Camera Man: Buster Keaton, the Dawn of Cinema, and the Invention of the Twentieth Century

Atria. Jan. 2022. 432p. ISBN 9781501134197. $29.99. FILM
In this thoughtful, engaging, and moving work, Slate writer Stevens posits that Buster Keaton’s life is an entry point to understanding the 20th century—and vice versa. She follows Keaton from his days as the toddler star of the Three Keatons vaudeville act, to his late-career years making cameos in movies and television. The bulk of the biography focuses on Keaton’s celebrated silent film career and his rocky entry into the talkies, which was derailed by bad personal and business decisions and further complicated by his alcohol addiction. Stevens enhances the work by contextualizing Keaton’s life. His abusive childhood stage experience is juxtaposed against a discussion of early 20th-century child labor laws. An examination of blackface in Keaton’s work leads to a more in-depth exploration of depictions of race and humor in pop culture at the time. A section on his repeated hospitalizations from drinking binges leads to an exploration of history of the rise of Alcoholics Anonymous. Stevens’s acumen and analysis further elevate this book, offering insights and entertaining extrapolations on the myriad films and entertainment figures discussed within.
VERDICT More than a biography of Buster Keaton, this is a stunning, extensively researched, and eminently readable cultural history.
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