Buster Keaton: An Oral History Part III

On October 4, 1895, Joseph Francis  “Buster” Keaton was born.  In the one hundred and twenty years since his birth, Buster Keaton has become an iconic clown and one of the most influential filmmakers of all time.  To commemorate this landmark anniversary, I have compiled a three part oral history of Keaton’s life and career, allowing us to read, in his own words, how he made the silent films that have become classics of comedy and world cinema.  [NOTE: This oral history has been compiled from a number of readily available interview sources and biographies.  I and all Keaton fans around the world are heavily indebted to the interviewers and historians who have conducted those interviews.  It is not the intention of this editor or Zimbo Films to take credit for this interview material or to profit from it.  For a full list of citations, please see below.]

The General (1927)

The General - Buster Keaton

BUSTER KEATON:  Clyde Bruckman run into this book called The Great Locomotive Chase, a situation that happened in the Civil War, and it was a pip.  Says, “Well, it’s awful heavy for us to attempt, because when we got that much plot and story to tell, it means we’re goin’ to have a lot of film with no laughs in it.  But we won’t worry too much about if it we can get the plot all told in the first reel, and our characters…all planted, and then go ahead and let it roll.”  Well, that was the finished picture, and – it held an audience.  They were interested in it – from start to finish – and there was enough laughter to satisfy.1   

That was…well, I was more proud of that picture, I suppose, than any other picture I ever made because I took an actual happening out of the Civil War, out of the history book. And I told it in detail, too.  I told the story of the Northerners coming into the South as civilians and stealing that engine with the intent of burning bridges behind them to cripple Confederate supply trains moving north to the Southern armies.  And then the chase was on.2  And I staged the chase exactly the way it happened.  Then I rounded out the story of stealing my engine back…the original chase ended when I found myself in Northern territory and had to desert.  From then on it was my invention, in order to get a complete plot.  It had nothing to do with the Civil War.3

…I went to the original location, from Atlanta, Georgia, up to Chattanooga, and the scenery didn’t look very good.  It looked terrible…so I went to Oregon.  And in Oregon…the whole state is honeycombed with narrow-gauge railroads for all the lumber mills, ’cause they handle all their trees and things like that with narrow-gauge railroads.  Well, so I found trains going through valleys, mountains, by little lakes or mountain streams – anything I wanted.  So we got rolling equipment – wheels and trucks and stuff like that.  We built our freight train and our passenger train, and remodeled three locomotives….the engines working in these lumber camps were all so doggone old, it was an easy job.  They were all wood burners, all of them.  And at that period they didn’t pay much attention to numbers on engines – they named them all.  That’s what accounts for the General – and the one I chased it with was the Texas.  It’s the Texas I threw through the burning bridge.  Well, we built that bridge.  We also dammed up water underneath it so that there would be more water, so that the stream would look better.4

MARION MACK, actress, The General: We were six months on it.  They used what I think today would be called just an outline…they told you what the scene was, but you were expected to make up your own bits of business, and if anybody had an idea they would try it and see how it played.  [We improvised] all the time.  You know the scene on the engine where I’m supposed to feed the fire, I’m supposed to be a little dumb about it.  So somebody said I should get hold of a log with a knothole in it, and throw it away.  I did that, but I didn’t think the audience would understand it, and then I saw a very small piece of wood, and I picked it up and threw it in.  Buster liked it, so right away he built it up; I mean he picked up an even smaller piece, just a splinter really, to see if I would be dumb enough to use that, too.  And of course I did, and so he jumped on me as if he was going to choke me, but at the last moment he really gave me a little peck on the cheek.  I think I got that kiss more for thinking of the gag than for anything else.  And none of this was in written form at all.5

BUSTER KEATON:  We found [the mounted cannon].  It’s an actual gun from the Civil War.  The first railroad gun.  And we duplicated that cannon.  It almost looks like a prop we invented.  That’s the only thing that kind of scared us.  When it comes to using it.  They said, “Everybody’s going to say, ‘Oh, they invented the prop just to get that gag.’”  But it’s an actual reproduction of a railroad gun built in the Civil War….We found it in more than one book.

…when it come to do the battle scenes, I hired the National Guard of Oregon.  Got five hundred men there.  And we managed to locate about 125 horses.  Then in getting the equipment up from Los Angeles, we had to have a lot of it made.  We had to have artillery pieces and army saddles and stuff like that and uniforms both gray and blue.  And  put [the men] in blue uniforms and bring ’em goin’ from right to left, and take ’em out, put ’em in gray uniforms, bring ’em from the right (laughs).  And fought the war.6

MARION MACK:  You know, I was told at the beginning that there would be a double to do all the stunts, and a girl was actually hired and was standing by, so I was satisfied.  But then, as Buster got to know me better I guess he decided I was a good sport, and would you believe it, they never used that girl once as far as I know.  Like in the scene where I’m in the sack and Buster is supposed to step all over me.  He told me to get in the sack, and then they would cut and let the other girl replace me for the rough stuff.  But next thing I knew, he was stepping all over me, and the cameras were grinding.  But I didn’t get mad at him that time, I must say he knew just how to do it so it wouldn’t hurt me.  I guess it was his vaudeville training.7

BUSTER KEATON:  Oh God, that girl in The General had more fun with that picture than any film she’d made in her life (smiles).  I guess it’s because so many leading ladies in those days looked as though they had just walked out of a beauty parlor.  They always kept them looking that way – even in covered wagons, they kept their leading ladies looking beautiful at all times.  We said thunder with that, we’ll dirty our up a bit and let them have some rough treatment.8

MARION MACK:  Most [scenes] Buster okayed after one or two takes.  The only ones that had to be timed to precision were the gags, and they sometimes took five or six tries.  But they also shot quite a few whole scenes which were never used in the finished picture, because Buster was a perfectionist, and he only used the best scenes.  That’s why the whole film is so tightly edited, he took out all the scenes which would have dragged it out.9

GEORGE MILLER, filmmaker:  When I saw [The General], I thought, “[Buster Keaton] is someone who’s incredibly careful with the camera and choreographs quite complex events inside the cuts.”  The thing about sound is it allows you to cheat; put in little bridges. But in silent films the editing has to be solid. And I asked [my editor] Margaret Sixel to cut [Mad Max] Fury Road  (2015) as a silent movie.10

ORSON WELLES, actor/filmmaker: I think The General is almost the greatest movie ever made.  The most poetic movie I’ve ever seen.  Some of the things Keaton thought up to do are incredible.11

DAVID ROBINSON, film historian:  The General is unique and perhaps perfect.  In form and method it is like no other comedy, not even another Keaton picture.  Here, uniquely, the dramatic action and the comic business are one and interdependent.  Every shot has the authenticity and the unassumingly correct composition of a Matthew Brady Civil War photograph.12

RUDI BLESH, Keaton biographer:  [The General‘s] rich diversity of incident – sad, bumptious, heroic – makes up a cinema masterpiece.  Buster Keaton would likely not relish being called a poet.  But poetry is where you find it, and it is in The General.13

College (1927)

BUSTER KEATON: I liked College.  I tried to be an athlete when I was an honor student in high school and of course I flunked everything then.  Until I got into a jam.  They made me coxswain of the boat in order to make an athlete out of me.  Oh – one of my best gags in it was I was at the Coliseum doing a warm-up with all the other athletes, see.  No people in the grandstand…14

[For the pole vault] I went and got Lee Barnes from USC – he was the Olympic champion.  When it comes to pole vaulting into a window – I mean, you’ve got to get somebody who knows what they’re doing.15

LUIS BUNUEL, surrealist filmmaker:  [College] was as beautiful as a bathroom, with a Hispano’s vitality.  We never stop smiling for an instant, not at [Buster Keaton], but at ourselves, with the smile of well-being and Olympian strength.16

Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928)

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BUSTER KEATON: The original story I had was about the Mississippi, but we actually used the Sacramento River in California, some six hundred miles north of Los Angeles.  We went up there and built that street front, three blocks of it, and built the piers and so on.  We found the river boats right there in Sacramento: one was brand new, and we were able to age the other one up to make it look as though it was ready to fall apart.  My original situation in that film was a flood.  Well, the publicity man on Steamboat Bill goes to [Joseph] Schenck and he says: “He can’t do a flood sequence because we have floods every year and too many people are lost.  It’s too painful to get laughs with.”  So Schenck told me, “you can’t do a flood.”  I said, “That’s funny, since it seems to me that Chaplin during World War I made a picture called Shoulder Arms, which was the biggest money-maker he’s made at that time.  You can’t get a bigger disaster than that, and yet he made his biggest laughing picture out of it.”  He said, “Oh, that’s different.”  I don’t know what it was different.  I asked if it was all right to make a cyclone, and he agreed that was better.  Now he didn’t know it, but there are four times more people killed in the United States by hurricanes and cyclones than by floods.  But it was all right as long as he didn’t find that out, and so I went ahead with my technical man and did the cyclone.17

There’s a pretty good beating in Steamboat Bill – working in front of those wind machines is tough.  We had six of those machines and they were those big Liberty motor babies.  One of them – in the course of a shot of running a truck full of paper boxes – about the size of shoe boxes – between me and the camera, that wind just emptied all the shoe boxes off onto me – just for one shot.  We took a truck past there once and that one machine blew it off the bank, and it rolled into the Sacramento River.  That’s how powerful those wind machines are.18

[For the falling house front] I had them build the framework of this building and make sure that the hinges were all firm and solid.  It was a building with a tall V-shaped roof, so that we could make this window up in the roof exceptionally high.  An average second story window would be about twelve feet, but we’re up about eighteen feet.  Then you lay this framework down on the ground, and build the window around me.  We built the window so that I had a clearance of two inches on each shoulder, and the top missed my head by two inches and the bottom my heels by two inches.  We mark that ground out and drive big nails where my two heels are going to be.  Then you put that house back up in position while they finish building it.  They put the front on, painted it, and made the jagged edge where it tore away from the main building; and then we went in and fixed the interiors so that you’re looking at a house that the front has blown off.  Then we put up our wind machines with the big Liberty motors.  Now we had to make sure that we were getting our foreground and background wind effect, but that no current ever hit the front of that building when it started to fall, because if the wind warps her she’s not going to fall where we want her, and I’m standing right out front.  But it’s a one-take scene and we got it that way.  You don’t do those things twice.19

MGM

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BUSTER KEATON:  The biggest mistake I made in my career was leaving my own studio and going to MGM.  Chaplin warned me, so did Lloyd – but Joe Schenck talked me into it.20  So many times I’ve thought it all over.  I thought of this:  Joe Schenck was still an independent.  I don’t know if it was human nature, greed, or power, but the big companies were out to kill the independents.  Motion pictures were becoming the finest trust you ever saw.  So I thought, Perhaps they’re after Schenck.  He was too big to knock down, but maybe his brother Nick at MGM said, “Look Joe, it’s hurting business.”  Could be.  In fact, within two more years Joe…quit independent production entirely.  Joe went on and became head of Twentieth Century-Fox.  But if that was his real reason, why didn’t he tell me?  We were friends.21

LOUISE BROOKS, actress:  I think Joe Schenck was the first old turtle Darwin saw when the Beagle anchored off the Galapagos – certainly not a cuddly “father figure” for Keaton.  Anyhow, Buster, like Peter Pan, didn’t want a father.  He had his magic world of film production and his house rigged like a Douglas Fairbanks set – or Peter Pan’s ship.22

JAMES KAREN, actor:  He would never say a rotten word about Schenck.  Once I blew up and said what was on my mind: “Look, he made a fortune off you and then he destroyed you!”  Buster got up and walked away from me.23

LAWRENCE WEINGARTEN, Keaton’s MGM Producer:  When he came to us he had been working for Joseph M. Schenck in the early days of The General and The Navigator, and then his popularity started to wane, and Mr. Schenck was trying to find some way to get rid…of some of the contract…So we took the contract.  He could have gone on his own, nobody asked him to sign the contract at Metro…24

The Cameraman (1928)

BUSTER KEATON: The Cameraman is one of my pet pictures.  It’s the simplest story that you can find, which was always a great thing for us if we could find it.  I was a tintype cameraman down at Battery Park, New York.  Ten cents a picture.

I saw the Hearst Weekly [newsreel] man and a script girl with him that I got one look at and fell hook, line, and sinker.  Well, immediately, I went down and sold my tintype thing to a second-hand dealer and bought a second-hand motion-picture camera.  And of course I got one of the oldest models there was – a Pathe.  And I went to the Hearst offices…and they got one look at me and my equipment and says, “no”. [Laughs]  The girl saw me make the attempt and she says, “There’s only one way you can do anything.  You gotta go out and photograph somethin’ of interest.  And if they see it and they can use the film you shoot, they’ll but it from you.” Well, I set out to be a newsreel cameraman.  And of course I had my problems.25  Marceline Day was the leading girl in it.  [In the film] I finally got a date with her, and it was raining in New York cats and dogs.  I managed to get her to her house, and she kissed me on the cheek, good-night.  Well, I just went right off on Cloud One.  I just started down the street, and it was raining.  I was drowned, and “Eddie” [Harry] Gribbon was a cop, and he had on his raincoat…he just walked along with me for half a block looking at me while I just stared into space, peaceful.  He finally sat me down, and he examined my eyes, tried my reflexes…26

…[Later] I got mixed up in that Tong War down there and because they saw me photographin’ they came at me.  I didn’t seem to have any choice but to just leave my camera and dive out the window into a fire escape and get away from ’em.  And then go ahead and round out the story.  We previewed it and we thought the last reel was a good reel…and the last reel just died the death of a dog.  It dawned on us what it was.  I deserted the camera.  So I had to go back and remake that – even with the trouble of tryin’ to get away from…the Tong War.  I still kept my camera.  Then it was all right.  (Laughs)  It was O.K.27

HAROLD GOODWIN, actor, The Cameraman:  We had no sooner started [filming] The Cameraman than trouble started.  [Director Edward] Sedgwick, whom I had made many pictures with, called me aside one day and confided, unbeknownst to B.K., that the front office had called him in.  They wanted to know why we weren’t following the script.  Ed explained that often a situation arises that has comedy potential and B.K. Liked to milk it for all it is worth.  The brass wanted to know how they could budget a show if we didn’t follow the script.  Some thinking!28

FRANK DUGAS, assistant cameraman:  [Keaton and the crew] sat talking like they were around a campfire.  “Will this be funny?””Let’s try this out.”  Buster knew film from A to Z.  He dug in like a flea on a dog, until he reached down to the skin, until he knew he had something terrific.29

BUSTER KEATON:  Irving Thalberg was in charge of production and he wanted – oh – I wasn’t in trouble enough trying to manipulate a camera as a cameraman, trying to photograph current events as a news weekly cameraman.  In The Cameraman, Thalberg wanted me involved with gangsters, and then get in trouble with this one and that one, and that was my fight – to eliminate those extra things.30

Talking Pictures

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BUSTER KEATON:  … in ’29 I made Spite Marriage.  That was the last of the silents.  In the start of the season of 1930 was our first sound picture.  Then I made six more for MGM in the next three years.  But in every picture it got tougher…too many cooks.  Everybody at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was in my gag department, including Irving Thalberg.  They were joke happy.  They didn’t look for action; they were looking for funny things to say.  You just keep fighting that, see.

Then, of course, when you give me…Jimmy Durante [as a costar] – they just brought him in there to play a part in a picture with me.  Well, Durante just can’t keep quiet.  He’s going to talk no matter what-in-the-thunder happens.  You can’t direct him any other way.31

LAWRENCE WEINGARTEN:  Keaton was doing a certain amount of business.  And we thought that Durante..in this particular role, would be fine, that’s all.  We weren’t thinking of bolstering him.  There were a number of pictures made, we tried out best.  If it wasn’t good enough, that’s another thing.  But we didn’t set out to destroy Buster…If anything we kept him alive longer…Some of [the MGM] pictures did much more than his original silent pictures, but he was the victim of change.  Sound comedy is a different thing entirely.  Sound comedy is about what people say, not what they do.  We tried to combine both.32

BUSTER KEATON:  But I know for a finish, they were picking stories and material without consulting me, and I couldn’t argue them out of it.  They’d say, “This is funny,” and I’d say, “I don’t think so.”  They’d say, “This’ll be good.”  I’d say, “It stinks.”  It didn’t make any difference; we did it anyhow.  I’d only argue so far, and then let it go.  And I knew better.  I got to the stage where I didn’t give a darn whether school kept or not, and then I started drinking too much.33

MARION MACK:  … his [first] marriage went on the rocks, and they wouldn’t let him make films the way he wanted to make them, and I felt really sorry for him.  That’s what I think drove him to drink.34

J.J. COHN, MGM General Manager:  I wasn’t aware of his drinking problems.  Occasionally [Louis B.] Mayer would give parties and I’d see Keaton there, but he was always fine.  He wasn’t difficult, a nice man who had a lot to say about his work.35

HAROLD GOODWIN:  He had cocktails.  He started drinking later when he was running into so much trouble with Larry Weingarten.36

LAWRENCE WEINGARTEN:  Buster, in those days, was an alcoholic and he was in a place called The Keeley Cure, down on Wilshire Boulevard, that dried out drunks.  That was the only problem I ever had with Buster Keaton.  I didn’t know it was a problem…37

BUSTER COLLIER, actor:  Buster Keaton needed excitement.  But deeper than that, he loved to make everybody happy, liked his gang around.  So it became two drinks in the evening, then four, and then the sky’s the limit.

He was well informed and intelligent.  But he was sensitive, almost abnormally so… Buster didn’t have that hard shell of ego.  As a rule, you came out of vaudeville tough as nails.

I saw it begin to happen.  I loved and admired the guy too much to stick around and watch it.  We drifted apart.  I tried to talk to him, but his gang had made a wall around him; he didn’t feel like facing anything unpleasant.  When he started to go, he really went.  What do you say about Buster Keaton?  He was just too nice a guy.38

BUSTER KEATON:  It only takes about two bad pictures in a row to put the skids under you.  [After leaving MGM] I tried making a picture in Mexico, found that was impossible.  I tried making one… in England.  I did one in France.  Oh, it was a bad picture.  It was impossible to make those types of pictures there.  I couldn’t do it in Mexico, although I had a funny story for Mexico.  But getting them done right…

I was called [back to MGM] to “play [script] doctor” to three [Red] Skelton pictures…Skelton remade three of my pictures that MGM gave him to do…in those three remakes, the second picture didn’t compare to the original for laughs or entertainment.  Now, all for one reason: the writers…and the producers insisted on improving the originals. So, all three pictures died of improvement.  39

Skelton’s first love was radio, and yet nobody could do a better scene on the screen that Skelton without opening his trap, but he’d do it anyhow – ad lib…[and] he’d go to his dressing room on the stage between scenes and he wasn’t worrying about what he was going to do in the next scene.  He’d go in there and write gags…for his radio script. Well, that used to get my goat because, my God, when we made pictures, we ate, slept, and dreamed them!40

LEWIS JACOBS, producer:  It seemed to me that [MGM was] buying off their own conscience [by re-hiring Keaton as a gag writer] – at a hundred bucks a week.  He was one of the skeletons in the MGM closet.  The older writers said that Buster Keaton saved Metro in the critical days.  Made millions for them.  Buster Keaton is a genius – and MGM can’t use him!  The older and sadder he got, the more touching and compelling became the clown.41

Television

JIMMY TALMADGE, Keaton’s son:  [My wife and I had] the first TV set on our block, a ten-inch GE that weighed a ton.  My dad came over the first weekend we had it.  All afternoon he sat mesmerized in front of this thing.  Maybe it wasn’t the first time he’d see TV, but it was the first time he’d sat down and actually watched it.  At dinner, I remember him saying, “This is the coming thing in entertainment.”  Now this was at the time when…many others were saying TV was a fad that would soon disappear.42

BUSTER KEATON:  I love television.  It gives you new life, but I only like television to work to an audience live.43  When I first tried a television show, when it was a young business, we were working to an audience.  Then later on they talked me into doing ’em just to a silent motion picture camera.  Well, it didn’t work, because no matter what you did, it looked like something that had been shot thirty years ago.  It just looked old-fashioned, but the same material done in front of a live audience [didn’t].  People sitting in their living room where there are only three or four people…don’t laugh out loud to start the others laughing.  It is not like being in a motion picture theater where you got a couple thousand people there to help you laugh.  And the canned laughs are absolutely no good at all.  They don’t ring true at all.44

I think in making a program picture today you’re just asking for trouble.  You can’t get your money back…you’ve got to get into one of those big things in order to get your money back.  I’m anxious to see the day when television and the motion picture industry marry and set out a system, because it can’t continue the way it is.  I see only one solution to it.  There should be paid television, and they could keep the costs so low that the poorest man in the world could have a television; they can keep the entertainment low priced.  And in that way you’d make pictures exactly the way you used to make them before television – I mean, you’d think nothing of spending a million and a half for a program picture.45

Fade Out

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RAYMOND ROHAUER, film archivist:  [Keaton] wasn’t particularly interested in saving [his films].  He didn’t care.  But it didn’t make any difference what he said.  I had to [save them].  It’s a compulsion.46

STAN BRAKHAGE, experimental filmmaker:  [Rohauer] was a strange man with very kinky habits, one of the weirdest people I’ve ever met.  You have to give the devil his due.  With his wild and sometimes vicious love of film, Rohauer did more to preserve meaningful work than any museum in the world.  It was his one good deed…47

ELEANOR KEATON, Buster Keaton’s third wife:  He got crazy on the subject of Buster.  Raymond was a fighter, but he was greedy and grabbed every still and poster he could find.  Some of it was trash.  But he didn’t want anyone else to have it.48

JOEL GROSS, screenwriter:  Raymond’s reputation didn’t bother me.  Because despite all the talk, he was the guy who had worked with Buster to save the films and win his rights back.  Others profited but didn’t do a thing for Buster.49

WALTER KERR, theatre critic:  Buster Keaton’s films were sorely neglected for twenty-five years.  In the recent excitement that has come of their rediscovery…he has been hailed, here and there, not only as Chaplin’s equal, but as Chaplin’s superior.  Let Chaplin be king, and Keaton court jester.  The king effectively rules, the jester tells the truth.50

ORSON WELLES:  Keaton was beyond all praise…a very great artist, and one of the most beautiful men I ever saw on the screen.  He was also a superb director.  In the last analysis, nobody came near him.  Now, finally, Keaton’s been “discovered”.  Too late to do him any good of course – he lived all those long years in eclipse, and then, just as the sun was coming out again, he died.  I wish I’d known him better than I did.  A tremendously nice person, you know, but also a man of secrets.  I can’t even imagine what they were.51

MARION MACK:  Buster was really a shy person.  Some people said he was aloof, but his aloofness was mostly just shyness, I think.  He wasn’t easy to know very closely.   At first I felt a little bit, I’d say, ignored or slighted, but then he got a bit more friendly as he lost some of his shyness, and he turned out to be a very nice and warm person.  And a very humble one, too, that’s the surprising part.

That was the real Buster: funny as hell on the screen and a true friend off the screen.  They just don’t make them like that anymore.  He was the best of them all.52

BUSTER KEATON:  …I’m not sentimental by nature.  Sure I miss the Keystone Cops and Mack Sennett and Stan [Laurel] and Oliver [Hardy] and the rest, but I don’t moon over the past.  I don’t have time.  I work more than Doris Day.

I drive by [the Motion Picture Relief Home] sometimes and talk to some of the old-timers, but it makes me so sad I don’t do it often.  They live in the past, I don’t.  One Easter Sunday I went to a party at Mary Pickford’s house.  Everybody from silent films was there.  I tried to have fun, but I discovered we had nothing to talk about.  Some of them had never heard a Beatles record.  They haven’t kept up with the times.  I had four friends who retired at the age of sixty-five and they were all dead within a year.  They simply had nothing to do, nothing to occupy their minds.  I have so many projects coming up I don’t have time to think about kicking the bucket.  People are always telling me I’m immortal.  I just might prove them right.  Hell, the way I feel, I just might live forever.53

Edited by Hank Curry

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