It's Travis' Turn column: In praise of Buster Keaton
The following is an opinion column written by an Echo Press editorial staff member. It does not necessarily reflect the views of the Echo Press.
Buster Keaton saved my life on the night of Oct. 15, 1995, even though he had died 29 years before that. I'll explain later.
I've been thinking about Keaton a lot lately, due to the recent release of a mammoth 832-page biography of him written by James Curtis. I'm not that far into it yet, but as of now, it does not appear to be one of those biographies that makes you hate the person it's about.
Keaton's story is one of those rise-and-fall affairs that always makes for interesting reading. Born in 1895 to a pair of Vaudevillians, he was on stage from toddlerhood onward. In the late 1910s he began to appear in movies with Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, and following this period began working in films as a solo act.
Between 1920 and 1928, Keaton was an independent filmmaker and produced a body of work that, for sheer originality and invention, is unmatched before or since in the history of moviemaking.
Then, in 1928, his producer, Joe Schenck, sold his contract to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and he never had creative freedom again. Within five years he'd become an alcoholic, was divorced by his wife and was fired by MGM after making a series of truly crappy movies for them.
After that, he starred in low-budget shorts, wrote gags for Red Skelton, eventually quit binge-drinking (for the most part) and married the love of his life. Unlike many of us, he was able to find personal happiness.
But, he never got to make another one of his movies.
People spend a lot of time talking about that, and about how it wasn't fair. They're right — it wasn't fair, but so is dwelling on it. For his part, Keaton never did. When someone asked him if he was bitter about going to MGM years later to write gags for $200 a week after having been paid $3,000 a week by them when he was still a star, his answer was simple.
"If I'm worth more, they'll pay me more."
Back to October 1995. I received a stack of four videotapes (remember those?) from my grandfather that constituted the majority of Keaton's silent independent work and began watching them. To my surprise, they were some of the best movies I have ever seen, and to this date, they remain so.
Despite what I said earlier, I will not explain how I feel he saved my life. It's a bit too personal. What I will say is this: When everything seems very, very bad, it can help to know that something very, very good exists.
For a little while — in his career, at least — Buster Keaton got to do exactly what he wanted. Luckily, we still have his work from that era. (Not everyone is so fortunate — 75% of all silent films are now considered lost forever.) Nineteen short films and 10 features. That's what people should dwell on — not the bad times, but the fact that he had total freedom for eight years of his life.
Most of us don't have it for one.
“It’s Our Turn” is a weekly column that rotates among members of the Echo Press editorial staff.