Sunday, July 04, 2010

The 4th of July and Buster Keaton

When I was a kid growing up in Woodland Hills, California – a suburb in the San Fernando Valley we always had a July 4th parade. It was not very big. Zero floats. A few school marching bands all playing Stars & Stripes Forever and Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini, girls twirling batons (which proved to be more dangerous to crowds than today’s maple bats), local dignitaries (“Hey, there’s Mr. Neider from Neider’s Auto Body!”), some elementary school classes, and local politicians (“We have a councilman?”).

But for me the REAL reason to stake out my spot on Ventura Blvd was that the grand marshal was always Buster Keaton. He was probably 150 by then but still, there he was. Mostly forgotten today but Buster Keaton was a comic genius in the era of silent films and early talkies. His flair for physical comedy was so inspired that even today I don’t think there’s a single comic who can remotely touch him. If I couldn’t still see George Washington in person at least there was Buster Keaton.

I miss those parades. If you still have one where you live, go. Wave a flag. Cheer. Just duck when the baton twirlers go by.

HAPPY 4th OF JULY EVERYONE!

30 comments:

Tom in Michigan said...

Buster often visited "the colony" -an artsy kind of village, here in Muskegon, MI. There are many locals with great stories about him.

Mike From Atlanta said...

TMC (Turner Classic Movies) is showing Buster Keaton's The General tonight (Sunday).

Michael said...

I also honor Buster Keaton for saying that Stan Laurel was funnier than anyone else. Modesty would preclude him from mentioning himself, and judgment prompted him to mention Laurel.

I also read that when Keaton made "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," he was simply wonderful to everybody. But there's a scene where he runs into a tree as he does one of his circuits of Rome. Apparently, he really did it. He did his own stunt and knocked himself cold, supposedly.

David said...

"Mostly forgotten today..."

I surely hope not. Keaton is amazing, just as amazing as Chaplin, who gets all the silent film love.

Show SHERLOCK JR to anyone you are introducing to silent films and they will be rolling for 45 minutes and want more.

margalit said...

i'm fom woodland hills too, and there were several parade marshalls i recall: amanda blake (miss kitty on gunsmoke), the guy who played hogan on hogans heroes, james arness were just a few. the parades were lame but as a kid i didn't really know that. and i loved the horses in the parade.

Eric Gilliland said...

I live in Buster Keaton's old house built in 1932, when he worked writing gags at MGM. It was during his drunk and depressed phase, so I fit right in.

Michael Brownlee said...

Buster was a genius, no doubt, and will always be at the top of the physical comedian list.

But I'd say Bill Irwin deserves a place up there too. The things that man can do with his body are simply amazing. And always entertaining.

-bee said...

The breeding ground for comedians like Chaplin and Keaton (am I the only one to love them both equally?) is probably a thing of the past - in some ways for the better.

Vaudeville was an entire theatrical 'engine' that allowed for people to hone physical comedy skills (today we have stand-up clubs, but that just isn't the same thing).

And as there were no child labor laws at the time Keaton, Chaplin & Stan Laurel (that I know of) started performing as young children. Due to tragic circumstances at home, Chaplin was on his own without any adult protector, working as a professional actor, and while Keaton DID work with his parents as part of a 'family act' - he was apparently terribly physically abused (one major bit was his father LITERALLY throwing his young son into the audience).

But what was terrible for these young kids was a great thing for comedy and for us - they were baptized in fire and really learned what made people laugh in their BONES. If you had asked them I imagine they probably would have said they would not trade their 'unusual' childhoods for 'normal' ones.

While it would be kind of cool to see Vaudeville return (though I sure don't see it happening) I definitely think its a good thing a laissez-faire attitude towards child labor is a thing of the past (and hopefully will stay that way).

James said...

Gone but not forgotten. A good one of the late, great Buster Keaton: http://tsutpen.blogspot.com/2009/02/great-moments-in-marketing-19.html

Cap'n Bob Napier said...

I haven't forgotten Keaton, or his lovely wife Diane and goofy son Michael.

D. McEwan said...

"Michael Brownlee said...
But I'd say Bill Irwin deserves a place up there too. The things that man can do with his body are simply amazing. And always entertaining."


Bill Irwin can do amazng physical comedy, and is a fine actor, but he is no where near Buster Keaton's permanent niche in THe Pantheon.

Has Bill co-written, co-directed, and starred in even ONE of the greatest comedies ever made?

No.

Buster co-wrote, co-directed, and starred in, between 1923 and 1928, just 6 years, Our Hospitality, Sherlock Jr, The Navigator, The General, Steamboat Bill Jr, and The Cameraman. That is a string of fecund cinematic genius that is unparalleled in anyone else's career, even Chaplin's. ALl amsterpieces. (And I omitted from that list several films he co-wrote, co-directed, and starred in from that period that weren't as great as these, but were merely better than anyone else's work except for Keaton's best.)

Nothing against Bill Irwin, but he hasn't come within a solar system of Keaton's achievements.

Cap'n Bob. Ha. Ha. Dianne and Michael are, in fact, related to each other. Neither of them is releated to Buster, nor do they approach his greatness.

I've probably left this story here before, but here is is again. Jon Pertwee, the Third Doctor Who, told me that when he worked on A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, his trailer was next to Buster's. Jon's wife-at-the-time sat about his trailer while he worked, doing little. One day she told Pertwee that the little old man in the next trailer - she had no idea who this "Buster Keaton" person was - had asked her to lunch, but she'd turned the "old letch" down.

Ten years later, after Buster was in his grave, the then-Mrs. Pertwee went to a Buster Keaton Film Festival, and saw his masterworks. She arrived home pulling her hair out: "THAT GENIUS ASKED ME TO LUNCH, AND I WAS TOO STUPID TO GO!!!! AAAARRRGH!"

Eric, so would that be the house where Buster awaoke one day sleeping next to a strange woman, only to learn he had married whoever she was while on a multi-day bender? Buster's second marriage was - ah - short.

Meeting Buster once, when I was 14, remains one of the great thrills of my life.

D. McEwan said...

"Michael Brownlee said...
But I'd say Bill Irwin deserves a place up there too. The things that man can do with his body are simply amazing. And always entertaining."


Bill Irwin can do amazng physical comedy, and is a fine actor, but he is no where near Buster Keaton's permanent niche in THe Pantheon.

Has Bill co-written, co-directed, and starred in even ONE of the greatest comedies ever made?

No.

Buster co-wrote, co-directed, and starred in, between 1923 and 1928, just 6 years, Our Hospitality, Sherlock Jr, The Navigator, The General, Steamboat Bill Jr, and The Cameraman. That is a string of fecund cinematic genius that is unparalleled in anyone else's career, even Chaplin's. ALl amsterpieces. (And I omitted from that list several films he co-wrote, co-directed, and starred in from that period that weren't as great as these, but were merely better than anyone else's work except for Keaton's best.)

Nothing against Bill Irwin, but he hasn't come within a solar system of Keaton's achievements.

Cap'n Bob. Ha. Ha. Dianne and Michael are, in fact, related to each other. Neither of them is releated to Buster, nor do they approach his greatness.

I've probably left this story here before, but here is is again. Jon Pertwee, the Third Doctor Who, told me that when he worked on A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, his trailer was next to Buster's. Jon's wife-at-the-time sat about his trailer while he worked, doing little. One day she told Pertwee that the little old man in the next trailer - she had no idea who this "Buster Keaton" person was - had asked her to lunch, but she'd turned the "old letch" down.

Ten years later, after Buster was in his grave, the then-Mrs. Pertwee went to a Buster Keaton Film Festival, and saw his masterworks. She arrived home pulling her hair out: "THAT GENIUS ASKED ME TO LUNCH, AND I WAS TOO STUPID TO GO!!!! AAAARRRGH!"

Eric, so would that be the house where Buster awaoke one day sleeping next to a strange woman, only to learn he had married whoever she was while on a multi-day bender? Buster's second marriage was - ah - short.

Meeting Buster once, when I was 14, remains one of the great thrills of my life.

D. McEwan said...

I have no idea why blogger put up my comment twice. Sorry. According to the time code, they both went up at the same second.

D. McEwan said...

"-bee said...
The breeding ground for comedians like Chaplin and Keaton (am I the only one to love them both equally?)"


Probably. In his great book, The Silent Clowns. Walter Kerr says that people tend to be either Chaplin people or Keaton people. I've always been a Keaton person. I admire Chaplin, but I love Keaton.

"...while Keaton DID work with his parents as part of a 'family act' - he was apparently terribly physically abused (one major bit was his father LITERALLY throwing his young son into the audience)."

You'd have a hard time finding a record of Buster saying his parents abused him. They did a knockabout slapstick family act that certianly involved Buster getting tossed about a lot, but it was rehearsed, planned down to the smallest move, and they knew what they were doing. What looked like child abuse were professional slapstick clowns doing their act, and unless you were there a century ago, you can't say it was abuse. Buster continued to employ his father, who is in several of his films. How quick you are to judge what you didn't witness.

Buster's epic alcoholism of the 1930s (which he later conquered) was due to the reaming he received in court from the evil harpy that was his first wife (Natalie Talmadge, roasting in Hell forever. Never to be forgiven for what she did to Buster.), taking away his sons, and changing their names to "Talmadge" from "Keaton",and the way he was thrown to the wolves at MGM by his former brother-in-law and business partner Joe Schenk, left to flounder in a factory-studio system in which his genius was unappreciated, and could not flourish.

Buster's professional childhood was not abusive, at least according to Buster. You know better than he did?

RCP said...

I was familiar with Buster's work from the 20s forward, but was really awestruck to see his work in the early Roscoe Arbuckle films. Many of his physical feats during this time (circa 1917-1919) are literally breathtaking.

Michael said...

Keaton paid a terrific physical price. I read somewhere that he broke his neck or back, and he suffered other injuries. He also risked his life for that classic scene of the side of the house falling around him, and he had to position himself just right to be standing where the opening from the window would save him.

As to child labor, Stan Laurel's father was a theatrical producer who in fact wanted his son to go get an education, and young Stan insisted on pursuing show business. Laurel did lose his mother at a relatively young age, and it led to him refusing to go to funerals, including Oliver Hardy's, although his health was balky at the time anyway.

Wallis Lane said...

Keaton was truly a genius, but really something greater, since that term is bandied about and bestowed on any number of flavors of the moment.

Even nearly a century after his films were made, they can still produce vitually the same uproarious effect that they did when they were new, and that is an incredible feat.

He could be remembered for his stunts alone, but it was so much more than that. His timing, his expressions, the precision of his comedy, it never went on too long, or ended too soon.

My favorite is Sherlock Jr. with its intricately planned scene of Buster on the movie screen physically assaulted by each edit, a special effect that even today still produces wonder.

He suffered for his art. Once he broke his neck falling off a locmotive water spout, and didn't realize it until a doctor's examination many years later. During Our Hospitality, a safety rope snapped and he was swept helpless down the Truckee River, cameras still rolling since Buster always wanted every shot.

If you haven't seen a Keaton film, do yourself a favor, virtually every one of his short films are hilarious, his long films masterpieces.

I'm from Woodland Hills as well, but regrettably came along a little too late to see The Great Stone Face in person.

DwWashburn said...

Being a huge silent movie fan, I have seen a lot of Buster's features and short features. In my book he is head and shoulders above Charlie Chaplin whom I seldom found funny. For anyone who wants a quick introduction to Buster, there was a British three part series entitled "Buster Keaton -- A Hard Act to Follow" that is excellent. I don't believe it's ever been released in DVD but you can pick up a VHS copy from places like half.com.

tomservo56954 said...

Can' Bob and Doug...Diane and Michael Keaton are NOT related. In fact, Michael took his stage name out of admiration for Diane--and the fact that there already WAS a Michael Douglas in SAG and AFTRA.

JT said...

In our little town of Cottage Grove, Oregon where the train wreck and much of "The General" was filmed- we celebrate this movie and the man who made it with Buster Keaton days

Anonymous said...

Eric G. call me! Jill G.

Mister Charlie said...

Happily I was able to turn my 20 year old son onto Keaton, and for this video game ninja metal loving kid Keaton was just as magical as he was for me. It is heartening that 1.) my son has good taste, in some things anyway, and 2.) funny is STILl funny and always will be.

I never disliked Chaplin, I simply prefer Keaton's humor and agility. Like Harold Lloyd, the physical commitment and prowess they brought to every day work roles is a sight to see.

BruceB said...

I live in Michigan, also and have attended the Keaton Festival that the Damfinos put on in Muskegon every October. I met Buster's granddaughter there 3 years ago. She was very nice.

Wallis, the scene wherein Buster actually broke his neck is in Sherlock Jr. He jumps from the top of a train, hangs briefly from the spout of the railroad water tower which releases a deluge of water. We can see him fall from the water hitting him, dropping twelve or fourteen feet, and land somewhere inside the splashing water on the tracks. He's completely obscured for a moment, during which the back of his head hit the tracks, breaking his neck. The shot continues unedited and he rises and runs away from the camera, being chased by the bad guys. I watch that and wonder how many of today's stars- oh, heck, any human being at all- could break their neck and get up and continue a chase scene to completion? In fact, he completed the entire ingenious movie.

There's another shot that astounds me. Buster has been tricked into being stranded on the roof of a 2 or 3 story building that stands by a railroad crossing. On the street below, the villain jumps into his open-topped car and starts to drive away and escape. In one continuous shot, Buster jumps from the roof onto the vertical barricade arm of the crossing, which then tilts down from his weight, depositing him, with perfect timing, into the back seat of the villain's moving car. It is clearly Buster, no stunt man, and no safety equipment of any kind is visible. Incredible.

-bee said...

D. McEwan:

You know, when I first became obsessed with Keaton in college, I read as many books about him as I could get my hands on, and there ARE more than one authors out there who make pretty reasonable claims that Keaton was probably physically abused as a child as part of the family act.

I will say this though - in the years since college I have learned to treat historical books with a great deal more skepticism than I used to - so I should probably re-examine my past preconceptions.

So I will say: I should have couched the 'abuse' of young Keaton in more far more speculative terms than I did in my first post.

It's kind of depressing being both a Chaplin/Keaton fan, it almost ensures I'm going to end up getting in a fight with almost any other fan of silent comedy. But if you put a gun to my head I don't think I could choose one over the other.

SharoneRosen said...

love Keaton!!! Have since I was a wee little girl and they used to show his talkies on TV on the weekends. Genius isn't a grand enough word for his work.

SharoneRosen said...

love Keaton!!! Have since I was a wee little girl and they used to show his talkies on TV on the weekends. Genius isn't a grand enough word for his work.

Rick said...

I'll never forget seeing Buster at work on Candid Camera.

Brian said...

A great documentary about Keaton was made by Kevin Brownlow, " Buster Keaton - A Hard Act to Follow" was shown on PBS, but doesn't seem to be on DVD yet.

Michael:
According to the doc, in "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum", Keaton was ill at the time, so he was doubled in many shots, however, he did do the tree scene, but it didn't say that he knocked himself out, but he did hit it hard. I am guessing that a man that has done so much physical stunt work would know his limits, and he didn't clock himself, but he was a weaker fellow then.

For those who don't know, Buster Keaton's real first name...was Buster. He fell one day as a baby and didn't cry and someone remarked, "That sure was a buster", referring to the fall, but Keaton said that "Buster" was not really used as proper name back then, as far as he knew.

As for parades, in my home county, Rockland, in NY, we used to wait for the fireman's parade. Fire trucks from all over the county.

No Keaton though...

Brian said...

OK, so his real name was "Joseph Frank Keaton VI"

I know what Spike Owen's real first name is, though.

Larry said...

I think you're allowed to love both Keaton and Chaplin. I know I go back and forth over which one I prefer.