×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Buster Keaton Remembered

Buster Keaton stood out for how his face stood still. His torso was the embodiment of silent pictures' paradox, speaking the volumes that sound could not yet carry. The 225 film stills in this handsome book, coupled with expansive text, give the book an "as told to'' quality that propels it nearly into the realm of autobiography.

With:
Eleanor Keaton and Jeffrey Vance

Buster Keaton stood out for how his face stood still. His torso was the embodiment of silent pictures’ paradox, speaking the volumes that sound could not yet carry. The 225 film stills in this handsome book, coupled with expansive text, give the book an “as told to” quality that propels it nearly into the realm of autobiography.

Eleanor Keaton (the comedian’s third and last wife) and film historian Jeffrey Vance have compiled the collection of vintage photographs from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Each image illustrates how Keaton’s deceptively stony expression actually embodies subtle impressions to create that 10,000-yard gaze: icy, vacant, determined, resigned, befuddled. The book grew out of a documentary film by Eleanor Keaton, who was able to recount anecdotal information from a 26-year marriage.

The tome gives details and background surrounding Keaton’s entire career, including a famous part in the 1928 pic “Steamboat Bill Jr.,” which it calls “arguably the most dangerous stunt scene ever filmed.” In one continuous shot, the wall of a two-story house drops on Keaton so he spears through its open window like thread through the eye of a needle. The stunt came at a juncture of the star’s loss of creative control over his films, troubles in his marriage and the advent of sound. Years later Keaton admitted he was so despondent he didn’t care what happened to him — otherwise he never would have taken such a risk.

While stunts were often incredibly dangerous, doubles were generally not used for hanging off buildings or climbing onto moving trains. But Keaton did want a stand-in for a close-up of his hand in the 1923 film “Three Ages,” having lost the tip of his right index finger as a child.

Other than a few personal anecdotes about Keaton’s alcoholism, and a variety of how-to references, such as directions to make a porkpie hat, the text is almost exclusively about his movies. And despite the renown of films such as “Sherlock Jr.” (1924) and “The General” (1926), the book doesn’t shortchange the uninitiated, charting the background and impact of each film. Readers thankfully are provided with a tantalizing amount of plot for those films generally long forgotten.

In the afterword, one of the filmmakers interviewed says, “We realized we had found no one who had a single unkind word to say about the man.” (However, they might have asked the NAACP about blackface sequences in “College” (1927) or the American Indian Movement about the Chief Paleface shtick in “Beach Blanket Bingo” (1965).) In any case, since Keaton kept working long after his heyday, taking character roles onstage and in television, his career isn’t in need of the restorative tone this tome is steeped in, but it obviously was a labor of love by Eleanor Keaton, who died in 1998. She worked to put the best face on her husband, preserving his voice through hers in this book.

Popular on Variety

More Reviews

  • Send Me to the Clouds

    Film Review: ‘Send Me to the Clouds’

    The social and economic pressures felt by China’s “leftover women” — referring to those older than 26 and unmarried — are examined in “Send Me to the Clouds,” a rewarding dramedy about a 30-ish journalist seeking financial reward and sexual fulfillment after being diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Bold by mainland standards for presenting a positive [...]

  • Bill's Brain Netflix

    TV Review: 'Inside Bill's Brain'

    A certain type of documentary has grown in prevalence and popularity lately — the piece that marshals evidence in service of the case that a very widely known contemporary figure is actually even greater than one had previously thought. The vogue began in summer 2018 with the features “RBG” (about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader [...]

  • 'Sound of Metal' Review: Riz Ahmed

    Toronto Film Review: 'Sound of Metal'

    “Sound of Metal” is a film with a potent, searing hook. It stars Riz Ahmed, who is such a sensational actor (just watch him in “Jason Bourne” or “Nightcrawler” or “The Sisters Brothers”), as Ruben, a punk-metal drummer, heavy on the tattoos and peroxide, who has been thrashing away as part of a caterwauling noise [...]

  • first wives club BET

    TV Review: 'The First Wives Club' on BET Plus

    Launching a series based on a beloved property is harder than it seems. On the one hand, you get the immediate boost of name recognition to lure in preexisting fans. On the other, straying too far from the plot and/or spirit of the original risks sparking their righteous wrath. It’s a tricky balance to strike, [...]

  • La Llorona

    Venice Film Review: 'La Llorona'

    Guatamalan writer-director Jayro Bustamante had a dream debut with “Ixcanul” in 2015: The richly textured folk drama premiered in Competition at Berlin and won him the Alfred Bauer Prize, before going on to healthy international arthouse exposure. So it’s surprising that Bustamante’s subsequent work, while amply delivering on his first feature’s promise, has been comparatively [...]

  • Atlantis

    Toronto Film Review: 'Atlantis'

    “It took you 10 years to cleanse this region of Soviet propaganda and myths,” says one character to another in “Atlantis,” going on to suggest that the devastation now left behind may never be “cleansed” at all. A strikingly bleak vision of a near future in which Ukraine has won its war with Russia but [...]

  • Secret Derren Brown review

    Broadway Review: 'Derren Brown: Secret'

    Audiences love to be fooled, whether it’s with clever plotting with a twist, the arrival of an unexpected character or even a charming flimflam man with a British accent. The latter is Derren Brown, and he’s entertaining audiences for a limited run at the Cort Theatre, where he is playing head-scratching mind games and other [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content