“He was always the coming thing in entertainment”

Somewhere the past few months I got on some sort of PR list, leading to all kinds of pointless invitations to interview Mr. X or use Ms. Y as a source. But it also led to me getting an advance copy of Dana Stevens’ CAMERA MAN: Buster Keaton, the Dawn of Cinema and the Invention of the Twentieth Century, which was much more enjoyable.

Stevens justifies the title by arguing that 1895, the year of the great silent comic’s birth, seeded many turning points of the 20th century. That gave me a fear the book would be a disappointment, as you could probably say the same of any year around that period. However she went on to argue that Keaton was also in the vanguard of 20th century entertainment (“He was always the coming thing.”) and here she makes her case.

Keaton started the century in vaudeville when that was still drawing millions of fans. Then he jumped to silent two-reelers in the 1910s, as movies began to steal vaudeville’s audiences away (though they’d coexist for a while yet). In the 1920s he was an auteur making his own feature films; in the 1930s he was at MGM for the talkies and saw his career die under the studio system. Then, after years gag writing for others, he spotted television as a game-changer and made multiple guest appearances everywhere (not to mention cameos in multiple movies), plus a short-lived series of his own. Another decade or so of life and he might have been guest-starring on The Love Boat or Saturday Night Live.

The book’s not a filmography; there’s no attempt to list or cover the plots of Keaton’s many films, though Stevens discusses key stunts and recurring tropes. It’s a biography with a focus on Keaton’s career, though not always a linear focus. While I wouldn’t have minded a filmography appendix, that’s easily accessible on the Internet so it’s not the flaw it would have been twenty years ago. Stevens does a good job bringing in elements of relevant time periods (I always consider that a plus in biographies): the anarchic Hollywood of the teens and 1920s, the state of treatment for alcoholics when drink seriously disabled his career (it becomes clear why Alcoholics Anonymous was such a game-changer). Despite booze and various other problems, Stevens concludes that Keaton’s later life, which included a happy third marriage, was better and less tragic than it’s sometimes portrayed. I’d certainly like to think so.

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