Where Buster Met Fatty

[Originally posted to WWBKD on March 8, 2017]

In “When Buster Met Fatty,” my post last week, we learned that Buster Keaton arrived in New York in February of 1917 on his own for the first time. He was 21 years old and looking to up his game. A trained vaudevillian, he’d always performed with his parents; but now he was flying solo.

Monday, February 26th is the date (I have surmised) for when Keaton showed up at the office of his agent Max Hart, located near Times Square. Hart set Keaton up with an excellent gig performing with The Passing Show of 1917, which would soon begin its run at the Winter Garden Theater on Broadway. It was a sweet position to snag — as it paid $250/week and came with the job security of knowing he would be employed for at least the 6 month New York run and probably for the next year if he chose to travel with the show. Keaton was well pleased with this turn of events.

The next few days must have been a whirlwind. He’d only just relocated in New York, and needed to secure a place to stay and take care of logistics. He needed to write to his mother and let her know the good news and he needed to think about how to adapt his routines for an act of 1 instead of 3. It was a lot for a young man to be getting on with.  The cold, windy weather and the constant news of intensifying international events had to be the counterpoint to what was sure to be an otherwise cheerful outlook on what life was handing him.  I imagine it felt a bit like a crossroads as Keaton hung around New York waiting for rehearsals to begin and thinking about life, his career and the impending war.

One day, not long after the meeting with Hart — on Thursday March 8th* [or, in light of new evidence, Thursday March 15th] (I have deduced in the Holmesian sense) — Keaton was walking down the street thinking about his routine for The Passing Show when he ran smack dab into an old friend, Lou Anger. He’d known Lou from the old vaudeville days and they stopped to chat. Anger was walking (maybe) with another man Keaton knew by reputation only — a movie star. This was Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, a large presence in every sense of the word in the burgeoning film industry. Arbuckle and Anger chatted with Keaton awhile that day, telling him about how Anger had left the world of performing in order to manage a movie studio for Joseph Schenck and how they’d wooed Arbuckle away from Mack Sennett Comedies in order to be the star and director of short comedies for this new endeavor.  The film studio (Colony Studios, it was called) was an umbrella for several production teams, including the one Fatty headed known by the crazy, unpronounceable French name “Comique.”

Lou is on the far right – opposite side of photo from Buster

They delighted Keaton with their stories and of course the conversation wound back around to Buster. Had he ever been on a movie set? they wondered and, would he like to see theirs?

The answers were “no” and “why not,” and the appointment to go see it was set.

The following day (or possibly on Monday depending on which account you believe), Keaton made his way over to Colony Studios to see what all the fuss was about.  When he got there a lot of things happened. Arbuckle, knowing Keaton was a clutch comedian, asked him to do a small part in the film he was shooting — The Butcher Boy. It went extremely well and, by the end of the day, Buster was dying to get inside the film camera, understand the cutting process, the projection room and all of the mechanics. He almost instantly was struck with the enormous potential of this medium and fascinated by it. Fatty, too, was excited about working with Buster and picked away at his reserve. Do another scene? Finish this film with us? Why don’t you just stay on with us? Keaton didn’t need much arm twisting. He was hooked from the moment he first examined the motion picture camera.

Keaton got that first taste of filmmaking, impressed Arbuckle, gained a friend and mentor (even happened to meet his future wife) and began a path of filmmaking genius the likes of which the world would be lucky to ever see again. Soon,  I will start blogging about the films this collaboration produced in celebration of the Centennial anniversary of the release of each! But first, I am taking the time to reconstruct the details of that first meeting.

I previously reported on my research, analysis, sleuthing (and just plain guess work) that led to the unpicking of the exact dates of these fateful meetings, but now, I want to apply my skills to the question, not of when, but of where Buster Met Fatty.

First, there is one preliminary matter to clear up.

I am working with the assumption that Buster and Fatty met while they were walking in the street. Two descriptions of the event appear when Keaton recalls and recounts the details in various biographies and interviews. One is that Buster ran into Lou Anger in the street and that Lou invited Buster back to the studio where he met Arbuckle. If you are a subscriber to this first path, then the question seems much more straightforward! And the answer is pretty clear – they met at 318 E 48th Street – a big loft / warehouse type building – on the 3rd floor where Fatty Arbuckle ran his film company. If you instead like the second path, the idea that Buster ran into both Lou and Fatty in the streets of New York, the question is much more difficult to solve and is probably never going to be knowable with pinpoint accuracy.

Actually, I don’t have a super strong opinion on which of these paths is the right one. I can visualize them both quite nicely, but I would say that the meeting in the street seems to have the weight of the authority in its favor. It comes from several accounts: the Keaton Autobiography “My Wonderful World of Slapstick” and numerous interviews [Pratt, 1958; Bishop, Thomas, 1958; Feinstein, 1960; Brownlow, 1964] compared to the meeting at the studio account which comes mainly from Rudi Blesh’s biography “Keaton”, a book which may have taken a few liberties with the narration of these facts in order to make for a compact and simple story.

If they did bump into each other on the streets of New York City, just where did Buster and Fatty meet?

There are lots of great signposts on the trail.

Colony Film Studio: 318 48th Street

from Smithsonian article

Arbuckle’s film studio is a natural place to start in our investigation.  It was located on the 3rd floor of a warehouse building at 318 48th Street.

A few details are known about this location, and for that I thank others who have visited and blogged about it. It seems that, as recently as 2012, a portion of the building still existed and housed a parking garage. Unfortunately, fairly recently, the government of Singapore bought the building for $30 million – in order to be near the UN which is just down the street.  This warehouse had become primo real estate. Apparently they really gutted it and nothing original remains.

In any case, even if Keaton and Arbuckle did not meet here, this place is interesting for any Keaton fan because it is the place they got to know each other and where Keaton got his start in films. And, I think we have to assume that if Keaton and Arbuckle met in the street, such a meeting would’ve had to have been nearby! First of all, the Blesh account tells us that when they met in the street the studio was “just a few blocks over on 48th.” (p. 85).  We should also consider that Fatty Arbuckle and Lou Anger both worked at this location. They were out walking together, possibly mid-morning (based on Keaton’s account in the Blesh book that he’d sat down to breakfast then was walking around when he bumped into them. The question is how far would men like Anger and Arbuckle have been away from their studio base?

I don’t know. I can just throw a few more facts out there. Lou Anger died of a heart attack at age 68 in 1946. On the date of bumping into Keaton, he was about 39 years old. From the photo above, he looks like a reasonably strappy guy, but he also looks pretty dapper. Would walking around Manhattan have been his thing? Fatty Arbuckle weighed a purported 260 lbs. Now, I am the first to admit that Fatty was fit. Look at him springing about and dancing in his movies. However, that said, I don’t really see him as a big walker.

Truth is, I see this pair as being tethered to the film studio by a distance of about a mile radius from their studio. Obviously that is just a wild guess. But I really do think we should try and come up with a plan to keep them close by.

Keaton’s digs: 368 W. 50th Street

This is super exciting news to report: I found Buster Keaton’s New York address, as it appeared in the May 1917 New York phone directory! 368 W. 50th. (So excited about this).  I don’t know for sure that Keaton was already in this apartment by the date of the meeting, but I think its a good bet. Buster was new to NY when he went to see Max Hart looking for work. From all accounts he meant to stay in NY. Then he got a great job. There would have been no reason to delay and I imagine he would have put time in to finding regular living arrangement and getting out of his hotel right away.

My analysis has him spending over a week in town before he met Arbuckle on March 8th/15th.  Thus, I think he would have had time to have moved into an apartment by day he met Fatty.  Note that he was living in this same location in the October 1917 phone book, thus, this was obviously a quasi-permanent address for him. Even if he didn’t live there yet, the idea that Keaton would have been staying in a hotel somewhere very close by makes a lot of sense too, especially given that the location is perfect!

I’ll show you in a minute on the map, but just know that this address is within an easy walking distance of his agent Max Hart located at 1564 Broadway, (talk about insanely valuable real estate by the way!),  the Winter Garden Theater where he’d be working, and a hub of stores, food, shows and excitement.

Blesh’s account of Keaton’s day that day

Biographer Rudi Blesh describes the day of the meeting with Keaton waking up, going to breakfast at “Childs” then walking around. Blesh tells us that every day it was Keaton’s habit to walk past the Winter Garden Theater. All these details are helpful and some can be pinpointed on a map.

The Winter Garden Theater is located at 1634 Broadway. That’s easy anyway.

“Childs” is another story. I wasn’t expecting to be able to find “Childs” at all (as I’d never heard of it), and instead found way too many Childs’! I was stunned to learn that there are practically dozens of Childs restaurants in New York City in 1917 according to the phone book. I looked for locations of the chain restaurant that were located in the right part of town and one immediately popped out as interesting. It was just a couple blocks from Keaton’s apartment and across the street from Max Hart’s office and a block down from the Winter Garden. It was located at 1546 Broadway.

Although there are about 4 other Childs restaurants that might be in contention in this approximate area of town, it feels like a pretty good bet that the one at 1546 Broadway would have been one Keaton frequented.

Where Buster said he was going –

Buster said he was: “walking down Broadway, down along 8th or someplace” (Bishop interview) when he ran into Fatty and Lou. The Blesh account has Keaton walking the streets and looking at window displays when he turned a corner and heard his name called. (The Pratt interview account also mentions that Keaton was walking along Broadway when he ran into the two men.)

There are a few things to consider here before we look at a map and put it all together.

First, Buster can’t be taken too strictly/literally with street locations. For instance he has referred to the film studio’s location variously as being between 2nd and 3rd and  being between 1st and 2nd. (In fact the later is true). When he says here that he was walking down Broadway “along 8th or someplace,” it is hard to make sense of that. Not being a New Yorker, I’m not sure I’m thinking about this right, but from what I can see on the map, there is an 8th Street and an 8th Avenue in Manhattan. Broadway runs at a gentle diagonal in this area from Central Park (around 58th St) to about 14th St where it straightens out. Broadway and 8th Street is an intersection in the Greenwich Village area, and would almost certainly not be where Keaton meant.

Broadway near 8th Ave. would almost certainly be what Keaton meant, however, it doesn’t really give us a pinpoint location, since the two streets run quasi-parallel for several blocks.

Here, lets take a look at the map:

The base map comes from a 1916 Atlas available online. Each of the grids was expandable and I pulled them up to inspect before pinpointing my markers on it. I don’t know the exact scale of the map, but can tell you that the distance between Max Hart’s office and Colony Studios is exactly 1 mile.

You can see that any further north along Broadway (toward Central Park) is going to make the walk back to the studio (for Lou and Fatty) longer than a mile. And you can see that the further south you get, the harder it is to say you are “along 8th.”

Unfortunately, we can also see that it’s going to be impossible to both be along Broadway and just a few blocks away from the studio.

I think the best we can do is pinpoint the meeting for somewehre along the section of Broadway that slices through grid 76 and grid 71. This area represents the closest that a spot on Broadway gets to Colony Studio — at about a mile.  And, best, it is smack in the middle of the hub of places we’ve been talking about all along: Times Square, Buster’s apartment, Childs’ restaurant, the Winter Garden Theater.

[New evidence came to light for me after drafting this post, while I was reading the preface to a book called “The Best of Buster” ed. Richard Anobile. Anoble simply states that the meeting was “rumored to have been in the vicinity of 46th St and Broadway.” This is awesome, as it totally confirms the location I was centering in on, in grid 71!]

If it were Buster’s habit to wake up, get breakfast at Childs down the street, then walk up, down, in and around Broadway to take in the view of the Winter Garden, he’d be well-positioned to run into Fatty and Lou right in this area and they, in turn, would be reasonably close enough to their place of business to be expected on foot in that area. I think we have a winner!

What fun it has been to apply sleuthing and the cold hard glance of logic to these hazy details from the past! I’ve always been so interested in when and where Buster met Fatty Arbuckle for the first time and taking the time to do this research has made me feel very close to the events.

It has also made me feel desperately interested in taking a road trip to New York to see all of these sites.

But now its time to let all of this slip back into a soft resting place. I’ll let my mental picture drift happily to the hazy black and white image of a young, confident and street savvy Buster Keaton walking along planning for the future he was on the verge of, then stumbling into a path that changed everything. As a fan I’m so grateful that the story unfolded as it did.


When Buster Met Fatty

[Originally posted to WWBKD on March 4, 2017]

This post is born of procrastination. It went like this: I said to myself, “Wow! You have to get started writing about when Buster met Fatty; it’s already March 1st.” (I knew I wanted to aim for a post date for around the centennial of that profoundly important moment: the day they met).  But, I didn’t feel like writing, so I thought, “hmmm, why don’t I see just how long I actually have? What date was it actually when they met?” I figured I might get lucky and be able to wait a week or two. “I’ll just look it up.” Ha. That’s when the fun began.

Despite valiant efforts (by which I mean 10 minutes on Google), I could not find anyone who could name the anniversary date. Worse! by searching, I found that now, even the month was suspect.  Although I had March in my head, some were saying February.  What gives?!

It turns out that in my desire to buy myself more time, I ended up creating a research project instead. [NOTE: After drafting this post, I became aware of a new piece of information. I will address this at the end of the post.]

I’m sorry to say that even after the best sleuthing I could bring to bear on this question, I still don’t know for sure what date to celebrate as their anniversary! But I do have a lot of really interesting information.

Loathe to blame my beloved. . . I have to admit that the uncertainty does seem traceable to the differing accounts the man himself has given of the meeting. I had ready access to several original sources: the 1966 biography by Rudi Blesh,  the autobiography “My Wonderful World of Slapstick” ghost written by Charles Samuels in 1960, and a couple of 1958 interviews with Buster (one with Christopher Bishop for “Film Quarterly” and another with George Pratt for “Image”).  Each of these gives a slightly different account of the time frame surrounding this fateful meeting. (I’m sure any additional sources you’d find would have its own nuanced account.) Maybe another print biographer has addressed this issue in more detail — anyone may feel free to share what they know in comments here — but for me, these sources are going to have to do.

Pretty much all of the accounts I’ve seen of Buster’s entrance into the movies are similar in the following essentials:

It is 1917. Keaton is now 21 years old. Keaton’s dad’s drinking problem has become untenable. The Three Keaton’s act is broken up and dad is left in California while Keaton and his mom travel to Michigan. A short time later, Keaton boards a train alone to New York — in the early months of the year.  Upon arriving, he immediately meets with an agent named Max Hart who gets him a gig (a very lucrative one) on Broadway in a production entitled “The Passing Show of 1917.”  In the short time between that meeting with Hart and the date at which rehearsals are set to begin on TPS1917, Keaton is walking down the street in New York City when he runs into his friend Lou Anger. Anger introduces Keaton to the movie star Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, who, in turn, introduces him to a movie set, where Arbuckle is shooting “The Butcher Boy.”  Keaton agrees to perform a bit role in that production, then falls in love with the process, the camera and the pictures. He joins Fatty’s team, drops out of TPS1917 and makes magical pictures for many years to come.

A lesser fan might just leave it at that. Really, it’s a pretty nice little story.  But, I’ve always been so fascinated with the particulars. Before we fast forward into the movies this partnership produced, lets rewind a bit and explore the meeting. How and when did it happen?

My sleuthing begins with the Blesh biography “Keaton”, which many still consider to be the bible. The book was written in nuanced detail with Keaton’s direct input and describes that trip to New York with many interesting tidbits of info.

As he describes the scene – it is a Monday morning in March (1917) and a dark, windy, cold, rainy day. A boy is hawking papers by shouting about another sunken ship, when Keaton makes his way to Hart’s office near Times Square (Ch. 9, p. 83).

One might think that the mention of the shipwreck would alone do the trick for pinpointing a date for Keaton’s meeting with Hart, but no; not even close. I was stunned to learn that sunk ships were a continual occurrence at this time. Wikipedia has a running list of sunken ships and it contains many, many entries for February and March 1917. If you (as I did) need a reminder, Europe was already at war and America was hardly safe.  (Wilson led America to officially join the action by declaring war on April 2, 1917). The weeks leading up to that were fraught with international incidents. As I perused newspapers for dates around this time, many of them mentioned U.S. boats (military, commercial, passenger) being sunk. In fact, Wilson lobbied congress for, and eventually won, a law requiring the arming of every U.S. vessel in the Atlantic due to this constant pressure. Pretty interesting stuff for a backdrop.

But I digress. It looks like a ship sinking alone wasn’t going to help me pinpoint a date.

Next I found a calendar. Although I grant that some details in the Blesh/Keaton account are certain to be fuzzy after such a long time, I think that the mentioning of it being a Monday is very helpful. In my estimation, days of the week (especially Mondays) tend to be properly remembered. Of course this is conjecture, but I imagine that Keaton remembered this day as a Monday because his train arrived in New York City on a Sunday. It makes sense to me that upon arriving he’d get the jump right away at start of business on Monday and go see his agent.  So I’d like to take him at his word and trust the Monday.  (Plus that gives me somewhere to start). The calendar shows the four Mondays in March 1917 to be the 5th, 12th, 19th and 26th.

Before we explore those, lets chip away at the other end of the range. Every account agrees that Keaton snagged a part in “The Passing Show” before it started rehearsals for its run.  Good news is that this was a pretty big deal. In fact, the production has an entry in the Internet Broadway Database (IBDB). (Did you even know there was such a thing? I did not!)  The lovely, amazing IBDB tells us that TPS1917 ran from April 26th – October 13th that year.  And all sources agree that Keaton met with Hart some time shortly before (between 4 days and 2 weeks before, depending on the source) rehearsals were set to begin.

found on http://mideastcartoonhistory.com/1917to1928.html

But when would we expect rehearsals to begin on a show of this sort??

Seriously, thank god for the internet. I was able to find a couple of anecdotal sources that point to rehearsals beginning “at least” four weeks prior to the show’s opening. (see Wikipedia article; also see article on Al Jolson related to a different iteration of The Passing Show suggesting he began rehearsals on March 15th that year.)

The good news is that placing the beginning of rehearsals in mid to late March probably rules out a first meeting with Max Hart on March 26th, and even makes the 19th much more dubious, pushing us to the early end of the date range.

So. . . within the Blesh world, I think the prime targets for Buster’s meeting with Hart would be Monday March 5th and Monday March 12th.  Problem is… no sinking ships on those days! Let me get back to that in a minute. For now, lets explore whether the 4-day timeframe for events, as spelled out in that bio, seems plausible. Hint: it doesn’t.

Consider the extraordinary pressures this version puts on the timeframe by having Buster arrive in New York (on a Sunday maybe?), meet with Hart on Monday, get immediately signed to TPS1917, meet with Lou Anger on the street on Thursday, then back to Fatty’s studio that day, make a decision to do the movies instead of Broadway, and do it all before rehearsals begin on TPS1917 on Friday.

I’m not saying it isn’t possible, but the timeline as it plays out in the Blesh book is a bit suspect. I am suspicious of because it seems too conveniently assembled to tell a story and streamline the logistics. Because the biographer’s caution with dates is suspect elsewhere, he does not strike me as the most reliable source for this kind of fact. For instance, just a few pages later (p. 95) Blesh remarks that “The Butcher Boy” (the film Fatty was making and on which Buster first appeared) “was completed in May.” But we know this is not the case. The film was released on April 23rd.  That’s a pretty big error.

I don’t doubt the good intentions of Blesh and Keaton; they were telling a story for the purpose of flow and simplicity. It sounds neat, decisive and quick. Such characteristics suit a book with the great 60s-era charm and compactness that this biography features. Things are smart and swift in this world. But I think the world is a bit off.

The timeline in “My Wonderful World of Slapstick” (published in 1960) is similar but has a couple significant changes. First, Keaton says he arrived in New York in February (rather than Blesh’s March). Further, the timeline is definitely more vague, and slightly suggestive of a more leisurely pace (after the meeting with Hart) for when Buster met Anger/Fatty: “a few days later I got the script of the revue. But just a day or two before rehearsals were to start, I ran into Lou Anger…”. Incidentally, the account is also different from Blesh’s in that it has Keaton running into both Anger and Arbuckle on the street. (Blesh has Keaton walking with Anger back to the studio where he met Arbuckle). Also, in MWWS, Arbuckle invites Keaton to come to the studio “tomorrow” — rather than seeing it that day. I think its possible that the autobiography — though certainly subjected to massaging and wordsmithing by Samuels — may give a more direct account from Keaton’s memories than we get from the embellished story-like Blesh book??

In any case, (I mean, its my blog and no one’s paying me to do this, so I guess I’m entitled to pick and choose as I see fit.) I tend to believe some of the nuanced details — like the Monday, the ship sinking, the weather — from the Blesh account (after all Blesh does state that Keaton “still recalls vividly”), but am more inclined to trust the pacing and the timeframe of the autobiography.

To help support that decision, I appeal to the other interview accounts. The Film Quarterly piece agrees with MWWS in having Keaton meet both Anger and Arbuckle together in the street. However, unlike MWWS (in which Keaton is invited to the studio “tomorrow”), Film Quarterly suggests the invitation was for Keaton to come down to the studio “on Monday.”  Importantly, in the FQ account, Keaton replies: “rehearsals [on TPS1917] don’t start for another week or so, so I’ll be down.”  This is significantly different than the Blesh book that has Keaton going to the studio immediately with Anger and the TPS1917 rehearsals set to begin the next day.  The final account I’ll mention (hang in there! we’re almost done!) is from the “Image” interview. It, too, fits better in the MWWS and FQ world than it does in the Blesh universe.  In it, Keaton states that “I had about ten days to wait for rehearsal to start when I met Roscoe Arbuckle on the street on Broadway.”  Keaton goes on to say that Arbuckle was to begin filming “tomorrow” and invited Keaton to join him at the studio.

I’m not sure we’ll really be able to unpick all of this, but I will say I am inclined to believe the more leisurely pace. I think we should push the initial meeting between Buster and Max Hart back as far as possible into early March or late February to make room for a number of days to pass before Buster runs into Anger (and Fatty) in the street, and for that meeting to take place at a time when the rehearsals for TPS1917 are still 10 days to maybe even 2 weeks in the future.

In short, if we can fairly pin the start of those rehearsals to somewhere between about March 22nd and March 29th, then that would give us a date range of maybe March 8th through March 19th for Buster Keaton to have met Fatty Arbuckle for the first time.

Not one to give up with that large date range quite so easily,  I returned to ship sinkings.  (Remember that this may be the key to pinning down a date for that first meeting with Max Hart). And I’m still sticking with Mondays for that one. I mean, it’s all I got.  This Hart meeting has to precede the Anger/Fatty meeting by at least 3 days in the tightest timeframe we have, so lets now look more closely at the most plausible Mondays: February 26th, March 5th, and March 12th. When we do this, something good happens. (Well, obviously, not really ‘good’ in any larger humanitarian sense, but you get the drift). The Laconia sank. (BTW, not the same boat that sank in WWII).

If we give any credence to the tidbit about the paperboy shouting about a ship sinking (and I’d like to), then I’d say for Keaton to remember that, it was probably a significant sinking.  The Laconia would have been such. And it was sunk on Sunday Feb 25th. The Monday morning News in New York City on Feb 26th 1917 would surely have featured it. (In fact, it did feature it. I looked.)  On the 5th of March, conversely, something else of interest was being reported — Wilson’s inauguration. (I had to double check this, figuring that seemed awfully late for inauguration day? But from what I can gather, accurate).  In any case, if Keaton remembered a ship sinking, then February 26th seems to be a better date than March 5th, when the Inauguration was the top news or the 12th when there was no ship sinking. There is another interesting U.S. ship sinking headline around this time, but it’s on Wednesday March 14th and that date doesn’t work well within anyone’s timeframes, whereas Monday February 26th does.

The only thing that remains is to check the weather.

This was not as easy as I thought it would be. Maybe someone else knows a better way, but since all the historical weather databases I could find dated back only to the mid-1940s, I had to look in the New York newspapers for the weather report. The ones I saw were vague and broad by today’s standards. They reported weather for the whole country on a regional scale, rather than local phenomena.  However, I would say that, from what I can gather by reading the New York Tribune for Monday 2/26 and Tuesday 2/27, Monday’s weather may indeed have been extra cold and rainy in the New York City area –though I’d ultimately love to confirm this with more sources and check the other dates around this time.

That said, I am going to go ahead and declare boldly that February 26th 1917 was the Monday when Keaton set foot in Max Hart’s office in New York City and asked for work. (I myself am perfectly convinced. You can obviously decide if you are). I like the way the date fits the events described in Blesh’s book; I like the way the date allows for time prior to rehearsals of The Passing Show for Buster to meet Arbuckle, visit his studio, take home a camera and tear it apart; return to the studio for good and ask Hart to tear up the contract for The Passing Show.

The only thing I don’t like is that it puts me behind the 8 ball, as it is already March 2nd! and I’m still writing this 🙂

But, wait. Stop! This does not solve the original question: WHEN DID BUSTER MEET FATTY, not Max Hart?

There, my friends, is the rub. If we buy Blesh’s timeframe and date the Keaton/Arbuckle encounter to the coming Thursday, a few days later, that would be March 1st. The problem is we are told in this (Blesh) account that rehearsals (on TPS1917) would start the next day. But, Friday March 2nd is getting to be nearly two months before the start of the production and that is probably too far out. If we instead buy into any one of the other accounts, then we have a lot more time to work with before Buster runs into Anger (and Fatty) on Broadway, but few anchors to pin down any particular day for the meeting.

Nonetheless, . . . (here I go again, borrowing from multiple accounts at will) I’m going to stick with the idea of the meeting taking place on a Thursday. I just like that part. It allows for a “tomorrow” date at the studio to make sense. And it allows for a “Monday” date at the studio to make sense.  How about instead of having the Thursday in question fall on that immediate one (the 1st), we consider that the meeting took place the following Thursday, March 8th.* [New info below]

Here’s why this works. It allows Buster to have over a week in New York, getting the script for TPS1917, taking care of logistics, going to shows and settling in, thinking about life (about impending war!), but not yet getting bored, when he runs into Lou Anger on the street. It comports with the calmer pace on display in most of the interview/personal accounts. And it allows Keaton to tell Lou/Fatty that rehearsals on TPS1917 are set to begin in soon and have this feel perfectly appropriate to the time when rehearsals likely started — maybe March 19th-ish — for a show that was set to begin on April 26th.  Keaton can meet Lou and Fatty in the street, get invited back to the studio, lets say, Friday March 9th or Monday March 11th. It gives the team a month to work on The Butcher Boy before it gets wrapped and released by April 23rd. Everything just falls into place.

YES! Eureka! I have found it. I’m sure this is it! (Despite what I said in the beginning about being unable to unpick it all. I think I just did.  March 8th is the day that Buster met Fatty.* [New info below].

And the very best news in all of this is that I get to take a bit more time to polish this post and make it beautiful before releasing it to the ethers ahead of time 🙂

New Info!

While perusing facebook this morning (3/20/17) I came upon something that stopped me in my tracks. Someone posted a photo taken of a Datebook that had belonged to Keaton and, I learned, is housed in the Margaret Herrick Library in Los Angeles, along with other Buster Keaton papers.

I can’t even begin to tell you how excited I am to learn of this resource. I simply had no idea that this type of archive existed. (I certainly smell a road trip coming on and am very hopeful that as a member of the public I will have access to Keaton’s papers. I will certainly update the blog with anything that I find there).

Bottom line, the image is incredibly interesting and bears directly on the issue of When Buster Met Fatty.

It appears to show Buster going to the film studio (for the first time?) on Monday March 19th. It gives an address for the studio on Tuesday and also mentions “The Butcher Boy” on what appears to be Thursday.

As exciting as this is, it is somewhat ambiguous as well. I am dying to lay eyes / hands on the original to examine it for clues. For instance, what if anything is written on the preceding page, or other pages? Did he use this regularly? Did he keep addresses and other info in it? How did he generally notate things? Did other entries seem to bleed into additional days? Does it appear that he wrote these things contemporaneously or that maybe he jotted things down to remember later?

As I look at this, I think it seems possible that all the writing relates to a single event, rather than three different days. It is interesting that he calls the studio “Paramount” on the first writing, then calls it “Norma Talmadge Studio” below that. I am also interested in the scribbling out that’s been done. If I could only see this in person. I’d love a chance to decipher what was underneath this. I’d also love a chance to see if Keaton has other things (and what kinds of things) written on the surrounding pages. But…. until a trip to LA is in my future, I’ll just have to make do with the plot thickening.

But most of all what I like about this diary is that (at least these cryptic notes) fit well into my overall unpicking and understanding of the beginnings of this New York adventure. I am still sticking with 90% of what I said here about Buster arriving in New York, about his meeting with Max Hart and about when rehearsals were likely to begin on The Passing Show. And I am pleased that I tried to slow down the rushed timeframe. The only thing is: maybe I didn’t slow things down quite enough. It turns out that instead of putting the meeting with Fatty on Thursday March 8th, we now have reason to push it back yet another week, to Thursday March 15th!

I’m really quite fine with the adjustment! As it otherwise works even better with the timeframe and just gives Buster a bit more time on his own in Manhattan before his life changed for good.  So in light of this new evidence, I am going on record now as saying that Buster Met Fatty in the streets of New York on Thursday March 15th, 1917! And, if you want to know more about “where” exactly…. see my post on that, here.

The Man With the Mostest

[Originally posted to WWBKD on March 5, 2016]

I really love a holistic approach to Keaton’s work. An approach that respects his intelligent crafting of integrated and complete stories. An approach that recognizes that his body of work can’t just be sliced and diced into easy snippets, for the youtube generation, but should be understood in terms of complete artistic endeavors, whole films at a time.

I really do.

but . . .

Sometimes it’s fun to think just about stellar moments, the briefest glimpses of stand-alone greatness. There are so very very many. Because when I think of favorite Buster moments, my mind gets a bit too flooded with images, I think its best to break this down into categories, like the Academy Awards for stellar clips.

So, I present my awards, in no particular order, for 25 of Keaton’s  ________ -iest moments.

… Funniest

To kick off the list with funniest moment, I have to give the nod to One Week‘s house on the tracks. Of the untold thousands of major laughs Keaton has given us, none has surpassed this amazing scene from his first independent release. It is so funny because it is so surprising. And even though I know exactly how it is going to turn out, it still takes my breath away in laughter and surprise each time I watch.

… Bravest

Buster performed countless death defying feats — so many I wouldn’t even presume to rank their relative danger. So rather than make an award for most dangerous, I want to pick a winner for unabashed bravery, and award it to the waterfall rescue from Our Hospitality. This moment rises to the top as the bravest thing I’ve ever seen him do, because, seriously!, this man is jumping off the edge of a cliff, tied in the middle with a just a rope, into a plunging body of falling water, in order to thrust out far enough into the falls to grab hold of the doll that is standing in for a reasonable human that would never be caught dead even near this falls. I simply cannot fathom the level of utter fearlessness that allowed this moment to be filmed:

… Most Charming

Trying on hats in Steamboat Bill Jr. Ah, perhaps my favorite side of Keaton. The idea that the same fearless renegade who could complete the stunt above, knew how to scale it back and go try on hats with his dad charms me at a very deep level.

… Best Running

Through the streets of New York City in 1928 to see his girl in The Cameraman. This moment gets to me every time because who else ever could make the simple act of running (of course in this glorious backdrop) so entertaining? The answer is no one.

… Most Ahead of its Time

Sherlock Jr’s split-self sleep walk. Wow, look at this unbelievably clever idea executed with extraordinary precision and skill. The whole film is a masterpiece of vision, engineering, camera-work and editing. This moment is breathtaking for very many reasons, not least of which is that this was made in 1924 and it is still completely convincing.

… Best Kissing

Le Roi des Champs Elysees has a kiss with a lot going for it. The part everyone talks about comes at the end when Buster gives us a smile, but it’s not the reason I selected this moment. Rather, I like the way the kiss builds in stages and by the end a great look of carnal intent comes into his eyes before he grabs her and can be seen mouthing ‘oh baby’ (though this is not Buster’s voice). A unique and treasurable scene. (Though I apologize for the terrible video quality).

… Best Almost Kissing

Bank scene in The Haunted House with a very pretty and coquettish Virginia Fox,

…  Fiercest

Battling Butler‘s I can’t take it no more moment (which had been prefaced by several additional minutes of Buster first trying to avoid the fight and get away before), ripping loose and raging. I’m not sure there’s anything like this in any other Keaton film and that’s probably fine, because this one is so brilliant. A gorgeous and powerful moment.

… Saddest

Rescuing the girl in The Cameraman. Another somewhat unique moment because Keaton didn’t do a lot of tugging at our heartstrings. But here he shows how incredibly well the man can sell heartbreak. This is a devastating moment in his canon.

… Best Engineering

The house in The Scarecrow. Tell me, how would you like to live here?

… Bestest Fall Ever

Steamboat Bill’s coil of rope. There are no words 🙂

… Sexiest

The Cameraman’s dressing room scene was almost the winner for the “funniest” moment, but I’m logging it here instead. It’s not really actually “sexy” I suppose, in terms of their intent toward each other, but anyone with eyes must appreciate how, in addition to being one of the funniest things ever committed to film, this scene showcases Buster stripping, which has to qualify as sexy. I mean, yeah.

… Most Jaw Dropping.

The house in Steamboat Bill Jr.  I saw this film in a movie theater a while back, after having already been a Keaton fan for years. I had seen the scene dozens, maybe hundreds, of times as a clip and in the full movie. But I still gasped when it happened on the big screen in front of me. My jaw dropped as the house dropped. Beyond stunning.

… Most Romantic

The eyes have it in The Cameraman. Oh my. Incredible and beautiful. Both of them; and the camera work. Devastatingly romantic moment.

… Cleverest

Sherlock Jr’s cut scenes. The intelligence and skill that went into these cut scenes just cannot be praised highly enough. Buster and his crack team demonstrate profound cleverness to have envisioned this sequence and to have given it such a full and perfect realization.

… Most Impossible to Ever Duplicate

Railroad ties in The General. I can hardly believe this didn’t take off his head. Dangerous, yes. Brave, absolutely. Jaw-dropping, most clearly.  But this scene with the railway ties? it chiefly strikes me as something that will never ever, could never ever, ever! be done again.

… Yummiest

Yeah, we’re going with the Hard Luck pool scene.

… Most Unbelievable

Cops’ car ride. Yes, I realize I already have categories for “Impossible to Duplicate” and “Jaw Dropping” and maybe you’re thinking this is getting redundant. But no, this is different. This special moment in time is light, hilarious and quick. In the blink of an eye, Buster vanishes on the back of a car, legs flying out behind him and all you can think is “Did I just see what I thought I saw?” “Did he really just do that?!”

… Most Athletic

Are you kidding me? Up and down how many levels on this boat? In how many seconds? Steamboat Bill Jr.

… Most gorgeous

MGM gives us a beauty shot and I thank them. ❤ Spite Marriage.

… Most mesmerizing

Another great Keaton moment brought to you by The Cameraman, here is an incredible 3 minutes of Keaton pantomiming a baseball game at Yankee Stadium.

… Melancholiest

Rail riding in The General.

… Most self aware, a/k/a Best Failure to Smile

Go West. This has to be one of the cheekiest and ironic moments in his films. I love this scene 6 million loves.

… Best actual smile

A young Keaton enjoys making time with his flirty friend in drag, Fatty Arbuckle, in Goodnight Nurse.

…. Cutest

Kiss and run. I’ll end this list where I began it with a scene from One Week and the cutest 1920s couple in the world Buster Keaton and Sybil Seely.

Disagree with my picks? Or have I failed to include some of your favorite moments? Please describe them here! I’d love anyone to share.

Women Were Not Props

[Originally posted to WWBKD on Feb 14, 2016]

Something I’ve heard time and again by commentators who speak of his work is that the leading actresses in Buster Keaton films were no more than props to this great master.

This idea rankles and has always sat ill with me. I mean to take it on.

The problem with the statement is that it seems to have been publicized most notably by Eleanor Keaton (see, e.g. a 1995 interview with John C. Tibbets) and possibly Buster himself. Obviously formidable opponents. Others have repeated such ideas so often that it has taken hold as a truism: that Keaton’s leading ladies were weak (as comedians), chosen mainly for their proportions, placed in scenes to be handled and molded, or otherwise of limited or diminished value. (See, e.g. LA Times Article quoting film historian David Gill).

But they have it wrong. Certainly there are some Keaton films where the leading female role is not central or essential, but I would never agree that, generally speaking, Keaton’s leading ladies were unimportant or just props.

with Joe Roberts

Lets start with the idea that Keaton selected leading ladies for their proportions. Well, duh.

Keaton was a visual genius who chose many actors in his films at least in part for their physical characteristics. As Keaton learned early on, working with Fatty Arbuckle, the juxtaposition of himself with a tall rotund man is itself visual comedy. When Keaton struck out on his own, he consistently chose to work with Big Joe Roberts at least in part for this reason. And think about the hilarious relative size of 5’5″ Keaton with Ingram B. Pickett, purportedly 6’11”, looking almost like members of different species in The High Sign.  Consider, too, that Keaton knew what he was doing when he worked with Snitz Edwards as a sidekick, who was only 5 foot flat and made Keaton look big.

with Ingram Pickett

With similar attention to visual considerations but probably opposite intent, Keaton surely chose leading actresses whose size complemented his own so as not to introduce and element of comedy in a pairing, when it was meant to be romantic and plausible and there was no wish to draw attention to stature. Obviously, Keaton also knew how to use physical characteristics of women as a source of comedy when he wanted to; this talent is on display in his scenes with a non-petite Kate Price in My Wife’s Relations or with the tall, leggy, Charlotte Greenwood in Parlor Bedroom and Bath). I think an intelligent take on the generally petite size of Keaton’s leading ladies is that this was a smart choice for non-distracting photographic symmetry in romantic pairings.

with Charlotte Greenwood

Though size was a concern in selecting an actress, it can hard follow that this was the only consideration, and I take umbrage with the idea that a leading actress needed only to be thrown about on screen to serve her role.  First of all, if you take a look through his filmography, you might notice that Keaton truly didn’t do that much manhandling of women in his independent silent work; certainly not in his silent shorts. Yes, this style of comedy came up in a couple of his later features, notably The General and The Navigator, but the scenes Keaton commentators (including himself and his wife) might have been thinking most about when they said he treated women as props are from his later MGM talkies, such as Spite Marriage, Parlor Bedroom and Bath, Speak Easily or What No Beer.  These later films are undoubtedly ones over which Keaton had significantly less artistic control than he had in his independent silents, and I am not sure to what extent he had much say in selecting actresses or determining plot details.  If other creative “visionaries” were responsible for the choices related to selecting and creating roles for actresses in Keaton’s talkies, I suggest they be held accountable for their choices with respect to women, not Keaton. 🙂

Now if we look at the body of work that Keaton can fairly be judged on, as chief artistic visionary, then I would claim that many if not most of his ladies are profoundly appealing on their own, as having charisma, charm, comedic chops and worthy screen presence, and/or played roles that were essential to Keaton’s finest work.

Lets prove it. Starting with the numbers, I’m going to hold Keaton accountable for his treatment of women — both in terms of selecting actresses, creating roles that were memorable and relying on more than their being cute sacks of potatoes — in 30 films (20 shorts and 11 features, including The Cameraman). Of those 30, I find the leading lady to be memorable and/or important for her ability to convey attributes that matter to plot or theme, in all but a handful. Maybe 5 or so. And I am prepared to defend this.

I’ll start with Sybil Seely, his costar in 5 independent shorts (among them, One Week, The Scarecrow, and The Boat). Seely’s presence is not uniformly utilized in all five of these movies, but it is undeniably an essential part of the charm of the best of them: One Week. Were Seely just a prop, this movie would have been weaker by far. But she brings a heaping dose of sweetness, as a woman who loves her new husband and works tirelessly to inhabit the home they are making. She herself is a zen kind of presence, plotting her own course in her own home, cooking outside, drawing hearts on the wall, and demonstrating her irritation with this charming but frustrating man.  She is the young wife that wants to impress at a dinner party and stubbornly tries to pull her house off the tracks at the end. She is the reason we so want this house to succeed. It is her expectations, forbearance and frustration as well as her constant sweet love, that form the solid foundation upon which all the comedy lays.  She is certainly no cardboard cutout, she is an essential part of the film. One would not care nearly so much about Keaton’s endeavors to build this house were it not for this excruciatingly real woman who is the everywoman lens we frame the plot through. Seely showed great skill as an important teammate to Buster in the other movies she appeared in as well. In The Boat she adds a similar necessary element of partnership to the plot’s function and interest. And The Scarecrow showcases her innocence, charm and companionship. The best of the films she appeared in are best precisely because her roles were allowed to be more fleshed out.

On to Virgina Fox who costarred in fully 10 of Keaton’s independent short films including some of his very best: Cops, The Goat, and The Playhouse, to name three. Although Fox does not have the same personal charisma and charm of Seely, what she does have is a very strong, cold, aloof, counterpoint to Keaton’s matter of fact directness. While I would argue that One Week is the best of his short films in large measure because Seely and Keaton together are an amazing team that sell the story so completely, I would also argue that Keaton himself displays his best comedic skill when he is solo, flying free. In films where a solo-Keaton is the point, the leading lady does not become inconsequential. Rather, she becomes important for an entirely different reason.  Fox — because she is good at what she does in these exceptional films — represents the conservative world concerned with propriety and appearance. She, like the world around him, is unfeeling and unimpressed. Unattainable. She is the opposite of a prop. In fact, Keaton hardly touches her in these (and other films) she acts with him in. He can’t — though he might wish to — because she is a part of something he can’t quite have. Fox is essential because her personal style and performance choices allow this central theme of Keaton as societal outcast to be so fully realized. Keaton has to have known she was the perfect ‘foil’ in this way, because he used her again and again to fulfill that need. We should all be thankful to Fox for selling this untouchability so well because it forms the backdrop of much of what made Keaton, at his apex, great.

Others who’ve taken up the mantel I’m carrying here (that Keaton was not a sexist), have have often cited actresses like Kate Price and Phyllis Haver as women who broke the typical Keaton mold and exemplify feminine archetypes that are powerful. This is true. Kate Price was nearly 20 years Keaton’s senior and while she may not have been meant to be taken seriously as a love interest for Keaton, how brave and endearing are the choices that let this fine actress share screen time as his wife in My Family’s Relations.  Price’s engaging presence allows her to own her share of the film without question.  Similarly, Phyllis Haver is often held up as an example of an extremely capable female character who inhabits Keaton’s world in The Balloonatic.  Haver plays a strong, outdoors-woman who is not a shrinking violet by any standard, but is hardy and real. These are examples showing that Keaton was not afraid to employ a strong-female lead for the right kind of story. And, although maybe not a strong, central female lead, I think we can also point to Bartine Burkett’s interesting role in The High Sign as one that involved a quirky personality and acting choices that had little to do with what Keaton was up to (I’m thinking of her memorable turn as a ukulele-playing daughter.)

What all of the foregoing really points to is the broad diversity of female character types that were in fact employed by Keaton in the short films over which he exerted great influence and control. His choices were not uniform, but were wise and sharp, attuned to the skills of these women. Whether he even realized he was doing it, Keaton integrated the talents and features of leading ladies that added to any given plot or theme he developed in his films.

Now lets turn our attention to Keaton’s feature length movies and explore some of the leading ladies who shared the screen with him in these 10 independent films.  I’ll start with my favorite: Katherine McGuire, who starred in both Sherlock Jr and The Navigator. Having recently re-watched both of these great films, I simply cannot state strongly enough how much McGuire’s presence enriched both for me, particularly in The Navigator, where she carries half the film as a collaborator on nearly equal footing with Keaton. Just as in One Week, where the presence of a team we care about sets off the gags and gives importance and meaning to what would otherwise just be “funny,” the whole film The Navigator is enriched by a worthy partner. Much is written about Keaton’s great ‘saphead’ character (used here as well as in other films), but it should not be forgotten that McGuire’s own aristocratic ineptitude is necessary for The Navigator to work. She exhibits it in her attempts to make coffee, her setting off roman candles, her running around the decks of the ship in great abandon, and her sealing Keaton up into the scuba suit, to name a few moments. He role isn’t ancillary, but essential to the idea that they are a rather inept team that is up the creek without a paddle. But we nonetheless care about them! Their chemistry is palpable in part because McGuire is a charismatic, funny, and intelligent misfit and her fleshing out this character with real acting chops is necessary to our caring about what happens to the pair of them on this great big boat.

When people argue that Keaton was sexist in his choice of women’s parts and leading ladies, I fume because Keaton in fact often set women off as the more competent counter-point to his own character’s ineptitude and struggles. It should not be forgotten that in Keaton’s best movie ever, Sherlock Jr., McGuire plays the woman who actually solves the crime, with simple, elegant competence, unlike her bumbling boyfriend.  Also think of Anne Cornwall in College or Marceline Day in The Cameraman as examples of competent, modern-women (a college co-ed and a career woman) who are popular, charming and in control of their lives, while also expressing a warmth and caring that captures Keaton’s heart. Strong capable intelligent women are all over the place in Keaton films.

I’ll mention two other stand out performances from Keaton’s independent features and then rest my case.

Marion Mack in The General. We are told at the beginning of the film that Buster has two loves: his girl, Annabelle Lee, and his engine, the General. Keaton’s use of the locomotive is one of unparalleled gall, as he exhibits every bit of acrobatic skill and grace crawling up over and below this prop throughout the film. There is no question that the steam train makes a capable prop, but it is not a co-star.  And I am aware that this film has been oft-cited as an example of the love-interest-as-prop criticism I am taking head-on here.  Yes, we see Keaton work tirelessly in, around, and with Annabelle Lee, as his second treasure, while she sits often bewildered in the center.  But this “woman as prop” take betrays a limited sense of what it means for an actress to make that happen. What I mean is, Mack was a flesh and blood human actress, not a steam train. It is absurd to think that being called upon to serve as love object in The General was an easy feat. If one is to say that an actress is “just” a prop in a movie like this, I would argue that one has never attempted to make just any actress act as a prop. Its like saying Jim Carey’s face is just a face; just an object he uses to perform with. Saying so obscures the skill it takes to make this type of action look good. Marian Mack is a goddess.  She was called upon to inhabit and sell a character while performing physical stunts and having physical stunts performed in and around her. No one who wasn’t a skilled physical comedienne could have pulled it off — could have taken on this role with such believability.  To the extent that The General shows us an example of a movie where Keaton goes crazy with his props, I think this serves to showcase the tremendous skill and talent of the actress who was at the heart of it all, selflessly allowing the action to proceed flawlessly all around her and just dealing with it.

So, yes, being a good prop should actually be viewed as hark work. But that said, I would stop and take on the underlying assumption that Mack was no more than a prop, a backdrop. In addition to being a game physical comedienne, she also played a woman who was a driving force, a locus of calm and determination, the lens of normalcy.  Mack gives us the same sort of willing participant that Kathryn McGuire had been in The Navigator — a role that makes the viewer feel grounded.  It is her steady, up for anything, presence, picking out logs for the boiler, or sitting up all night with Keaton that makes us feel safe and connected to the action. Essential? Yes! There could have been no The General without such a female at the center with Buster.

Finally, we get to my other favorite Keaton film of all time, Steamboat Bill Jr. And what I consider to be one of Keaton’s most appealing screen co-stars, Marion Byron. What a charmer! She is spunky, and cute as a button. She suits Keaton physically so well in this film, I just want to gaze at them together. She’s the Meg Ryan of her time and I want to pick her up and put her in my pocket. Were someone to suggest that Sleepless in Seattle would have been just as good with any other actress, I’d say they were insane. Byron, like Ryan, adds a charm, and fanciful flourish to a part that is needed to offset Keaton’s earnest, but more stoic endeavors. Byron enchants the audience with her charisma and makes us understand why it is so important for Keaton to be with her. As with some of the other Keaton leading ladies, she does actually get manhandled a bit here, and negotiates it extremely well. This is an incredibly appealing film, due in no small part, to the great screen appeal of Byron.

Finally, if you need one last push over the edge, I offer myself — I mean my experience watching Keaton — as testament. When I first started watching his silents, I enjoyed several Keaton films without the ‘benefit’ of any extensive reading or commentary.  I was highly surprised when I learned later that people were saying things like Buster didn’t value his leading actresses or that he used them as props, because my own immediate response upon seeing his films for the first time had been: “wow, how cool that he was so enlightened and non-sexist in his portrayal of women.” My first reaction as a modern intelligent woman, was that his films treated women in a modern, empowered and intelligent way.

I’ll leave you with this: What Keaton did so exceptionally well in his independent work was to understand Story at a deep level. And he was fluid and pragmatic about what was needed to tell a story.  When a story called for teamwork, companionship and collaboration of an onscreen pairing, he utilized actresses that could provide a satisfying partner in the antics (think, McGuire in The Navigator, Seely in One Week, or Haver in The Balloonatic.)  When the story called for Buster to be a misfit loner trying to piece together an existence, free from cops and other entanglements, the leading lady was apt to be standoffish and capable of expressing a cool counterpoint that left Buster alone (think Fox in Cops or The Goat, or Ruth Dwyer in Seven Chances). Where the story was more romantic, and a leading lady was needed to sell an attainable womanly appeal and kindheartedness, the perfect choices were actresses like Byron in Steamboat Bill Jr or Day in The Cameraman.  And when, on occasion, a strong comedienne helped sell a story, Buster knew how to work with actresses like Kate Price or Charlotte Greenwood.

In most cases, these 1920s era silent film actresses shine with star quality, pluck and appeal that stands the test of time.

Animal Magnetism

[Origianlly posted to WWBKD on Jul 16, 2012]

It is proverbially known that you can tell a lot about a person by how they treat animals. The lines of thinking are several: that it’s a gauge of kindness and care; that it demonstrates selflessness to care for those who can do nothing for you; or that there’s a slippery slope (if you could hurt an animal, its a short path to mistreating humans). These are probably all excellent reasons for paying attention to how people treat animals.

But for me there’s a better approach to understanding character — you can actually best tell about someone by how animals treat them.

Animals should be the litmus test because animals have very little self-interest. They are ready to give love wherever it can be bestowed worthily. They don’t care about money, status, career or your friends. And they don’t care if the picture is a flop. Animal love isn’t readily faked. If an animal likes you, you are likable.

It should come as no surprise that animals loved Buster. Examples abound in his movies, but these are some of the best.

From his earliest days on screen, (The Butcher Boy, The Cook and The Garage) Buster began to forge a special relationship with Luke the dog based on chemistry and affection. But in Keaton’s movie The Scarecrow, there is more — a sense of mutual respect among performers. Luke was a smart dog with lots of film experience – and here is Buster shaking his hand in The Scarecrow to signal a truce in their shenanigans. Its a sweet and funny moment and it matters to the movie because Luke’s respect probably actually mattered to Keaton.

The Blacksmith features a delightful scene where Buster treats a beautiful white horse to something of a spa day when a customer comes in wanting her shod. He shows the horse some shoes that aren’t to her liking, then he selects some great strappy sandals and the horse is charmed. She even gets her nose powdered while the two seem to share a meeting of the minds. Buster and his equine friend hold court charmingly together for several memorable minutes.

In Go West, we get to see Buster’s soul through the eyes of an adoring cow. “Brown Eyes” is beautiful and her clear desire to be near Buster is evident. You have to trust the cow, given that she cannot have cared about the movie biz. You might argue that she only responds to him in such a special way because he reportedly spent many days taking the cow everywhere he went, building her trust. Hanging out with a cow, huh? That seems to speak volumes itself -He not only cared enough to take the time to win the cow’s love, but he was smart enough to know that it mattered.

You’d be hard pressed to find a cooler simian/human relationship than the one we get to enjoy in The Cameraman. Co-protectors, friends, and helpmates they are the most touching team. And play off each other with a beautifully seamless and natural style. The way that little monkey just clings to Keaton from the moment they meet leaves me speechless. And that’s saying a lot.


Here is a man beloved not just by the masses, but by creatures great and small.

Just Up the Road from the Echoes: Chasing the Feel of 1920s Hollywood

[Originally posted to WWBKD on Jul 28, 2012]

Its true what they say, there is no going back. Driving in LA in search of Buster Keaton’s Hollywood, I realize that while you may be able to see the exact locations where his films were made — thanks to the extraordinary research of John Bengston — it is impossible to really go there. Time drives relentlessly away from the quaint silent past, and in LA, more than anywhere else, the present is extremely loud and insistent. It just doesn’t permit quiet reflection on bygone eras.

Even before going into this trip I knew, for instance, that Venice Beach would be unlikely to yield its silent echoes easily, but just how true that was would take me by surprise. Armed with a couple simple addresses from Bengston’s Book, designed to help me experience the place where Buster had filmed parts of The High Sign and The Cameraman, I thought I might grab a moment – just a second, even – of reflection on the changing landscape. To be charitable, maybe this would have been possible at say, 6 in the morning, but I can assure you that at 2 in the afternoon, it is not. It was all I could do to keep from losing my child, my backpack, and my mind while walking along what was once Ocean Front Walk and is now truly hell — a funny sort of hell where strangers seem absolutely bent on getting you to take a flyer about their medical marijuana. (One of the odder things about this Venice Beach too was that it was sunny green blue and bright. So impossibly bright that it just felt wrong. It seemed to us that it should look black & white the way the world is supposed to — but maybe that’s another post.)

No, you can’t find historic reflections in Venice and you certainly can’t find them along Hollywood Boulevard. I didn’t even try. Though I had a list of films that were made in and around Cahuenga and Hollywood Blvd and had originally thought we might linger at the intersection in an attempt to spot film locations, the desire to linger anywhere along Hollywood Blvd evaporated as soon as we got there.

You may wonder why I kept at it! . . . but, because I was so interested to see the Balboa Island area where Keaton had filmed many of his water scenes (in College, Sherlock Jr., The Cameraman, and The Boat) we went next to check out the (hopefully) idyllic tiny island just off the mainland at Newport Beach. Unfortunately, Balboa Island has to be one of the least peaceful places I’ve ever been. Every square inch of the 1/4 square mile island is covered with concrete or a house. I literally could not see the ocean for the houses and spent our whole visit simply trying not to hit anything with the car.

What I learned through all of this is that “finding” the past through actual film locations is extremely elusive. Luckily, what we found instead was so much better. Just up the road from the actual locations are real sites that are still evocative of Hollywood past. Locations that still seem imbued with a bit of what the 1920s had to offer and that present excellent alternatives to an actual film location tour. I call my tour “Up the Road from the Echoes” and it takes you to the places in LA where you can still pretend it is 1920.

Lets start with old Hollywood ambiance. Say you, like many others, want to find Old Hollywood on Hollywood Blvd, the place where dreams were made and maybe you’ve heard of the Hollywood Museum, billed as the place for early movie fans. Well, if you go, you might be impressed with the huge exhibit on Marilyn Monroe and the weird focus on movie makeup, but, if you are like me, and I hazard a guess you might be, you’ll find the depiction of Hollywood in that museum distasteful and jarring. Glitzy, kitschy and seedy scenes meet your eyes under glaring lighting.  BUT, just up the street. . .

Try the Hollywood Heritage Museum. Here, located on a quiet strip of green grass next to a park and set inside an old wooden barn, you’ll find a small slice of history. You’ll learn about how the first movie crew began shooting the first movie in L.A. on Dec 29, 1913. You can see their photo. You can see two large film projectors that Buster Keaton once owned. You can see the silent equipment of Charlie Chaplin and a technicolor camera used in Gone With the Wind. Most importantly when you poke around in this museum you won’t lose your soul. The place is relatively inexpensive, stocked with excellent books and a variety of old movie titles, smells pleasantly of earth and wood, and time. And while you’re in the museum you can revel in your love of old movies and manage to feel intelligent all at the same time.

And because you’re up and out of Hollywood Blvd you’re away from the crowd. The best thing to do is keep going — maybe keep going into a place called Hollywoodland. There you can visit what was still feels like a sleepy bedroom community. Hollywoodland was the original “Hollywood” of its day. The community that installed the famous sign in 1923 to attract attention and still has a small corner market and a little antique shop with early movie memorabilia. The famous sign is perched in the hills just behind the houses and, though the houses are gorgeous mansions, you won’t see throngs of tourists waiting to feel the space, nor hordes of drivers clogging the streets. You can feel a slightly quieter hillside development than what you’d get down the road in Beverly Hills and you get to retain your dignity while looking.

And speaking of retaining your dignity, a perfect place for that can be found just north a couple of blocks from the absolute anarchy practiced at Venice Beach. Though it may have been a great place for filmmaking in 1922, there is almost evocative of 1922 along Ocean Front Walk now and certainly no reason to go there in search of past reflections.

BUT, just up the street . . .

Go a mile and a half north from the heart of Venice Beach. . . maybe to Wadsworth Ave or Hollister or the surrounding couple of blocks. What you’ll find might surprise you: rows of lovely, preserved, 1920’s era cottages, any of which it is easy to picture Buster Keaton running past fleeing the cops. You’ll find a small local park sitting along the beach and your mind can supply the carousel from which he swiped a newspaper from a man. Several park benches line up just paces away and you can see him opening that newspaper to impossible dimensions. Its all just a short distance from where he actually did those things.

When you’ve tired of 1920s era Venice, and want a long car ride down the coast to places where you can find beach memories of the past, just keep right on going past Balboa Island… It’s not far.

Maybe 5 miles south of where Buster used to shoot water scenes in his movies, you can dive right back in time to Crystal Cove. Here you’ll find rows of cottages dating from the 1920s, some occupied by renters at this public beach and some existing in a more natural, time-eroded, state. The beach looks as if it were straight out of a movie. In fact movies were shot here — if you walk into the little visitor center they’ll show you a list. You can quite easily “see” the 20s at this unique and special little beach and when you hike out, notice that the hills on the other side of the highway even have the old-fashioned, brown, undeveloped look that you can picture Buster riding right through on the handlebars of a motorcycle.

The old style Hollywood may not be easy to find, but it is there in and around LA, you just have to look a little harder to find it than simply going to the locations where Keaton shot his movies.

However one place still does exist where the silent echoes are both real and tangible – it is the little area just south of the main drag in Hollywood where Keaton Studios was located.

Of course his square block studio was long ago demolished, and of course the surrounding buildings are all gone too, but the area retains an interesting light industrial feel. You’re off the main drag; you can park your car and stroll around. It feels safe and pretty quiet. Although you’ll see workers, no tourists are milling about. You can hear yourself think.

I could totally feel the vibe of Buster running in and around, up and down these streets filming. In fact you can peer in to the lot where his stages would have been. Small-box buildings and out-buildings and light-machinery all sit on site. I found the place entrancing and am thrilled to see that much of the business taking place in the immediate vicinity of Buster’s old studio is now movie-related again (prop houses, small studios, other supporting services). There must be a wonderful aura of genius still flooding the area after all these years — the streets imbued with it.

A search for the past can take many forms. Many of us do it right from our living rooms by transporting ourselves into the past through movie magic. Others go in search of remnant buildings, street corners, spots where history occurred. I’ve found that when the present is too crowded to permit reflections on the past, going just Up the Road From the Echoes you can get a fuller flavor of what time was like “back then.” It took a while and an excellent tour guide (thank you to my sister in law for her thorough understanding of the LA area), but I think I found the piece of the past that I was seeking. I’m now ready to go home.