Buster’s last stand – An Irishman’s Diary about one of the 20th century’s great comedians
Buster Keaton: his years of being flung into the scenery, or even sometimes the orchestra pit, equipped him to perform all his own stunts
The great comedian Buster Keaton was not an Irish-American (or not much of one, anyway) contrary to what many people think. But he did start his career pretending to be Irish, so the idea may have caught on there.
From a very early age – six months, according to some accounts – he was part of his parents’ vaudeville routine. Not long afterwards, he graduated to a speaking role, giving cheek to his stage-Irish father. Thus, as the child character in an act called “The Three Keatons” , was he launched to fame.
The key moment appears to have been when the real-life Joe Keaton decided to dress his son as a miniature stage Paddy, will bald-pate wig, red sideburns, and outsized trousers.
Soon, his mini-me was mimicking everything the old man did, and getting big laughs.
No, it probably wouldn’t work now. But circa 1900, native New York audiences found it an hilarious depiction of the some of the new Americans who were still arriving in the city in large numbers.
Not everyone laughed, it’s true. The New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children didn’t see the funny side of Buster’s character being beaten up for entertainment every night. In general, they disapproved of the exploitation of child actors. So, gradually, did the law.
In the meantime, however, The Three Keatons filled US theatres for years. And it was only his father’s real-life alcoholism that finally pushed the act into retirement.
By then, Buster had long established himself as its real star – ready for a solo career in which his years of being flung into the scenery, or even sometimes the orchestra pit, equipped him to perform all his own stunts.
His greatest years were the 1920s, before the coming of the talkies and other misfortunes (the inevitable drinking included) pitched him into a decade-long decline, from which he gradually re-emerged in late middle age.
And it was a mark of the respect in which he was held that, during what proved the penultimate year of his life, he was chosen to play the main role in a Samuel Beckett-scripted film (called simply Film), albeit only after Charlie Chaplin, Jack McGowran and Zero Mostel had all proved unavailable.
This was, in a way, a return to his 1920s heyday, since Film had no dialogue. But in most other respects, it was unlike anything he had ever done, and he didn’t enjoy it much. Although it wasn’t Beckett’s intention, the project might even be considered Ireland’s revenge for The Three Keatons.
Film was inspired by an idea of the 18th-century Irish philosopher George Berkeley that “to be is to be perceived”. It revolves around the interplay between a character named “E” (the camera) and one named “O” (Keaton), who seems to be trying to escape the torture of perception by others, but is unable to escape the most oppressive perceiver – himself. Unfortunately, even the director, to whom Beckett explained things, found the script “fairly baffling when not downright inscrutable”. Keaton, who wasn’t similarly briefed, had no idea what it was about.
In a later interview, he said cryptically that, after reading the work, he had asked Beckett “if he ate Welsh rarebit before he went to bed at night”.
There are no laughs in Film, certainly not of the kind Keaton was used to provoking. But accounts of his and Beckett’s clash of personalities while making it have a definite comic value. The famously austere playwright seems to have been out of his league for once, trying to coax conversation from the poker-faced, monosyllabic Keaton, and failing utterly.
Film baffled critics too. “A load of old bosh” was one British reviewer’s verdict, while the New York Times, in an unconscious echo of the concerns of the Society for the Protection of Children 60 years earlier, thought it was a “cruel” misuse of an old movie star.
Against which must be weighed the verdict of the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, who declared it – courtesy of Beckett – “the greatest Irish film”.
And so, with odd circularity, did the curtain fall of Keaton’s career. There was time for only one or two other projects before he died, 50 years ago this Monday.