Books on Keaton
Think Before You Read
Reviews by David B. Pearson & Patricia Eliot Tobias
Many books have been written about Buster Keaton, beginning with his autobiography in 1960. Some are excellent, others are mediocre, and a few are downright bad. Some are still in print; others are harder to find. Caveat Emptor. Let the buyer beware.
We strongly suggest you read The Buster Keaton Myths or in the NOTES section of our Facebook page) to help you read critically.
Wonderful World of Slapstick
by Buster Keaton and Charlie Samuels. 1960.
In the style of the other show business autobiographies of the time, Buster tells his story. This is no kiss-and-tell book—in fact, Buster never even mentions his second marriage. But there are vaudeville anecdotes and Buster’s own interpretation of the facts of his life. Samuels cleaned up Keaton’s grammar, but kept his style, tone and humor. A paperback edition of the book was in print until recently and may still be found in some bookstores.
by Rudi Blesh.
Blesh, best known as a writer about jazz, spent several years
researching this mass-marketed book, even living with the Keatons for a
while. It is widely considered to be the best biography of Keaton to
date—as far as it goes. Beautifully written, it tells of Keaton’s life up until the MGM debacle. It does have its flaws, however, and has contributed to some of the myths surrounding Keaton’s life. Blesh completed his book in 1955, but was unable to find a publisher until Keaton’s death in 1966. Therefore the second half of Keaton’s life is given short shrift, leaving many to believe he did virtually nothing after MGM, and that he spent his remaining years battling alcohol. In addition, Blesh describes the silent films in glowing terms, but unfortunately, many of his facts are wrong; he was describing the films from memory. Out of print.
Buster Keaton by Jean-Patrick Lebel. 1967.
Translated from the French. Lebel’s book, first published in Paris in 1964, is the first academic analysis of Buster’s silent films. As such, Lebel lays much of the groundwork for later books in the same vein—for better and for worse. Some of Lebel’s theories on Buster were later shown to be dead on. Others now seem laughable. Out of print.
Keaton by David
Robinson's small paperback
book is one of the best analyses of Keaton's work to date. Out of
FILM. Complete Scenario, Illustrations, Production Shots.
The complete screenplay for the 1965 movie,
the only one made by the great playwright Samuel Beckett. Plus an
essay on the making of Film by Alan Schneider. 1969.
Schneider's essay displays
appalling ignorance of Keaton's talent and career, and is written
in a condescending tone. The book is a curiosity. Out of print.
Silent Clowns by
Walter Kerr. 1975.
The single best book
on silent film comedy ever written, with special emphasis on Keaton,
whom Kerr claimed as his favorite. A superbly written book that
analyzes Keaton's films and his comedy style better than any book
before or since, The Silent Clowns also places Keaton's movies in
their proper historical context. Highly recommended. Out of print.
Buster Keaton and the Dynamics of Visual Wit
(peculiarly mistitled “Visual Art” on cover)
By George Wead. 1976.
Wead’s first book on Buster, a publication of his doctoral dissertation, is top-notch. The book outlines Buster’s comedy in historical context, and most of what Wead writes remains timely. That is a rarity in film criticism. Copies of the book are also rare, often selling for more than $100. Out of print.
The Film Career of Buster Keaton
By George Wead and George Lellis. 1977.
This book is something very special, and is not for the casual Keaton fan. Some experienced Keaton fans may have never have heard of it. It is not a biography, nor is it film analysis. And yet the Wead/Lellis filmography/bibliography remains one the most important books on Buster Keaton ever written. Either directly or by extension, any other book on Keaton’s films worth its salt owes a lot to this tome. Highly recommended for the Keaton researcher. Out of print.
The Features Close-Up by Daniel Moews. 1977.
An academic analysis
of Keaton's silent features. Writing in often obtuse film-school
jargon, Moews presents many interesting theories about the structure
of Keaton's feature films, some of which he supports well; others
not so much. An important book for the person who wants to delve
deeply into Keaton's story construction, but should be read thoughtfully,
as Moews doesn't always make a good case for his ideas. Reads like
a doctoral dissertation, rather than a commercial book. Out of print.
The Man Who Wouldn't Lie Down
by Tom Dardis. 1979.
Dardis’ mass-marketed tome fills in some of the blanks left by Blesh, but falls into the common trap of confusing Keaton’s on-screen image with his real life, creating a portrait of a sad clown who had a pathetic life after his great success—something Keaton clearly didn’t see in his own view of himself. Dardis often interprets that “Great Stone Face” from photographs, describing what he imagines to be Keaton’s feelings as explanation for his behavior in later years—an approach that doesn’t hold up, given Keaton’s public persona and his insistence on maintaining it for the camera. Dardis does make a concerted effort to examine exactly what happened at MGM, and seems to make a good case for MGM keeping Keaton in second-rate productions—according to him, those films made a lot of money for the studio. Later scholars have rejected many of Dardis’ claims about the financial aspect of Keaton’s work, and the book is considered to be factually flawed throughout. In print.
Look of Buster Keaton
by Robert Benayoun. 1984.
Translated from the French. This pretentious photo-oriented book, badly translated from the original French, is pretty to look at, but proposes a convoluted philosophical treatise. Benayoun compares Keaton to the great surrealists, existentialists and dada-ists. Buster would have laughed. Very expensive, if you’re lucky enough to find a copy. Out of print, but a favorite with many.
Complete Films of Buster Keaton by
Jim Kline. 1994.
Part of Citadel’s Complete Films of… series, the book valiantly attempts to and nearly succeeds at covering all of Keaton’s film work with plot synopses and some background information. Very useful for the summaries, even if you don’t always agree with Kline’s opinions about the films. but out of print.
Keaton: Cut to
the Chase by Marion Meade. 1995.
This Keaton biography muddies the water even further. Despite copious reference notes and a seemingly extensive acknowledgments section, Meade’s scholarship is suspect. Following the Dardis tradition of seeing Keaton as a pathetic figure, she leads the reader down a spiraling path littered with half-truths and ill-conceived conjecture. Partially-told anecdotes are used to support her view of the sad, abused Buster Keaton, and the book includes a new, and completely false, twist: she claims Keaton was illiterate. Because of its many flaws, even the new information she claims to have discovered is suspicious. Among Keaton scholars, this one is considered to be the worst of the major biographies. It does, however, have the best filmography to date, separately copyrighted by Jack Dragga. In print.
by Joanna Rapf and Gary L. Green. 1995.
An academic pass at
Keaton's life and career that unfortunately repeats many of the
myths. But to its credit, the book does include transcripts of several
extended interviews with Keaton, which give the reader the chance
to see what Buster said, in his own words. Out of print.
in Laughter by Larry
This slim volume book
is well-intentioned, but is neither well-researched nor well-written.
It combines unsubstantiated gossip and wild fan enthusiasm. Out of print.
Keaton's Sound Films
by David Macleod. 1995.
Macleod, a continuity announcer for Channel 4 in London and the
co-founder of the London-based Keaton group, the Blinking Buzzards,
talks about the work Keaton did after the silent era. Features many
rare film performances. An excellent look at Keaton’s later years. Self-published. In print.
The Little Iron Man by Oliver Scott. 1995.
New Zealander Oliver
Scott spent 20 years conducting the research for this in-depth look
at Keaton's life and career. Contains extensive interviews with
Eleanor Keaton, Buster's widow. Very expensive, and the price is
likely to change, depending on the exchange rate. Self-published.
Beyond the Laughter
by Gabriella Oldman. 1996.
An interesting analysis
of Keaton's silent shorts. A little on the dry, academic side, but
an attractive book that makes some good points. In print.
Keaton's Sherlock Jr.
Edited by Andrew Horton. Cambridge University Press. 1997.
Although a couple of
the essays are cumbersome, most are thoughtful and interesting,
if you enjoy academic analysis. In print.
Discovering Early Hollywood
Through the Films of Buster Keaton
by John Bengtson. 1999.
Through a magnificent mixture of detective work, keen observation of Keaton’s movies, and historical research, Bengtson discovers the locations of where Keaton shot many of his silent films, and how those locations look today. The book is an outgrowth of Bengtson’s regular column for The Keaton Chronicle. Beautifully done, and highly recommended to any fan. In print.
The Theater and Cinema of
by Robert Knopf. 1999.
A peculiar, dry academic book that
tries very hard to be superlative, yet flops in the basics. Although
the author's bibliographical research looks impressive, the film
research is actually sloppy, to the point that it undermines the
book. Also, some of the assumptions Knopf puts forward concerning
silent comedy are historically inaccurate, putting many of Knopf's
theories in doubt.
A-Z of Silent Comedy: An
by Glenn Mitchell. 1999.
Almost a "Who's Who in Silent
Comedy." This well-researched encyclopedia includes material
on many (but not quite all) of silent comedy's most important figures.
The excellent Keaton entry runs seven pages. Overall, a good companion
to Walter Kerr's "The Silent Clowns" (see above).