Although Buster Keaton is not as familiar to general audiences today as the iconic Charlie Chaplin, there have been several books about the silent film star that have helped to articulate his importance and his legacy as a major innovator in film's early days. Among these are Keaton's own "My Wonderful World of Slapstick" (1960), Edward McPherson's "Buster Keaton: Tempest in a Flat Hat" (2007), and John Bengston's "Silent Echoes: Discovering Early Hollywood through the Films of Buster Keaton" (1999).
Published by Scarecrow Press earlier this year, the new book "Buster Keaton's Silent Shorts: 1920-1923" (2013) offers silent film fans a very thorough survey of each of Keaton's short films from that period. Authors James L. Neibaur and Terri Niemi provide a useful and fascinating reference book for those with a particular interest in Keaton's work, although cinephiles just getting into silent pictures should also find this text a helpful introduction to the stone-faced comedian and his contributions to the art of film.
Rather than focusing on Keaton's more celebrated feature films, Neibaur and Niemi consider the star's earlier two-reelers, which demonstrate the development of Keaton's personal style after his early work with Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle. Chapters on short comedies like "The High Sign" (1920), "One Week" (1920), and "Convict 13" (1920) present Keaton's first forays into creating his own pictures and refining his unique sense of visual comedy. In all, the book considers 19 shorts with detailed summaries and discussions, giving the reader a very nuanced understanding of each individual work and of the body as a whole. An epilogue also provides a glimpse of Keaton's later career and suggests the scope of his influence beyond his own era.
Generously illustrated with stills and posters from Keaton's films, "Buster Keaton's Silent Shorts" is the kind of book serious film fans will enjoy having on hand, although the list price of $60 might place the text outside some readers' budgets. Libraries, however, should certainly be encouraged to add the book to their collections, particularly academic libraries at institutions with a vested interest in film studies. For individual readers, a less expensive Kindle edition is also currently available for just over $34.
James L. Neibaur is a film historian and professional educator. His other books include "The Jerry Lewis Films: An Analytical Filmography of the Innovative Comic" (2013), with Ted Okuda, "The Silent Films of Harry Langdon" (2012), and "The Fall of Buster Keaton: His Films for MGM, Educational Pictures, and Columbia" (2010). Terri Niemi has assisted Neibaur on earlier projects. Find out more about James L. Neibaur's other books on Amazon.com.
Jennifer Garlen writes as the Huntsville and National Classic Movies Examiner. Her book, "Beyond Casablanca: 100 Classic Movies Worth Watching," is now available in paperback and Kindle editions on Amazon.
Disclaimer: Scarecrow Press has made a complimentary review copy of this book available to the reviewer. No promise of a positive review is made in exchange for this courtesy.