Authors: James L. Neibaur & Terri Niemi.
Even as early as 1920 comedy films (which were mostly slapstick comedies) had come a long way. The early Mack Sennett films of the early teens had all been shot as one or two reelers (which were approximately 10 minutes per reel) which moved at a frenetic pace without any sense of real intelligence or construction, just mere knockabouts. That changed over the decade by the likes of the savvy Charlie Chaplin and to a smaller degree by the large but adroit Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle. Appearing in many of Arbuckle’s films at the end of the decade was Buster Keaton who’s acrobatic pratfalls and moves still amaze today; he originated the front of a house falling on top of him while he survives by the upper floor window passing over him which appeared in only his second film, the brilliant One Week (1920) which was again repeated in the later Steamboat Bill Jnr (1928).
Keaton of course is best known for his brilliant later silent feature films such as the brilliant The General from 1926 but the new publication from Scarecrow Press, ‘Buster Keaton’s Silent Shorts 1920-1923’ written by James L. Neibaur and Terri Niemi covers the brief if productive 4 year period where the comic mastered both his craft and cinema as a director, writer and performer before moving into features. Before this period Keaton had been for several years appearing alongside his friend in the comedies of Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle who became a good friend of Keaton’s. But in this period all but one of his films were 2 reelers (Day Dreams was a 3 reeler but now only exists in 2 reels) Keaton made no fewer than 19 short comedies. All of these shorts were written and directed by Keaton along with, in most cases Eddie Cline.
Neibaur is something of an authority on silent comedy having written several books on silent comedians for Scarecrow Press including ‘The Silent Films of Harry Langdon 1923-1928’, ‘Early Charlie Chaplin: The Artist as Apprentice at Keystone Studios’ and significantly here ‘The Fall of Buster Keaton’ which covers his MGM, Columbia and sound years which sadly were far less accomplished than his silent films. Much of this book glosses over much in the way of Keaton’s biography but does give brief mention to his childhood as a vaudeville performer in which his father would fling him around the stage with total disregard for his safety. His name Buster was given to him by the famous escapologist Harry Houdini, a family friend of the Keaton family. With regards any further biography the authors only really cover any biography where they are relevant to the film being discussed including the dreadful, even shameful trial of Buster’s friend Arbuckle at the hands of the law for alleged rape. Later Arbuckle was acquitted but no one in Hollywood was allowed to go anywhere near him and Buster references this in his fight and pursuit from the law in the ambitious and brilliant Cops filmed in San Francisco to be near Roscoe for support; he also filmed Day Dreams (both 1922) in San Francisco where the trial was taking place. The other significant piece of biography is Keaton’s unhappy marriage to Natalie Talmadge and disdain for his in-laws due to their alleged looking down on Buster. Again this would be bitterly realized in the equally excellent My Wife’s Relations (1922) among other films. Amazingly nearly all of his films from this period survive, albeit in varying degrees of quality with only the one reel from Day Dreams missing, particularly given how few silent films did survive. The authors give a couple of instances on how some of these films survived, such as when actor James Mason bought and moved into Keaton’s old house and found among some junk the only surviving copy of The Boat (1921), one of Keaton’s own personal favourites.
The layout of the book is a concise history of this period of Keaton’s career and an interesting record of a snapshot of his career, although a concluding chapter does cover the feature films made from 1924 on including his cameo appearance in Chaplin’s Limelight (1952). In this sense the pattern is very similar to Neibaur’s other books for Scarecrow. This book is a wonderful read and each film is separated out into neat individual chapters.