Friday, February 15, 2019

Meeting Buster Backwards: A Hard Act to Resist

This is my entry in the Buster Keaton Blogathon hosted by the amazing Lea Stans at Silent-ology . Please click here for more Buster goodies! And thanks, Lea, for keeping silents alive.

I believe this to by my first encounter with Buster:

Candid Camera was a family favorite and I do recall, as a very (repeat very) young child laughing at this old man’s antics, especially when his toupee fell in his coffee. I seem to remember the host, Alan Funt or Durwood Kirby (Arthur Godfrey in this clip), describing this old fellow as someone who was important back in the day (like all of those old unknown – to me – performers that showed up every week on the Hollywood Palace). I learned that his nickname was “The Great Stone Face,” based on his trademark never smiling expression. 

It was a memorable old face, so when I saw him again being silly on the beach with Annette and Frankie (classics Beach Blanket Bingo and How to Stuff a Wild Bikini), I smiled. I was more interested in the kids on the beach, but glad the old fellow showed up for the hijinks.

So when my 7th grade teacher handed me the assignment of writing about the man described in this New York Times obituary of February 1, 1966, I was a bit disappointed. That old guy? I was hoping for someone more interesting!

I must say, silent film to me at that time in my life were about as interesting as dried paint peeling off a soiled wall. I was just beginning to get interested in classic film and if you had said James Cagney or Jean Harlow to me, my ears would have perked up. But Keaton? Chaplin? And who the heck was Harold Lloyd? It was around this time I picked up a book in the bargain bin of our local bookstore – ah the fun of wandering around the Cherry Hill Book Store after school – called The Parade’s Gone By. It was filled with chapters about stars I barely heard of, but it was printed on rich, thick glossy paper and it was only a few dollars. I thumbed through it at home, read a few entries and put it aside (I still have it - somewhere....).

Back to the assignment. I read and wrote, probably not something very memorable. However, for some reason, that assignment remained memorable all of my life. I guess there was just something about Buster that was unforgettable.

Fast forward a few years, and Sunday nights with PBS – starting with Upstairs Downstairs and continuing to all things British on Masterpiece Theater (RIP Alistair Cooke) - became a time to be savored. So, somewhere in the 1980s I saw the advertisement for Unknown Chaplin. I know, this is about Buster, but I got to him through Charlie. This amazing 3-part documentary by Kevin Brownlow and David Gill made me hungry to learn more. And hey, wasn’t Brownlow the author of that book I picked up years ago?

What are you doing on my post about Buster?
Anyway, because I was  enchanted with Unknown Chaplin, I was all in when PBS next aired Brownlow and Gill’s Buster Keaton: A Hard Act to Follow. That beautiful genius of a young man was the guy who sold Alka Seltzer? Amazing!
A face for the ages
And so I went from old Buster to the young Buster of such great features as Sherlock , Jr., The Navigator, The General, and - my favorite - Our Hospitality, all the way back to those delicious shorts. I must say, the ending of One Week is one of the best laughs I ever ever had. 

The truth is, I love all Busters - Buster young and Buster old. The young Buster was brilliant and adorable, but the old Buster was a testament to the survival of genius and the soul of a performer. 

My interest in and love of silent film has been like a tangled ball of yarn, so much fun and sometimes frustrating to unravel. There is a bar of gold at the center of discovery, but much of the fun is in the unraveling.

p.s. Many thanks to my 7th grade English teacher whose name I have forgotten.