“Because ‘dry’ comedy is so much more rare and odd than ‘dry’ wit, there are people that never much cared for Keaton. Those who do cannot care mildly.” (James Agee)
My introduction to Elizabeth Bishop was fairly recent. In 2008 I had the good fortune to befriend Sandra Barry, whose infectious enthusiasm and prodigious knowledge of Bishop’s life and her work drew me in. My exposure to Bishop’s work has enhanced my own experience as a writer (and reader), and the retreat time I’ve spent at the Elizabeth Bishop House has been a privilege and a boon to my writing.
My introduction to Buster Keaton was even more recent. Late December, 2011, found me with my nose buried in a book, Marina Endicott’s excellent novel, The Little Shadows, a beautifully written and layered account of the lives of three sisters coming of age in vaudeville in western Canada. One of the secondary characters in particular fascinated me, with his rough-and-tumble vaudeville act and his upbringing in early twentieth-century vaudeville theatre. An interview with the author revealed that the character, Nando, was loosely based on the early life of Buster Keaton. I hied myself to the library and found a biography on Keaton, and spent the next three days alternating between reading on the couch and dashing to my computer to watch his movies on YouTube as they came up in the biography. It was a deeply enriching and exhilarating experience during which I found myself drawn to the lightness and lyricism of his movies and his poetic “Buster” character. Keaton’s economy and his understated, dry comedy, combined with his unsentimental approach, appealed to me endlessly.
It wasn’t until I surprised myself by writing a story on Keaton’s early life that I realized my new-found obsession was actually research. Without planning to, I set my imagination loose on what I had learned about his childhood, and proceeded to write myself ragged. Previously I’d been writing short stories concerning childhood, and this new piece seemed a natural progression.
Around this time I had the pleasure of a visit with Sandra Barry. Somewhat shyly I began telling her about the story I was writing, about the connection I had made with Buster Keaton and his movies. Sandra was curious to know more, and enough of an open vessel that I began to pour my enthusiasm for and new-found knowledge of all things Keaton in her direction, much the same as she had done for me a few years earlier regarding Elizabeth Bishop.
Sandra mentioned something in passing: Did I know that Bishop was an admirer of Buster Keaton? And that she’d once written a poem called “Keaton”? Our conversation elevated as I wrapped my head around this connection: Bishop, Keaton, and my research. It made perfect sense to me that Bishop would have connected with Buster Keaton’s work. They share in their art an understated, sophisticated approach and dry wit. There is nothing wasted, not a gesture in Keaton’s case, nor a word in Bishop’s, and yet they both manage to convey deeply-felt emotions, seemingly without effort.
By the time I arrived home from our visit, Sandra had emailed me the page number to Bishop’s “Keaton” in the Library of America volume on Elizabeth Bishop. I read the poem. I found it profoundly moving. For a long moment I stared out the window and tried without success to swallow the lump that had formed in my throat.
Herewith, my response (by no means scholarly) to Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, “Keaton”:
“I will be good; I will be good”: The Buster character that Keaton developed during his tenure at Buster Keaton Studios (1919–1928) is an honest, decent little fellow with an unsmiling face topped by a porkpie hat, standing no taller than 5’6”. Underlying everything he does is a sense of melancholia, which, in a letter to Anne Stevenson dated January 20th, Elizabeth Bishop mentions with regard to Keaton’s films, “the pathos of man’s trying to do the right thing.” Pathos and melancholia balance Keaton’s comedy beautifully, creating a singular sense of comic gloom.
“I have set my small jaw for the ages”: Buster is ever determined. I’m quite certain this reference has to do with one of Keaton’s roles in his first feature-length film, Three Ages, an episode of which takes place during the Stone Age, Keaton and his cast dressed in bearskins and such. As usual, he’s the smallest man by at least a foot – one of his long-standing sight gags.
“...and nothing can distract me from
solving the appointed emergencies”: With his stoic deadpan, Buster is a point of stillness in a chaotic and hostile world. No matter what goes wrong and how many times he needs to try, he will figure his way around impediment.
“...even with my small brain”: Keaton had but one morning of formal education. The six-year-old delighted in answering the teacher’s questions with puns and punch lines, schoolroom shtick he’d learned from the stage, which caused total disruption as his classmates dissolved in laughter. The child was sent home at lunch with a note from the principal, expelling him. Buster never again set foot in a classroom, and in later years he suffered from a sense of inferiority owing to his lack of schooling.
For the first twenty years of his life, Buster and his family lived on the road, with no fixed address. In the early days they worked in third-rate medicine shows, but before long, as young Buster’s virtuosity as a physical comedian emerged, they made the move to big-time vaudeville. The family lived out of packing trunks, travelling by Pullman from one town to the next, setting up temporary homes in boarding houses and hotels, sometimes tents if money was especially tight. What vaudeville’s children lost in the way of formal education, they gained on the road, as little Buster did, learning sleight-of-hand from Harry Houdini, tap dancing and soft-shoe from Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, and developing improvisation skills that he would put to use for the rest of his life. Reading and writing he picked up along the way, from his mother and likely the chorus girls who fawned over the precocious little boy. Buster’s own curiosity and aptitude led to his interest in the mechanical gags that would eventually characterize his work.
“...the diameter of my hatband”, “the depth of the crown of my hat”: Late in his life, when Keaton realized that the intellectuals were claiming him, he declared “You can’t call a person wearing a flat hat and slap-shoes a genius.” To Keaton, geniuses were people with an education. We may all argue with his point (I’ll go first).
“I will be correct or bust”: A dated expression, in its usual context, “or bust” is prefaced with a destination, indicating a strenuous journey ahead. Buster wanted to do things the correct, if often inventive way, no matter how much effort it took. “Bust” is also a nice little play on his name.
“I will love but not impose my feelings”: For the movie audience, Buster wears his heart on his sleeve, but so often his love is unrequited. His longing for the girl is mostly quiet, contained, stoic. Keaton’s movie The Cameraman opens with him practically in a trance of longing as he first catches sight of the girl, falls instantly in love with her, and then leans in and sniffs her hair. Later in the film, as he peers at her from behind his camera, his eyes are forced shut, so overwhelmed is he by his feelings for her.
“...I will not say anything”: Keaton successfully made the move to talking pictures, although some regarded his husky and somewhat lugubrious baritone speaking voice a departure from the poetic character he had developed in the Buster of his silent pictures (not in my view – for me, the suggestion of melancholy in the huskiness of his voice added to his comedy). The advent of talkies coincided with Keaton’s loss of his creative independence as a film artist, as Buster Keaton Studios was shut down in 1928 and he accepted a contract from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios (M-G-M), a move that he maintained was the worst mistake of his life. Keaton had no problem with advancing technology, being a techno-geek himself, but with sound, everything changed. Gone were the days of working without a script, where he and his crew could make the most of Keaton’s physical grace and virtuoso improvisational skills while filming. For the first time in his life, he was forced to stick to a script. Keaton knew instinctively when a few minutes of improvisation and silence would improve a scene, a situation where he and his fellow actors could express meaning beyond words far better than any dialogue writer could ever do, but the studio heads drew the line, usually to the detriment of the movie. M-G-M’s 1930 movie Free and Easy, Keaton’s first talkie, is filled with gratuitous dialogue imposed on Buster and his cast mates. As Keaton himself once said, “There’s nothing wrong with sound that a little silence won’t cure.”
“If it goes again I will repair it again”: Buster was dogged, the sort of character who will work to fix something until his tongue hangs out. In his 1920 short film One Week, he tries again and again to haul a piano into his new house, and even after the ceiling has practically caved in, he finds another way to do it. Having sacrificed the living-room floor in the process, Buster finds a way to conceal the damage, which leads to a string of gags surrounding the installation of the carpet, the release of his jacket from under the carpet, hiding the hole he’s just cut out of the carpet, and so on until the viewer thinks he couldn’t possibly top one more gag. Of course, he does.
Through these endless etceteras painful”: As a performer and acrobat, Keaton lived with chronic pain. In one of Keaton’s earliest movies, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle’s ode to vaudeville, Backstage (1919), there is a visible manifestation of the sort of beating a vaudevillian routinely took. During a dance scene where Buster is dressed in drag – curly wig, ballet gear and slap-shoes – he doesn’t bother to conceal his bashed-up, skinned knees, likely a result of his being flung around the stage by Arbuckle.
Keaton endured tremendous physical risk and injury for his art. During the filming of Sherlock, Jr. (1924), he was hurled from a train by the force of rushing water from a water tower. He landed hard, his neck slammed against the rail, and despite weeks of searing pain, he continued filming. Some thirteen years later, an X-ray revealed that Keaton had at one time fractured his neck, likely during that film shoot.
Twice more during the filming of features he was nearly killed. In Three Ages he missed a jump from one building to another and fell two storeys; and in Our Hospitality, while filming in a white-water river, he nearly drowned after a hold-back wire snapped. Each of these accidents made the final cuts of the movies; his trusted cameraman’s standing orders were to keep shooting until Keaton yelled “CUT!” or was killed.
“Go with the skid, turn always to leeward...”: One of the vaudevillian conventions was a cartoonish sight gag indicating speed, running into a hopping, skittering skid while making a quick turn at a right angle. Keaton used this often in his movies.
“I lost a lovely smile somewhere,
And many colors dropped out”: My first reading of these lines choked me up, as has every reading since. I believe this image is at the heart of Bishop’s poem, and of Keaton’s life. As a child comedian, young Buster realized that he got bigger laughs from the audience when he didn’t smile. With the exception of a few of his earliest films with Arbuckle, Keaton elected to keep his mouth still, expressing himself fully with his eyes and facial/corporal nuance. But there’s more to it than simply a lack of smiling: Melancholia was central to Buster’s character, a sense of wistfulness filtered in among the larger impediments put in his way to try to overcome. Sadness balances comedy to great effect, allowing the “funny” to pop.
“The rigid spine will break they say...”: For how long can Buster stay strong in his character? How much longer can Keaton maintain his physical strength to perform his own stunts?
“I was made at right angles to the world...”: As Sandra Barry observed in conversation with me, Buster Keaton was unique, at right angles to the world. My own observation is that when Buster landed from a pratfall, he was all right angles, seated at a right angle to the floor, his legs at right angles to his torso and to each other, his feet shod in long slap-shoes at right angles from his outstretched legs... Indeed, he was very much at right angles to the world, which leads to the next line,
“I do not find all this absurdity people talk about”: Buster gives us moments of bewildered, perfect stillness in a chaotic world. He rarely knows what has sent him into a pratfall, and emerges from it rubbing his head with a puzzled look on his face.
“... a serious paradise where lovers hold hands...”: In Keaton’s movie Sherlock, Jr., the hand-holding scene is a lesson to us in the serious matter of falling in love. As they reach for each other’s hands once and then again, Buster and his lady friend are at once furtive, nervous, and determined, the looks on their faces a timeless reminder of the pains and triumphs of love.
“I am not sentimental”: At all. One of the key elements of Keaton’s comedy that makes it so accessible is that he draws on fundamental emotions without playing on sentiment. That he manages to convey meaningful, deep feelings with minimal gestures is a measure of Buster Keaton’s genius; his expressive face tells us the whole story.
The poet James Agee, in his essay “Comedy’s Greatest Era” (LIFE Magazine, 5 September, 1949), writes the following:
“Because ‘dry’ comedy is so much more rare and odd than ‘dry’ wit, there are people that never much cared for Keaton. Those who do cannot care mildly.” Given the care that Elizabeth Bishop put into the writing of her (unfinished) poem “Keaton,” it’s clear that she is among the legion of Keaton’s admirers who “cannot care mildly.” The same can be said for admirers of Bishop’s work.
As I continue reading and writing about Buster Keaton, I’m sure I’ll find that the re-reading of Elizabeth Bishop’s “Keaton” will be ever-more enriching. Whatever new responses I may have to the poem, I will remain deeply in admiration and awe of the understated, poetic genius of both of these artists, slap-shoes, flat hat and all.
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(Binnie Brennan's short story collection A Certain Grace was published in 2012. Visit her blog for more information.)
“Three Ages” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HyhCI_6oKoI
“The Cameraman”- not available in complete download.
“Free and Easy” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Xthi0ukn8A
“One Week” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Rpt6cFRkxY
“Sherlock, Jr.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pRwl8OpUbWU
[Ed. Note: Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “Keaton” can be found in Elizabeth Bishop, Edgar Allen Poe & The Juke-Box: Uncollected Poems, Drafts, and Fragments, ed. Alice Quinn. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006, p. 119.]