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'Camera Man' unspools the colorful life of silent film star Buster Keaton

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in today for Terry Gross. If you know the name Buster Keaton, you probably think of him as a guy in old black-and-white silent movies known for slapstick and sight gags. It's true he had a gift for physical comedy, but that doesn't begin to describe his talent or his influence. In the 1920s, Keaton starred in and directed a string of silent films that are cited by a long list of great American filmmakers as inspirations. Orson Welles, to name one, called Keaton a supreme artist and said his film "The General" is one of the greatest of all time. Seven of Keaton's silent films are on the National Film Registry.

Apart from his influence on American cinema, Keaton's story is a fascinating one. Born in the 19th century and a vaudeville star by the age of 5, his life took some hard turns after his burst of creativity in the '20s. He fell from stardom and battled alcoholism, then regained his footing and had a long career in show business as a writer and performer.

Our guest, Dana Stevens, is a veteran film critic who's written a new book about Keaton. Stevens is the film critic for Slate and co-host of its long-running podcast called "Culture Gabfest." She's also written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic and other publications. Her new book is "Camera Man: Buster Keaton, The Dawn Of Cinema And The Invention Of The 20th Century." Well, Dana Stevens, welcome to FRESH AIR.

DANA STEVENS: Oh, thank you so much for having me. I'm excited to talk.

DAVIES: I have become a Buster Keaton fan, in part because of - the director of our program, Roberta Shorrock, has been sending me videos of his stuff for years. And they make me laugh out loud. But I'm guessing a lot of our audience has never seen a silent film, beginning to end - kind of don't know this world. Let me just begin by asking you why you think he's an important figure in the story of American cinema.

STEVENS: I mean, not just in American cinema, but, as this book is sort of trying to pull out the camera in order to talk about, of American history, I would say, you know? I mean, his films, first of all, as you said very well in your introduction, have just become these monuments of world cinema. And often now, you know, when there's these crowdsourced lists of the greatest films of all time, where critics from around the world contribute their titles, he will be the only silent filmmaker - not always. Sometimes it's Chaplin pulling just ahead of him. But one of the two of them will often be the only silent filmmaker that makes it into that top 10 or top 25 or whatever it is, right?

So silent cinema just - it still plays a very small role kind of on the periphery of the imagination, even of big cinephiles, you know, and film critics, I think. And it's understandable why. I mean, so many of those movies are lost forever. You know, something like 75 to 80% of silent films that were ever made are now gone because they were not valued by the generations that came right after and, you know, were just essentially discarded after they made the rounds and were shown. And silent film really fell into a period of decades where it was just simply not a concern, not coming to anyone's attention and not being preserved or promulgated in any way. And that's been changing slowly, you know, in the decades, basically, since Keaton's death, in the '60s, '70s, '80s onward.

But I just - I feel like his legacy is something that's really just a beautiful and important part of American history - you know, not just American film history, but American history and the history of American art.

DAVIES: Right. He was - he kind of came into the 20th century as so much was changing. He was born in Kansas, 1895, and at a young age got involved in his family's vaudeville act. And I thought we'd listen to an excerpt of Buster himself talking about this. This is later in life. And you'll hear music underneath his voice. This is part of a documentary called "A Hard Act To Follow." Buster Keaton here talking about his parents and their vaudeville act.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "A HARD ACT TO FOLLOW")

BUSTER KEATON: By the time I was 4 years old, I was a regular member of the act, wearing slap shoes and grotesque clothes with a bald-headed wig and Irish beard on. My dad was a comedian and a very eccentric dancer, and tricks - he wasn't exactly an acrobat, but darn near. And my mother played musical instruments and danced with him. And, of course, when I came into the act, then he got the idea of trying to show the audience how to bring up children correctly. And every time I did something he didn't like, he'd take me by the back of the neck and throw me through a piece of scenery. I grew up getting knocked around.

DAVIES: So kind of a rough-and-tumble act. Tell us about it. What do we know about this act that he did with his parents?

STEVENS: I mean, this was a really fascinating part of the book to research because, of course, there's no record of this act. Film existed at the time that they were doing The Three Keatons slapstick act, but the act was never filmed, just like most vaudeville acts at the time were never recorded on film. And so it's only through, you know, Buster's way of telling stories about it and contemporary reviews of people who saw it at the time and really just the lore that was passed down about it that anybody knows what that act was.

But as you sort of hear in his very laconic explanation of it there, what the act essentially was was this act about a child sassing his father. It was about the father-son relationship. And Joe Keaton, Buster's dad, you know, would play the role of this loving father who was going to teach the audience about parenting. But it was all kind of an ironic joke because behind him, you would see Buster doing some kind of mischief on the stage where he was preparing to, you know, attack his father in some way. And then this would all resolve in, you know, his father learning about the deception and hurling Buster into the backdrop, into the wings, into the audience or the orchestra pit occasionally. It really was known as one of the most violent acts in vaudeville. And, you know, that was what people loved about it. That was - along with the great acrobat - the tricks that Buster could do. You know, there was just the danger that something might happen to this small child who seemed to be indestructible.

And so one of the things I wanted to trace was how, you know, you really see that exact same dynamic happening in every Buster Keaton movie. It's almost as if the sensation that he wants to evoke in his audience is, how could he do that and live, you know? - but be laughing at the same time as they're gasping over the danger.

DAVIES: Right. The dad would be talking while Buster is behind him with - there would be a basketball on a rope that he would be spinning in a circle, getting closer and closer to his dad's head. And then when his dad would toss him - explain the suitcase handle sewn into Buster's coat. That's a lovely little detail of this.

STEVENS: Yes, that's nice. That was something when he was smaller. The basketball, actually, was something that evolved later in their act when Buster was too big to throw - you know? - and the teenage Buster had to figure out some way to torment his father. And that act with the basketball also gets brought up in some movies later.

But, yes, when he was a very small child, his mother sewed a suitcase handle into the back of his costume, his little performing jacket, so that his father could more easily grasp him and hurl him into whatever, you know, solid object he felt like throwing him at.

DAVIES: Right. Did critics take notice of the kid, the young Keaton, as the act developed?

STEVENS: Absolutely. And that was something that was really fascinating to trace in researching his childhood, is just that the way he was talked about from when he was very, very young, when - since he entered his parents' act when he had just turned 5 years old for the first time, you know, professionally - just the amount of coverage and the tone of the coverage changed very, very quickly. You know, you can really trace this meteoric rise through just reading how he was written about. So, you know, if you read about him a month after he starts performing with the act, it's something like, little Buster Keaton is assisting his parents in their comedy special or something like that. And six months later, you know, there'll be some piece of vaudeville press that says, Buster Keaton, the star of the Keaton combination of three.

You know, so it becomes obvious that he's really leading the show, including creatively. I mean, from a pretty young age, maybe not 5, but from when he certainly was 8 or 9 or so, I think a lot of the jokes in this continually evolving slapstick act he had with his father came from his own invention, you know? And so I think a big part was that unlike a lot of vaudeville acts who would work up a shtick and then just do it that entire season on the road, I think the Keatons - you could always see something new every time you saw them, which was another big part of what kept them so popular.

DAVIES: The other fascinating thing about that is a kid can be thrown, but, you know, if he gets hurt and can't perform, then it kind of ruins the act. He had to learn how to take falls and do it safely. I mean, this is something that, you know, modern stunt performers, you know, learn a craft in order to execute. I mean, you say we don't have film. We don't know. But somehow he managed to learn to do that, and it's clearly an amazing skill that he carried into his adult film career.

STEVENS: Right. I mean, it would be really hard to find someone now, you know, in a biopic of Buster Keaton, say, to play the child Keaton or the young adult Keaton because nobody could do those tricks anymore, you know? And I think that was not just because of his own kind of prodigious talent as an individual, but the milieu that he grew up in - you know? - and his ability to channel all of the performance forms that he saw around him. So he was growing up in this vaudeville circuit, constantly traveling - you know, didn't really have a set home to live in until he was in his 20s and all the time picking up juggling and wire-walking and - I don't know - sharpshooting and whatever skills came along on the road. So really within his body were encoded all of these traditions that he could perform exceptionally well in. And so that's - in that way, I think, when he died, all of that died with him, you know? And when those generations of vaudevillians with that - those skills that came from the history of entertainment died out, that particular performance style is kind of inaccessible to us now.

DAVIES: So Buster Keaton did this act with his mom and dad into his teens. And the act eventually broke up. And that's part of what spurred him to get into his own performing. What happened?

STEVENS: The act breaking up is a big - really sort of the first big dramatic beat in Buster's story in his life. I mean, he had a pretty uninterrupted upward trajectory as a child - right? - with a couple little hiccups, like the time they got thrown out - prohibited from performing in New York state for a couple years. But essentially, from the moment he stepped on stage, he was on this, you know, steady ascent. And the first real hiccup came along in his teens when his father, who was starting to drink way too much, who got violent when he drank, who was expressing anger on stage at Buster for things that had happened offstage, as Buster himself said in interviews - and the act really just became something that was untenable. Joe was also getting on the wrong side of all kinds of vaudeville theater managers and just kind of ruining the act's reputation. And so there was this moment that they got demoted, essentially, to traveling a three-show-a-day vaudeville circuit - not one of the top circuits that allowed you to perform just twice a day, but a three-show-a-day circuit that paid less. You traveled more. Essentially, they - you know, they had harder lives all of a sudden.

And Buster's mother - as he tells it in an anecdote he told his first biographer, his mother said, I can't take it anymore. We got to leave your father. And so very dramatically in the midst of a tour, they just hopped a train, left Joe at a Los Angeles theater with his trunk, and they were gone. He did eventually sort of rejoin the family, although he never lived with his wife again. He did - he wasn't estranged from them forever. But that was a very decisive moment, where, you know, this family that had spent basically every moment together, you know, for Buster's entire life - living on trains, performing, traveling around - were suddenly split up. And he needed to re-imagine himself as a solo performer and decide what he was going to do next, which at first was not the movies.

DAVIES: Right. And he eventually made his way to New York and became quite successful. What was his relationship with his family thereafter in terms of, you know, meaningful relationships as well as financial relationships?

STEVENS: Oh. Well, his financial relationship to them essentially was from the moment he started earning money, he supported his entire family. There was very little time in his life after that that he was not financially responsible for both his parents and his brother and sister, which really accounts for some of the things that happened later in his life when, you know, he would take on not any job, but a lot of jobs. I mean, he - you know, he made commercials in the '60s. And he would do TV appearances. And he just liked to work, for one thing. He definitely had an extremely strong work ethic and was not happy when he was not working.

But he also, I think, was always aware that he had a lot of people to support financially. And that's where his emotional relationship to his family - I mean, he was not a guy who wore emotions on his sleeve, to put it mildly. It's very difficult to find anywhere in the, you know, interviews and recorded statements from him any sort of spontaneous emotional expression. But he was extremely close to his family. And he lived with his mother and siblings for much of his adult life as well and, you know, always kept a house for them and for many years lived there with his third wife as well.

DAVIES: We need to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with Dana Stevens. She is the film critic for Slate. Her new book is "Camera Man: Buster Keaton, The Dawn of Cinema, And The Invention Of The Twentieth Century." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF CARL DAVIS AND THAMES SILENTS ORCHESTRA'S "KIDNAPPED (FROM 'THE GENERAL')")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with Dana Stevens. She is the film critic for Slate. She's written a new book about Buster Keaton. It's called "Camera Man: Buster Keaton, The Dawn Of Cinema, And The Invention Of The Twentieth Century."

So when he became a solo performer as movies were emerging as a real form of entertainment, he developed a collaboration with Roscoe Arbuckle, who - a guy that many people may remember as Fatty Arbuckle. That was never a nickname that Roscoe himself embraced. Tell us a bit about Roscoe Arbuckle and his collaboration with Buster Keaton and what they did together.

STEVENS: Yes. Yeah. I feel like Roscoe Arbuckle is unfairly remembered too often as, you know, the central figure in this 1921 scandal in Hollywood, where, as it turned out, after three trials, he was guilty of no crime whatsoever. And people forget about the fact that Roscoe Arbuckle was and would have continued to be, I think, a really important director in early comedy and probably could have moved on to direct other genres as well. And at the moment that Keaton joined him in 1917, he really was sort of the second most famous and most popular film comedian outside of Charlie Chaplin. He had just gotten his own independent production company, financed by a producer who would soon become Buster's brother-in-law. And when Buster Keaton came to work for him, it very, very quickly became the case that he was instead working with him because the two of them really vibed together. They had similar senses of humor and of curiosity about the new medium. And these few years that there was a Keaton-Arbuckle kind of unit making films together, you can really see Keaton start to develop his own solo style, even though essentially he's working as a sidekick and co-director, you know, alongside this other creative.

DAVIES: Right. I mean, Arbuckle had this amazingly expressive face and would sometimes appear as a woman, and it was quite hilarious to watch. Let's talk about some of the films that Buster directed in the 1920s and starred in. Now, he was not just the star of this, right? I mean, he was a director, and that kind of maybe meant a bit of a different thing in that era. In what sense did he really make these films? What kind of a role did he play?

STEVENS: I mean, he played almost every role. That's maybe a little unfair to his many wonderful collaborators. He also had a team of craftspeople - you know, production designers and gag writers who he worked with for many years and who also contributed a lot to these movies that they were creating. But ultimately, yes, it was completely his vision, and he was not only the star and essentially director - even though he is often not credited on screen as the director - of all of these silent movies that he made. But, you know, the stuntman - did every stunt. I mean, this is not, you know, the modern Hollywood star always saying, I do my stunts. This is actually somebody making sure to place the camera at a far enough away angle that you can really verify that it's his body there doing all of those dangerous things at once.

He was also his films' editor, as Arbuckle had been. You know, so at this very early stage, when film was just sort of defining what it was, all of those different - those divisions of labor had not calcified in the way that they do now, you know? And it, I think to him, made complete sense that he would be in the cutting room, you know, putting his film together himself instead of farming it out to an editor. So when you see a silent Buster Keaton film, you know, one of the ones made between 1920 and 1928 or so, you really are seeing something that came entirely out of his brain, no matter who's being credited as director on screen.

DAVIES: Right. He did, I think - if I have the numbers right - 19 shorts, kind of two-reelers they are called, about - what? - 20 minutes or so, and then 10 feature-length...

STEVENS: Right.

DAVIES: ...Films from - during that period. I thought we'd talk a little bit about one of them. This is one of his early ones called "One Week," and it's the story of a couple that buys a mail-order house, which - I didn't know what this was - what was a mail-order house back then?

STEVENS: I mean, this ended up turning into an entire chapter in the book because I, too, was so fascinated at the background of - you know, what is this kit home that he receives in one week with his bride played by Sybil Seely? And it's a wedding gift in the case of the movie - right? - just a big box of boards and nails and makings for a house. And they start turning it into a house. So the conceit of the movie is that they build a house together in one week. But what they're actually riffing on is, of course, the popularity of home kits at the time, you know, the Sears model homes and other companies as well. There was a real fad right in this very period we're talking about, in the teens and '20s and a little bit into the '30s, where, you know, that was sort of the hot thing - to order your house kit from a company, have it shipped to you by rail. And then what usually happened is a crew put it together. It wasn't usually the couple itself putting the house together. But of course, the gags that he gets out of it is - you know, it's kind of a domestic comedy, the idea of this young, newlywed couple in love trying to make a beautiful home for themselves, and everything they do comes out completely cockeyed.

DAVIES: Right. And the conceit was that a jilted lover of his bride messed them up by renumbering the crates that the pieces of the house come in. And so it's pretty remarkable, some of the stuff that you see him do. It's absolutely hilarious to watch. There's also a scene early in the film where he's going down the street in a car, Buster Keaton, and he's trying to step from one car to another. Actually, one car has his bride, which is irrelevant to the gag, but he's straddling the running boards of two cars going in the same direction. And as the cars get a little farther apart, at - obviously, it's scary because his legs will only stretch so far. And then suddenly...

STEVENS: (Laughter).

DAVIES: ...A motorcycle comes from the opposite direction, goes right between the two cars, and plucks Buster. He falls under the handlebars, I guess, in the lap of the motorcycle rider going the other direction. This is amazing. It's the kind of thing that I guess stunt people would do now. Or you might use, you know, computer graphics or camera trickery. He would do this - these things for real, right?

STEVENS: Yeah. And I mean, that, I'll - while that is a really astounding stunt - and I love that moment and just the ingenuity of imagining the bike coming along at that moment. I mean, it doesn't even come close to the most dangerous and frightening things that you see him do over the course of his movies. And so, you know, I think that this was a part of what drew me in the first place to writing on this person - was just, what is this combination of emotions that he's seeking to evoke, you know, where you're laughing and gasping and you're simultaneously saying, how could anyone conceive of doing something like that? And then, how could the same person actually do it (laughter) - right? - and then finds ways to edit it, you know, with all the other crazy things he's doing so as to create a story. So I just went - I just felt like he brings the full package as a filmmaker. And you really see that happening in "One Week," which I think is maybe his first masterpiece.

DAVIES: Did he get injured a lot?

STEVENS: You know, for somebody who did all of the crazy things he did, it's almost surprising that he didn't get injured more. It doesn't seem like he had a lot of broken bones during the course of his career, but there is a story told about how, when filming "Sherlock Jr." - there's a moment in "Sherlock Jr." where he's riding on the top of a train, you know, running across the top of a train and goes under one of those water towers. And you know, the force of - and the gag was intended that this water would rain down on him and knock him off the train. But the force of this water was such that it slammed him down onto the tracks and apparently fractured his vertebra, which he never learned about until, you know, 15 years later or something. He went on with his life, you know, filmed the rest of the movie. And getting an X-ray many years later, the doctor said, when did you break your neck? And then he realized it must have been that moment on the track. So that was one time he certainly got hurt.

And once in a while, you hear stories about how he did a really tough stunt, and he had to rest up for a few days. He, you know, probably had to go ice his injuries or something like that. But it's not as if he was in and out of the hospital with his stuff, no.

DAVIES: We're going to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you again. We are speaking with Dana Stevens. She is the film critic for Slate. Her new book is "Camera Man: Buster Keaton, The Dawn Of Cinema, And The Invention Of The Twentieth Century." She'll be back to talk more after this short break. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in today for Terry Gross. We're speaking with Slate film critic Dana Stevens, who's written a new book about Buster Keaton. Keaton directed and starred in a series of silent movies in the 1920s. His physical comedy made audiences laugh, but his films are regarded by historians as influential works in American cinema and culture. Stevens' book is "Camera Man: Buster Keaton, The Dawn Of Cinema, And The Invention Of The Twentieth Century." The appeal of Buster's performances wasn't just that he took pratfalls. I mean, yeah, there's that. But it's not just slapstick. I mean, the physical comedy had subtlety to it. Did - I mean, can you kind of give us a sense of that?

STEVENS: I mean, there - it's almost hard to describe. You have to see the movies to know. But what I thought of when you said that was just his facial expressions, right? I mean, he's known for the incredible things he could do with his body and for having a long enough shot that you can see him doing the things with his body. But of course, he is also all about the face and specifically the eyes and the inexpressivity. Inexpressivity is the wrong word in a way because he did have a huge realm of facial expressions and emotions that he was conveying in his body and his face. But it was a limited and reserved range, right? Put it that way. And to me, the fascination of Buster Keaton's comedy comes from that in a way, right? I mean, it - you are laughing. He wants you to laugh. He's making you laugh. But he would never laugh along with you. It would ruin everything. And he knew that. He understood that about his comic persona, you know, that he had to have that solemn and somber and almost melancholic kind of reaction to his own circumstances in order for you to find them as funny as possible.

DAVIES: So he was the plucky guy who got always put upon and put in tough situations but somehow prevailed, right? But he was never smirking at the audience or mugging for a laugh, right?

STEVENS: No, that was something he dreaded doing. And in fact, in one film, I think it was his co-director, you know, the person behind the camera with him, who suggested that he smile in the last scene because he got the girl as he often got the girl at the end of his movies. And I think it's the end of "Steamboat Bill, Jr." possibly. He's swimming toward the camera, and he's told by the director, you know, let's end on a smile this time just to change things. And Keaton said, we can try it. We can try it, and we can focus-group it, or whatever the word for focus group was in the '20s. But it won't fly. And sure enough, they showed it to a studio audience, I mean, to a trial audience. And I think that part got no laugh. People booed, I think, in fact, when they saw Buster Keaton smile. So he knew. You know, he knew that his persona had to remain that silent, somber, poker-faced character for it to work.

DAVIES: You know, he was an innovator, too, in filmmaking. And there are a couple of films that reflect this. One of them is a film called "The Playhouse." Tell us about this.

STEVENS: "The Playhouse" was one of his shorts. You know, he made it before he moved into feature films in - you know, sometime in the early '20s. And in fact, "The Playhouse" came out of an injury he had had. You asked about injuries. There was a time that, making a different short, going up a moving staircase he'd constructed, he broke a leg. And so he couldn't do as many crazy stunt things as he had been doing in his previous shorts. And he decided, while this leg heals, I'm going to do a short that involves camera trickery and where I'm playing with the camera more than I'm playing with my body. So he conceived of this idea of a vaudeville theater, a space that he knows very well from having grown up in one, obviously, where he would play every role using, you know, split screen and screen masking and all of these technologies that were still very new where you block off part of the lens, film, something, right? Then you can film yourself in double or triple, etc. And he just took that as far as it had been taken. He wasn't the first to do masking and split screen and to double up figures like that. But you know, he just did it in such a grand-scale way in this movie. So you know, he's every member of the orchestra playing all the instruments. He's every member of the audience - the men, women and children and, of course, all of the performers on stage, often with several up on stage at the same time. So the first half of that movie is just a pure tour de force of that kind of split-screen technique and all the things that it can do.

DAVIES: Yeah. And at one point, one of the guys in the audience, who is, of course, Buster Keaton, looks at the program and says, it looks like this Buster Keaton guy's the whole show. It's a lovely touch.

STEVENS: That's right. Yeah, his name is every name in the program. And in fact, there, he was poking fun, in a way, at credit hogs, you know, at people in show business that always insisted on taking every credit. Because even though he was pretty much doing everything behind the scenes on his movies, he would very often credit them to other directors and not himself.

DAVIES: Another film that people talk about as being innovative was "Sherlock Jr." and, in particular, a scene where he plays a guy who's a projectionist in the theater, who falls asleep, and then dreams of entering the movie. Tell us what he does here.

STEVENS: Oh, yeah, this is wonderful. I mean, this is a great starter Buster Keaton if you've never seen any of his movies because it really - it's nice and short. It's about an hour long, and it really shows all the things that he could do both with his body and with the camera. So yeah, the conceit that he had - which - actually, his longtime cinematographer was the one who dreamed up - is, why don't you play a projectionist who falls asleep and dreams his way into a movie? And it was because of the technical challenge of wanting to make that happen - you know, to see someone climb into a movie and become a part of it - that he was fascinated enough to do the film.

And he loved to talk about the technique of how they actually did this. What they did was they created a stage set and lit it - his wonderful cinematographer, Elgin Lessley, who he worked with for many years, lit this stage set in a sort of flat way so that it would look like the screen of a movie to trick the eye of the viewer. And then we just see him, you know, sort of climbing in from the stage. But at that moment, of course, the Keaton character finds himself inside a movie and not sort of able to adjust to the world of being in a movie. And there's just an incredible editing gag where the Buster Keaton on the screen finds himself in a space. The movie within a movie then cuts to a completely different space - like, at one point, a lion's cage with a lion in it. And suddenly, he's in that space, right? So he's sort of trapped in this loop of editing, and that's a wonderful joke in the middle of the movie.

DAVIES: It's an amazing effect for a movie made in the 1920s. It looks like the guy actually walks into the movie and enters it, which, today, people would figure, oh, you can do that. But it's remarkable that he did it in those early years.

STEVENS: Yeah, he loved to brag about the fact that that always tricked people. Later in life in interviews, he would say, I've seen that with many an audience, and nobody can ever figure out how it was done. And he said that all the other cinematographers at the time would go to see "Sherlock Jr." to try to figure out how the climbing into the screen thing had been done.

DAVIES: It's interesting. He was not a man of a lot of pretense, was he? I mean, he didn't think of himself as a - you know, when people would call him a genius and an artist, he didn't like that, did he?

STEVENS: No. It's - something fascinating to read when you read interviews with him is that he loved to talk about technique, like I say, how he accomplished certain effects and things like that. He liked to tell stories about his childhood. He was not resistant to speaking to interviewers, but he was not introspective or self-analytical at all. And he, in fact, was resistant to the idea, you know, that his work meant anything other than trying to make people laugh. And if he was called a genius or an artist or anything like that, I think, tended to really withdraw and start to mistrust the person who had said that to him.

DAVIES: What would he say? Yeah, you can't be a genius in slap shoes and a pork pie hat or something like that (laughter)?

STEVENS: Yeah, exactly.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Dana Stevens. She is the film critic for Slate. Her new book is "Camera Man: Buster Keaton, The Dawn Of Cinema, And The Invention Of The Twentieth Century." We'll continue our conversation after this short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Dana Stevens. She is the film critic for Slate. Her new book is "Camera Man: Buster Keaton, The Dawn Of Cinema, And The Invention Of The 20th Century."

We were talking about some of the films that Buster Keaton made in the 1920s, when he really had control of his movies. He was the star. He was - he would develop them. He would guide the building of the sets. One of the most famous and, I think, his last really independent film was "Steamboat Bill, Jr." And it has his most famous stunt, I guess. This is the collapsing house facade. Do you want to explain what happens here and what it was like on the set?

STEVENS: Sure. Yeah. I think a lot of people - if you know just one image from Buster Keaton - right? - you might know Harold Lloyd hanging from a clock and Charlie Chaplin eating his shoe. And then you know Buster Keaton standing as this facade of a house - right? - a two-story house collapses on top of him. And he happens to be standing in the frame of a small window so that he's saved from being crushed. And that, just like all the stunts we've been talking about, was really done, you know, with a real house front that weighed something like two tons and had to be a very carefully arranged and devised stunt because you could only film it once - right? - and - because obviously it posed the risk of killing the person onscreen.

So there was elaborate preparation for that stunt. And, you know, it was sort of the climax of the movie. And it's a very dramatic story and Keaton's own life because as it turned out - and I'm not quite sure how compressed this timeline is. But I think this is fairly accurate. The day before that stunt was to be filmed, obviously a high-pressure day in his life, his brother-in-law and longtime producer, the patron of Buster Keaton Studios, Joe Schenck, took him aside and said, look. You know, for a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with you, the film industry is changing. Sound is coming in with "The Jazz Singer."

And so he learned from his brother-in-law that day that he was about to lose his own independent studio, that his next step in his career - and it was a step that was pretty much mapped out by others, and he was a fairly passive businessman who ended up doing what people asked him and told him to do - would be that he would go to MGM and become a contract player at a big, corporate studio. And, you know, he'd be plugged into a system rather than, you know, being somebody who ran his own independent unit. This was obviously incredibly ill-suited for the kind of artist and comedian he was. It wound up being what he called the worst mistake of my life and, you know, a career move that put him on a terrible path.

He couldn't have known all that would happen as he was standing under that house front that was about to fall. But he certainly knew that he was at a moment in his life where he was about to lose something that had been very precious to him for a decade. So knowing all of that background when you watch that stunt, it makes the stunt sort of all the more extraordinary when, you know, on its own, it already is pretty powerful.

DAVIES: So he's fixed in a spot which - when the facade collapses, there's an opening there, so it'll all collapse around him. He won't be touched, assuming it all goes according to plan. It's this huge, thunderous thing, and he's got to keep that Buster Keaton face, right? He can't grimace like, oh, my God. He doesn't know - and then he walks away afterwards. It's really pretty remarkable. The crew had a hard time watching; didn't they?

STEVENS: Oh, yes. This is a part of the legend of the filming of that "Steamboat Bill, Jr." house collapse - is that the cameraman had to look away and that the director was off praying. I think the director did actually confirm years later that he was in fact off in his tent - in his office, praying that the stunt would go off. You know, people were fainting on the sidelines because it really was the most dangerous stunt he'd ever undertaken - you know, something that, if it had been a fraction of an inch off, could have crushed him.

DAVIES: The silent era came to an end, you know, with the '20s essentially as a lot of things in the United States were changing, including the film industry. And that was when Buster Keaton lost his independence and signed a contract with the studio MGM, where, you know, it was a big corporate machine. And he had roles, and it was all written, and the production schedules were defined. And he kind of had to do what he was told. This didn't suit him well; did it?

STEVENS: No. I mean, this is a very painful part of the book to research, and the movies that he made at that point are painful to watch and even more painful in the ways that they were successful. You know, every talkie that he made at MGM that he regarded as the - you know, the worst turkeys he'd ever turned out and that nobody watches now, really, unless you're researching the dark years of Buster Keaton were all moneymakers for him, you know? And part of that was that MGM had a strong marketing arm. And he had a big name, and people just went to see the new Buster Keaton movie because it was there.

But tastes were also changing in the early days of sound. And, you know, sound comedies - very few of the early sound comedies make us laugh now. But the things that made people laugh when sound was new often had to do with just the novelty of hearing people speaking and hearing music and having sound incorporated into the filmgoing experience in the first place.

DAVIES: You write that to see him in talkies is to witness the extinguishing of a singular artist's creative spark and the erosion of his professional confidence. Why were these movies so bad? I mean, people went to see them. And could you give us - think of an example?

STEVENS: I mean, it's possible that - the film I was talking about then was "What! No Beer?," which is maybe his very most painful film to watch at MGM because it was toward the end. It was, in fact, the last film he made with them as their star comedian. And by that time, he really was deep into depression, alcoholism. You know, he just had a very painful divorce. He was just in an absolutely chaotic and miserable time of his life, and it 100% shows up onscreen. And it's just awful to see him, you know, seeming so miserable, especially because this character that he had always played, which, as you said, was a resourceful, plucky - you know, someone who was put upon by the world and always getting out of disastrous situations but who had a lot of resources to do so, of inner resources.

DAVIES: Spunk and gumption. Yeah. Yeah.

STEVENS: Yeah, right. And during this period at MGM, somehow his - you know, his passivity, the passivity of his character, that kind of essential quiet that he always had in his silent films gets misinterpreted as, you know, masochism almost. And those MGM movies really involve a lot of - some things that hark back to the Joe Keaton-Buster Keaton act in that they're violent but not in that they're funny. You know, so there's a lot of scenes of him kind of being manhandled by bigger characters, being thrown around, having no power. He doesn't get the girl anymore. He's kind of the outcast, almost. Or, you know, he's sort of the loser in some of these movies. And it doesn't suit his character at all. It doesn't suit his sense of humor.

And I feel like at MGM, they just never really figured out who he was. You know, they couldn't figure out what kind of vehicles to buy for him, what kind of material to put him in and - or the simple fact that, you know, there are some performers that, if you give them their freedom, they'll do all sorts of incredible things. And if you take away their freedom, they're an animal in a cage. And that, I think, is how he felt and how he seemed in his films while he was at MGM. So his drinking, which had already been, you know, something that ran in the family - his father was an alcoholic. His mother seems to have been drunk almost every day, like, sat and played cards and drank bourbon every day. And he came from that culture. But it really intensified after his marriage started to fall apart, after his job satisfaction went to - down to zero and, you know, during those miserable years.

As a result, he was fired from MGM by Louis B. Mayer in 1933 and had a couple of years really on the skids, where he had a lot of trouble finding work. He did not have his drinking under control. At one point, he married his sobriety nurse, the woman who had been hired to look after him and make sure he didn't get drunk. And they spent a couple of seemingly miserable years together. And that was a very dark time in his life.

Although I do try to make the point in my book that that was not the end for Buster and to kind of shake your head and say, it's too bad that he went off the rails and then just write him off is a complete underestimation of the drive that he had to entertain and to continue to work and the need to work because he had to support his entire family of origin, you know, as he did his whole life.

DAVIES: We need to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with Dana Stevens. She is the film critic for Slate. Her new book is "Camera Man: Buster Keaton, The Dawn Of Cinema And The Invention Of The 20th Century." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF CARL DAVIS AND CZECH NATIONAL SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA'S "A ONE MAN SHOW")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Dana Stevens. She is the film critic for Slate. She's written a new book about Buster Keaton. It's called "Camera Man: Buster Keaton, The Dawn Of Cinema And The Invention Of The 20th Century."

So let's talk a bit about Buster's personal life. His first marriage was to Natalie Talmadge, who was an actress and sister of a more famous actress. Tell us about this marriage. How did it go?

STEVENS: Yes. Well, one thing to understand about Natalie Talmadge, his first wife, is she was a member of a very prominent show business family, more prominent than the Keatons were at the time that they met. Her sisters - both of her sisters, Norma Talmadge and Constance Talmadge, were big movie stars. Natalie did a bit of acting, including playing the leading lady in one Buster film. But in general, she was not ambitious, not looking to be an actress, and stopped acting pretty much after she married Buster.

But their marriage and the 11 years or so that they spent together before she divorced him in 1932 is sort of a black box to historians and film historians trying to figure out things about Keaton's life. They didn't exchange letters that have survived. There's no testimony from Natalie. Nobody ever sat down and interviewed her about, you know, what's your marriage like or what was your marriage like after it was over? She was very reclusive and didn't want to talk about Buster for the rest of her life. So we know nothing from her. And the little bit that we get through stories that he told to biographers, and in his sort of as-told-to autobiography, show that it really seems more like an alliance between two families, two big show business families, than it was a marriage between two people.

And the sort of famous story about the beginning of the dissolution of his marriage to Natalie Talmadge is that there was a moment after she gave birth to her - their second son when her mother, it seems - Peg Talmadge, Natalie's mother, who was very, very involved in a sort of, you know, stage mother way in her three daughters lives, essentially went to Buster and said, my daughter will not be sleeping with you anymore. She put an end to their sex life in a way that was really OK'd by, you know, the sisters and the mother and this very matriarchal family that he had married into, and he accepted that.

He was not happy. He moved into his own bedroom, and he and Natalie seemed to have ended that part of their marriage at that moment. And he warned his mother-in-law at that moment, which he admits freely in his autobiography, that he was going to have affairs. He said, I won't keep a mistress and, you know, I won't embarrass Natalie in public, but, you know, I don't intend to give up on that part of my life. And he didn't. It was partly affairs, but I think probably mostly his drinking and just his - you know, his checked-out state from the marriage that eventually drove them apart.

DAVIES: So he - you know, he had - after his divorce from his first wife, he had a two-year marriage to Mae Scriven, who was this nurse helping with his sobriety. And then in 1940, I believe, he married Eleanor Norris, who was a contract dancer at MGM. This was a more mature relationship, made him happier, and he found a place in the business, didn't he? What did he do?

STEVENS: Yeah. I mean, this is what I mean about Keaton really managing to turn his life around in a way that I think often doesn't get appreciated in storytelling about his life. So over the course of the 1940s, he was behind the scenes at MGM as a gag writer and had success there, but, you know, wasn't really visible to audiences. But toward the end of the '40s and the early '50s, he started to get bit parts in big movies. He's in "Sunset Boulevard," right? He has a little a little bit part in that. He's in a musical with Judy Garland where he has a small part.

But not so much movies as TV really interested him. And, you know, just as always, he was always wanting to do the latest thing, right? He was in vaudeville at the height of vaudeville. He was in silent film at the height of silent - the silent film era. And he really broke into television very early and found a lot of success there in all different kinds of roles. I mean, everything from, you know, having his own sort of sitcom at one point, appearing on "The Donna Reed Show" and lots of other sitcoms - "The Twilight Zone," "Candid Camera." I mean, there's just very little early TV that Keaton did not get in on in one way or another.

DAVIES: Yeah, and it's kind of interesting because, you know, he was really fascinated by movies decades before and was a pioneer in some of the techniques there. And he loved the fact that this new technology offered new possibilities, didn't he?

STEVENS: Yeah, he was a big fan of technology. I mean, he once said that he would have liked to be a civil engineer if he had not been a comedian. You know, if he had had a different life and had an education, he would have been interested in that. And he would have been great at it because I think he loved novelty technology, solving problems. You know, as I say at the end of the book, it's really hard to imagine that had he been alive when the internet came along - right? - that he would not have been an early adopter of that as well and been very open to new technology. He was not a nostalgist at all.

DAVIES: There is a biographical movie about his life starring Donald O'Connor. I take it this is not to be viewed as a serious biographical account.

STEVENS: I mean, it is not to be viewed, period (laughter) if you want to engage your time well. It's a terrible movie. And the Keatons knew. Keaton and his last wife, Eleanor, who you mentioned, who, you know, agreed to sell the rights to his life in order, essentially, to be able to buy a home and have a nice place for them to retire to and grow old in, they both hated the movie and were very embarrassed by its existence. But it came at a time when Hollywood biopics were all the rage. There were a lot of Hollywood biopics, particularly about stars that had gone on the skids that were selling in that period in the late '50s. And so they let his life be really heavily fictionalized and, you know, put into this terrible melodrama with Donald O'Connor, who's not horribly cast as a young Buster Keaton. But, no, that movie will neither teach you anything about his life nor entertain you. So I say skip it.

DAVIES: But it was an important paycheck for him, allowed him to get the home that he and his wife lived in for many years.

STEVENS: Very important, yeah.

DAVIES: In these years, the '40s, '50s, '60s, '70s, were his silent films remembered, appreciated? Could anybody see them?

STEVENS: Not during the beginning of that period you're talking about. The 1940s and the '30s, especially, were just not a good time for silent film or silent film preservation. Nobody was thinking about those films. They were being left to molder in vaults or just simply thrown away to make room for other movies. And it really wasn't until the late '40s - and specifically because of an article that appeared in Life by the film critic James Agee that was all about silent cinema and rediscovering it and Buster Keaton was a big part of it and, you know, also just the fact that he was still around doing TV, you know, starting to get attention again.

So very slowly throughout the kind of late '50s and early '60s, there started to be more interest. And right around the time he died - and it's great that he got in on a little bit of it, enough to experience it - there was a revival of his movies. They started to be found and restored. And he got to go to the Venice Film Festival and get a standing ovation and start to realize that, you know, he was going to be this lasting figure in film history, which, only a few years before, he probably would have thought, no, no, I'll be forgotten.

DAVIES: You mentioned viewing his stuff on YouTube. It's remarkable, as I was preparing for our conversation, how many of his films are on YouTube for free in this beautifully - a beginner who wants to develop an appreciation for Buster Keaton.

STEVENS: Oh, that's a great question. Yes, it is important to know that almost all these movies are streaming, and most of them are streaming for free because they're in the public domain. So, you know, definitely just explore on your own. But I would say for the short 20-minute films, watch "One Week," which I think is one of his all-time masterpieces and one of the great American comedies. It's sort of a romantic comedy, let's put it that way, but with lots of slapstick from 1920. "Cops" is another short that you just can't go wrong with. It's incredibly crowd-pleasing and full of just astonishing physical stunts.

And then getting into the features, I mean, it really depends on your taste, but I would say that my two - probably my two favorite Buster Keaton movies - maybe not the most famous, maybe not his favorites of his own - would be "Sherlock Jr.," which is from 1924 - and the key image from this one, if you've seen it, maybe in clip reels, is of him climbing into a movie screen and joining what's happening on screen, you know, essentially inserting himself into a movie in progress - and "Steamboat Bill Jr.," which was his last independent movie. It's the one where the house falls on him that we talked about, the frame surrounding him perfectly. And it's just a really beautifully accomplished movie and a sad one to watch in that you realize that he was just hitting his stride at the height of his powers, and that was when his independence was just about to be taken away.

DAVIES: He died in 1966 of lung cancer. Was he a happy man then?

STEVENS: You know, I think he was. Actually, the last chapter of my book opens with this speculation is sort of how much professional disappointment did Keaton feel at the end of his life? We know he was personally happy. That seems really, really evident from, you know, just all of the stories of his relationship with Eleanor and what she said about him after he died when she became a big guardian of his legacy. And personally, I think there's no question that he found contentment, which is wonderful in itself.

Professionally, it's another of those black boxes because he never stopped getting work, you know, after he got back to work after that dark time we talked about. He never stopped wanting to work or being curious about trying new things. But he also never got to direct a movie again. You know, he never got to be the lead of a movie again. He never got to devise comedy of the kind that only he could devise. And there must have been somewhere deep buried inside some regret about, you know, having had such a wonderful flight of creativity for so many years and then, you know, having to work in a more constrained way. But when asked about it, he always said, I couldn't have had a luckier, happier life. You know, he was not a complainer. And I think he was pretty satisfied with the threescore and ten that he got on Earth.

DAVIES: Well, Dana Stevens, thank you so much for speaking with us.

STEVENS: It was an absolute delight. Thank you, Dave.

DAVIES: Dana Stevens is the film critic for Slate. Her new book is "Camera Man: Buster Keaton, The Dawn Of Cinema And The Invention Of The Twentieth Century."

On tomorrow's show, a journey through the American South to understand the soul of a nation. Imani Perry, a native of Birmingham who now teaches African American studies at Princeton, visits cities, small towns and historic sites below the Mason-Dixon line, reflecting on the region's history and tracing the steps of an enslaved ancestor. Her new book is "South To America." I hope you can join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

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Dave Davies is a guest host for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.