Book Release Date: January 25, 2022
The Film Photography Project would like to thank Astria Books for providing an advance copy of CAMERA MAN for review.
Film Photography Podcast
Episode 283 – February 1, 2022
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Author Dana Stevens channels a life-long fascination with Buster Keaton into an extraordinarily detailed and entertaining book about his family background and career in vaudeville, film and television – all within in the context of the emerging motion picture film industry.
Stevens’ opens with her introduction to Keaton in 1996, where while attending the University of Strasbourg she caught an extended festival of his silent classics honoring the centenary of Keaton’s birth. Marveling at his acrobatic prowess, comic timing and death-defying stunts led to research at the local film library, where she confirmed that 1995 was not only the birth of the film industry, but also the year Buster was born, leading to a growing conviction that “to understand his life was to understand the history of that medium’s first century.”
In “Thrown”, the first of the book’s four sections, Stevens’ paints a detailed picture of Buster’s early life. Born to 18-year-old Myra Edith Cutler Keaton and husband Joe Keaton, an acrobat and “eccentric dancer” who performed with a “horse and wagon outfit called the Mohawk Indian Medicine Show”, Buster’s induction into the theater came early and hard. By the age of 5, Buster is part of his family’s vaudeville act, and only 6 months later the Atlanta Constitution names him as “the star of the Keaton aggregation of three”. By the time he was 9, his reputation as a performer had reached both coasts of the US, which Stevens’ details alongside evolving child abuse and labor law reform in US courts. But change came slowly, and Keaton’s father – whose issues with alcohol and violence may have informed Keaton’s personal mid-life battles with severe alcoholism and depression found him struggling to find any work in show business – was quoted as publicly stating, “He’s my son, and I’ll break his neck anyway I want to”.
This view of children as expendable was echoed in the playbills of the time, which in 1901, advertised the 6-year-old Buster as “the boy who can’t be damaged” and “the human mop”.
As horrific as his early life was, Buster’s love of performance and willingness to throw himself – literally – body and soul into his stunts was his preparation for a series of silent films that earned him a legion of fans world-wide.
In Part 2, “Flying”, Stevens’ takes a deep dive into the early days of motion picture film, touching on the careers of several other silent stars, the rumor mill and the early studio system without losing Buster in the narrative. In 1917, at just 21 years old, Buster meets Roscoe Arbuckle – another legend of this era who mentored Keaton and other greats like Chaplin – and begins his life in film. Here Steven’s put to rest some of the misinformation about “Fatty” Arbuckle that still exists today.
By 1923, Keaton was directing and starring in some of the greatest films of this era. From Three Ages to Sherlock Jr, The General and Battling Butler, and The Camera Man and Steamboat Bill, Jr in 1928, Keaton performed some of the most iconic and death-defying stunts in early cinema.
“No silent star did more dangerous stunts than Buster Keaton” – Roger Ebert.
Stunts like falling into a speeding car, going down with a collapsing platform, and grabbing onto and running across the top of a moving train. “The boy who couldn’t be damaged” had become a man who couldn’t be stopped.
The title of Stevens, book, Camera Man, is a direct reference to Keaton’s 1928 film, The Cameraman, in which Keaton starred and – though uncredited – also co-directed. The movie unfolds with many twists, turns and setbacks for our hero, but in short is about a tintype photographer whose crush on an MGM Newsreels secretary launches him on an improbable and dangerous journey to secure news footage, Just when his quest seems doomed, an unexpected turn of events secures his job with MGM as…a motion-picture cameraman.
But while 1928’s Steamboat Bill, Jr was a success, Keaton’s movies weren’t cheap to produce. In Part 3: “Falling,” Stevens’ recounts how changes in the independent motion picture industry and the consolidation of indies into major studios would impact not only Keaton’s career, but his life. And as she does throughout Camera Man, Stevens’ dives deep into these changes and the major players involved without ever losing Buster as the connective tissue.
By the late 1940s, Keaton has astonishingly survived his mid-life and mid-career disaster and embraced the medium of television. Chronicled in Part 4: “Landing”, Stevens’ recounts that Keaton coached Lucille Ball in physical comedy for the I Love Lucy pilot, and how in 1949 The Buster Keaton Show was born. Running for only 1 season on KTTV, a CBS affiliate station in Los Angeles, Buster again astonished the world with his seeming physical invincibility. Steven’s notes Keaton’s career resurgence in fascinating detail, highlighting some of his roles in major motion pictures, television, and stage, beginning with a supporting role in Judy Garlands’ musical The Good Old Summertime (1949). Other notable projects include the 1952 film Limelight – Keaton’s only on-screen appearance with Charlie Chaplin – and 1950’s Sunset Boulevard, the story of an aging silent film star who has become a recluse, in which Keaton appears as himself.
And just as Stevens’ book begins with the personal anecdote about her 1996 introduction to Keaton’s films, it ends with one as well. While in Los Angeles, having completed research for the book, Stevens’ booked a car service for a trip to Keaton’s grave. When her driver – a young Armenian immigrant – asked her where she was going, it sparked a lively conversation about his childhood memories of Keaton from Soviet-era television and an unplanned tribute to his legend. It’s the perfect end to a book about a man whose talent affected and inspired so many, from the stage to the movies, to TV.
If you’re already a Buster Keaton fan, Camera Man will deliver welcome insight into the making of one of the great stars of the silent film era. And if, like me, you knew very little about Buster Keaton, you’ll be inspired to watch everything you can get your hands on. Restored versions of Keaton’s greatest features and shorts are available through home media label Kino Lorber, and can be purchased directly from them at www.KinoLorber.com. The top 5 Buster Keaton movies according to the imdb.com (internet move data base) are:
- 1. The General (1926) Passed | 67 min | Action, Adventure, Comedy.
- 2. Sherlock Jr. (1924)
- 3. Battling Butler (1926)
- 4. The Cameraman (1928)
- 5. Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)
And if you’re low on cash, public domain versions of many of his films – including The General and Steamboat Bill – can be found at YouTube.com. Cameraman at Barnes & Noble.
- Paige Davis