Buster Keaton

Geoff Nicholson

“The world is the totality of facts, not of things.”
— Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus

The famous occasion, Los Angeles 1929: after a party in Buster Keaton’s Beverly Hills villa, Buster persuades Louise Brooks and Bill Collier (who’s also sometimes known as Buster) to drive with him to Culver City, to the MGM lot where the studio has provided him with a bungalow, christened Keaton’s Kennel. It’s a big deal for the studio to give a star a bungalow. It shows how much they value him, what an asset and moneymaker he is for them. The place has become a party house, a drinking den: we are, of course, still in the depths of prohibition.

At the bungalow, Louise and the two Busters have a nightcap. Keaton slips out of the living room and returns with a baseball bat, which is not so strange in itself. Everybody knows how much Buster loves his baseball. The living room is lined with glass-fronted bookcases. Keaton takes the bat and systematically smashes every pane in every bookcase, puts the bat aside, sits down, says nothing. Brooks and Collier say nothing either. The three of them carry on drinking. Another Hollywood evening.

Something to bear in mind: the bookcases are empty. Buster isn’t much of a reader. Arguably he wrote one more book than he ever read. His name appears on a ghostwritten autobiography, My Wonderful World of Slapstick, a title that I’d like to believe was awash with irony, but I really don’t think it is. Keaton dictated the book to Charles Samuels and never so much as looked at the manuscript. Why would he need to? What good would it do? By his own account he only ever had one day of schooling in his whole life. He played the class clown and was told never to come back. He was all too happy to do as he was told.

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