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It's time for the reader's Allman act with Warren Bauer. Originally broadcast over station WNYC New York and distributed by national educational radio the readers Allman act is America's oldest consecutive book program. Here now is Mr. Bauer. The life of an artist is a difficult one subject to great disparities between high elation and good work done in the depths of discouragement of not being understood or self-expression made impossible. I never had this brought home more sharply and effectively and in reading a biography of Buster Keaton. That great comic star early vote though of early movies who lived on into the age of the decline of the movies and into television. The book's title is Keaton. It was written by Rudy blush and its publisher is Macmillan. And I'm happy to have Mr. Blake with me to talk about Keaton was a close friend of his and the experience of writing the book. I want also to communicate to your listeners my feeling that through reading it you will come into intimate knowledge of the life of one of the great artists of our time whom we
have not known before except as a mythical figure which means of course one who is essentially unreal. More seems to the rest of us his story is a fascinating one wonderfully readable but has great significance is that it makes a real person out of an artist never fully understood. A clown and certainly one of the great ones. A man who is a reality was much more than a shadow on a screen. But an added word or two about Rudy blush before I bring him on. He's the author of shining trumpets a study of popular music. Modern art U.S.A. and they all played ragtime. He was an expert on Afro American music ragtime and jazz. He teaches a course in this field for a New York University and makes the story of the development of jazz come alive for students and readers alike because he is steadily alert to what's new and fresh among the popular arts. Already let's have some background on this book. I gather from some words on the blurb
that you had Busters full cooperation perhaps even his collaboration. So how did this come about. Well Warren actually it came about because. I began seeing Buster's pictures again at the museum and it struck me that that these things that I had seen in one thousand twenty years. Were really great works of art that they had something to say to us as every work of art should even that of a comic make comments. Then I wanted to meet the man and I went about meeting him and I said when I met him I said Buster I want to do a book on your life. And he said. All right. We became friends he said now the closed book is going to become an open book I'm going to give you everything I know I don't want it colored or changed. If we do a book got to be truthful that's a first comment on a man as an artist I think is that he was essentially truthful. Yes that's that's very impressive I must say about it. I must say that I knew but little of Buster Keaton his family background until I read your book though I had known of
him as a performer. Yet I've never seen him on the stage because when I was growing up I was a long way from having access to vote. There may be others like that listening to us or young people who missed the golden days of vaudeville altogether. So please describe for us and for those listeners. Buster is background and training. Well Buster was born the son of two real actual troopers and mother and a father who were in a tense show of that type called a medicine show in the Middle West in the 1890s. And then they worked into vaudeville it which was then the Mecca of the ten show artistes and vaudeville was just beginning its golden period of perhaps two decades as our leading entertainment. And they became a family act in which Buster was taught his timing his sense of comedy his wonderful acrobatics and of course he was a great athlete as far as the pure
thing of motion is concerned. Some extraordinary stories in your book about the things that he was able to do. Well he actually yes he acted with his entire body and that's why he didn't need to move the muscles of his face. That was one of the reasons of course. Actually I would like to say at this point Warren that this man who never smiled on screen was a very smiling man off screen very warm and very communicated. The character that he had evolved was one through which I think he could express what he needed to. Know he certainly was a great performer and I knew that very well from the things that I've seen of this but I think the thing that is probably unexplainable in any real sense is how the artist that Keaton undoubtedly was arose out of such a milieu as the building clowning slapstick violent action practically no thought or ideas only action. You want to wrestle with that problem a little. I guess it's the old problem Oren of where and why and how does a genius ever happen. Generally they come from that sort of
thing don't think where you don't expect that to happen as a writer they won't be generally the great IQ kid that is here's a quiz a kid right from the start. They'll be somebody born in that community I believe. Anyway he he did arise from it and he did become an artist. That's in there but all we need to know is all of course as to why and how an artist works that's a question that would interest me. And does everybody else I think the creative process. I would say this about Buster Keaton that he was I've known perhaps five or six people in my life for him that I feel were authentic geniuses and Buster Keaton was one of them. But Abalos he was the only one who was a genius and didn't know it and wouldn't it wouldn't have believed it if you don't. I suspect that's the best kind don't you. Well he certainly was unselfconscious about it right and I like to pursue this matter just a little bit for there. Would you say that there's very little evidence of Buster Keaton as having grown up artist stature while he wasn't bored. Well there's only a
superb performer blessed with a superb a functioning body was a productive sense of timing and coordination. Now this is just a process as of course I'd like to know what you think of it but I think you're right because in voter bill he was part of a family act and of course when the pact broke up in effect the family did too that's one of the minor tragedies of this book of course is break but the Spad are later healed of course. But in that he was always a kid he was the subordinate who in other words he would truly stooging for his father in a sense. Now when he went out for himself. For some miraculous reason he conceived a character that he then began to fill and this character had something to say about American life. About what just a chaplain does. I mean Chaplin in modern times is one approach to the artists in our society. I keep wrestling with machinery and always getting the worst of it.
Or the establishment in the form of the cops as the underdog that he always was. Is another comment on our time. I suspect you put your finger on the time at any rate when the transition if that's not too informal a word from a superb reformer to an artist probably took place. It is when you when you recognize that he had something essential to say. I seem to develop in almost all of his work all of his movies. I think he did it in some cases were almost unconsciously the development of it when it was pointed out to him when we were working on the book actually amazed him. He'd say yes that picture does represent something going on a little further. Well and it just means that that was under the surface. He did it I guess he did it intuitively I thought it a great deal. But of course I think that the period when it was done was also important when it could be done namely that period of the 1920s. Well I take it then that you feel it Keaton's importance increased graps he settled
down into a certain day that he had found his mitts. When he got into the movies early and slap sticky they were 19 17 and 18 and 20 and so on. I suppose we're still talking about his importance as an artist starts somewhere around that time. Yes and I think it does because he had one thing that he had a concept of was that here at last he had a chance to do something permanent. Now in the thought of Bill playing it was a skit they might improvise each day it would be different. But there was no record of it. And I know that the one thing that impressed Buster most of all as he told me was that suddenly here was a medium where you could improvise but it would be preserved on film which you then could edit cutting out all of your mistakes and making a perfect montage of your concept. And there it was for all time. So suddenly here was a man who you might say had he already had the methods here he had a medium with which to work.
Yes yes it means as you say and stress the importance to it to preserve things. After all are probably a great many persons who have some artistic impulses. Let's say who can talk exceedingly well and speak. But of course in our day probably they be talking into a microphone. But any old days know they did it anyway they reserve it they were talking only to the present moment then another is over and of course I do have a parallel as you know the fact that sound recording meant to jazz which was an improvised hour yes without that but what would we have. Same way with the improvisations of man like Captain and key. If it hadn't been done on film it would be going to be true. Interesting you should bring up that word chaplain and name a chaplain right here. I wonder if there is some significance in the fact that out of the same background roughly at least it produced a chaplain also produced Keaton or the other way around. Two superb artist living and working in the same field at the same
time. Now this is more than a coincidence one would have to sink wouldn't you. It certainly is more than a coincident. It also I think indicates that there was a chance for them to work. It seems to me that a comparison of Chaplin and Keaton gives us two very different personalities without in any way disparaging one or the other. Now though it seems to me that Chaplin is the nineteenth century the very end of that. It's the 19th century view of the 20th century. He Chaplin essentially was and is a Victorian myth. Keaton on the other hand was right from the beginning almost to modern. That is unsentimental and factual about his. Work. So these two different men were working from MIT two different vantage points of perspective. Both in looking at the scene around them and. Also the fact that they could improvise that it was possible in those days for four artists to make their own
films. Yeah. Now let's talk about some of Buster's great pictures. I never saw the time of their issuance those early to rigors of men again there may be many listening to us who never saw never saw up to this time but I am sure from your enthusiastic discussion of Keaton that there are some superb ones among them. I suppose you've seen them. I've seen them all and I see them as often as I can. Naturally with such a long amount of work. There's a certain and certain unevenness some of them are finer than others but they all are full of Keaton in effect. And. One thing that I want to stress is it's apt to sound a little ponderous and serious about Keaton as an artist but after all he was supremely funny in his first duty as a clown was to make us laugh and as he himself commented afterwards let everybody think.
You know make them laugh and leave them thinking you're not. But they are funny to begin with and that they're a pure joy. And when you see them put on nowadays you get the reaction of tiny kids teenagers everybody. It gets right to them there are no barriers. It does if humor is a universal language almost as music. I like to pick up something that you were talking about just a moment ago the fact that these films were in effect I suppose almost ad libbed they were always without a script perhaps without a pre-determined plan. Now this runs counter to what we think we used to think is art Busters early movies were almost to use a modern term almost happenings weren't they. They were and as a matter of fact I think you put your hand up put your finger she sees me on something that I think is important about art structure that we ought always had now that's I would say is the old idea dating from Greece no doubt So our old culture and
work of art has a beginning a middle and an end. But the modern concept is the open ended concept. That's what jazz is continuous improvisation and that's what these men did. That's why Buster would say you can write the whole plot for a picture on a small postcard. All he wanted was just certain things and then his cameramen you know were instructed Never stop shooting until the boss says cut because he would go into some little scene that might calling for for him to do some little thing he would begin improvising on it and he would as he said grow from a gag into a master scene in other words the whole the whole picture might be built around something that happened to him as he was working. Does this mean then that the person who did the cutting and I suspect it was a rabbit or Buster would get it together so well he worked with these the thing was that in the 1900s men like Chaplin and Keaton could do their own stories could direct them could act in them could could do the cutting and everything from start to finish. That is very significant as he had control of the whole situation please control complete
control. And in a few years that would become impossible in Hollywood as you know. Yes. Well let's let's get on to talk about some of the things that did come about in his life. Be nice to linger over these pictures. And I do want to have your say just a little bit more about them before we end but still Busters decline is a very poignant moving saying in your book. But I would say it was not a personal decline was it. What he had for all of his life got in its licks near the end made its influence felt. And finally did he mean how briefly did that come about. It's a long story I know. Well I don't know the movies began in the early 1920s anybody as they said could take a thousand dollars and go out and build an automobile and start a company it was the period of the big Ford the consolidation of the thing it happened the movies were sort of a free and easy field. But as the investment increased.
It got so that they couldn't let or felt they couldn't let artists do their own pictures what they needed were experts. Now the term expert to me is A is A. Isn't it people who work in the movie not because what the experts have done was to kill the artist chances japa knew that the of the only the only recourse he had was to form an outfit called United Artists in an attempt to fight that as you know. To try to keep control of his picture of Buster didn't. And when he got signed on with the big company MGM all of a sudden from being a man who made his own pictures he was a hired hand who was doing stunts for a director a producer a supervisor a cutter a story right if he had no hand at all. Yes. Not when it was over he was Susan. I want to advance one idea which may not make you angry but as a friend of Buster's but nevertheless let me ask that everything got BIG got important money was rolling in in some respects Buster was taken
in. He built some magnificent houses in Hollywood especially that Italian villa in Beverly Hills Isn't this evidence that in some measure you tell me how much he went along with the development in the movies were taking. What he wanted a long war and chiefly because of he's married. The pressure was on there from a very intimate source to agree with an adversary going to a certain extent. However I don't think the Buster ever really was actually impressed by this Bella. All he would say was when he put take people around Italian villa It took a lot of prep balls to build this house my friend. Well that suggests a kind of disillusionment or at least a real point of view that old corn maybe therefore it wasn't as important to him as I had thought that it might have been I don't think so I don't think that the loss of the house bothered Buster at all really. But I'm eyes right in feeling again depending on your book the real villain of this
book or Buster Keaton as an artist is Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and all it stood for. Well they were the ones that he happened to be signed with that is very true and we need a villain they're the ones keep money only one bet they worked on and got a garbled quip as you know because of their handling. Of her. Hand artists didn't exist as such car and GM they were properties. This is inescapable I suppose that has to have to do with very basic things in our culture. I don't think we've ever in America resolved what the real relationship of the artist is to a commercial and essentially commercial culture of which ours really is a power and commerce culture. Well from the commercial point of view of course artists are difficult to control who certainly are and therefore they can't be relied upon to do big business has got to have reliance and ready to work for it.
I don't well well the only objection I have to the whole thing is I would be perfectly happy to see this whole big big Colossus grow but if there only could have been a little corner left for the few artists who wanted to continue to work if they had been working yes if we could only compromise. It always had to be had to be an all or nothing thing. But you couldn't have both and I just don't believe in that he said. Now there's one question that I must ask because I feel it welling up in the listeners minds. What has happened to these pictures. The whole gamut. Buster Keaton has talent and artistry can they still be seen. Does one have to be an aficionado to know about them to know where they can be seen. That is if they can be seated on what is all of his work preserved. It was all destroyed nearly except for prints that have been found all over the world. And it took about six years for friends of Buster to locate film some of them even even
black of the back of the Iron Curtain they'd find prints and they'd make new negatives all of his work has now been found it's all in the Buster Keaton estate it's all going to be shown every single foot of it at a forthcoming Keaton festival at the Gallery of Modern Art scheduled I believe for this coming month of February. You mean the Museum of Modern Art of the Gallery of Modern Art that isn't even on Columbus Circle. That's right. The high is yes. Tell me more about that. Well it's in the formation stage now but it's unquestionably going to happen. Then that'll be followed by Keaton festivals. So out all of the colleges in the country and eventually I hope that a great deal of the material can be released on television following this. But the first presentation has to be what we would call a retrospective exhibition you might say as in the case of an artist. And that will be as I say sometime in February. Anyone who's interested should simply watch the papers or or call a Gallery of Modern Art. Well that's very important and it's going to be unknowable. It's going to
be done in a time sequence starting with 917 right straight through. But are all of these prints are big enough for print so that do you have really good prints. There's a certain unevenness Warren but on the whole most of the prints are good. And they've also been processed and worked on of course you don't have a problem of a sound track because these are silent fixation is it. No I don't believe it I realized I hadn't heard of Buster Keaton for many years certainly in the late years I didn't realize he lived on so near to our own time. It was less than a year ago that he died. I'd like to have you tell us a little bit about how you handle that problem in particular of course you read that last paragraph in your book. Well Buster Keaton as you know worked on the book with me and his mother who was still alive and a lot of survivors of that period because I began it around 1950 then Keaton began to get
old and begin to fail and the book had just been finished it was in galleys and the sketch and the publication date was approaching Leicester had read the galleys. And then it went into page proofs and the book was being bound when the word came of his sudden death. Then the question came Should we go back and rewrite the whole book and put it in the past tense and we decided no because it was a book that was in the present tense about an artist who was alive and who would be alive anyway with his work even after his death. So all we did was I had written on the last page Warren. It's a timely restoration that is of peace films coming back. But it still is late late evening for the mime himself. His race with time quickens for Buster Keaton has become the final chase and we simply added this Hollywood February 1st 1966 Buster Keaton died today at his home in Woodland Hills. This is the last take of the last scene. The chase ended.
And of course there was a Ridge's book or seen anything a Buster will know this significance of a chase as opposed to the final chase that always ended with Well that was a superb wit too good to end it if it had to end this way. Preferred it otherwise I guess I would because he was just ready to come into his own well he had some taste of it he had a standing ovation in Venice at the film festival in the last year. Certain things like that that must have been very very deeply gratifying to him. Yes it's quite true he had some good do you a good deal of the. Information and a feeling that he had made his mark in the world surely. Oh well thank you very warmly Rudy Weisz for this glimpse into the life and times in the world of Buster Keaton readers will get a vast deal more than we've even hinted at in our talk. This is a great biography because it brings a great man a great artist to life for us. Keaton as the book Macmillan the publisher really Blish the writer.
You heard Warren bar and Rudy blush as they discuss the book. Keaton this was another programme in the series. The readers all men act on our next program Mr. Bauer's guest will be. May Sarton and the book under consideration will be her novel Mrs. Stevens hears the mermaid singing the reader's almanac is produced by Warren Bauer and is originally broadcast by station WNYC in New York. The programs are made available to this station by national educational radio. This is the national educational radio network.
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Reader's almanac
Rudi Blesh
Producing Organization
WNYC (Radio station : New York, N.Y.)
Contributing Organization
University of Maryland (College Park, Maryland)
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Episode Description
This program features Rudi Blesh, a biographer of Buster Keaton.
Series Description
A literature series featuring interviews with authors, poets, and others in the literary world.
Media type
Host: Bower, Warren
Interviewee: Blesh, Rudi, 1899-1985
Producing Organization: WNYC (Radio station : New York, N.Y.)
AAPB Contributor Holdings
University of Maryland
Identifier: 67-28-4 (National Association of Educational Broadcasters)
Format: 1/4 inch audio tape
Duration: 00:24:34
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Chicago: “Reader's almanac; Rudi Blesh,” 1967-06-28, University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed July 25, 2024,
MLA: “Reader's almanac; Rudi Blesh.” 1967-06-28. University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. July 25, 2024. <>.
APA: Reader's almanac; Rudi Blesh. Boston, MA: University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from