Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker’s Life by James Curtis - review by Christopher Silvester

Christopher Silvester

He Played It Straight for Laughs

Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker’s Life


Alfred A Knopf 810pp £30

It was Dick Van Dyke, a television comedy star of the 1960s, who gave the eulogy at Buster Keaton’s funeral in 1966. This might seem odd, but Keaton had said in an interview that he admired Van Dyke over Bob Hope because he had ‘that knack of doing things funny’, as opposed to just delivering funny lines. Returning the compliment, Van Dyke said of Keaton, ‘Comedy was not his profession. It was his point of view.’

Keaton was the ‘action’ comedian par excellence: watch him tumble down a steep sand dune and dive headlong into five and a half somersaults, or grab the handrail at the back of a passing tram and be dragged into the air in a horizontal position before pulling himself onto the tram. Even in his last but one film, Dick Lester’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966), which he made while he was dying of lung cancer (though he had not been given a diagnosis), his part consisted of ‘mostly running’. ‘He’d finish a sequence racking and coughing, looking a hundred years old. But his legs were magnificent,’ Lester recalled. He even stepped into the shoes of a stuntman who had been knocked down by a passing chariot that was supposed to miss him, and ‘did it perfectly’ in a single take.

As a baby, Buster refused to stay in his crib for long. Once he had discovered the ground, so his mother said, he took to scuttling around ‘like a crawdad on a creek bottom’. His parents, Joe and Myra Keaton, were itinerant comedians. One day he scuttled onto

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