CORRECTION: Keaton met the camera on March 21st

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Keaton’s datebook (Thanks for the image, Patty!)

Patty Tobais at the Damfinos has very kindly let me know that I’ve made a mistake. While Keaton met Lou Anger on March 19th, he didn’t actually go before the camera until March 21st. He wrote it all down in his day book.

I was relying on the story as told in Rudi Blesh’s biography, and I regret my error. Please consider it an early notice, so you can get ready for the big event on Tuesday.

Keaton met the camera today

One hundred years ago today, Buster Keaton was introduced to the moving picture camera. Considering what Keaton did with it, the day really ought to be an international holiday.

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Childs Restraunt breakfast menu, 1917. Did he get rye, corn meal, buckwheat or wheat  griddle cakes? It’s been lost to history.

Monday, March 19, 1917 started out unremarkably for him. According to biographer Rudi Blesh, he got up early, restless and worried about his solo act. Twenty-one years old, he’d never worked onstage without his family, and he’d signed a contract to appear alone in The Passing Show, the Shubert’s Broadway variety show. It was the day before rehearsals were to begin. Unsettling news of the war in Europe filled the front page of the New York Times; three American boats had been sunk by German submarines, but Russia vowed to keep fighting alongside their allies, despite their revolution. Keaton went to a Childs Restaurant (it was a chain), ordered pancakes, but he couldn’t touch them. It was a cold morning (35 degrees) but dry and he went for a walk. He ran into Lou Anger, an old friend from vaudeville who was working for Roscoe Arbuckle. He talked Keaton into coming along for a visit to the studio. Anger introduced Arbuckle, who asked him to do a bit in the next scene of The Butcher Boy but Keaton turned him down. Arbuckle invited him to stay and see how they worked, then called for a twenty-minute break. He asked what he wanted to see first. The camera, Keaton replied. So they went over to the cameraman, Frank Williams.

Frank Williams
Frank Williams

Keaton and Arbuckle must have been persuasive, because most cameramen wouldn’t let a stranger (even worse, an actor) get anywhere near their equipment. Nevertheless, Williams let him, as Blesh put it, all but climb inside the camera, inspecting the gears, sprockets, and shutter. Then Keaton looked at the lights, the cutting room, and watched some dailies. Blesh continued, “This, he saw, was for him. As the last frame of the last rush faded on the screen, he stood up in the darkness. The twenty-minute break had been nearly an hour. ‘Let’s do that scene,’ he said.” And that’s how Buster Keaton became a filmmaker.

Grace Kingsley was busy working 3,000 miles away, so she had no idea that one of her soon -to-be favorite comics was getting his start in film. On this day she reported that theaters were going to stop using the American flag in advertising to restore some dignity to it “in the present grave crisis of national affairs” (Congress declared war on Germany just three weeks later, on April 6th) and she reviewed the week’s films, including Out of the Wreak (“another of those obvious stories, patched together out of the scenario barrel”) and The Barricade (“a new and refreezing twist on the defaulting broker theme”).

Two days later she mentioned that she’d gotten a letter from Arbuckle’s publicity man, Jimmie Tynan, who’d gone “east with Roscoe Arbuckle to try and get that man a little much-needed publicity.” He didn’t mention any clever recent hires, but he told her that while New York life was very exciting, they all missed California and “Mrs. Arbuckle’s sister had never seen snow before — and she hasn’t seen anything else since, in the way of climate, anyway.” No wonder the company moved back to Los Angeles in October. Minta Durfee Arbuckle’s sister Marie was born in Los Angeles in 1893, so the story might have even been true.

Unfortunately, when The Butcher Boy was released in Los Angeles in late April, Kingsley didn’t like it very much. She called it “pretty much the old jazz stuff as regards action and plot” but she conceded that Arbuckle in girls’ clothes is always funny. She didn’t mention the guy with the bucket at all.

 

 

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1924 Chicago Tribune ad

[Of course I had to find out what Bulgarzoon on the Childs menu was. It was a yogurt drink like Kefir, according to Dining Chicago.]

 

Week of March 17th, 1917

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Buster shows how it’s done

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley noticed a new trend at live theater performances: “the habit of applause on the part of the audience appears to be dying out.” She theorized about what was causing it. At the top of the list was moving pictures, because there was no need to cheer for absent actors so people had gotten out of the habit. However, the new, quieter acting style and less melodramatic plays were also part of the problem; she wrote “can you fancy loud cane-whackings on the floor as an expression of gratification at the voicing of a Shaw subtlety, or some of the finer passages of an Ibsen drama?” It had gotten so bad that some theater owners were rumored to hiring professional applauders, to make the performers feel better. Who knew that styles of applause went in and out of fashion?

Kingsley’s favorite film this week was a Pauline Frederick film Sapho,

the story of the little street gamin, the flower girl of Paris, who captured one lover after another, is done so as to be entirely convincing…The transition in the girl from the gay butterfly to the sincerely loving woman is accomplished by Miss Frederick with no hypocritical show of demureness.

Sapho was based on a novel by Alphonse Daudet that was frequently adapted, first as a short in 1908, then as a feature in 1913 and then just the year before with Theda Bara in the title role. Other critics agreed that this version was particularly good; George N. Shorey in Motion Picture News even said it “will never be more finely interpreted than in this Famous Players production.” It’s a lost film. Frederick was respected as one of the best actresses of her time; to learn more visit Greta deGroat’s site.

 

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Out of the Wreck

Kingsley took personally a bit of business in a film about political corruption called Out of the Wreck.

The author evidently had a weird idea of newspaper people. The woman in the story apparently always kissed her city editor good morning, and then perched on the arm of his chair for an hour or so!

That wasn’t her only problem with the film; despite the good directing, acting, and photography, she thought the story was “patched together out of the scenario barrel.” It’s been preserved at the Library of Congress.

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Billy Bitzer

Kingsley told a story that proves nobody was surprised when cameraman Billy Bitzer wasn’t able to go to France to shoot the war scenes for Hearts of the World. Griffith wired him to come to New York and from there go to England with him. Bitzer replied “Can’t, I’m German.” Griffith answered “Well, change your name and come on.” Bitzer’s retort: “Might change my name but how can I change my face?” Bitzer did eventually travel to England, but Griffith had to hire another cameraman to visit the front lines.

Kingsley told a cute story about mistaken identity this week:

Harriette Lee, in some poses, especially close up, is a dead ringer for Mabel Normand. The other night both young women were dancing and supping out at Vernon. Three persons in succession passed by Miss Lee’s table, bowing and greeting her as Miss Normand. Each one, on pausing for another look (you always look at as long at Mabel as you can, naturally) in turn apologized, saying, ‘Oh, I beg your pardon!’ Miss Normand really was present at a near-by table, and when the last visitor made his apology, she called out ‘If people don’t stop apologizing to this lady because they’ve accused her of looking like me there’s going to be trouble.’

Harriette Lee was a vaudeville performer, and Kingsley had reviewed her favorably earlier in the week, saying “female ‘nuts’ are rare on the stage, but Harriette Lee is quite the most delicious one growing on the vaudeville tree. She and her partner, Ben Ryan, kid their way through an act that must be seen to be appreciated.” The husband and wife team had originated the “Dumb Dora” act that George Burns later credited as the basis for his act with Gracie Allan. Lee later simplified her name to Harriet and was best known as a radio singer in the 1930’s.

Week of March 10th, 1917

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One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley recounted a conversation she had with Mabel Normand:

Everyone has had a try at guessing why pictures on ancient subjects didn’t specially interest the picture fans. Many picture directors have wrung their hands and torn their hair because their favorite pictures depicting Horatius holding the bridge, or the sorrows of some ancient lady of Greece, didn’t get over, while the fact that the picture fans refused to get in a welter over the exciting things that happened in old Rome, has caused the loss of many a penny to fatuous producers. Miss Normand has hit the nail on the head.

“Tell you what it is,” said Miss Normand, the other day as she put on her make-up preparatory to some retakes in Mickey, “the whole secret of public appeal is that the spectator may be able to put himself or herself into the role of the hero or heroine. This trick of the public imagination is one that must be taken into account. When a young man sees a man on the screen, he can’t visualize himself in the role of the hero, if that hero wears queer-looking clothes and lives in a funny looking house and he can’t imagine being in love with a lady in duds all out of fashion.”

The nail that Mable Normand hit wasn’t about the box-office draw of costume dramas, instead she was describing a flavor of film theory that came to be known as spectator identification. It became very popular with psychoanalytic critics like Christian Metz and Tom Gunning. A helpful summary by Millie Schneider is at Spectatorship Theories.

But what Normand was really interested in was what sells movie tickets, and nobody has been able to figure that one out. The only correct answer seems to be William Goldman’s: “In Hollywood, no one knows anything.” However, the film she was working on did make plenty of money; in a 1939 interview Mack Sennett said Mickey made 8 million dollars, which would make it a top grosser in 1918.

Kingsley said they were talking about failed Roman history films but I haven’t been able to find what they were referring to. Cabiria came out three years earlier in the U.S. so it probably wasn’t that, and Cleopatra with Theda Bara didn’t come out until October 1917. They might have been discussing the Babylonians of Intolerance and Kingsley changed it to keep them out of trouble.

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William Farnum and Florence Vidor

Kingsley’s favorite film this week was A Tale of Two Cities.

The Fox production completely preserves all the significance of the original, and despite the intricacy of plot and motif, Frank Lloyd, director, is to be congratulated on having given the world a clear, gripping and wholly admirable visualization of one of the greatest of Dickens’ stories. Here, indeed, are we given a fine sense of the tragic whirlwind reaping, which was the French Revolution, conveyed not with a weary repetition of battle scenes, but in a few magnificent flashes and intimate personal touches.

She admired William Farnum in the dual Carlton/Darnay role, but she saved her highest praise for one woman who didn’t even get a credit:

There is a girl not named on the programme, who does one of the most striking bits of acting to be seen in the whole photoplay – she who cheers Carlton’s last moments before execution. It’s only a flash—but in her face are depths of passionate understanding, of a love, hopeless but divine, as she, too, passes under the guillotine.

The actress was Florence Vidor, and that brief scene made her famous, according to E.V. Durling in Photoplay (August 1917). She had come to Los Angeles with her husband, the future director King Vidor, in 1915 and had previously played a few bit parts. She went on to work in some great films, including The Marriage Circle (1924) and Are Parents People? (1925). She quit acting when sound came. A Tale of Two Cities is available on DVD.

 

Kingsley’s funniest review this week was for The Secret of Eve.

So far as I’m concerned Eve still has her secret intact. It may be this Eve’s secret involves the kind of corset Olga Petrova (Eve) wears and how she manages to retain it under all circumstances. Even as the first woman, when Miss Petrova appears, partly conceled, partly revealed, behind some bushes, clad in some shimmery stuff, her lines reveal that she wears a neatly-fitting pair of stays. As a subsequent reincarnation of an Indian woman, she still wears the corset. And, of course, as the poor little shop girl later, she saves up her money to buy a corset, presumably depending on lacing herself tightly into it to keep herself from being hungry. She’ll go to heaven in that corset, or refuse the invitation.

She went on to call the film “a totally insincere, superficial bit of balderdash.” Peter Milne in Motion Picture News hated it too, writing “the worn portions of the story appear in danger of giving away altogether.” He didn’t mention Eve’s corset, therefore Kingsley’s review was funnier. It’s a lost film.

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Ilya Tolstoy

Kingsley observed that “nothing is too odd or strange for vaudeville” when one of Leo Tolstoy’s sons had been booked by the Orpheum to do a fifteen minute lecture on his father’s life and works. Ilya Tolstoy toured the United States in 1917 and the title of his talk was “The Life and Ideals of my Father.” Vaudeville really did offer a variety!

This week there was an example of how language has changed. Kingsley mentioned that scenarist Capt. Leslie Peacocke had come up with a word for a male vampire: chicken-hawk. That meaning of the term didn’t stick. Unfortunately, the Oxford English Dictionary’s word history only recognizes the bird-who-kills-chickens meaning, and the Urban Dictionary doesn’t bother with dating their terms, so I don’t know when it came to mean either a man who enjoys the company of boys under the age of consent, or a war-monger with no military experience.

Week of March 3rd, 1917

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Motion Picture Story Magazine (March 1914)

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley started her Sunday column by excoriating a bunch of busybodies:

Uplifters are born, not made. There are certain people in the world who are natural uplifters. These persons can’t see any movement in science, literature, art or any other department of existence, without entertaining a desire, figuratively speaking, to roll up their sleeves, spit on their hands and give the new movement a heave upward. From diet to divine healing, from prize-fighting to poetry, these people are always Johnny-on-the-spot, ready to tell those back of any particular enterprise exactly how to achieve the proper result. The stage used to be the subject of attack from the uplifters. Now it’s the pictures, with the Photoplay League as the attacking party. This organization has its headquarters in New York, and the films are the subject of endless “resolutions,” movings and secondings.

The Photoplay League, founded in September 1916, said its primary goal was to support “worthwhile” films, and encourage the public to see the ones that reached their standard. These standard-setters included nurse and co-founder of the NAACP Lillian D. Wald, stage actress Julia Marlowe, and artist Edwin H Blashfield. They also tried to organize local Leagues throughout the United States.

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Trade ad for Vicar of Wakefield (I added the underline)

I couldn’t find any list they published, but Thanhouser used their recommendation in an ad for The Vicar of Wakefield. The League was given a lot of publicity by Photoplay Magazine in late 1918, but faded quickly after that.

Kingsley disagreed with their aims eloquently, pointing out how quickly films had grown in sophistication: “The day has gone by when prop boys were put in as directors and the corner grocery ablaze was sufficient ‘plot’ on which to compose a story while the cameraman ground. Hardly any art in the world has ever made such strides in a few years as motion picture making.” She noted that Intolerance and Joan the Woman were sufficient evidence of progress and concluded that film “needs not the priggish snifflings of an outside band of self-constituted censors to achieve its uphoisting.”

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Kingsley wasn’t the only one (Photoplay, 1915).

This week, Kingsley enjoyed a bunch of two reel comedies that the League would probably not have approved of. The first was an example of the self-policing of the industry that Kingsley preferred to “priggish snifflings,” because one way to improve movies is to make fun of the really bad ones.

Villa of the Movies is one of those delightful Keystone travesties on melodrama which are something more than mere hanging together of thrilling and supposedly amusing incident. This one takes a keen shy at the melodramatic trash of the day which is being precipitated in the name of Mexican border war drama, and that is accomplished with broad good humor is all the more to its credit… the spy who wants to know a way to ‘get’ the brave general is advised by a traitor “Put dynamite in his guitar and tell him to sing Goodbye Forever.

Villa of the Movies was directed by Eddie Cline, who had a long career that included directing most of Buster Keaton’s two-reelers and W.C. Fields’ The Bank Dick. Except for a short detour to drama in the mid-twenties, his ambition was to make funny films: any uplift of the industry was purely a coincidence.

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His Friend the Elephant

Kingsley also had fun seeing His Friend the Elephant.

There are more laughs to the square inch of film in the comedy at the Garrick this week than have been strung together in many a long day. “His Friend the Elephant” is a Christie Comedy in which Harry Ham, as the poverty-stricken hero, has a pachyderm left him as a legacy. His embarassments at the attachment of the elephant, which insists on following him everywhere; his efforts to get rid of it; its untimely appearance when he thinks he has got ridden of it – all make for hilarious comedy.

Al Christie had been making comedies in Hollywood since 1912, and his company specialized in films about funny situations, not slapstick. The company stayed in business until 1933, when it was bankrupted by the Depression.

The short that impressed Kingsley the most this week came from Max Linder:

He’s the French Charlie Chaplin, and if our memories serve us, he thought of a lot of things before Charlie Chaplin did. Max Comes Across is the title of Linder’s first Essanay picture, made in America. Of Linder’s work on has only to remark that he makes even an imminent attack of mal-de-mer very funny without offensiveness to prove that he really is more amusing than most of his bretheren of slap-stick. It is indeed in the manner of his doing—a truly Latin lightness and sureness of touch – Linder’s superiority lies. The slap-stick is turned into a magic wand.

Linder is often called a forgotten hero of cinema. He’d been making films since 1905 and his work not only influenced Chaplin, but also Sennett, Lloyd and most film comedians after him. Max Comes Across was his first film in two years: he’d been recovering from injuries he’d gotten while fighting on the Western Front in 1914. Still unwell, he didn’t like working in a foreign country, and he made only three films before he returned to France. This film isn’t available, but the other two he made in America, Max Wants a Divorce  and Max in a Taxi are in the Internet Archive.

Julian Eltinge, the female impersonator, was in Los Angeles touring with the play Cousin Lucy, and he was still able to make jokes about the war that was one month away. He declared he would help fight, saying

Attend the war? Well, I should say so. What terrors shall war have for me after all I’ve suffered from female apparel. Getting busted with a bullet can’t possibly have anything on lacing a thirty-four inch waist into a twenty-four inch corset; and, though war is hell, think of what a No. 4 French slipper feels like when worn on a No.7 foot!

If you’d like to know more about Eltinge, you can visit the site for a planned documentary film about him.

 

Week of February 24th, 1917

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Thomas Ince’s studio, 1915

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported on some optimistic studio plans:

If those enterprising Culver City people have their way, motion pictures are due to break out in a new place, and switch the map of Alarm Clock Alley* from Hollywood to Culver City. Several of the larger companies are considering removing to that thriving locality, and special inducements are being offered to them. The New York Motion Picture Company, under the management of Thomas H. Ince, was the first to build a great and substantial plant there. The Essanay has opened a studio in another part of town, and is working several companies, while half a dozen corporations whose names are withheld for the present are dickering for sites. Already three large companies hold options on ground, with deals expected to be closed this week.

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Feature Film Corporation’s planned studio (April 1, 1917). They disappeared, never to build it.

What’s astonishing about this announcement is that Culver City was only three and a half years old. Harry Culver, a real estate developer, officially opened it in October 1913, and it was incorporated in September 1917. Los Angeles was growing by leaps and bounds.

Culver City did become a motion picture center, but not the center. As Kingsley mentioned, Thomas Ince opened Triangle Studios there in 1915. Essanay took over Max Linder’s studio, but they soon went out of business for the same reason that all of the other big plans came to nothing: the economic turmoil caused by the war and influenza epidemic.

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Laurel and Hardy on location in Culver City (they worked for Hal Roach)

After the war, business picked back up. In 1918 Ince/Triangle Studios became Goldwyn, which became M.G.M. and is now Sony Entertainment. In 1919 Ince opened a different studio, which became DeMille, then Pathe, then RKO/Pathe Studio, then Selznick International, then Desilu, and now it’s a rental studio run by a private investment group. Hal Roach built his studio on Washington Blvd. in 1919 and stayed in business there until 1963.

Kingsley’s favorite film this week was Her Life and His:

which crackles and sparkles with keen plot, swift action and absorbing character study…While the long arm of coincidence may be said to be yanked rather farther than usual in the scene in which the girl, just released from prison, views through the window the man who wrongfully sent her to the penitentiary, about to suicide, and enters in time to prevent him killing himself, still it’s a scene that makes you catch your breath. There are many plots and counterplots—too many to recite here, but they have novelty, and real ingenuity.

That former convict and suicidal man go on to form a partnership to improve prison conditions until a corrupt political ring tries to blackmail him. She comes to his rescue and they live happily ever after. It’s a lost film.

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Florence LaBadie

The film starred Florence La Badie, whom Kinglsey thought had “brains, sincerity and a vividly expressive face, and these register even more effectively than mere beauty. Besides, she’s pretty enough for all practical purposes.” Ouch! LaBadie was Thanhouser Films’ biggest star, appearing in their major productions including their 1914-15 serial The Million Dollar Mystery and The Woman in White (1917). She died just a few months later on October 13, 1917 of septicemia two months after fracturing her pelvis in a car accident. You can find more about her at the Thanhouser site.

 

This week the film page featured a new and different way to make women feel inadequate. An ad for the upcoming A Daughter of the Gods gave far more information than anybody needed about Annette Kellerman’s precise dimensions, concluding that’s what was necessary to be the “perfect woman.” However, the man who declared in 1910 that she was perfectly proportioned, Dr. Dudley Allen Sargent of Harvard, wasn’t just a nut using a “scientific study” as an excuse to measure a lot of young women and pass judgment, he was also an advocate for women’s exercise and an end to tight corsets. An interview with him can be found at the Sunday Magazine blog.

 

Kinglsey didn’t review the film, but an anonymous Times writer praised Kellerman’s expert swimming and diving and didn’t mention what the lost film is known for now: the first nude scene by a major star.

 

 

* Alarm Clock Alley was Kingsley’s nickname for the motion picture colony, because everybody had to get up so early for work. It didn’t catch on.

Buster Keaton Blogathon 2017

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This post is part of Third Annual Buster Keaton Blogathon hosted by Silent-ology. Please visit Silent-ology to see all of the other participating blogs.

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One hundred years ago, Grace Kingsley got to be a Buster Keaton fan before any of us. She first mentioned him on November 21,1919 when she reported that he was getting his own company. She added “Keaton is an exceedingly clever young comedian, and here’s wishing him luck.”

 

Before he got to work at Buster Keaton Comedies, he took a short detour to star in a “high” comedy, The Saphead, and Kingsley admired his work:

Buster Keaton makes the most of his fine opportunities. In fact, he realizes a really high standard of mimetic art by investing the role of Bertie with scores of really fine touches of kindly satire and pathos, as well as of nicely balanced comedy…in short, Buster Keaton is about five-sixths of the picture. (December 13, 1920)

She rarely reviewed anybody’s two-reelers other than Chaplin’s. However, she mentioned that in The Paleface Keaton was “tremendously amusing” (May 22, 1922) and Day Dreams delivered “a laugh a second or so,” furthermore

Keaton is an artist. And he knows a dash of sympathy is good material even in a comedy. So he gets in just as he always does. Don’t ask me how. I don’t know, except that it is via his smileless face, his pathetic smallness, his constant failure.” (April 9, 1923)

She didn’t get to write about Three Ages: the new editor of the paper’s movie magazine got to see it early and wrote the review.(1)

However, she was happy to be back for Our Hospitality; she thought it was

perfectly delicious. It is a rollicking Romeo and Juliet….but boy oh boy, the thrills. That edge-of-the-water-falls stuff may be a delicate kidding of Griffith in Way Down East, but it surely makes your hair stand on end. Buster must have taken big chances. (December 10, 1923)

She also didn’t get to record her opinion of Sherlock Jr.,(2) but her enthusiasm for The Navigator was unequivocal:

My motto is always “Buster Keaton or Bust!” I have a record for never being absent or tardy when a Keaton comedy comes to town. And never does my typewriter leap more joyously from exclamation point to exclamation point than when descanting on the merits of a Keaton opus. The Navigator hasn’t one inch too much film in all its four or five reels, and every inch is a howl.

Buster Keaton is giving all the glad boys of comedy something to think about in this one, too. For, in that undersea stuff, he certainly darts a lap ahead. It is novel, it is thrilling, besides being the most hilariously funny stuff in the world—this big sequence in which Buster puts on a diver’s suit and goes to the ocean bottom to mend a leak in the ship. The rest of the comedy is all A-1, but this tops it all. (October 6, 1924)

Happily, Buster Keaton was appreciated in his own time, and in his hometown newspaper, too.

Thank you, Lea at Silent-ology, for organizing the Buster Keaton Blogathon!

(1) Hallet Abend saw Three Ages alone in a projection room with no music, and still laughed, so absorbed that he didn’t notice that his cigarette burned holes in his shirt. (July 18, 1923)

(2) Kenneth Taylor thought Sherlock Jr. was better than Our Hospitality and when Buster stepped into the screen it was “one of the funniest bits of business Keaton has ever offered.” (April 28, 1924)