“Spitting flour, he leaps up and continues with the mayhem, swinging brooms, tossing pies, dodging flour bombs and climbing the wall shelves, throwing everything within reach. It is chaos, exactly as he loves it.”
~ Binnie Brennan (Like Any Other Monday)
My research into Buster Keaton’s early life took me briefly to the Margaret Herrick Library in Beverly Hills, California, which houses the largest collection of Keaton papers and photographs in the world. I had reserved online a number of Keaton-related artifacts, but it wasn’t until I found myself in the Katherine Hepburn Reading Room (!!!) that I fully realized what this meant. There I sat, holding in my hands Buster’s datebooks from 1908-1919, his vaudeville years from age 12 through to his early filmmaking years. IN MY HANDS. This was treasure to a fiction writer, one page in particular:
On March 21, 1917, Buster Keaton stood before a motion picture camera for the first time. Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, who was filming The Butcher Boy, had just given Keaton a tour of his Comique Studio on East 48th Street, NYC. Arbuckle had shown the inquisitive young comedian the costume room, the props room, and the cutting room, and he let Keaton loose with the cameraman, who demonstrated the workings of the hand-cranked camera. Buster was fascinated, and when Arbuckle offered him a walk-on role in The Butcher Boy he agreed to give it a try.
It was Keaton’s first visit to a movie studio, his first time in front of a motion picture camera. He improvised his first scene in one take. There were no retakes needed.
Buster Keaton was twenty-one years old, a veteran performer who had just stepped off the vaudeville stage and was now poised to learn all he could from one of the great comic filmmakers of the time. Keaton and Arbuckle would collaborate on fifteen pictures over the next three years before Buster set out on his own career as an independent filmmaker. There was much more to come, but The Butcher Boy is where it all began, exactly 97 years ago.
(Photo scan source: Margaret Herrick Library, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences)