If you look at a list of movies to be released in 2022, there are plenty to be excited about, as long as you’re not a fan of film comedy. For a variety of reasons, the major studios have slowly but surely gotten out of the comedy game, and now the star-driven laugher that was a foundational genre of Hollywood for over a century is almost nowhere to be found.
What better time to revisit the comedy stars of yesteryear? Film critic Dana Stevens looks back gloriously in her first book “Camera Man: Buster Keaton, the Dawn of Cinema, and the Invention of the Twentieth Century.” For newbies to silent cinema, Keaton was one of cinema’s great comedic geniuses in the 1920s. Known as “The Great Stone Face” for his deadpan visage, he was a master of physical comedy and a brilliant director whose films were filled with rich comic ideas and incredible stunts. Given the dearth of new comic ideas in cinema today, Keaton’s inventive and exhausting work has aged brilliantly. It was popular at the time, but it looks more like high art today.
As the longtime film critic for Slate, Stevens has proven herself adept at merging blazing insight with an accessible style, and she does so from the very first pages of “Camera Man.” In the introduction, she identifies 1895, when Keaton was born, as the year the modern world was created. It was the year the first patent for an automobile was issued; William Randolph Hearst acquired his first newspaper; Marconi transmitted the first radio waves; and Freud came up with the idea of dream analysis. As she does throughout, Stevens places Keaton’s work among the most significant innovations of his time, not to needlessly praise him but to show how his work reflected the same social conditions.
Consider “One Week,” a 1920 two-reeler in which Keaton unsuccessfully attempts to put together a mail-order home for his new wife. Stevens identifies it as one of Keaton’s funniest, most cohesive works – it is the first instance of his most famous repeated gag in which the side of a house falls on him, but he is spared by standing in the path of its window – but she also explains the trend it was commenting on. “The market for mail-order homes peaked at the same time the silent film era did,” she tells us, deepening the film’s laughs through context, allowing readers to put themselves in the place of contemporary audiences.
Throughout the book, she takes each opportunity to digress towards a history of the various factors with which Keaton wrestled. A discussion on Keaton’s problematic portrayals of race leads to a recap of the career of Bert Williams, a Bahamian-American vaudeville star and film actor who Keaton greatly admired and may even have imitated in 1927’s “College,” one of Keaton’s least successful features. She identifies critic (and future Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright) Robert Sherwood as a key champion of Keaton’s work, and then pivots to a short primer on the early days of film criticism.
Early on, Stevens establishes that these asides are not distractions from the point; rather, they are the story. Despite its somewhat misleading title, “Camera Man” is not a typical biography. It’s a unique blend of biography, history, film criticism, and maybe even memoir. Although Stevens doesn’t reveal the specific details of her own life, she frequently uses the first-person to describe her reactions to Keaton’s work. More than that, her passion for the material is felt on every page. From her clear admiration for Keaton’s physical appearance to her glee every time she discovers another milestone that occurred in 1895, Stevens writes with a contagious enthusiasm, making her subject leap off the page with the force and skill of Keaton himself.
“Camera Man” is just as entertaining as the man himself. It’s funny, charming, and fascinating, like a lively story told by your smartest friend over cocktails.. By the end, you’ll forget all about the future of film comedy. The past is funnier, anyway.
“Camera Man: Buster Keaton, the Dawn of Cinema, and the Invention of the Twentieth Century” is on sale now wherever books are sold.