The Early Years of Buster Keaton
by Catherine Brighton
Roaring Brook 2008
I'm all about giving kids a more rounded cultural education and I think film is one of those areas where American kids are really at a deficit. I once met a teen who was planning to study film when he graduated high school who had never heard of Orson Wells, couldn't name a single film from the 1960's, didn't think black-and-white movies were any good because "they didn't have special effects or any good equipment," and told me that the best film ever made -- without a hint of sarcasm -- was Goonies. I have since run into many kids of many ages who haven't got a clue of movies made before they were born. The only solution is the same for what we expect when teaching kids about historical figures in science, politics, and other areas of cultural history: start 'em young.
Brighton's picture book recounting of the early years in the life of silent comedian Buster Keaton is a great start in that direction. Told in the first person, which I thought was neat, we get the years from Keaton's birth to his early days in movies. He starts taking a fall as an infant down the stairs while traveling with his Vaudeville parents. He picks up his name from Houdini who uses the slang of the time for taking a tumble, or a buster. Despite laws aimed at keeping children under the age of seven off the stage his parents have him doing his prats as part of the act. At a young age he discovers the modern technological entertainment of the day -- movies, just coming into their own -- and decides that's the future. A falling out with his dad causes him to light out on his own and, with a little luck, gets started on his career in silent movies.
In the back matter (is it me, or is there more back matter appearing at the end of picture books these days?) Brighton explains that Keaton was a known storyteller, prone to exaggerating or making up facts about his life. His getting sucked out of a window during a tornado and landing without a scratch, included here for example. Makes a good story, dovetails nicely with one of his most famous gags in a silent movie when a house wall falls but misses him as he's standing where the open window lands. But is it true? No one knows for sure. Does it help balance out the story arc in a technical sense? Most definitely. Does it belong in a non-fiction picture book where a young reader is getting their introduction about an historical figure? I'm not so sure. And what of the unsubstantiated partial truths -- the possibility that Houdini didn't meet Keaton until he was grown, long after he acquired his nickname? Is this merely a way of introducing Keaton to an audience who might know Houdini and can better connect this new person in a familiar setting?
Brighton's story sense and illustration style are perfect for this book. There is a certain Little Nemo in Slumberland look to the illustrations -- rich in details and physically exciting -- that rings true with the era of the telling.
Despite some of the factual misgivings, I think this book and a couple of his short movies -- One Week at the very least - would make for a fine introduction to a slapstick comedian many (myself included) feel was much better than Chaplin.
Care for a sample? Here's are the last 7 minutes of Keaton's One Week
And if you want something a bit more substantial, rent Sherlock Jr. My preference is for the restored edition with the Club Foot Orchestra soundtrack.