ORANGE COUNTY, Calif. — Melissa Talmadge Cox knew Grandpa Buster had made a bunch of silent movies long before she was born, but it wasn’t until after Buster Keaton died and Cox was in college that she saw one.
“I was absolutely speechless when it ended,” Talmadge says of the movie, “Steamboat Bill Jr.,” that she watched at a silent film fest in the late ’60s. “Here was this person I had never known my grandfather to be.”
Similarly, Bobbie Shaw Chance was a 19-year-old actress when she appeared in “Pajama Party” with Keaton in 1964. He became like an uncle, she says, as they also teamed up for “Beach Blanket Bingo” and “How to Stuff a Wild Bikini.”
She, too, never realized the importance of Keaton, who was a silent film comedian as famous as Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd in his day, until years after his death.
“To me, he was just a kindly, sweet old man who was really funny,” Chance says. “I didn’t know he was the brilliant Buster Keaton. Who knew? I didn’t know.”
Author James Curtis talked with Cox and Chance as he worked on “Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker’s Life,” a new biography that explores Keaton’s life and work over 700 pages.
The book arrives as interest in Keaton surges. “Camera Man: Buster Keaton, the Dawn of Cinema, and the Invention of the Twentieth Century,” a cultural history by Slate film critic Dana Stevens arrived in January. Director James Mangold also was recently announced as the director of a Buster Keaton biopic project.
Like Chance and Cox, Curtis says he grew up knowing Keaton mostly for the TV roles he took in the ’50s and ’60s.
“He was still alive,” says Curtis, whose previous film biographies include books on Spencer Tracy and W.C. Fields. “But I had no idea really who he was.”
Years later, he saw a screening of Keaton’s silent movie “Seven Chances” at UCLA and was stunned.
“I was just astonished,” Curtis says. “I had never seen anything like it. So I slowly began to learn over a little bit of time just how involved he was in the making of his films.
“And I knew I wanted to explore that.”
Excavating the past
Curtis knew, of course, that Keaton had been the subject of previous biographies and didn’t want to invest the years of work on his own if a great one already existed.
“I talked to a few people, like (film writers and historians) Leonard Maltin and Kevin Brownlow, and his granddaughter Melissa,” Curtis says. All of them told him there was room for a new Keaton biography, and urged him to do it, he says.
“Research, to me, is the fun part,” Curtis says. “I know people who do this sort of work who happily hire a researcher, and they sit at home and compose it.
“I’m just the opposite,” he says. “I love doing the library work. I love handling those materials. If I could hire someone to actually write the damn book, I think I might. But I can’t do that.”
Having spent 40 years or so as a film biographer, Curtis knew from experience where many of the archives and libraries of early Hollywood history are kept. And so he dug in for four-and-a-half years of research.
“It’s pretty much a hunting expedition,” he says. “A lot of times you come away empty-handed. But I’ve always believed in the old adage, the harder I work, the luckier I get.”
In the MGM archives in the Cinematic Arts Library at the University of Southern California, he dug out daily production reports on the first four movies Keaton made for the studio.
“Those files reflected exactly what happened on an hour by hour basis, and kept the brass in the front office informed,” Curtis says. “If there’s a problem or stopping of some sort, that’s noted. If the star actor is ill, maybe had a little too much at lunchtime, that’s noted in there.
“That’s wonderful material, and it’s not easily available,” he says. “And nobody had found it up to that point.”
Other documents revealed new details of Keaton’s move from his own studio to MGM and revealed the truth about why that happened.
“That’s how you do it,” he says. “You just know where things are through experience, you go looking, and sometimes you find things. So there are a lot of eureka moments that occur.”
‘Proud to be related’
Melissa Talmadge Cox fondly remembers frequent visits with Grandpa Buster and step-grandmother Eleanor at their then-remote home in Woodland Hills. There was a pool to swim in and a barn in which she and her brothers played on the ropes used to lift hay bales to a loft.
“He had a little red schoolhouse that he kept chickens in, and I got to go collect eggs,” says Cox, 72, from her home in Sonoma County. “It was just a fun place.”
She saw him on TV from time to time, shows such as “The Twilight Zone” and “Candid Camera,” but mostly her time with Buster, who died when she was about 17, revolved around Sunday dinners, summer vacations and Christmas gatherings.
Then, as a student at the University of California, Davis, she went to Berkeley one night and saw Keaton as the innovative actor and director of the silent screen, and gained a whole new appreciation for her grandfather’s work.
“He could do the most remarkable things,” she says. “He did far more physical tricks than the other actors did at the time. He was always moving and doing fabulous gymnastics.”
When her own children were in elementary school, Cox says she’d often take the Keaton silent film “One Week” into the classroom to share with their classmates.
“Here are kids, 80 years later, whatever it was, falling off their chairs laughing,” she says. “It’s timeless.
“I don’t know, I’m just so proud to be related,” Cox says. “I think it’s wonderful.”
Keaton and Chaplin
Charlie Chaplin remains iconic today – the image of the Little Tramp is indelible. Harold Lloyd, with his glasses and hat, was a huge star of the silent screen, his films often earning bigger profits than Keaton’s.
But Curtis says neither of them could do what Keaton did.
“I think Buster had the greatest natural gift as a filmmaker,” he says. “In the sense that he could see the entire screen in his head, and he knew how to fill the frame in a way that advanced the story and made the comedy as good as it could be.
“Chaplin was a good director of Chaplin,” Curtis says. “As far as Chaplin was concerned, the only interesting element in the frame was Chaplin.
“A lot of these comics, they rarely do things that they couldn’t do in the vaudeville stage,” he says. “Buster used whole trains and did things with them. You can’t do that on stage.
“He was a brilliant guy on screen but he was also a brilliant behind the camera.”
So why is Chaplin still revered and Keaton less remembered?
“The basic difference is that Chaplin laid it out for you, so you really didn’t have to participate,” Curtis says. “You’re just reacting to what he’s showing you, what he’s telling you.
“There’s an element of ambiguity in Buster’s work that I think is stronger than say, Chaplin or Lloyd,” he says. “Now, Chaplin can do a great closeup and tear your heart out.”
Keaton, in contrast, was famous for his deadpan blank face on film, which didn’t give audiences as much to work with.
“He said, ‘If the audience is going to feel sorry for me, well, I’ll them do it. But I’m not going to them for it.’ That was the basic difference. They were going to have to come to him.”