Bookshelf

The 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.


My 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.


Keaton by Rudi Blesh. 1966.

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.

Buster Keaton by David Robinson. 1969.

Robinson's small paperback book is one of the best analyses of Keaton's work to date. Out of print.


FILM. Complete Scenario, Illustrations, Production Shots. Samuel Beckett
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.


The 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.


Keaton: 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.


Buster Keaton: 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.


The 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.


The 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.


Buster 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.


Buster Keaton: A Bio-Bibliography
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.


Buster: A Legend in Laughter by Larry Edwards. 1995.

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.


Buster 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.


Buster Keaton, 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. In print.


Keaton's Silent Shorts: 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.


Buster 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.


Silent Echoes: 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 Buster Keaton
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 Illustrated Companion
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).

Buster Keaton Remembered
by Eleanor Keaton and Jeffrey Vance. 2001.

This gorgeous coffee table photo book, co-written by Buster’s widow Eleanor, also features the most accurate, although limited, biographical material on Buster in book form. Highly recommended, this beautiful book’s only drawback is in some of the dull film analysis, which seems largely derivative of previous well-known opinions. But then, who’d be reading the text? In print.

Buster Keaton: Tempest in a Flat Hat
by Edward M. McPherson. 2004.

“Merely a fan’s notes,” says McPherson in the introduction, and he’s right. This biography is largely a digest of several previous books on Keaton, and as such is highly recommended for people wanting a good starting place to begin their Buster readings. More knowledgeable Keaton readers may be somewhat less impressed, as there is no new information to be found here. In print.

Comedy Incarnate: Buster Keaton, Physical Humor, and Bodily Coping
by Noël Carroll. 2007.

Appears to be a publication of Carroll’s dissertation from the 1970s. For advanced students of Buster Keaton’s comedy, the book’s analysis appears out of step, and somewhat dated, but is otherwise harmless academic prose. It is also fairly expensive considering the content. In print.

Arbuckle and Keaton: Their 14 Film Collaborations
by James L. Neibaur. 2007.

A book that finally gives some credit to the film artistry of Roscoe Arbuckle, while in no way slighting Buster. Each of the 14 films Arbuckle and Keaton did at Comique is reviewed in detail and is well considered. As such, this book supersedes the material in Jim Kline’s The Films of Buster Keaton as the best coverage (to date) on this topic. In print.

Buster Keaton Interviews
Edited by Kevin Sweeney. 2007.

Kevin Sweeney has compiled some of Buster's major interviews, including the key interviews done by Christopher Bishop, the Franklins at Columbia University, Studs Terkel, Georges Sadoul, Penelope Gilliat, Kevin Brownlow, and Gillett/Blue. Reasonably priced, and highly recommended. In print.

Buster Keaton: The Persistence of Comedy
by Imogen Sara Smith. 2008.

Highly recommended book for the more experienced Keaton fans. It’s a short, very savvy book that reviews many aspects of Buster—including his life, his films and a historical examination of the ongoing rise in Keaton’s reputation—that avoids the major pitfalls of the major biographies. In print.

Keep Your Eye on the Kid: The Early Years of Buster Keaton
by Catherine Brighton. 2008

Short, beautifully drawn children’s book about Buster’s vaudeville years. Highly recommended for kids aged 9-12. In print.

 

 

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