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Review: Two New Biographies of Buster Keaton

Keaton was as much a technical innovator as he was a comic, and Curtis’s book goes into painstaking detail about how these effects were achieved. (The spinning house was built on a turntable whose control belt was buried in dirt and grass.) Every bit as important, “Buster Keaton” serves as a welcome corrective to the perception that Keaton’s was a tragic life undone by drink and the advent of the talkies. This myth is partly a function of Keaton’s persuasiveness as an actor in his later years: grimly staring down his losing hand as one of the washed-up old-Hollywood “waxworks” who play cards with Norma Desmond in Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Boulevard” (1950) and impassively dancing the twist with the bikini-clad starlet Bobbi Shaw in the teensploitation flick “Beach Blanket Bingo” (1965, a year before his death).

Curtis does not shy away from Keaton’s rock-bottom 1930s, when he lost his creative autonomy at MGM, wriggled out of a loveless marriage to his first wife, Natalie Talmadge, and drank so heavily that he was, for a time, unemployable. But the overall picture he paints is of an even-keeled showbiz lifer who was simply happy to keep on working. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Keaton never looked down on television, warming early to its potential to reach millions. He hosted a variety program on a local station in Los Angeles and starred in clever ads for Alka-Seltzer; Curtis notes that Keaton thought of TV commercials “as little comedy shorts akin to the two-reelers” that he made in his youth. One Easter Sunday in the 1960s, he stopped by a party hosted by Mary Pickford and pitied the silent-movie stars in attendance. “I discovered we had nothing to talk about,” Keaton said. “Some of them had never heard a Beatles record. They hadn’t kept up with the times.”

Keaton’s final act was a contented victory lap in which he lived modestly in the San Fernando Valley town of Woodland Hills, happily married to his third wife, Eleanor Norris, and cognizant of the renewed esteem in which his silent films were held. The lack of operatic highs and lows in Keaton’s life can make Curtis’s straight-ahead, sequentially narrated bio a slog if you’re not a committed Buster Boi, but it’s as definitive an account of the sad-faced comedian as one could hope for.

Dana Stevens’s “Camera Man: Buster Keaton, the Dawn of Cinema, and the Invention of the Twentieth Century” is a welcome complement, in that Stevens, a movie critic for Slate, contextualizes Keaton’s achievements in a way that Curtis does not. In an elegant preface, Stevens positions 1895, the year of Keaton’s birth, as a crucially transitional time, “not yet the 20th century but the still-illegible sign of what it might become.” Marconi has only just succeeded at “transmitting radio waves over a considerable distance.” Freud is struck by the idea to analyze his patients by interpreting their dreams. And in the basement of a Paris cafe, the Lumière brothers screen their moving pictures for a paying audience for the first time.

Buster emerges in the new century as an agent of what we would now call disruption. He, Chaplin and Keaton’s filmmaking mentor, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, aren’t just funnymen but entrepreneurs, early adopters of new technology whose smarts and foresight earn them tons of money and admiration. Like the tech bros of today, they meet a mixed bag of fates. Chaplin is the most revered but spends his later life in a gilded prison of his own self-importance and melancholy. Arbuckle is brought low by a scandal in which he is charged with killing a young actress and later exonerated, but not before his career is left in ruins. (Stevens, a fierce Arbuckle defender, portrays Keaton as a loyal friend who gives the post-scandal Roscoe work as a gag writer and uncredited co-director.) Keaton is the least business-minded — terrible at deal making, hence his never-ending gigging — but the most purely creative, a workaholic whose passion is thinking up gags.

Stevens clearly adores her subject, describing him as a “solemn, beautiful, perpetually airborne man.” “Camera Man” is less a traditional biography than a series of reported essays about the progress of the 20th century with Keaton at their center. Sometimes Stevens ventures too far afield, as when she devotes the better part of a chapter to an unnecessary examination of the Hollywood struggles of F. Scott Fitzgerald — a man with whom Keaton was apparently unacquainted — on the grounds that both men were alcoholics with marital troubles who were unhappily employed at MGM at the same time.

But Stevens is sharper when she focuses on such ancillary phenomena as the emergence of serious film criticism, an entirely new writerly discipline. She flags the precise moment, in a review of Keaton’s 1923 feature “Three Ages,” when Life magazine’s Robert Sherwood “pushes film criticism in a new direction as he brings events outside the theater to bear on his experience inside it” by praising Keaton’s ability “to keep this much-molested human race in good humor, at a time when it has nothing but high taxes, United States senators, coal strikes, banana shortages, wrong numbers and Signor Mussolini to think about.”

Nearly a hundred years later, as we face a nearly identical list of vexations, give or take a surname, Keaton’s lovingly created shorts and features still have this beneficial effect. Curtis and Stevens have done well to bring the boy with the funeral expression back from the dead.

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