nobody movie_Buster Keaton’s life and work get a fresh look

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ORANGE COUNTY, California — Melissa Talmadge Cox knew that Grandpa Buster had directed a number of silent films long before she was born, but it wasn’t until Buster Keaton died and Cox was in college that she saw one.

“I was absolutely speechless when it ended,” says Talmadge of the movie Steamboat Bill Jr., which she saw at a silent film festival in the late ’60s. “Here was this person I never knew my grandfather from.”

Similarly, Bobbie Shaw Chance was a 19-year-old actress when she starred with Keaton in 1964’s Pajama Party. He became like an uncle, she says, when she also signed up for “Beach Blanket Bingo” and “How to Darn a Wild Bikini.”

She, too, didn’t realize the importance of Keaton until years after his death, who was a silent comedian as famous as Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd were in his day.

“To me, he was just a kind, sweet old man who was really funny,” says Chance. “I didn’t know he was the brilliant Buster Keaton. who knew I did not know it.”

Author James Curtis spoke with Cox and Chance while he was working on Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker’s Life, a new 700-page biography exploring Keaton’s life and work.

The book comes out as interest in Keaton grows. Camera Man: Buster Keaton, the Dawn of Cinema, and the Invention of the Twentieth Century, a cultural history by Slate film critic Dana Stevens, was released in January. Director James Mangold was also recently announced as directing a Buster Keaton biopic project.

Like Chance and Cox, Curtis says he grew up with Keaton mostly because of the television roles he took on in the ’50s and ’60s.

“He was alive,” says Curtis, whose previous biopics include books on Spencer Tracy and WC Fields. “But I had no idea who he was.”

Years later, he saw a screening of Keaton’s silent film Seven Chances at UCLA and was stunned.

“I was just amazed,” says Curtis. “I had never seen anything like it. So I gradually began to learn how much he was involved in the making of his films.

“And I knew I wanted to explore that.”

dig up the past

Of course, Curtis knew that Keaton had been the subject of previous biographies and didn’t want to put in the years of work alone when a great one already existed.

“I’ve talked to a few people like[film writers and historians]Leonard Maltin and Kevin Brownlow and his granddaughter Melissa,” says Curtis. Everyone told him there was room for a new Keaton biopic and pushed him into it, he says.

“For me, research is the fun part,” says Curtis. “I know people who do this kind of work who like to hire a researcher and they sit at home and compose it.

“I’m the exact opposite,” he says. “I love doing the library work. I love working with these materials. If I could hire someone to actually write the damn book, I probably would. But I can’t.”

Curtis, who has been a film biographer for approximately 40 years, knew first hand where many of the archives and libraries of early Hollywood history are kept. And so he researched for four and a half years.

“It’s pretty much a hunting expedition,” he says. “Often you get nothing. But I’ve always believed in the old adage: the harder I work, the happier I am.”

In the MGM archives at the University of Southern California’s Cinematic Arts Library, he dug up daily production reports on the first four films Keaton made for the studio.

“These files reflected exactly what was happening on an hourly basis and kept the front office bosses in the loop,” says Curtis. “If there is a problem or a stop, it is noted. If the star actor is ill, maybe ate a little too much at lunchtime, it will be noted there.

“This is wonderful material, and it’s not readily available,” he says. “And no one had found it until that point.”

Other documents revealed new details of Keaton’s move from his own studio to MGM and revealed the truth about why that happened.

“That’s how you do it,” he says. “You know where things are just by experience, you search and sometimes you find things. So there are a lot of aha moments.”

“Proud to be related”

Melissa Talmadge Cox fondly recalls frequent visits to Grandpa Buster and step-grandmother Eleanor at their then secluded Woodland Hills home. There was a pool for swimming and a barn where she and her brothers played on the ropes used to lift bales of hay to an attic.

“He had a little red schoolhouse where he kept chickens, and I had to go collect eggs,” says Cox, 72, of her Sonoma County home. “It was just a fun place.”

She saw him on TV from time to time, on shows like The Twilight Zone and Candid Camera, but mostly her time with Buster, who died when she was about 17, revolved around Sunday lunches, summer vacation, and Christmas parties.

Then, as a student at the University of California, Davis, she went to Berkeley one night and saw Keaton as the innovative actor and director of the silent films and gained a whole new appreciation for her grandfather’s work.

“He could do the most remarkable things,” she says. “He did a lot more physical tricks than the other actors at the time. He was always on the move and did fabulous gymnastics.”

When her own children were in elementary school, Cox said she often brought the Keaton silent film One Week into the classroom to share with her classmates.

“Here are kids, 80 years later, whatever it was, falling out of their chairs laughing,” she says. “It’s timeless.

“I don’t know, I’m just so proud to be related,” says Cox. “I think it’s wonderful.”

Keaton and Chaplin

Charlie Chaplin is still an icon today – the image of the little tramp is indelible. Harold Lloyd, with his glasses and hat, was a big star of silent films, his films often grossing more than Keaton’s.

But Curtis says none of them could do what Keaton did.

“I think Buster had the greatest natural gift as a filmmaker,” he says. “In the sense that he could see the entire screen in his head and knew how to fill the frame in a way that would allow the story to progress and the comedy to be the best it could be.

“Chaplin was a good director of Chaplin,” says Curtis. “For Chaplin, the only interesting element in the frame was Chaplin.

“A lot of these comedians rarely do things they couldn’t do on the vaudeville stage,” he says. “Buster used whole trains and did things with them. You can’t do that on stage.

“He was a brilliant guy on screen, but he was also brilliant behind the camera.”

Why is Chaplin still revered and Keaton less remembered?

“The fundamental difference is that Chaplin laid it out for you, so you really didn’t have to attend,” says Curtis. “You only react to what he shows you, what he tells you.

“There’s an element of ambiguity in Buster’s work that I think is stronger than, say, Chaplin or Lloyd,” he says. “Now Chaplin can take a great close-up and rip your heart out.”

In contrast, Keaton was famous for his flat, expressionless face in the film, which audiences didn’t get as much to work with.

“He said, ‘If the audience feels sorry for me, well I will. But I don’t go to them for that.’ That was the fundamental difference. You would have to come to him.”

Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker’s Life by James Curtis

Biography explores the comedian’s silent film star

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