This post is part of Fifth Annual Buster Keaton Blogathon hosted by Silent-ology.
For the blogathon, I had hoped to look at how Grace Kingsley covered Buster Keaton in her columns, other than in her reviews and interviews. But there just wasn’t much to look at. He occasionally turned up in little stories, like when Lou Anger said he looked out of spirits, and Buster replied, “I am. Not a drop left!” or when there was news, like when he got married or when he hired a new director. It seems like he was more interested in working on his films than in being a movie star, which isn’t much of a surprise. The most interesting thing I noticed was how much more often he appeared in the paper after he signed that contract with M.G.M., but that only proves that they were a well-oiled publicity machine.
So instead I’ll tell you about my favorite Keaton article that appeared in the Los Angeles Times, “Humorists All at Sea.” Unsigned and published on May 25th, 1924, some lucky writer got to visit the original writing staff at work. A few months earlier, technical director Fred Gabourie, while on loan to another studio for The Sea Hawk, found something his boss might like to use: the Buford, a 450 foot ocean liner being sold for scrap. He was right. So one day Keaton took Clyde Bruckman, Jean Havez and Joe Mitchell to visit it at Catalina Island and said, “There’s the boat. Now write me a comedy.” The Times writer watched as they did just that:
As an illustration of the way gag men work, take the methods of Buster’s scenarists. All three inspected the Buford from the lowest deck to the top of the main mast. Everything from the anchor to the smokestack was considered for its possible comedy values. Portholes were inspected, life preserves labeled up, a diver’s suit dragged out on deck, the uniforms of the various members of the crew were considered.
From stem to stern nothing aboard the Buford was overlooked. For two whole days the gag men shot possibilities at each other and Buster while they built up the story. A stenographer sat hard by taking down the suggestions.
At the end of a week of this sort of thing, the stenographer had more than 400 pages of single-spaced gag ideas. These ideas were whipped into story form by Buster and his henchmen in several more days of work.
Only the funniest of the gags and only those which best fitted into the story were retained. And after ten days of talk the first scene of Buster’s comedy, tentatively titled The Navigator, was shot.”
So it was as simple as that! Now that we know, we can all go out and make a masterpiece. The article shows how different writing for movies is from other kinds. As Keaton said in his autobiography, “they were not word guys, at all. They didn’t have to be.”
Keaton’s original group of gag men had been working with him since his two-reelers, but they were to stay together for just one more film, Seven Chances. The team broke up temporarily in late 1924, when Keaton closed his studio for two months while he went on vacation. It became permanent when Jean Havez died of a heart attack on February 12, 1925. Joe Mitchell co-wrote three more comedies and retired. Clyde Bruckman went to work for Harold Lloyd, but when he read the book The Great Locomotive Chase, he brought it right to his old boss and they made The General.
The L.A. Times writer mentioned one detail that I hadn’t read elsewhere:
Captain John A. O’Brien, veteran of fifty-eight years of service on the Pacific, materially aided the scenarists. O’Brien told funny stories of past experiences he had or of which he had heard and called in his crew to tell their versions of funny incidents of life shipboard.
Captain “Dynamite Johnny” O’Brien (he once prevented a dynamite explosion) was born in Cork, Ireland in 1851 and he moved to the United States in 1862. According to the Puget Sound Maritime Historical Society, he’d been a sailor since 1867 and he became a steamer captain in 1888, mostly traveling between Seattle and Alaska. So he really did know a lot about ships; Keaton was clever to ask an expert. After 1919 O’Brien became a pilot in the Puget Sound. He was still working as a mariner, age 79, and living in Seattle according to the 1930 Census. He died the following year.
The Navigator is recognized as a great silent comedy; in his autobiography Keaton said it and The General were his best. In 2018 it was added to the National Film Registry.
Please visit the rest of the Buster Keaton Blogathon!