Book Review: ‘Camera Man’ looks at the life of Buster Keaton and the cultural innovations that surrounded him — Ultimate Movie Year
It’s hard to envision a modern equivalent of Buster Keaton. The stone-faced movie comedian of the silent film era gleefully subjected himself to physical peril again and again for our amusement, whether it was allowing the side of a house to fall on him or running alongside trains to wrestle with wooden logs on the tracks. Author Dana Stevens examines not only Keaton’s life and career but the context of the culture and society he lived in her new book, “Camera Man: Buster Keaton, the Dawn of Cinema and the Invention of the Twentieth Century.”
As the rise of film changed American culture, few movie stars were as famous and innovative as Keaton. He honed his humor and skills on the vaudeville circuit to come to Hollywood. Not only did he earn success through laughter on the silver screens, but Keaton also developed and created many filmmaking techniques that helped contribute to this new art form.
Stevens, a film critic for Slate, meticulously details the multiple turns Keaton’s career took, along with the people who surrounded him in life and work (sometimes both) with the rapidly changing United States in the 20th century. Picture the years of Keaton’s life from 1895 to 1966: Seventy-one years that began with child labor transformations to the dawn of the Civil Rights era, with economic depression, two World Wars, the rise of film and television, and the innovations of transportation that opened the planet to travel and trade.
Be it by coincidence or fate, Keaton was born the same year the Lumière brothers, early cinema pioneers, began producing films for a mass audience. While the movie industry was gestating worldwide, Keaton became a child performer with his family, including parents Joe and Myra. It was here where the young Buster harassed a skill for physical comedy working with his father (a routine that drew scrutiny from child protection forces, according to Stevens’ reporting). When Buster grew older and the family act broke up, he moved to Hollywood. He quickly made a name for himself in Hollywood, first working with Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, then as an individual star, writer, and director.
Stevens weaves the life story of Keaton with the world around him as rapid societal movements impact the star directly and indirectly. Keaton’s first years in Tinseltown corresponded with an influential group of female stars, directors, and producers who held as much legitimate power as they ever did in the industry and lost it just as quickly as ambition and capitalism began to dictate policy. The strength of “Camera Man” lies in how Stevens incorporates these major and minor changes in American life, which tend to directly or indirectly affect Keaton’s life, throughout her narrative. Combined with Keaton’s own journey as an artist and personal struggles, “Camera Man” captures a compelling story about how one entertainer preserved during the turbulent first half of the 20th century.
“Camera Man” is now available through booksellers everywhere.