Review: ‘Buster Keaton: Genius in Slapshoes’

"My God," Buster Keaton said, "when we made films we ate, slept and dreamed them." And it's no minor synchronicity that this year marks the centennial of both cinema itself and one of the medium's true geniuses. A&E joins the celebration -- which has included a new biography, tributes by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences and fests worldwide, and Kino on Video's comprehensive 10-cassette release of Keaton's work -- with "Genius in Slapshoes," a poignant hourlong look at the life and career of the Great Stone Face.

“My God,” Buster Keaton said, “when we made films we ate, slept and dreamed them.” And it’s no minor synchronicity that this year marks the centennial of both cinema itself and one of the medium’s true geniuses. A&E joins the celebration — which has included a new biography, tributes by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences and fests worldwide, and Kino on Video’s comprehensive 10-cassette release of Keaton’s work — with “Genius in Slapshoes,” a poignant hourlong look at the life and career of the Great Stone Face.

Producer-director-writer Peter Jones includes clips from Keaton pics, both well-known and obscure (all in great shape), and interviews with his widow, Eleanor, film critics and scholars, a longtime friend and three master funnymen — Richard Lewis, Bill Cosby and Sid Caesar. Footage from a 1964 CBS interview, two years before Keaton’s death, is especially engaging.

Joseph Frank Keaton was born “on a one-night stand in Kansas” and never saw the town again. He joined his vaudevillean parents onstage at the age of 4, billed as “The Little Boy Who Can’t Be Damaged,” a moniker his alcoholic father seemed determined to disprove.

Regularly tossed against scenery, the tyke performer was dubbed “Buster” by fellow troupe member Harry Houdini, and caught the attention of authorities enforcing child labor laws, but, technically, being flung around the stage was within the bounds of legality, and young Keaton perfected the art of enduring pain with a poker face.

In the ’64 tape, Keaton describes how, during a bit of stage business in New Haven, his father knocked him out for 18 hours. But Keaton, who never expressed bitterness or anger toward his old man, remained loyal to him, later giving him bit parts in some of his films. It’s only in his work, specifically 1928’s “Steamboat Bill, Jr.,” that he tackles the issues of father-son estrangement, for all their poignancy and comedic worth.

Fatty Arbuckle introduced Keaton to a movie studio, in New York, and Keaton was immediately drawn to the camera, the film itself: “Material was the last thing in the world I thought about.” Docu points out his technical prowess and the filmmaking feats he accomplished that are still impressive today.

Keaton wore his trademark flat hat in his first film appearance, in 1917, and there was no looking back.

Docu traces his work with producer Joseph Schenck in California, his loveless marriage to Natalie Talmadge (whose sister Norma was Schenck’s wife), his drinking, a brief second marriage (the wedding reputedly took place during one of Keaton’s blackouts), a happy third marriage to studio dancer Eleanor Norris, and his troubled years at MGM.

Only Garbo and Gilbert were bigger stars on the Culver City lot, but auteur Keaton was treated as a mere comic, forced to make talkies that were moneymakers but had nothing to do with the screen persona he had developed in his silents, and whose scripts Keaton considered singularly unfunny, the opinions of Mayer and Thalberg notwithstanding.

“Genius in Slapshoes” concisely charts the ups and downs of Keaton’s career, which in later years included Alka Seltzer commercials, “Candid Camera” bits, a cameo in “Sunset Boulevard” and a triumphant appearance at the Venice Film Festival the year before he died.

But docu’s lasting impression is of a man for whom artistic risk was a real thing: Putting himself in physical danger was intrinsic to his filmmaking. Watching the ever-determined, unsentimental loner-hero of Keaton’s silent films, it’s difficult not to think of the 11-year gap between the making of “Sherlock, Jr.” and the X-ray that showed he had broken his neck while shooting a stunt for the pic; always, Keaton picks himself up and goes on.

It’s that sense of survival at all costs, coupled with his exquisite beauty and heartbreaking grace, that so enthralls and moves us.

Jones’ docu serves well as both introduction to and reminder of Keaton’s genius. Robert Israel’s lighthearted music is a fine accompaniment to the silent clips, and Jones’ narration is insightful, never intrusive.

Ultimately this bio draws us back to the films themselves, to Keaton’s astounding physicality and the soulful deadpan of a survivor.

Buster Keaton: Genius in Slapshoes

Wed. (13), 9 p.m., A&E

Production

Peter Jones Prods. presentation for A&E Network. Produced by Peter Jones; executive producer (A&E), Michael Cascio; director/writer, Jones.

Crew

Camera, Scott Judy; editor, David Drain; music, Robert Israel, sound, John Scarpaci, Andrew Tilles.

Cast

Narrator: Peter Jones.
With: Eleanor Keaton, Bill Cosby, Sid Caesar, Richard Lewis, Pierre Sauvage, Peter Rainer, James Karen.
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