Keaton Biography Explores 'Tempest in a Flat Hat' Jennifer Ludden talks to Edward McPherson about his new biography of silent film star Buster Keaton, known as the "Great Stone Face." He says Keaton handcrafted every aspect of his movies in a way that would be unimaginable today
NPR logo

Keaton Biography Explores 'Tempest in a Flat Hat'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Keaton Biography Explores 'Tempest in a Flat Hat'

Keaton Biography Explores 'Tempest in a Flat Hat'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


A young movie projectionist falls asleep at his post. His ghostly dream double stands up, wonders down to the audience, then jumps up into the movie within a movie. This is no George Lucas prestidigitation. It's silent comedian Buster Keaton in his 1924 masterpiece, "Sherlock, Jr." In fact, the movie is full of stunts and camera tricks that other filmmakers took years to figure out. Edward McPherson is the author of a new look at Keaton's films, "Buster Keaton: Tempest In a Flat Hat." He says Keaton handcrafted every aspect of his movies in a way that would be unimaginable today.

Mr. EDWARD McPHERSON (Author, "Buster Keaton: Tempest In a Flat Hat"): Not only did he star in all these movies, but he directed them. He wrote them such as they were written, which really--they essentially came up with a beginning and an ending and made up the middle as they went along. But he also edited his own movies. You know, no one really has that kind of creative control these days.

LUDDEN: As you went back and researched all this, I mean, was there something that struck you as a stunt or a scene that kind of has resonated through the decades.

Mr. McPHERSON: Oh, gosh. I mean, there are so many kind of iconic moments. You know, he's known for these kind of quiet moments and he was The Great Stone Face. But he also had these huge blockbuster, big-screen spectacles. And at the time, when he was shooting "The General," he actually had the most expensive scene in silent film history which cost $42,000 back then. And he actually wanted a locomotive to crash into a river. And so, that's exactly what they did. They got a locomotive and set a bridge on fire and crashed it into a river.

LUDDEN: Huh. That reminds me, though. There's another thing that Buster Keaton kind of pioneered: the dolly shot, the camera that moves as it's filming.

Mr. McPHERSON: Mm-hmm. Absolutely. And that's--I mean, that's one thing that--silent films kind of get a bad rap. We think they're these technologically, you know, unadvanced, boring, static things. But, I mean, this was the, you know, dawn of the machine age. So, you know, Keaton and his crew--the camera was not too terribly big. It didn't have any of that sound equipment, so they could, you know--they loved to attach it to some sort of steam--you know, steam demon; a train or car or whatever they could and just, you know, put it in motion and then let it go.

LUDDEN: He sold out to MGM at one point?

Mr. McPHERSON: Well, sound was coming to the movies and so he essentially had to join a shop because moviemaking was getting more expensive. And he just kind of got chewed up by the rigors of the studio system. He went to MGM in 1928 and, you know, he lost a happy confluence of factors. He had his own team beforehand. They were used to making up movies on the fly, which ran, you know, entirely counter to the MGM, you know, mass-produced method. You know, Keaton was saddled first--for his first movie, he was saddle with 20 writers on the script. And this is a guy who never even used a script really before.


Mr. McPHERSON: The funny think is that Buster was not afraid of sound at all. He was a real inventor and had a very much an engineer's mind, and so he was very--actually anxious to be in a talkie and to start making talking movies. But the difference is he only wanted to talk when it made sense. And early on, you know--with any new technology, the studios were anxious to get it out there. And, you know, they were almost afraid of silence, you know. It's the all-talking, all-singing, all-dancing days and...

LUDDEN: Like special effects today? You just use it to use it.

Mr. McPHERSON: Exactly. And so, Keaton, you know, there were moments when he wanted to talk and moments when he wanted, you know, to pantomime, and they wouldn't let him do that. So he gets shoehorned into playing kind of a dim-witted sap. You know, he gets paired with Jimmy Durante, who, you know, if there ever was a motor mouth it's Jimmy Durante. So Keaton starts to get kind of pushed to the back.

LUDDEN: Did Buster Keaton kind of follow his parents or is there some other story about how he ended up in entertainment?

Mr. McPHERSON: The funny thing was his--according to his parents and, you know, his father was a big self-promoter and had all these great myths about the family. You know, apparently they couldn't keep Buster off the stage. His parents had a duo act on vaudeville, but when Buster was a toddler, he was always creeping out on the stage. So eventually they--they tried to keep him in a stage trunk, but the lid snapped shut and so they realized that wasn't very safe. And eventually, they resorted to tying him to an offstage pole. But apparently, ever since, you know, the age of five, when his father had the bright idea to dress Buster up as a, you know, mini version of himself, and put him on stage, the kid was in the act.

LUDDEN: How did Buster Keaton make the transition from vaudeville to the screen?

Mr. McPHERSON: It was actually--that was really pretty easy for Buster. He'd had enough of his family act in 1917, so he, you know, pulls up stakes and comes to New York where he gets a job in a Hollywood sh--I mean, a Broadway show. But then he bumps into an old friend who introduces him to Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle who says, you know--invites him to the studio. So Keaton comes by and they're shooting a scene in a butcher shop. And, you know, Keaton had seen movies. He was certainly aware of them. And, you know, America was watching a lot of movies at this time. And they, you know--Fatty looks over at Buster and says `Hey, you know, you want to jump in the scene?' And, of course, Keaton's been making it up on stage for, you know, the past 21 years. So he hops to it. He grabs a broom out of the, you know, broom closet and does a whole routine with a pailful of molasses. And, you know, he was such a natural that Arbuckle, you know, wanted to hire him right on the spot.

LUDDEN: Buster Keaton is most often thought of along with, you know, the likes of Charlie Chaplin or Harold Lloyd--some might know. What do you think makes him different from those two?

Mr. McPHERSON: You know, he's most often probably compared to Chaplin, but to me they're birds of a, you know, very different feather. Buster had a quote about Chaplin that said, "Charlie's tramp was a bum with a bum's philosophy. Loveable as he was, he would steal if he got the chance. My little man was a working man and honest."

But for me, I think Keaton is the more honest storyteller. Chaplin was essentiality kind of a Victorian sentimentalist, at least to my mind. You know, Keaton's films might be touching, but not in the determinedly sentimental mode of Chaplin. Keaton didn't like weepy close-ups and his stories often don't end happily, but kind of with unexpected final twists. You know, he dies at the end of a lot of these, quote, unquote, "comedies," which is absolutely remarkable.

LUDDEN: Edward McPherson is the author of "Buster Keaton: Tempest In a Flat Hat." Thanks so much.

Mr. McPHERSON: Thanks.

Copyright © 2005 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.