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.