, even if it isn’t always appreciated by the audience or the critics.

Best of all, Keaton is allowed to be flawed. In my decade-plus time as a Buster fan, I have noticed a tendency in fandom to present Keaton as a guileless victim in every area of his life. Everything that ever went wrong for him is either blamed on the Talmadges, Joe Keaton, Joe Schneck, Louis B. Mayer, or whoever. Keaton is basically made into a Holy Fool undone by an unfeeling Hollywood. Wolfe credits Keaton with more agency than that. While he is initially blackmailed into being vampire chow, Keaton comes to see his interactions with the vampires as an escape not unlike being drunk. Just as in real life, Keaton is the partial author of his own unhappiness, but he is also a man concerned with doing right by his loved ones. His inner conflict on the matter is wonderful.

The original characters are no slouch either. Vida and Lee Anne are a striking duo. What’s great about them is how they are without a doubt menacing, but sympathetic and nuanced enough to avoid being simplistic monsters. I was particularly stunned by Lee Anne, who is quite evil (her manner of speaking and gleeful sadism brought to mind Harley Quinn from Batman: The Animated Series), but made extra compelling by her almost poignant love of Hollywood fluff.

There are a few caveats some readers might have with the novel, but they stem from the vampire genre more than anything. Firstly, there’s some violence, with decapitations and bad run-ins with sunlight– which is to be expected when the bloodsucking undead are involved. Secondly, there are sex scenes, some of them graphic. Once again, your mileage may vary, though you can skip them without missing key story information if you so wish.

All in all, I would definitely recommend The Vampire Diary of Buster Keaton. There is just so much to love, from the well-realized setting to appearances from other stars of the period. Even if you’re not big into vampires, Keaton’s characterization and the fast-moving thriller plot will keep you riveted.

Bluffton: My Summers with Buster by Matt Phelan

Young Henry thinks he lives a painfully ordinary life in turn-of-the-century Muskegon, Michigan. His life is shaken up when the vaudevillians come to town for the summer. During this time, Henry makes the acquaintance of the child-comedian Buster Keaton. Buster is athletic, creative, and able to make people laugh with ease. Being a big star in a vaudeville act, Buster has everything Henry desires, but Buster is more interested in baseball and pranks than discussing his stage career.  Can this friendship survive a case of mutual envy?

It’s difficult for most books to strike a balance between entertainment and education, especially when writing for children. Reading Bluffton, it’s clear that Matt Phelan wants to introduce the colorful world of vaudeville to young readers without turning the narrative into a dry history lesson. Phelan does this successfully, weaving the historical lessons into a touching narrative about learning to appreciate ordinary life.

Unlike The Vampire Diary, Buster is not the protagonist. That would be Henry, who like the rest of us is an outsider looking in at the crazy world of vaudeville. As a character, Henry is more than just a starstruck fish-out-of-water or a self-insert for the reader. In his small-town ordinariness, he’s a foil for Buster. Buster is famous and on the move constantly, which seems like a dream come true for a kid living in a quiet town. But for Buster, the celebrity’s life is a little overrated.

Keaton takes pride in his abilities and loves the roar of the crowd, but he knows Henry is lucky to not have to bear the adult burdens he must prematurely. It’s easy to forget he shouldered a great many responsibilities at such a tender age and that he was essentially the family breadwinner (a role Keaton retained throughout his life). The story also hints at Joe Keaton’s alcoholism, which as any fan knows, only became worse as Buster grew into adolescence.

Everyone in town but Henry catches on to the less glamorous elements of Buster’s life. Eventually, Henry begins to notice how much is actually going on around him and that his little town is not as boring as he believed. His neighbors have their own talents, such as music and painting, that they practice without the need to become famous or wealthy. Life does not need an audience or 24/7 excitement to be meaningful.

This message is a universal one, but it’s especially relevant in our FOMO-ridden age of social media. Millennials and Gen-Zers tend to think they’re all failures if they haven’t made an impact before age 25. (Not a prodigy? Not a millionaire? And you’re at the advanced age of 26?? You must be worthless!) Books like this make you wonder if Keaton actually did ever look out into the crowd and envy them in turn, at least once in a while.

Overall, this is a fine book. Kids who love history will enjoy it and anyone of any vintage can enjoy the gorgeous watercolor illustrations. Buster fans will love the imaginative peek into Keaton’s childhood summers.

As I was in the process of editing this post, it was announced that there’s going to be a new Buster Keaton biopic. Unfortunately, it’s based on the infamous Marion Meade biography, known for making… um, bizarre claims (like Keaton being illiterate) and further pushing the notion of Buster Keaton as a sad clown. I don’t want to make any judgements, though given my experience with Hollywood biopics in general, I’m not optimistic. There is a tendency to turn people into caricatures of who they really were for the sake of D-R-A-M-A, even though more often than not, the messy reality of a person’s life is more compelling.

That’s why these two books are such great reads from the perspective of a Keaton fan. Here we have no perfect angel in slapshoes, no sad clown. Both books acknowledge that real life is more complicated than our retrospective simplifications, allowing Keaton’s humanity to shine through. I would absolutely recommend them to you.

This post is for the Eighth Buster Keaton Blogathon hosted by the marvelous Silentology! Check out this link for more Buster-y goodness!

Sources:

Bluffton: My Summers with Buster by Matt Phelan

https://www.busterkeaton.org/myths

http://www.outofthepastblog.com/2013/07/interview-with-matt-phelan.html

The Vampire Diary of Buster Keaton by Tracy S. Wolfe

Book review: “John Gilbert: The Last of the Silent Film Stars” by Eve Golden

I haven’t read a biography in a while, so I treated myself to Eve Golden’s book on silent screen legend John Gilbert. Being a silent film devotee, I’ve seen several Gilbert movies (would highly recommend The Big Parade and Flesh and the Devil), though I wouldn’t call myself a hardcore fan. I knew the rough outline of his life and the many, many conspiracy theories inspired by his swift, Norman Maine-like fall from the top of the industry with the coming of sound.

The picture Golden paints of Gilbert is intriguing. He was charming, generous, and lively, but also troubled, insecure, and often his own worst enemy. He fell in and out of love quickly, going through wives and lovers in rapid succession. He resented his mother for not showing him maternal love while being hands-off with his own children. He tended to badmouth the lucrative movies he was in to the press, much the chagrin of his home studio MGM. His drinking killed him before he had the chance to see his fortieth birthday.

Regardless, Golden thoroughly examines why he was such a beloved star at the time. Gilbert made for a swashbuckling, charismatic screen presence, and he was game enough to play unsympathetic roles when the opportunity came. His ambitions extended to directing and writing, though he had little opportunity to pursue the former and lacked the discipline to succeed with the latter. I was surprised to learn he was an avid reader, his personal library stocked with classics and nonfiction (Golden compares him to the similarly ill-fated sex symbol Marilyn Monroe in this regard). Though unsentimental about his flaws, Golden never makes Gilbert out to be pathetic nor does she adopt a judgmental attitude. She presents him as he was, and this very human portrait gives his biography the ring of tragedy.

For a long time, Gilbert’s eclipse was attributed to a falsetto voice. It’s an ironic idea and a tidy, simplistic explanation, which is probably why it’s stuck to Gilbert’s reputation for so long. I’ve come across people who have never touched a silent film in their lives who will still repeat the story of “that silent film star who had a high speaking voice.” However, it’s not the truth nor is it as interesting as what appears to have been the real cause of his decline.

Firstly, there was the cultural shift of the late 1920s. People often go with the “all silent film stars had no idea how to deliver lines AND they all sounded like Lina Lamont” myth, but in truth, the Depression, an influx of younger talent into Hollywood, and changing tastes had more to do with the fall of many a former screen favorite than their ability to speak lines into a microphone. Gilbert was no exception—he was a Great Screen Lover of the sort that was quickly falling out of fashion with the onset of the hard-edged 1930s. His voice, while shaky in early efforts, was perfectly fine by 1932 (see him in the underrated Downstairs if you don’t believe me). Unfortunately, by then the public lost all interest in him.

Golden pushes the case that Gilbert was talented enough to reinvent himself as a character actor in the 1930s since he yearned to go beyond the matinee idol phase of his career. However, Gilbert’s hardcore drinking, poor health, and unreliable behavior put off many studios. Throughout that whole section, I was sad thinking about what might have been, particularly a possible collaboration with Marlene Dietrich in Desire that was destroyed by a heart attack. While Gilbert insisted it was only severe indigestion, the incident frightened the suits into dropping Gilbert from the project.

Of course, Golden does not let the studios entirely off the hook either. She does not indulge ideas like Louis B. Mayer purposely sabotaging Gilbert’s career in the sound booth and effectively debunks the infamous “fistfight” story, but she does show that MGM had no incentive to nurture Gilbert during the rocky transition to sound nor did they bother to supply him with quality scripts. He was taking in a high salary at a time when the Depression was hitting movie studios hard, which prevented him from getting a high-profile leading lady that might have drawn in additional audiences. It’s a sad affair—even if Gilbert was the partial author of his own ruin, outside circumstances were certainly at play as well.

I did have one problem with the book. A major pet peeve of mine is when biographers feel the need to play movie critic. Golden offers her opinions of several films and stars, which jibbed too much with the scholarly tone the book was going for—and also felt unneeded. When I read a biography of a movie star or filmmaker, I don’t mind some interpretations on murkier parts of a person’s life (such as Golden’s modest speculations regarding Greta Garbo’s feelings toward Gilbert), but I don’t care to read any commentary on the quality of their work. It just feels like a waste of time and it’s not why I picked up the book in the first place.

I’ve come across some reviews that claimed this book offers little new information than Dark Star, a Gilbert biography written by one of his daughters in the 1980s. I haven’t read Dark Star, so I cannot comment there (yet), but as someone only casually interested in Gilbert, Golden’s book made me want to rewatch a lot of the man’s films and gave me a greater appreciation for what he was able to achieve during his all too brief tenure as Hollywood’s top romantic lead. It’s not among the top tier movie star biographies, but it is a good, balanced one I would recommend to the curious.

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!

“Pinocchio: The Making of the Disney Epic” by J.B. Kaufman

I just finished this gem of a book yesterday evening. J.B. Kaufman should be a familiar name for most of us who like reading up on Disney history; he co-authored the definitive book on the Disney studio’s silent era work and his big, beautiful volume on the making of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs won great acclaim. On the commentary track for the Blu-ray release of Disney’s second feature Pinocchio, Kaufman announced he had a book on that film in the works as well, which had left me in great anticipation for Pinocchio: The Making of the Disney Epic for about three to four years now.

For fans of the film and the pre-WWII years at the Disney studio, this book is a must-have. Like the earlier tome on Snow White, it’s filled with concept art, stills, and behind-the-scenes photographs, as well as information on the original Collodi novel, and its presence in 19th/20th century popular culture and in the early cinema. The production is described in great detail, particularly the way the filmmakers achieved those marvelous effects and character animation (both of which have rarely been equaled in animation, even to this day), and every scene in the film is analyzed extensively.

To top it all off is an essay from film historian Russell Merritt, which discusses the way the Disney Pinocchio approaches themes of the presence of evil in the world, the painful transformation from youth into adulthood, and spiritual redemption. He even notes an element of melancholy in the otherwise happy finale, one which I have never seen others mention in their analysis. One reviewer on Amazon thought the whole essay was “tedious,” but I found it enlightening and enjoyable. Then again, I’m studying film and literature in graduate school, so your mileage will definitely vary there.

In any case, a great book about a great film.