Though I love Charlie, Buster is my favourite of the silent clowns. Though I hate to compare them through their autobiographies, I recently finished Chaplin’s, so it is difficult not to invite a few comparisons. Keaton’s style is far more informal, more like your Grandad sitting you down for storytime than an old codger regaling tales of his finest hour. Buster begins with his budding career, which began around his 3rd birthday. Named Joseph Keaton (the first son of a first son of a first son to be called Joe Keaton), he earned the nickname Buster after taking a spill down a staircase and being picked up and christened by Harry Houdini.
Detailing vaudevillian life through knockabout sets as a child, burlesquing fellow acts, imitating and learning from the best, and finally declaring independence from his father, Keaton keeps the snappy anecdotes flowing. A little reflection is given, but much of the time we are acutely aware that there was more to it than he lets on.
What is refreshing about Keaton’s book is that he is not afraid to share his work ethics, salaries, and details of his tricks. From imitating his father and Houdini to his final days in television, he is honest and opinionated about his colleagues and famous friends. Notable among these stories is Roscoe (Fatty) Arbuckle’s murder trial and Keaton’s attempts to revive the old friend’s career, before dropping him as a director and coercing him onto another project instead. He is candid about his married life and the disappointments it contained, as his first wife wiped him out with nary a squabble.
My Wonderful World of Slapstick is an excellent insight into the life of a great filmmaker, whose humble, take-it-from-me-kid attitude keeps the tone light and the anecdotes pleasing. He compares himself to Chaplin who, unlike Keaton, heard the critics when they called him a genius, and tried to play up to the role. Keaton’s modesty may have kept him from becoming a multi-millionaire, but may also have preserved his career. Assessing their memoirs, this is apt.
For silent film fans and autobiography-nerds, My Wonderful World of Slapstick is a wonderful read.