Buster Keaton and the Sound of Silents
Legend has it that when Joseph Francis Keaton IV was about 18 months old, he tumbled down a flight of stairs at home his parents were renting. Upon landing at the bottom of the stairs, magician Harry Houdini - a friend of the tykes parents - scooped up the tyke in his arms and said "That was a real buster!" Thus was born a nickname which within less than two decades would be known all over the world. Fast forward to 1917. Walking down a street in Manhattan, the now 22-year old Buster Keaton - already a veteran star of vaudeville - ran into an old acquaintance, the 30-year old former vaudevillian and current slapstick comedian Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle. At the time of their chance meeting, Arbuckle was as popular a star as Charlie Chaplin - with whom he had costarred in several films for Mack Sennett's Keystone Comedies. Arbuckle, so the story goes, urged Keaton to come and check out his newly-created film company, "The Comique Film Corporation," and perhaps become a movie actor. ("Comique" was owned by Joseph Schenck - pronounced Skenk - who would, within a half-dozen years, become both Keaton's producer and brother-in-law.)
The next day, so the story goes, Keaton went over to the Comique studio, which was located in a warehouse at 318-320 East 48th Street in a tough section of Manhattan. After walking around Arbuckle's 3rd floor space (the 1st floor being occupied by Schenk's wife, actress Norma Talmadge) Fatty asked Buster what else he'd like to see. Quick as a flash, Keaton answered "THE CAMERA!" Over the next 24 hours, Keaton, a born mechanic, literally took a camera apart and put it back together not once but twice . . . in order to figure out how it worked and what it could do and could not do. By the beginning of the third day, Keaton was ready to costar with Arbuckle in The Butcher Boy (photo above). And thus, a star was born.
Keaton would go on to become a complete filmmaker. Like Chaplin, he was both a director and a first-rate editor. He was also an ingenious cinematic engineer, whose films contained construction pieces which were actual costars. The scene below, from Keaton's 1928 feature film Steamboat Bill, Jr., is arguably the most dangerous stunt ever put on film; that building facade falling on Buster actually weighed more than 2 tons. The entire company - save the cinematographer, who had to stick around to hand crank the camera - hit in a trailer just off the set's sight-line. They were afraid to watch, fearful that their boss was about to be crushed.
By 1925, Keaton was one of the world's best-paid and most popular film stars. In 1926 Keaton purchased a 3 1/2 acre lot just behind the Beverly Hills Hotel and built a lavish - and I do mean lavish - 10,000 square foot home known forever more as "The Italian Villa." (It's original address was 1004 Hartford Way; today it's called Pamela Drive.) Among his closest neighbors were Charlie Chaplin, John Gilbert, Rudolph Valentino and Harold Lloyd. The Keatons - Buster and his wife Natalie (Talmadge) were known for their Sunday bashes, in which food was plentiful and liquor flowed like Niagara. Alas, Buster's Edenic existence wouldn't last for long. Following what was arguably his greatest picture, The General, Keaton made what he later called "the greatest mistake of my life": he permitted his brother-in-law (and producer) Joseph Schenck to sell his contract to MGM. Suddenly, Keaton was an employee without his own studio and shorn of the right to use his own crew. Then, Natalie filed for divorce, took their two boys and changed their names from Keaton to Talmadge. Then, MGM started pairing him up with Jimmy Durante; an obvious attempt to elevate the old Schnozzola at Buster's expense. As a result of all this Buster started drinking heavily; by 1932 was virtually unemployable and had to file for bankruptcy. Natalie sold the Villa to cover her debts. At one point it was the home of Marlene Dietrich, Cary Grant and his wife, heiress Barbara Hutton. Actor James Mason and his wife Pamela (for whom the street was renamed) purchased the Villa for $84,000.00 in 1952. (BTW, it's back on the market now and will only set the purchaser back $16.2 million . . . )
The 30's were pretty much a inebriated blur to Buster. By the end of the decade he was back making one- and two-reelers for lesser studios and working as a 'comedy doctor' for the bigger ones. Then he married his third wife, Eleanor Norris, an MGM dancer who was nearly a quarter century younger than "The Old Stone Face." Things began looking up, for in addition to being his loving wife, Eleanor turned out to be Buster's biggest fan, his nurse and closest adviser.
And then there was actor James Mason . . . who we will get to in another couple of paragraphs.
The percentage of silent and early talking motion pictures which were destroyed, burnt or simply disappeared is appalling. Virtually none of vamp Theda Bara's 44 feature films are known to exist as are the overwhelming majority of films produced/directed by D.W. Griffith. Researchers at the Library of Congress suggest that more than 75% of all films made between 1910 and 1930 no longer exist. In part this is because most - if not all - of the early movie moguls considered films to be commerce, not art. Once they got past their first - and only - run studio heads burnt films, figuring that a) no one would want to view them a second time and b) film contained silver which could be extracted and then sold. Then too, those films which were saved in metal cans were improperly stored and disintegrated. A handful of stars - notably Charlie Chaplin and his best friend Douglas Fairbanks - considered their work to be art, and paid scientists a small fortune to come up with what would become known as 'Safety Film' celluloid which would not disintegrate if stored under optimal conditions. As a result, virtually their entire oeuvre is, to this day, available.
Where Chaplin and Fairbanks were both deliberate and driven to preserve their films, Buster just lucked into the immortality of his cinematic canon. Like his stone-faced persona, Buster had a ministering angel looking out for him, ready to provide a miracle. That miracle was performed by the British actor James Mason (1909-1984) and an American-born film collector named Raymond Rohauer (1924-1987). As mentioned above, Mason and wife Pamela purchased Keaton's Italian Villa in 1952. By then the Villa had been renovated, re-landscaped and subdivided to make way for three more mansions. When the Masons first purchased the estate in 1952, they weren't aware that Buster had built a small workshop on the property where he spent a lot of his downtime tinkering around with various mechanical projects. One day, Mason was out in the workshop and realized that the structure contained a false wall. When a worker he had hired broke through that wall, they discovered a rather large safe. Inside that safe they discovered . . . can after can after can containing canister after canister after canister of nitrate films . . . all made by Buster Keaton!
What happened next is the stuff of legend.
The way I heard it, not knowing precisely what to do with this cinematic cache, Mason drove over to the Silent Movie Theatre located at 611 Fairfax Avenue and offered the lot to the theater's founder John Hampton. (Hampton and his wife Dorothy opened his silent theatre in 1942 - a time when silent movies had ceased to exist. With the exception of a brief closure in 2017, the Silent Movie Theatre is still running nothing but silent pictures. Hampton soon got hold of Ray Rohauer, who had befriended Buster at that very theater when he was a 20-year old film enthusiast. Rohauer proceeded to raise sufficient funds to repair and restore Buster's films, and then begin showing them around the country. He also decided to restore Keaton's legal rights to these films and provide him with the lion's share of all ticket sales. Soon, Buster was on the way back up. The next year, Buster was paid $50,000 for rights to his life story, which were turned into a (not very good) film starring Donald O'Conner, Ann Blyth and Rhonda Flemming. This fee permitted Buster and Eleanor to purchase a ranch out in Woodland Hills (in the San Fernando Valley) at 22612 Sylvan Street where Buster and Eleanor spent the rest of his life living among his St. Bernards, his chickens and the miniature railroad which encircled his property. By the time of his death on February 1, 1966, he had been back on top for more than a decade thanks mostly to Eleanor, but also to his gritty determination, his innate talent and an outright miracle coauthored by James Mason and Raymond Rohauer.
So what is the sound of silents?
Applause, of course . . .
Copyright©2018 Kurt F. Stone