In This Article Buster Keaton

  • Introduction
  • Reference Works
  • Critical Overviews
  • Keaton and Comic Theory
  • Gender, Race, and Ethnicity
  • Sherlock Jr. (1924)
  • The General (1926)
  • The Sound Era

Cinema and Media Studies Buster Keaton
by
Charles Wolfe
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 May 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0013

Introduction

The silent films of Buster Keaton (b. 1895–d. 1966) are among the most critically admired American motion pictures of the pre-sound era. Born to traveling medicine show performers during a stopover in a small town in Kansas, Joseph Frank “Buster” Keaton spent his early years on the road, and as a young child he gained star status as the linchpin of the family’s vaudeville act. He made his debut in motion pictures in 1917 as a member of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle’s company, Comique Films, where he first gained training as comedy filmmaker. From 1920 to 1928 Keaton worked independently and prolifically, supervising and starring in nineteen comedy shorts and ten features, a body of work that remains at the heart of his screen reputation today. Although he never enjoyed the box-office clout of rivals Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, Keaton’s resilient, sober-faced persona was familiar to movie audiences around the world, and he was second only to Chaplin as the object of critical efforts to define the distinct contributions of slapstick comedy to the nascent art of the screen. Keaton’s career entered a tailspin in the early 1930s—the result of a troubled marriage, struggles with alcoholism, and the loss of control over his films—but he recovered his footing by the end of the decade and worked steadily as a performer and comic consultant in movies, television, and theater until his death. An aging Keaton was occasionally the recipient of nostalgic tributes to the “golden years” of slapstick comedy during these years. A great tide of critical reappraisals of Keaton’s work, however, followed the restoration and revival of his silent films, many of which Keaton himself thought lost, in an effort spearheaded by Raymond Rohauer, who mounted Keaton retrospectives in the 1960s, first in Europe then the United States. Showcasing Keaton’s silent film work as a whole, these screenings were accompanied by a growing critical consensus that an artist of the first rank had been rediscovered. In recent years, video and digital technologies have made Keaton’s films available to an expanding audience of fans, critics, historians, and independent researchers. The annotated bibliography that follows provides a roadmap to Keaton scholarship, including reference guides, biographies, and overviews, and the books and articles through which a critical understanding of Keaton’s cinema has taken shape.

Reference Works

The first reference guides to Keaton’s career in motion pictures emerged in response to retrospectives of his silent comedies in Italy and France in the early 1960s. Turconi and Savio 1963 and Oms 1964 assembled film credits, plot synopses, and various kinds of previously published material on Keaton in an effort to document the range and impact of his career. Wead and Lellis 1977 expanded substantially on this work for English-language readers, providing a detailed annotated bibliography of critical writings about Keaton, and offering a more comprehensive account of Keaton’s screen performances and print interviews. A number of books about Keaton were published a decade-and-a-half later, including Kline 1993 and Saínz 1994, which present comprehensive chronological surveys of Keaton’s work in film and television, accompanied by critical commentary on all available titles. Rapf and Greene 1995, meanwhile, takes a metacritical approach, supplementing biographical and filmographical surveys and reprinted interviews with the authors’ own analytical essays. Macleod 1995 sheds light on the full range of Keaton’s professional activities after the coming of sound. More recently, Keaton’s own voice resurfaced strongly in Sweeney 2007, an edited anthology that collates sixteen interviews Keaton granted between 1921 and 1965.

  • Kline, Jim. The Complete Films of Buster Keaton. New York: Citadel, 1993.

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    A film-by-film guide to Keaton’s career in motion pictures, from 1917 to 1966, with brief credits, plot synopses, and commentaries by Kline on each title. Information on miscellaneous film and television work by Keaton is appended. Comprehensive and well illustrated.

  • Macleod, David. The Sound of Buster Keaton. London: Buster Books, 1995.

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    A chronological guide to Keaton’s appearances in sound films, from Hollywood Review of 1929 through the posthumously released Due Marines e un Generale (1967). Credits, synopses, and notes are provided for each title, along with informed comment on individual films and the key transitions in Keaton’s career after the silent era.

  • Oms, Marcel. Buster Keaton. Premier Plan 31. Lyon, France: Société d’ Ètudes, Recherches et Documentation Cinématographiques, 1964.

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    Synopses of Keaton’s silent films, supplemented by reprinted materials. Also includes Oms’s brief overview of Keaton’s career after sound, an article attributed to Keaton (Pour Vous, 1932), an interview with Keaton (Bifur, 1929), his subsequent disavowal of the interview (Mon Ciné, 1930), a profile (Le Magazine du Spectacle, 1946), and recollections by Claude Autant-Lara (1963). In French.

  • Rapf, Joanna E., and Gary L. Green. Buster Keaton: A Bio-bibliography. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1995.

    E-mail Citation »

    A comprehensive guide to Keaton scholarship through the mid-1990s, accompanied by a biographical overview, a comparative review of the critical literature, a filmography, reprints of four Keaton interviews, and a critical examination of Keaton’s status as a modern artist.

  • Saínz, Salvador. Buster Keaton. Barcelona: Royal Books, 1994.

    E-mail Citation »

    A biographical sketch by Saínz precedes a detailed Keaton career filmography, including plot descriptions and a guide to the Spanish titles of films in which Keaton appeared. Oversized, with many illustrations. In Spanish.

  • Sweeney, Kevin, ed. Buster Keaton: Interviews. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2007.

    E-mail Citation »

    Sweeney presents sixteen interviews Keaton gave over the length of his long career, including conversations with Robert and Joan Franklin, Arthur B. Friedman, Studs Terkel, and Kevin Brownlow, and a previously untranslated interview with French critic Georges Sadoul. Scrupulously edited and annotated, with introductory comments on the scholarly value of the interviews.

  • Turconi, Davide, and Francesco Savio. Buster Keaton. Venice: Edizione Monstra Internazionale d’Arte Cinematografica, 1963.

    E-mail Citation »

    An early dossier, published in conjunction with a Keaton retrospective in Italy. Includes a biographical sketch; excerpts from critical commentary on and interviews with Keaton; a poem by Rafael Alberti; and the most detailed Keaton filmography then available, with plot descriptions and excerpts from reviews. In Italian.

  • Wead, George, and George Lellis. The Film Career of Buster Keaton. Boston: G.K. Hall, 1977.

    E-mail Citation »

    A groundbreaking resource, containing biographical and critical surveys; plot synopses, credits, and notes for the silent films; and a detailed annotated bibliography. Although coverage ends in the mid-1970s, the book remains highly valuable, especially for its survey of European sources.

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