Dana Stevens delivers a superb biography of silent film comedian Buster Keaton in Camera Man that isn’t just a book but a book-length essay.
Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin? Anyone talking about the great silent film comedy stars start with one of the two. They both have their own quirks which is what makes the debate so hard. After all, the list of the best comedy movies of all time is one that features a handful of selections starring either. The General. Sherlock Jr. The Navigator. While Steamboat Bill, Jr. isn’t on the AFI list, the comedy contains one of the best stunts/gags in cinematic history. This is the film where the façade of the house falls on him and he’s standing in the spot where an open window hits. It’s also one of the final films made that makes use of his strengths. MGM just didn’t know how to use Keaton and it shows in his filmography at the studio. Might Keaton’s career have gone differently? Maybe.
The full name of the book is Camera Man: Buster Keaton, the Dawn of Cinema, and the Invention of the Twentieth Century. To put it simply, we relive the beginnings of cinema through Keaton’s own eyes, for better or worse. Well, not only cinema but the advent of television, too. Once TV came into the picture, you couldn’t go to Keaton’s home without hearing a booming television. He knew it was the thing of the future and made sure people knew it.
If things had gone differently, maybe Keaton would have found major success on TV. Alas, lung cancer took him in 1966, a few years before variety comedy series really took over the airwaves in the 1970s. In her book, Dana Stevens ponders over the what if’s that were lost to history with Keaton’s passing. These alone are not the primary reason to read the book, of course. We get a beginning-to-finish look at the life of the comedy great. If not for Raymond Rohauer, it’s quite possible that many Buster Keaton films could have been lost to history. Keaton was already enjoying a late-life career resurgence but there’s no doubt that the film restorations played a part.
No stone goes unturned for The Great Stone Face in this book. Stevens does not shy around Keaton’s alcoholism or the child abuse he faced while growing up. I wasn’t even aware of either until reading the book. It’s been a few years since I saw the most recent Buster Keaton documentary in 2018 and well, a pandemic happened. Alcohol took a toll on Keaton’s life much like it did for his father, Joseph Keaton. At one point, Keaton almost died from a throat hemorrhage. His then-wife, Eleanor, once said that she wished doctors also told him to stop smoking because lung cancer is what ultimately killed him. Interestingly, she kept the cancer diagnosis from Keaton before his passing.
This book has been available for purchase since the end of January. It took me a bit longer to read than preferred but I finally finished over the long Shabbos this past weekend. While I’ve not read the other recently published Buster Keaton biography, I can say that this is a must-read portrait of the silent comedy great. After The Great Buster played during the Chicago International Film Festival, I decided to borrow Limelight from the library. Suffice it to say, this book puts the film in a completely new perspective. For one, in viewing the film, I thought nothing about seeing Keaton and Chaplin performing in the same frame together. I just thought it was awesome to see both on screen during the same film.
If you’re a fan of comedy or the beginnings of cinema or even Buster Keaton in general, you must read Camera Man by Dana Stevens.
Camera Man is available in bookstores from Atria Books.
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