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Buster Keaton: Tempest in a Flat Hat

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Edward McPherson’s Buster Keaton: Tempest in a Flat Hat is an intriguing, if somewhat unsatisfying, biography of one of the greatest comedians of the silent era. I’ve been trying to identify exactly what bothered me about it and I can’t quite put my finger on it. Perhaps it is the quasi-academic style McPherson seems to adopt; perhaps it is just that the whole isn’t quite the sum of the parts.

The book works on two levels: first, as a recounting of Keaton’s life, which is admittedly quite fascinating stuff; and second, as an in-depth exploration of his films, which is undoubtedly worthwhile although somewhat difficult without much in the way of visual comparison (the book does feature a 40 black and white photographs, but they don’t necessarily relate to the film critiques). McPherson attempts to marry these two components together by merging the cinematic critiques directly into his narrative – and it is, I think, this marriage that doesn’t quite work for me.

Nonetheless, the book admirably takes its subject in hand. Keaton’s parents were both vaudeville performers, and Keaton himself was quickly worked into the act at a young age when his precocious curiosity meant that he kept interrupting them. This makes for one of the most entertaining interludes in the book: the discussion of how Keaton’s parents kept trying to avoid the oversight of a group of New York citizens opposed to child labor. It also highlights the fact that Keaton spent only one day in organized school: the teacher sent him home for being disruptive, and Keaton was “home schooled” from then on.

While still a touch on the dry side, I thought that it was in the portrayal of Keaton’s early years that McPherson was actually at his best in terms of pure biography. Recounting stories of Keaton’s prank-playing at the Keaton’s “summer home” were highly entertaining (Keaton came by his love of gadgets honestly – as the collapsible outhouse he designed proves). And it was fascinating to learn how much of Keaton’s early life is shrouded in dissembling – be it by his father or Keaton himself. Even the tale of how Keaton came by his memorable nickname (after a fall down a flight of stairs) must be embellished by the suggestion that it was Harry Houdini himself who first applied the moniker to the young boy.

Keaton’s “prime” was really only a few short years during the 1920s, before the emergence of sound. Many think that sound recording killed the careers of numerous stars of the silent era, and the memorable musical Singin’ in the Rain captures much of the uncertainty of those tumultuous early days. But unlike Chaplin (who largely rejected the idea that sound recording ought to alter cinema), Keaton was willing to embrace the new technology just as he dove headlong into filmmaking to begin with. Unfortunately, he was the victim of studio politics and the insistence that he operate within the boundaries of the studio system (previously, he had been far more inclined to spontaneous story development). And as a result, his career faltered, then failed (as did his first two marriages).

The book traces the evolution of Keaton’s film career from his early days working with Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, himself one of the huge stars of the early days of film ultimately brought low by scandal. McPherson recounts with glee the two men’s preoccupation with elaborate practical jokes, many of them quite humorous (and, as was often the case with Keaton, quite complicated). It tracks the Keaton’s rise even as Arbuckle faded in the face of a murder trial (he was ultimately acquitted, but was left a broken man). But it also shows Keaton’s loyalty to his friend, an admirable quality that we often don’t associate with the “cutthroat” world of Hollywood (Keaton made certain that a portion of the profits of his independent studio went to Arbuckle).

Clearly, McPherson enjoys Keaton’s films; according to the materials, he “immersed” himself in more than 60 of Keaton’s films. And it shows, in that the narrative flow of Keaton’s life is interspersed with detailed descriptions of the films he was making. These descriptions are interesting, but at the same time distract somewhat from the narrative flow. And it is in the later sections that this becomes more pronounced, until the film analysis almost takes the primary role in McPherson’s mind. In those latter sections, the details of Keaton’s life almost breeze by – the failing marriage, the studio fights, the drinking, the fall from grace. Candidly, I would have liked more about the man.

All that said, McPherson’s book is a worthy homage to one of the true greats of cinema. Keaton’s elaborate sets, daredevil stunts, and innovative film techniques advanced the art of film as a form of entertainment. And it was very pleasant to learn of Keaton’s ultimate redemption in the early days of television, something I did not really know much about. Some people don’t live to see their work appreciated; Keaton’s revival came within his own lifetime. Readers of Buster Keaton: Tempest in a Flat Hat who come looking to learn about both Keaton and his films won’t be disappointed, even if the narrative itself isn’t quite as strong as one might like.

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About Bill Wallo

  • As an avid fan of Buster Keaton, I envision this book on my coffee table in the near future.

    Thank you for the wonderful review!

  • Wonderful review! After reading it, I’ve decided to get the book and read it as well. I’m a big Keaton fan and own many of his movies on DVD, and your review has left me with the feeling that I’ll gain lots of valuable knowledge and some fun as well through “Tempest in a Flat Hat.”

  • This book review has been selected for Advance.net. You’ll be able to find this and other Blog Critics reviews at such places as Cleveland.com’s Book Reviews column.