Saturday, 8 October 2011


Somehow, Buster Keaton's birthday (October 4th) snuck past me this week. Keaton has been a childhood hero of mine. I grew up with silent films - my dad shot 8mm super film and for my 21st birthday I was given a Super 8 camera which I used until you could no longer purchase super 8 film in the 90s. Because we had a projector,  dad also bought some old B&W silent films - Stan Laurel, Chaplin, etc. and so I grew up with a love of silent films - film-making in its purest form where the visuals tell the story.

Buster Keaton has always entranced me as one of the great (perhaps the greatest) silent clowns. His story-telling ability, athleticism, knowledge and understanding of film processes and his uncanny ability to be able to elicit pathos from his audience has always meant Keaton has shone brightly - from the moment I first saw him in The General as a teenager. 

When I studied film at college Keaton and Carpenter were my choices as auteurs for my final papers and I made a special trip to Canberra to view his masterpiece Sherlock Jnr at the National Film Archive ( I now own my own copy which I watch at least once a year. Keaton's other works like Cops and his feature film The Cameraman are still shown on late night TV almost 100 years after their production - they still stand up and work even though they're silent, grainy and slapstick. If you haven't seen a Keaton film, track one down  today. The General is in public domain and scratchy versions of it can be picked up for about $5 - money well spent and and you won't be disappointed.

Twenty years ago, I lived next to an ex-hollywood actor who had worked in the studio system and made some B grade talkies. He'd played football against John Wayne at college, knew comedian Joe E Brown from Some Like It Hot and showed me Christmas cards and letters Joe sent to him, and he'd dated Betty Grable's younger sister (who purportedly was better-looking than Betty!) He also told me about his first meeting with Buster Keaton. 

He and a friend had been out on the town and found a 17 year old girl very drunk on the streets. John had recognised her as Keaton's daughter and knew Keaton had an apartment on the studio lot so they put the girl in their car and drove her there, getting Keaton out of bed at 2.00am. Buster was gracious and understanding and lovingly took the 17yr-old daughter inside and put her to bed. He then came back and thanked both of them profusely. At this stage of his career, Keaton was an alcoholic himself and on the way down - later he was to go on a three day bender and wake up in a different town next to a strange woman and learnt he had married her sometime the day before in a state of drunkedness. My friend John said he never saw Keaton drunk or suffering from the effects of drinking and often saw him working out doing chin-ups and exercises to keep fit. He described Keaton as quiet and gracious.

Over the years I've read several bios on him and I know his last wife Eleanor wrote one before her death several years ago. Over the last 20 years, biographies and new appreciations have slowly appeared as the public has had opportunity to understand and appreciate just how great a genius Keaton was. British film maker Lindsay Anderson produced and narrated a brilliant documentary with some wonderful behind-the-scenes footage showing how he dropped the front of the house in Steamboat Bill Jnr and how he broke his neck in a filming accident in The General. Almost 100 years after he began making 2 reelers with Fatty Arbuckle, his star is still shining brightly. Keaton's films have also been collected, re-mastered and released as boxed sets on DVD and you can purchase some of his genius in larger stores.
Burn brightly, Pete.

No comments:

Post a Comment