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Buster Keaton discusses the release of "When Comedy Was King"

BROADCAST: Sep. 5, 1960 | DURATION: 00:37:58

Synopsis

Silent film pioneer Buster Keaton discusses his career following the release of "When Comedy Was King," a compilation of some classic shorts by Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, and others. Keaton reveals how they shot the early silent films, generated material and gags, how they planned big chase scenes, the resurging European interest in silent classics, and more. Studs asks Keaton about the stylistic differences between him and Chaplin, whether he would recreate silent films, and how they compare to today's film-making. Keaton reveals how little was scripted but rather improvised in between a start and finish. Keaton describes some classic gags in films like "The Frozen North," "Sherlock Jr.," and "The Navigator." The discussion concludes with Keaton's thoughts on performing on television in front of a live audience.

Transcript

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Stud Terkel The world of entertainment has come a long way of the new inventions and new devices. And yet the art of acting is still a- an eternal one and last- a few nights ago, I was in a movie house in the neighborhood seeing the film When Comedy Was King, and it a was recrea- excerpts of some of the fantastically ingenious two-reelers that some of the geniuses of the past, not- well, some of now, but of the silent film. There was a, a piece of Chaplin, a piece of Langdon, and a piece of Buster Keaton, who is our- delighted to have as our guest this morning. But Buster Keaton, when I think of you, aside from this film I saw the other night, I think of you in terms of some of these critics who speak of Keaton, one of the geniuses of the silent film. Your approach- your approach in so many of these films, these two-reelers of feature films you did, was the man never spoke, of course, but how is it done? There, there were subtitles.

Buster Keaton That's right. Or you- no, your lips moved. You- you spoke. And in the cutting room you'd simply run the film through your fingers down to where you just got your mouth open and on the second syllable, you'd cut, slap in your subtitle, it explains what you're talkin' about. And then when you come back you pick it up just as your mouth is about the close. So that was the way that's -- was

Stud Terkel But what you had to say, you had to communicate to the audience, really only one way, through action. Through pantomime.

Buster Keaton That's right. We eliminated subtitles just as fast as we could if we could possibly tell it in action.

Stud Terkel I remember you once told me something about 10 years ago, about you and Charlie Chaplin having friendly contests of who could do the feature film with the least amount of subtitles.

Buster Keaton I think Chaplin won that. He got done one of his pictures something like 21 titles and I had 23.

Stud Terkel And this is for an hour and a half film, something

Buster Keaton Yeah. Seven reel picture. We started off with our features were only five reelers, but I think around, mmmm see, about 25 were seven reels. Became a standard length for all featured pictures.

Stud Terkel Thinking about

Buster Keaton But another thing too you got to call attention to is the average picture used 240 titles. That was about the average.

Stud Terkel Two hundred and forty was the average?

Buster Keaton Yeah. And the most I ever used was 56.

Stud Terkel Fifty-six. And at one time you use 20 - 23. So again we think of you saying something to- like, at this theater, at this movie house, there were young kids, couples who weren't even born, perhaps their parents weren't born at the time these films were made yet they were laughing, they were howling, and it gives me the impression that this humor is eternal, that there seems to be a hunger for it. Now too there's so little of it today. So I was wondering about your feelings as you watch TV, you notice some of the gags are repeated, aren't they? In different locales.

Buster Keaton They have to. You can't dig material up that fast. I've refused to do a weekly show, because it's the fastest way to a sanitarium that I know of. Drive you absolutely out of your mind trying to dig up- well, I always tried to dig up new material and it's just impossible.

Stud Terkel Well back in the days of the silents, when you'd invent a gag, a sight gag, it had to be for each film, or for that matter for each reel of the film. It had to be something fresh and different each time.

Buster Keaton Yes. We didn't repeat gags and we didn't steal from each other, either.

Stud Terkel Well, I'm thinking about this film I saw the other night. You were a moving man. You, you were Buster Keaton without the smile and you had the pancake hat on, I'll ask you about that in a moment, and you were the moving man but you got involved in a big police parade and there were thousands of police and it became like a dream, you gummed up the parade so they were chasing you.

Buster Keaton Well I tried to cut through the parade and I couldn't do it, so I just joined it. Before anybody could stop me, some anarchist up on top of a building threw a bomb down on the police parade but it lit in my wagon so it went, went off, the whole police force was after me.

Stud Terkel And it was, it was like a dream to me.

Buster Keaton Yeah.

Stud Terkel Thousands of policemen were chasing this one man, never quite caught ya. Now we come to your art, the art of the, the ac -- the way you moved, your body. The acrobatics and everything. Where did this originate?

Buster Keaton Oh, well I was just, just doing a hit-and-miss routine there, just duckin' cops in all directions. They're just common ordinary chase sequence.

Stud Terkel Well, on this chase sequence, how much of it was planned way in the beginning and how much came out in the actual doing, how much was improvised, you know?

Buster Keaton Well as a rule, oh about 50 percent you have in your mind before you start the picture, and the rest you develop as you're making it.

Stud Terkel As you're making it the ideas come to mind.

Buster Keaton Yeah.

Stud Terkel As I look at you now, Buster Keaton, I'm going to- I, I see something here that James Agee the film critic wrote about you in his very excellent article, Comedy's Greatest Era, that appeared in Life a couple of years ago. He says, "Keaton's face ranked almost with Lincoln's as an early American archetype. It was haunting, handsome, almost beautiful, yet it was irreducibly funny. He improved matters by topping it off with a deadly horizontal hat, as flat and thin as a phonograph record. One can never forget Keaton wearing it, standing erect at the prow as his little boat is being launched. The boat goes grandly down the skids and just as grandly straight onto the bottom. Keaton never budges. The last you see of him, the water lifts the hat off the stoic head and it floats away." The hat.

Buster Keaton That's right.

Stud Terkel Do you know film what he's talking about

Buster Keaton That's called The Boat.

Stud Terkel That was The Boat. But what of the hat? The paraphernalia, first. How did the

Buster Keaton Well, I had a similar hat on the stage before I went into pictures. I went into pictures when I was 21 years old, that's in the spring of 1917.

Stud Terkel And you were part of an acting family.

Buster Keaton Yes.

Stud Terkel I understand it was Harry Houdini gave you the name of Buster.

Buster Keaton Well, I was born with the Keaton Houdini medicine show company, on a one-night stand in Kansas.

Stud Terkel And what was your work at the time when you were the kid of, in this

Buster Keaton Well, my old man was an eccentric comic, and soon as I could take care of myself at all on my feet he had slapped shoes on me and big baggy pants and then just start doing gags with me, and especially kicking me clean across the stage or taking me by the back of the neck and throwing me. And as I grew used to doing it and knew how to do it, the throws become longer. By the time I got up to around seven and eight years old, we were called the roughest act that was ever in the history of the stage.

Stud Terkel And so when, when the movies came along you were a veteran now at being tossed around like a beanbag.

Buster Keaton I was a veteran when I went into pictures.

Stud Terkel Well, of course, the question would come up of you're- the approach of you and humor. First, your face, of course, the, the lack of the smile, the sorrowful sad face, of course, made the audience howl all the more.

Buster Keaton Well you see, I learned that from the stage, that I was the type of comedian that if I laughed at what I did the audience didn't. So I just automatically got to that stage where the more seriously I took my work, the better laughs I got.

Stud Terkel You were always, in everything you did, there was always the dead-

Buster Keaton Yeah.

Stud Terkel -seriousness.

Buster Keaton So by the time I went into pictures, not smiling was, was mechanical with me. I just didn't pay attention to it.

Stud Terkel Now you, you just used the word "mechanical" which brings us to another point. Agee and Iris Barry, in this excellent book by Griffith and Mayer, speak of you as the master of what they call the mechanical gag. Chaplin in Modern Times was kidding the machine, but there's a difference here between the two that Iris Barry points out that I think if you could expand on this. "Buster Keaton moves in the mechanized world today like the inhabitant of another planet. He gazes with frozen bewilderment at a nightmare reality, inventions and contrivances like deck chairs and railroad engines seem animate, they seem alive to him in the same measure that human beings become impersonal. And without friends or relatives, he's generally incapable of associating with his fellow beings on a human basis, but mechanical devices, almost inimical to him, are the only beings who can understand him." And then she goes on to speak of Chaplain escaping into the realm of freedom in his films. But you actually throw your humanity into the machine world and you make the machine so much part of yourself. Would you mind telling us a bit about this, you and the machines, the way you worked with-

Buster Keaton Well, I guess that I found out I get my best material working with something like that. In other words, I was one of your original Do-It-Yourself fellas. I may not know how to do a carpenter's job, but I set out to build a house.

Stud Terkel And then as you build it, it becomes funnier and funnier.

Buster Keaton Well, everybody knows that you, you're going to get in trouble when you start that.

Stud Terkel Thinking about today, I mean, why your humor is so alive today. Today with more and more machines the Keaton humor in those early two-reelers seem even more pertinent today. Have you thought of- has the idea of recreating silent films on -- using today as a basis occurred

Buster Keaton Well, I wouldn't try to create new films, [commence?] with them. I've past the age of being able to do the

Stud Terkel -- Jumping around.

Buster Keaton The wild action stuff that I did. But I still try. But I'm not going to remake any of those. I'm going to reissue 'em.

Stud Terkel Oh, you are?

Buster Keaton Yes I'm just back from Europe and went through to Munich and then passing Paris I find out that this Comedy is King was playing in four theaters there. Then I found out they were playing in six theaters in London, about three in West Berlin, and even down into Munich which is one of their big labs, studios. An exhibitor says "Have you got any pictures we can have? I mean, the silents?" Says "No, but I'm going to make sure you get 'em". So I- in Munich, made arrangements to give them dupe negatives because I found prints. The original negatives have practically gone, but finding good prints of all these old pictures that I could get a good dupe negative off of and give them to them there in Munich, they will make me new prints, some with the subtitles of- in French, some in German, some in Italian, some Spanish, and some in English. And all we do is put a full orchestration music track to those silent pictures with no moderator and leave the old-fashioned subtitles in, put a good musical score behind them, and re-release them and this is going to happen within the next couple of months.

Stud Terkel These are some features as well as the short ones?

Buster Keaton Yeah. And it, it'll start in Europe first, because television hasn't wrecked all the neighborhood motion picture theaters there. So you got an awful lot of theaters. As soon as I see what they're going to do there and then I'll have prints made for here.

Stud Terkel A Navigator General among them?

Buster Keaton Yes, I'll have 18 two-reelers and 10 features.

Stud Terkel And one thing is pretty clear, apparently from what you tell me, that the art of the silent film is universal, it doesn't matter what- there's no language barrier involved

Buster Keaton No, we found out that long ago, now mind you this picture you saw, Cops-

Stud Terkel Yeah.

Buster Keaton -is exactly 40 years old.

Stud Terkel It's hard to believe-

Buster Keaton Made in 1920. The youngest picture of the silents that I'll have will be a- '27 which would be 33 years old.

Stud Terkel Thirth-three years would be-

Buster Keaton Yeah, that'd be the youngest.

Stud Terkel The most recent. Thinking about you and parodying, kidding some of the serious silent films, too, I notice in this book of Griffith and Mayer there's Keaton as, as Hamlet, but here you are as the cowboy hero. What- what

Buster Keaton Well, I tried to be Bill Hart in that picture.

Stud Terkel Frozen North.

Buster Keaton Yeah, I had a little trouble, but I tried my best to be Bill Hart. So much so that Bill Hart didn't speak to me for a couple of years after I made it.

Stud Terkel He's waiting

Buster Keaton He thought I was kidding him, I said, "I didn't kid you, Bill, I was trying to be an actor like you and I didn't quite make it."

Stud Terkel [Laughs] Would you mind telling us about that? Is William S. Hart, the strong silent hero who always loses the girl and noble hero, and-

Buster Keaton Well, that was only the last part of his career, for some reason he, he kind of turned ham on us. He was a great actor, but he got hammy at the end of his career and he always looked for the opportunity to cry, even with the two guns strapped to his side out in the desert. If the girl turned and looked at another man, tears ran down his cheeks. There's nothing you could do about it, he was his own producer.

Stud Terkel So what did you do in your film?

Buster Keaton Oh I cried too, glycerin tears.

Stud Terkel But down one eye, you told me.

Buster Keaton Yeah well, yeah.

Stud Terkel What of the- you did take off Cecil B. DeMille too in the big extravaganzas back then.

Buster Keaton Oh, any time I had a bathroom scene or a bedroom scene, I'd try to make a DeMille set out of it.

Stud Terkel I'm looking at a picture photograph of you in a film which, I don't know, called Daydreams in 1922, but it seems- and you- you were- you dreamt of being a famous surgeon

Buster Keaton -- Well, this was a

Stud Terkel Or, or Hamlet. It's like walking

Buster Keaton -- That picture there is like a dream, see? Dream sequence. I imagined myself as a great physician.

Stud Terkel I'm thinking since you mentioned dream, coming back to the movie involving the cops and the one in When Comedy was King. Did the thought occur to you that it was like a dream, that all, all your movies are like a wild dream? You know, we dream of strange

Buster Keaton Well, some of the two reelers were, we got so wild and crazy in 'em. We lost all of that when we started making feature pictures. We had to stop doing impossible gags, and what we call cartoon gags. They had to be believable, or your story wouldn't hold up.

Stud Terkel Now let's see if I could follow that, for a feature picture then, you had to abandon the wild gags, is that it?

Buster Keaton That's right.

Stud Terkel But it didn't

Buster Keaton For instance, I'm the fella that got up on a high diving platform at a country club, and did a swan dive off of it, and missed the pool and went through the ground. People come running up and looked down the hole and the scene faded out and the title come in, says "Years Later." I faded back in on the Country Club and the pool was empty and grass growing into it, and the whole place neglected, nobody around and I came up out of the hole with a Chinese wife and two kids.

Stud Terkel [Laughs]

Buster Keaton Well now, that was a fade out of a two-reeler. We wouldn't have dared to use that in a-

Stud Terkel I don't

Buster Keaton A feature picture.

Stud Terkel But still, you have the wi- you still use a lot of imagination, though,

Buster Keaton [unintelligible] Oh

Stud Terkel As in General, a Sherlock Jr. There was- a lot of the critics loved to talk about your chases, the imagination of a chase. Today, when we see a chase it's one wa- one dimension, you know, someone chases around and there's a verbal gag. But when you were being chased, the talk of the film Sherlock Jr., was it?

Buster Keaton Yeah.

Stud Terkel Sherlock Jr., when you miss the girl, the girl misses you. And this goes on for- seems for hours and yet each time something different. Finally, you fall down a chute and you land on a- I think the plank breaks-

Buster Keaton Yeah.

Stud Terkel -and you plop right in her arms.

Buster Keaton Yes. Well, that's in The Navigator-

Stud Terkel The Navigator.

Buster Keaton Yeah.

Stud Terkel Well, how did- how did a gag like this come in to be,

Buster Keaton Well, those we'd sit around and talked about for quite a while before we start the picture, and then take advantage of anything that happens to add to it.

Stud Terkel What of, what of you, the

Buster Keaton -- This

Stud Terkel Yeah, pardon me.

Buster Keaton This is a, a shock to anybody that's in the motion picture business today. I mean, your veterans of, of the pictures of the last 25 years or so, that didn't know the silent days. A feature-length picture, neither Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, or myself ever had a script. That sounds impossible to anybody today in the picture business. We never even thought of writing a script. We didn't need to. By the time we had talked and worked out what we thought was a picture, for instance, we always got a start. People always come up with a start, says that's funny, that's a good start. Alright, we want to know the finish, right then and there, see. There's nothing else to work on but the finish. And if we can't round it out, to something we like, we throw that one away and start on a new one. Now when we get the start and the finish, we've got it, because the finish- the middle we can always take care of. That's easy. So by the time we get through talking about it you've got this all set, enough to start, my prop man knows the props he's going to have to get, the wardrobe man knows the wardrobe, the guy that builds the sets, he knows what sets you want and you help him design 'em so there's no need for a script. We all know what we're gonna do. And then if I build a nice set here, says "We've got to make this an important set, make it look good," and so forth. We find out that the routine I intend to do in there is laying an egg, is not holding up. But a broom closet off of it got me in trouble. So I end up shooting only two minutes of film in the big set and a half a reel in the, in the broom closet. So what good would a script been to me? We just throw gags out right and left when we're shooting because they don't stand up and they don't work well, and then the accidental ones come.

Stud Terkel Here's the case of the actual freshness, and the fresh-

Buster Keaton Yes.

Stud Terkel Routine coming out of the accident.

Buster Keaton That's right.

Stud Terkel Now this is, I suppose, the accident in art, you might call this, you- nothing- you have a beginning and an end and that's all-

Buster Keaton That's

Stud Terkel And then let what happens, happen depending on your imagination and

Buster Keaton Yeah. We always- we could always go into any story and, and, and pad and fill in the middle. That was the easy part.

Stud Terkel Well, you would direct some of these films, too.

Buster Keaton Well I, quite a few pictures I would take a director with me and just co-direct with him. And, but the majority I did alone.

Stud Terkel What about- this would also make the other actors, too, be more imaginative. It's a challenge to them too, they would do something, is that - you allow

Buster Keaton Oh Yes. Oh yes, we want to. Another thing we didn't do in those days that they do today is we didn't rehearse a scene to perfection. We didn't want that, because if we got- it was mechanical then. We'd much rather -- any of our big roughhouse scenes, where there's a lot of falls and people hitting each other or one of those. We never rehearse those. We only just sat down and talked about it, and says now it's, "He drops that, that chair, you come through that door and come through fast, and as this person here sees you coming and throws up their hands from the center door, you could see it. Now you come through and you'll just about hit him. If you miss him, get her". Now that's the way we, we laid those scenes out, because when we did those roughhouse scenes, if you had to do it the second time invariably somebody skinned up an elbow or bumped a knee or something like that and now they'll shy away from it the next take, or they'll favor it. So you seldom got a, a scene like that good the second time. You generally got them that first one. And anybody in that scene is free to do as they please as long as you keep that action going. So, even your extras can use their imagination.

Stud Terkel Even the extras can use th-

Buster Keaton Yeah.

Stud Terkel Cause what you're saying here to me is a very pertinent point. Even the extras can use- we're so accustomed to have everything planned today.

Buster Keaton Oh, everything today is-

Stud Terkel It's a multi-million dollar project, everything's planned.

Buster Keaton And they rehearse scenes to perfection before they ever turn the camera over, and with us it used to be the other way. We tried to eliminate that. We didn't want any mechan- [coughs] anything to look mechanical.

Stud Terkel Maybe that's one of the reasons there was so much laughter in the house the other night, and When Comedy was King, is that we had the feeling, I mean the younger people and I had this feeling that what we're seeing was happening now, that has happened only once. It was not something that was pre-done and done and done.

Buster Keaton Show you, for, for instance. Hank Mann one time when he was a newcomer, Sennett had never heard of him. Nobody else had. But he happened to get in as an extra into one of the cop chase scenes. He wanted to do something and he hadn't the slightest idea what to do until the last second, he was standing outside of a building that had caught fire and the police had sent for the fire department so he got the fire department and the police department in the scene. Hank Mann come out of the burning building and took a look around, and put a cigarette in his mouth and, and lit it off of the burning building. And walked off in, in the projecting rooms. Sennett saw it and he says, "Who was that so and so?" He said, "Well it was just one of the extra guys," he says "Well get him. He's all right. We keep him here for a while."

Stud Terkel It was simple as that?

Buster Keaton Yes.

Stud Terkel Sennett saw an unknown-

Buster Keaton An unknown.

Stud Terkel Using his

Buster Keaton Imagination. Lit a cigarette of a burning building.

Stud Terkel Since you've mentioned Mack Sennett, we think of the Keystone Cops. I guess one of the reasons so much laughter, too, in these early films, pomposity is being kidded, or authority, the cops, say.

Buster Keaton Yeah.

Stud Terkel The cop was always, always kidded, but there was a great deal of laughter involved here. Was this part of the pattern of these films?

Buster Keaton Well-

Stud Terkel You know, a snowball at the top hat idea.

Buster Keaton Oh yes, sure. Like throwing a pie. There's another thing there too. You can hit the wrong people with a pie. Get an audience mad at you.

Stud Terkel What do you mean?

Buster Keaton There are certain characters you just don't hit with a pie. We found that out a long time ago.

Stud Terkel Whom don't you hit with a pie? The girls who are hit with a pie,

Buster Keaton Oh, they don't mind that at all. I remember a lot of people that wanted to hit Lillian Gish so bad-

Stud Terkel [Laughs]

Buster Keaton Because she was always so sweet and innocent. But, well now, for instance, here in television, oh, this is about eight years ago, something like that. Milton Berle got Ed Sullivan over to make an appearance on his show. And he hit Ed Sullivan with a pie. And that audience froze up on him, Milton didn't get another laugh while he was on that stage.

Stud Terkel Well, now that's a very strange thing, I'm just trying to think about that. Off hand, it would seem funny, you, you're hitting someone who deadpan, you know, with a pie. Wouldn't that be funny? Why- you mean he became sort of a sacred figure in the meantime? Is that the idea, of someone who's so serious you can't kid?

Buster Keaton Nah, there's just certain people you just don't hit with a pie. That's all it is to

Stud Terkel Was this so -- but would this have happened in silent films, I wonder.

Buster Keaton Oh sure.

Stud Terkel There's certain people you can't hit with a pie.

Buster Keaton If I had a grand dame who was dogging it and putting it on-

Stud Terkel Yes.

Buster Keaton She was a gray-haired woman but she was so overbearing and everything else that the audience would like to hit her. Then you could hit her with a pie and then, and they laugh their heads off. But if she was a legitimate

Stud Terkel Old lady?

Buster Keaton Old lady, and a sincere character, you wouldn't dare hit her.

Stud Terkel So this- I hadn't of that. But generally-

Buster Keaton If she's a phony, that's different.

Stud Terkel Yeah. In almost all

Buster Keaton those The same thing goes with a man.

Stud Terkel You know, in almost all those films though there, there, there were enough people to hit, cause you were kidding all the frailties that are in, in

Buster Keaton I'll show you how seriously they used to take our stories. In the Navigator was an ocean liner with nobody on it but the girl and myself and we had drifted across the Pacific Ocean on a dead ship, no water running, no lights, no nothing. So we're just like being on a desert island trying to survive. And we run aground, stern first, off a cannibal island, and through the binoculars, I can see that they're the wild type of cannibals, they're headhunters. Well, it was just a matter of time that they're going to come out there and get onto this ship. And we spring a lake- a leak in the stuffing box, which means we get out and see this water pouring in around the driving shaft. It can't be plugged from inside, it's got to be done from outside. Well, automatically there's a deep-sea diving equipment right there on the set with us, so the girl put, helps me put it on and she's up there to pump air to me. Well, we laid out this gag in advance and had it built by the Llewellyn ironworks in Los Angeles. We got about twelve hundred solid rubber fish about a foot long and hung them on cat gut, violin string, that are transparent underwater and hung 'em from this rigging so that a school of fish- we could make a school of fish go past, circle around back of the camera and continue, and with one spot to break it when we wanted to. So my gag was, while I'm down here trying to fix that stuffing box, that a big fish came up and tried to go through the school and couldn't make it. And I see a starfish clinging to a rock, so I got the starfish off of the rock and let it grab my breastplate. I stepped into the middle of the school of fish and brought it to a stop and then turned and brought the, the big fish through and then turned and I and directed traffic and then went back to my job. Well, the gag photographed beautifully. We preview the picture and it lays a beautiful egg. Not a giggle from the audience. We can't figure it out. We get home says, well it might be one of those things the mechanics of it, that the audience is trying to figure out how the thunder we ever got a shot like that, we're down -- we're actually photographing around 20 feet deep. And he says, well, we'll try it at the next preview and see. Next preview, the same thing. It finally dawned on us what it was. I went down there to stuff that stuffing box to keep the girl and I from falling into the hands of these cannibals and I had no license in the world to stop to go help a fish go through that traffic.

Stud Terkel It was simple as that-

Buster Keaton Simple

Stud Terkel They were, they were as serious- they took seriously the whole situation?

Buster Keaton They, that's how serious they all --although I'm getting laughs down there trying to stuff the stuffing box, but long as I kept doin' my job.

Stud Terkel But their mind was on the situation you and the girl were in.

Buster Keaton That's right. Now to prove it, we take it out of the picture and of course our picture travels the way it's suppose to, and finished great. And I, I took that sequence and put it in what they call the, the trailers. In other words, say's, "This theater, coming next week, Keaton and the Navigator, a few of the scenes, high spots", and we just show a couple of flashes of this and that, and that this scene was in it, and it out- it got an out and out belly laugh.

Stud Terkel That got the belly laugh. When

Buster Keaton it When it wasn't in the story. Yeah.

Stud Terkel Because they weren't worried about the actual trouble you and the girl were in.

Buster Keaton That's right. I did a picture called The Cameramen, one of the silents, a newsreel camera man and I got into a tong war down in Chinatown in New York trying to photograph things, and I got cornered by them and they didn't want any pictures to go out so they started after me. So in the -- and I'm down to the last reel of the picture, and it was a, a very good picture for us, it was a big laughing picture. And it got down to -- finished there and when they started for me I ran down fire escapes and over rooftops and everything else to get away from 'em, and to the finish of the picture. We previewed that, and our last reel takes a nosedive.

Stud Terkel What was wrong?

Buster Keaton After the, the rest being swell, see.

Stud Terkel What happened?

Buster Keaton We finally figured that one out. I deserted that camera. You know, I just didn't like it.

Stud Terkel You say you deserted the camera?

Buster Keaton I left the camera there when the Chinamen started after me. So we have to go back and retake that- take that sequence. I don't desert the camera, I kept with me in the

Stud Terkel I see,

Buster Keaton And then it was all right, then the

Stud Terkel It had to be with you all the time.

Buster Keaton Yes, I didn't dare desert it.

Stud Terkel Because they were identifying themselves with you all the way.

Buster Keaton Now that camera was too important to me, for me to just desert it.

Stud Terkel That was it. What about the matter of laughs, building for

Buster Keaton So if you don't think they took our stories seriously.

Stud Terkel What is this- the way you would build to what the end was, the belly laugh, would you- would you plan this- we know it was- first a titter? A giggle? Or-

Buster Keaton No. No. We always try to construct for that. Always tried for that, and none of us ever made a picture that we didn't go back and set that camera up for at least three days, sometimes longer.

Stud Terkel There's something you said

Buster Keaton And it wasn't a case of adding laughs here or there that failed us as it was to help the high spots. Said we need another one- something else to happen right about now to help build that laugh bigger.

Stud Terkel But has to be part of the whole-

Buster Keaton Yes.

Stud Terkel It can't be brought in from nowhere.

Buster Keaton Oh no.

Stud Terkel It has to be part of that whole design.

Buster Keaton No. No, a poisonous thing to us was a, a misplaced gag.

Stud Terkel A misplaced gag.

Buster Keaton Yeah.

Stud Terkel It

Buster Keaton A great gag but it didn't belong there.

Stud Terkel You know, even though you have a beginning and an end and that is all, at the same time there is a unity throughout, even though that thing happens accidentally.

Buster Keaton Well it's, when I say that the, the padding of the middle is easy, because once you got the start and you know where you're going-

Stud Terkel You

Buster Keaton It's- that's the easiest part to go in and gag up and, and keep your story alive and fill in.

Stud Terkel You know, Mr. Keaton, earlier you said something about, today you wouldn't be able to do certain of the routines you did some 40 years ago. Yet a funny thing happened. Limelight is not too old. You were - you and Chester Conklin, I believe, were in Charlie Chaplin's Limelight-

Buster Keaton That's right.

Stud Terkel When that tremendous vaudeville acrobatic routine, and you bounced around like a rubber ball there, the three of you did.

Buster Keaton Oh I still turn over as far as that goes.

Stud Terkel What of the art of Chaplin? I think on, on -- when I met you 10 years ago you mentioned The Woman of Paris, a film he directed, I think, The Woman of Paris-

Buster Keaton That's

Stud Terkel You were speaking of his greatness as a director there. What was it about him as a director?

Buster Keaton Well, Charlie was one of the best directors ever in the picture business. The Woman of Paris was with Adolphe Menjou, his first motion picture.

Stud Terkel Edna Purvience.

Buster Keaton

Stud Terkel The world of entertainment has come a long way of the new inventions and new devices. And yet the art of acting is still a- an eternal one and last- a few nights ago, I was in a movie house in the neighborhood seeing the film When Comedy Was King, and it a was recrea- excerpts of some of the fantastically ingenious two-reelers that some of the geniuses of the past, not- well, some of now, but of the silent film. There was a, a piece of Chaplin, a piece of Langdon, and a piece of Buster Keaton, who is our- delighted to have as our guest this morning. But Buster Keaton, when I think of you, aside from this film I saw the other night, I think of you in terms of some of these critics who speak of Keaton, one of the geniuses of the silent film. Your approach- your approach in so many of these films, these two-reelers of feature films you did, was the man never spoke, of course, but how is it done? There, there were subtitles. That's right. Or you- no, your lips moved. You- you spoke. And in the cutting room you'd simply run the film through your fingers down to where you just got your mouth open and on the second syllable, you'd cut, slap in your subtitle, it explains what you're talkin' about. And then when you come back you pick it up just as your mouth is about the close. So that was the way that's -- was But what you had to say, you had to communicate to the audience, really only one way, through action. Through pantomime. That's right. We eliminated subtitles just as fast as we could if we could possibly tell it in action. I remember you once told me something about 10 years ago, about you and Charlie Chaplin having friendly contests of who could do the feature film with the least amount of subtitles. I think Chaplin won that. He got done one of his pictures something like 21 titles and I had 23. And this is for an hour and a half film, something like Yeah. Seven reel picture. We started off with our features were only five reelers, but I think around, mmmm see, about 25 were seven reels. Became a standard length for all featured pictures. Thinking about the- But another thing too you got to call attention to is the average picture used 240 titles. That was about the average. Two hundred and forty was the average? Yeah. And the most I ever used was 56. Fifty-six. And at one time you use 20 - 23. So again we think of you saying something to- like, at this theater, at this movie house, there were young kids, couples who weren't even born, perhaps their parents weren't born at the time these films were made yet they were laughing, they were howling, and it gives me the impression that this humor is eternal, that there seems to be a hunger for it. Now too there's so little of it today. So I was wondering about your feelings as you watch TV, you notice some of the gags are repeated, aren't they? In different locales. They have to. You can't dig material up that fast. I've refused to do a weekly show, because it's the fastest way to a sanitarium that I know of. Drive you absolutely out of your mind trying to dig up- well, I always tried to dig up new material and it's just impossible. Well back in the days of the silents, when you'd invent a gag, a sight gag, it had to be for each film, or for that matter for each reel of the film. It had to be something fresh and different each time. Yes. We didn't repeat gags and we didn't steal from each other, either. Well, I'm thinking about this film I saw the other night. You were a moving man. You, you were Buster Keaton without the smile and you had the pancake hat on, I'll ask you about that in a moment, and you were the moving man but you got involved in a big police parade and there were thousands of police and it became like a dream, you gummed up the parade so they were chasing you. Well I tried to cut through the parade and I couldn't do it, so I just joined it. Before anybody could stop me, some anarchist up on top of a building threw a bomb down on the police parade but it lit in my wagon so it went, went off, the whole police force was after me. And it was, it was like a dream to me. Yeah. Thousands of policemen were chasing this one man, never quite caught ya. Now we come to your art, the art of the, the ac -- the way you moved, your body. The acrobatics and everything. Where did this originate? Oh, well I was just, just doing a hit-and-miss routine there, just duckin' cops in all directions. They're just common ordinary chase sequence. Well, on this chase sequence, how much of it was planned way in the beginning and how much came out in the actual doing, how much was improvised, you know? Well as a rule, oh about 50 percent you have in your mind before you start the picture, and the rest you develop as you're making it. As you're making it the ideas come to mind. Yeah. As I look at you now, Buster Keaton, I'm going to- I, I see something here that James Agee the film critic wrote about you in his very excellent article, Comedy's Greatest Era, that appeared in Life a couple of years ago. He says, "Keaton's face ranked almost with Lincoln's as an early American archetype. It was haunting, handsome, almost beautiful, yet it was irreducibly funny. He improved matters by topping it off with a deadly horizontal hat, as flat and thin as a phonograph record. One can never forget Keaton wearing it, standing erect at the prow as his little boat is being launched. The boat goes grandly down the skids and just as grandly straight onto the bottom. Keaton never budges. The last you see of him, the water lifts the hat off the stoic head and it floats away." The hat. That's right. Do you know film what he's talking about there? That's called The Boat. That was The Boat. But what of the hat? The paraphernalia, first. How did the paraph Well, I had a similar hat on the stage before I went into pictures. I went into pictures when I was 21 years old, that's in the spring of 1917. And you were part of an acting family. Yes. I understand it was Harry Houdini gave you the name of Buster. Well, I was born with the Keaton Houdini medicine show company, on a one-night stand in Kansas. And what was your work at the time when you were the kid of, in this act? Well, my old man was an eccentric comic, and soon as I could take care of myself at all on my feet he had slapped shoes on me and big baggy pants and then just start doing gags with me, and especially kicking me clean across the stage or taking me by the back of the neck and throwing me. And as I grew used to doing it and knew how to do it, the throws become longer. By the time I got up to around seven and eight years old, we were called the roughest act that was ever in the history of the stage. And so when, when the movies came along you were a veteran now at being tossed around like a beanbag. I was a veteran when I went into pictures. Well, of course, the question would come up of you're- the approach of you and humor. First, your face, of course, the, the lack of the smile, the sorrowful sad face, of course, made the audience howl all the more. Well you see, I learned that from the stage, that I was the type of comedian that if I laughed at what I did the audience didn't. So I just automatically got to that stage where the more seriously I took my work, the better laughs I got. You were always, in everything you did, there was always the dead- Yeah. -seriousness. So by the time I went into pictures, not smiling was, was mechanical with me. I just didn't pay attention to it. Now you, you just used the word "mechanical" which brings us to another point. Agee and Iris Barry, in this excellent book by Griffith and Mayer, speak of you as the master of what they call the mechanical gag. Chaplin in Modern Times was kidding the machine, but there's a difference here between the two that Iris Barry points out that I think if you could expand on this. "Buster Keaton moves in the mechanized world today like the inhabitant of another planet. He gazes with frozen bewilderment at a nightmare reality, inventions and contrivances like deck chairs and railroad engines seem animate, they seem alive to him in the same measure that human beings become impersonal. And without friends or relatives, he's generally incapable of associating with his fellow beings on a human basis, but mechanical devices, almost inimical to him, are the only beings who can understand him." And then she goes on to speak of Chaplain escaping into the realm of freedom in his films. But you actually throw your humanity into the machine world and you make the machine so much part of yourself. Would you mind telling us a bit about this, you and the machines, the way you worked with- Well, I guess that I found out I get my best material working with something like that. In other words, I was one of your original Do-It-Yourself fellas. I may not know how to do a carpenter's job, but I set out to build a house. And then as you build it, it becomes funnier and funnier. Well, everybody knows that you, you're going to get in trouble when you start that. Thinking about today, I mean, why your humor is so alive today. Today with more and more machines the Keaton humor in those early two-reelers seem even more pertinent today. Have you thought of- has the idea of recreating silent films on -- using today as a basis occurred to Well, I wouldn't try to create new films, [commence?] with them. I've past the age of being able to do the -- Jumping around. The wild action stuff that I did. But I still try. But I'm not going to remake any of those. I'm going to reissue 'em. Oh, you are? Yes I'm just back from Europe and went through to Munich and then passing Paris I find out that this Comedy is King was playing in four theaters there. Then I found out they were playing in six theaters in London, about three in West Berlin, and even down into Munich which is one of their big labs, studios. An exhibitor says "Have you got any pictures we can have? I mean, the silents?" Says "No, but I'm going to make sure you get 'em". So I- in Munich, made arrangements to give them dupe negatives because I found prints. The original negatives have practically gone, but finding good prints of all these old pictures that I could get a good dupe negative off of and give them to them there in Munich, they will make me new prints, some with the subtitles of- in French, some in German, some in Italian, some Spanish, and some in English. And all we do is put a full orchestration music track to those silent pictures with no moderator and leave the old-fashioned subtitles in, put a good musical score behind them, and re-release them and this is going to happen within the next couple of months. These are some features as well as the short ones? Yeah. And it, it'll start in Europe first, because television hasn't wrecked all the neighborhood motion picture theaters there. So you got an awful lot of theaters. As soon as I see what they're going to do there and then I'll have prints made for here. A Navigator General among them? Yes, I'll have 18 two-reelers and 10 features. And one thing is pretty clear, apparently from what you tell me, that the art of the silent film is universal, it doesn't matter what- there's no language barrier involved there No, we found out that long ago, now mind you this picture you saw, Cops- Yeah. -is exactly 40 years old. It's hard to believe- Made in 1920. The youngest picture of the silents that I'll have will be a- '27 which would be 33 years old. Thirth-three years would be- Yeah, that'd be the youngest. The most recent. Thinking about you and parodying, kidding some of the serious silent films, too, I notice in this book of Griffith and Mayer there's Keaton as, as Hamlet, but here you are as the cowboy hero. What- what happened? Well, I tried to be Bill Hart in that picture. Frozen North. Yeah, I had a little trouble, but I tried my best to be Bill Hart. So much so that Bill Hart didn't speak to me for a couple of years after I made it. He's waiting -- He thought I was kidding him, I said, "I didn't kid you, Bill, I was trying to be an actor like you and I didn't quite make it." [Laughs] Would you mind telling us about that? Is William S. Hart, the strong silent hero who always loses the girl and noble hero, and- Well, that was only the last part of his career, for some reason he, he kind of turned ham on us. He was a great actor, but he got hammy at the end of his career and he always looked for the opportunity to cry, even with the two guns strapped to his side out in the desert. If the girl turned and looked at another man, tears ran down his cheeks. There's nothing you could do about it, he was his own producer. So what did you do in your film? Oh I cried too, glycerin tears. But down one eye, you told me. Yeah well, yeah. What of the- you did take off Cecil B. DeMille too in the big extravaganzas back then. Oh, any time I had a bathroom scene or a bedroom scene, I'd try to make a DeMille set out of it. I'm looking at a picture photograph of you in a film which, I don't know, called Daydreams in 1922, but it seems- and you- you were- you dreamt of being a famous surgeon -- Well, this was a vision. Or, or Hamlet. It's like walking -- That picture there is like a dream, see? Dream sequence. I imagined myself as a great physician. I'm thinking since you mentioned dream, coming back to the movie involving the cops and the one in When Comedy was King. Did the thought occur to you that it was like a dream, that all, all your movies are like a wild dream? You know, we dream of strange things? Well, some of the two reelers were, we got so wild and crazy in 'em. We lost all of that when we started making feature pictures. We had to stop doing impossible gags, and what we call cartoon gags. They had to be believable, or your story wouldn't hold up. Now let's see if I could follow that, for a feature picture then, you had to abandon the wild gags, is that it? That's right. But it didn't For instance, I'm the fella that got up on a high diving platform at a country club, and did a swan dive off of it, and missed the pool and went through the ground. People come running up and looked down the hole and the scene faded out and the title come in, says "Years Later." I faded back in on the Country Club and the pool was empty and grass growing into it, and the whole place neglected, nobody around and I came up out of the hole with a Chinese wife and two kids. [Laughs] Well now, that was a fade out of a two-reeler. We wouldn't have dared to use that in a- I don't believe- A feature picture. But still, you have the wi- you still use a lot of imagination, though, [unintelligible] Oh As in General, a Sherlock Jr. There was- a lot of the critics loved to talk about your chases, the imagination of a chase. Today, when we see a chase it's one wa- one dimension, you know, someone chases around and there's a verbal gag. But when you were being chased, the talk of the film Sherlock Jr., was it? Yeah. Sherlock Jr., when you miss the girl, the girl misses you. And this goes on for- seems for hours and yet each time something different. Finally, you fall down a chute and you land on a- I think the plank breaks- Yeah. -and you plop right in her arms. Yes. Well, that's in The Navigator- The Navigator. Yeah. Well, how did- how did a gag like this come in to be, you Well, those we'd sit around and talked about for quite a while before we start the picture, and then take advantage of anything that happens to add to it. What of, what of you, the -- This Yeah, pardon me. This is a, a shock to anybody that's in the motion picture business today. I mean, your veterans of, of the pictures of the last 25 years or so, that didn't know the silent days. A feature-length picture, neither Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, or myself ever had a script. That sounds impossible to anybody today in the picture business. We never even thought of writing a script. We didn't need to. By the time we had talked and worked out what we thought was a picture, for instance, we always got a start. People always come up with a start, says that's funny, that's a good start. Alright, we want to know the finish, right then and there, see. There's nothing else to work on but the finish. And if we can't round it out, to something we like, we throw that one away and start on a new one. Now when we get the start and the finish, we've got it, because the finish- the middle we can always take care of. That's easy. So by the time we get through talking about it you've got this all set, enough to start, my prop man knows the props he's going to have to get, the wardrobe man knows the wardrobe, the guy that builds the sets, he knows what sets you want and you help him design 'em so there's no need for a script. We all know what we're gonna do. And then if I build a nice set here, says "We've got to make this an important set, make it look good," and so forth. We find out that the routine I intend to do in there is laying an egg, is not holding up. But a broom closet off of it got me in trouble. So I end up shooting only two minutes of film in the big set and a half a reel in the, in the broom closet. So what good would a script been to me? We just throw gags out right and left when we're shooting because they don't stand up and they don't work well, and then the accidental ones come. Here's the case of the actual freshness, and the fresh- Yes. Routine coming out of the accident. That's right. Now this is, I suppose, the accident in art, you might call this, you- nothing- you have a beginning and an end and that's all- That's And then let what happens, happen depending on your imagination and - Yeah. We always- we could always go into any story and, and, and pad and fill in the middle. That was the easy part. Well, you would direct some of these films, too. Well I, quite a few pictures I would take a director with me and just co-direct with him. And, but the majority I did alone. What about- this would also make the other actors, too, be more imaginative. It's a challenge to them too, they would do something, is that - you allow them? Oh Yes. Oh yes, we want to. Another thing we didn't do in those days that they do today is we didn't rehearse a scene to perfection. We didn't want that, because if we got- it was mechanical then. We'd much rather -- any of our big roughhouse scenes, where there's a lot of falls and people hitting each other or one of those. We never rehearse those. We only just sat down and talked about it, and says now it's, "He drops that, that chair, you come through that door and come through fast, and as this person here sees you coming and throws up their hands from the center door, you could see it. Now you come through and you'll just about hit him. If you miss him, get her". Now that's the way we, we laid those scenes out, because when we did those roughhouse scenes, if you had to do it the second time invariably somebody skinned up an elbow or bumped a knee or something like that and now they'll shy away from it the next take, or they'll favor it. So you seldom got a, a scene like that good the second time. You generally got them that first one. And anybody in that scene is free to do as they please as long as you keep that action going. So, even your extras can use their imagination. Even the extras can use th- Yeah. Cause what you're saying here to me is a very pertinent point. Even the extras can use- we're so accustomed to have everything planned today. Oh, everything today is- It's a multi-million dollar project, everything's planned. And they rehearse scenes to perfection before they ever turn the camera over, and with us it used to be the other way. We tried to eliminate that. We didn't want any mechan- [coughs] anything to look mechanical. Maybe that's one of the reasons there was so much laughter in the house the other night, and When Comedy was King, is that we had the feeling, I mean the younger people and I had this feeling that what we're seeing was happening now, that has happened only once. It was not something that was pre-done and done and done. Show you, for, for instance. Hank Mann one time when he was a newcomer, Sennett had never heard of him. Nobody else had. But he happened to get in as an extra into one of the cop chase scenes. He wanted to do something and he hadn't the slightest idea what to do until the last second, he was standing outside of a building that had caught fire and the police had sent for the fire department so he got the fire department and the police department in the scene. Hank Mann come out of the burning building and took a look around, and put a cigarette in his mouth and, and lit it off of the burning building. And walked off in, in the projecting rooms. Sennett saw it and he says, "Who was that so and so?" He said, "Well it was just one of the extra guys," he says "Well get him. He's all right. We keep him here for a while." It was simple as that? Yes. Sennett saw an unknown- An unknown. Using his imagination. Imagination. Lit a cigarette of a burning building. Since you've mentioned Mack Sennett, we think of the Keystone Cops. I guess one of the reasons so much laughter, too, in these early films, pomposity is being kidded, or authority, the cops, say. Yeah. The cop was always, always kidded, but there was a great deal of laughter involved here. Was this part of the pattern of these films? Well- You know, a snowball at the top hat idea. Oh yes, sure. Like throwing a pie. There's another thing there too. You can hit the wrong people with a pie. Get an audience mad at you. What do you mean? There are certain characters you just don't hit with a pie. We found that out a long time ago. Whom don't you hit with a pie? The girls who are hit with a pie, a Oh, they don't mind that at all. I remember a lot of people that wanted to hit Lillian Gish so bad- [Laughs] Because she was always so sweet and innocent. But, well now, for instance, here in television, oh, this is about eight years ago, something like that. Milton Berle got Ed Sullivan over to make an appearance on his show. And he hit Ed Sullivan with a pie. And that audience froze up on him, Milton didn't get another laugh while he was on that stage. Well, now that's a very strange thing, I'm just trying to think about that. Off hand, it would seem funny, you, you're hitting someone who deadpan, you know, with a pie. Wouldn't that be funny? Why- you mean he became sort of a sacred figure in the meantime? Is that the idea, of someone who's so serious you can't kid? Nah, there's just certain people you just don't hit with a pie. That's all it is to it. Was this so -- but would this have happened in silent films, I wonder. Oh sure. There's certain people you can't hit with a pie. If I had a grand dame who was dogging it and putting it on- Yes. She was a gray-haired woman but she was so overbearing and everything else that the audience would like to hit her. Then you could hit her with a pie and then, and they laugh their heads off. But if she was a legitimate -- Old lady? Old lady, and a sincere character, you wouldn't dare hit her. So this- I hadn't of that. But generally- If she's a phony, that's different. Yeah. In almost all those The same thing goes with a man. You know, in almost all those films though there, there, there were enough people to hit, cause you were kidding all the frailties that are in, in -- I'll show you how seriously they used to take our stories. In the Navigator was an ocean liner with nobody on it but the girl and myself and we had drifted across the Pacific Ocean on a dead ship, no water running, no lights, no nothing. So we're just like being on a desert island trying to survive. And we run aground, stern first, off a cannibal island, and through the binoculars, I can see that they're the wild type of cannibals, they're headhunters. Well, it was just a matter of time that they're going to come out there and get onto this ship. And we spring a lake- a leak in the stuffing box, which means we get out and see this water pouring in around the driving shaft. It can't be plugged from inside, it's got to be done from outside. Well, automatically there's a deep-sea diving equipment right there on the set with us, so the girl put, helps me put it on and she's up there to pump air to me. Well, we laid out this gag in advance and had it built by the Llewellyn ironworks in Los Angeles. We got about twelve hundred solid rubber fish about a foot long and hung them on cat gut, violin string, that are transparent underwater and hung 'em from this rigging so that a school of fish- we could make a school of fish go past, circle around back of the camera and continue, and with one spot to break it when we wanted to. So my gag was, while I'm down here trying to fix that stuffing box, that a big fish came up and tried to go through the school and couldn't make it. And I see a starfish clinging to a rock, so I got the starfish off of the rock and let it grab my breastplate. I stepped into the middle of the school of fish and brought it to a stop and then turned and brought the, the big fish through and then turned and I and directed traffic and then went back to my job. Well, the gag photographed beautifully. We preview the picture and it lays a beautiful egg. Not a giggle from the audience. We can't figure it out. We get home says, well it might be one of those things the mechanics of it, that the audience is trying to figure out how the thunder we ever got a shot like that, we're down -- we're actually photographing around 20 feet deep. And he says, well, we'll try it at the next preview and see. Next preview, the same thing. It finally dawned on us what it was. I went down there to stuff that stuffing box to keep the girl and I from falling into the hands of these cannibals and I had no license in the world to stop to go help a fish go through that traffic. It was simple as that- Simple They were, they were as serious- they took seriously the whole situation? They, that's how serious they all --although I'm getting laughs down there trying to stuff the stuffing box, but long as I kept doin' my job. But their mind was on the situation you and the girl were in. That's right. Now to prove it, we take it out of the picture and of course our picture travels the way it's suppose to, and finished great. And I, I took that sequence and put it in what they call the, the trailers. In other words, say's, "This theater, coming next week, Keaton and the Navigator, a few of the scenes, high spots", and we just show a couple of flashes of this and that, and that this scene was in it, and it out- it got an out and out belly laugh. That got the belly laugh. When it When it wasn't in the story. Yeah. Because they weren't worried about the actual trouble you and the girl were in. That's right. I did a picture called The Cameramen, one of the silents, a newsreel camera man and I got into a tong war down in Chinatown in New York trying to photograph things, and I got cornered by them and they didn't want any pictures to go out so they started after me. So in the -- and I'm down to the last reel of the picture, and it was a, a very good picture for us, it was a big laughing picture. And it got down to -- finished there and when they started for me I ran down fire escapes and over rooftops and everything else to get away from 'em, and to the finish of the picture. We previewed that, and our last reel takes a nosedive. What was wrong? After the, the rest being swell, see. What happened? We finally figured that one out. I deserted that camera. You know, I just didn't like it. You say you deserted the camera? I left the camera there when the Chinamen started after me. So we have to go back and retake that- take that sequence. I don't desert the camera, I kept with me in the chase. I see, And then it was all right, then the picture- It had to be with you all the time. Yes, I didn't dare desert it. Because they were identifying themselves with you all the way. Now that camera was too important to me, for me to just desert it. That was it. What about the matter of laughs, building for a So if you don't think they took our stories seriously. What is this- the way you would build to what the end was, the belly laugh, would you- would you plan this- we know it was- first a titter? A giggle? Or- No. No. We always try to construct for that. Always tried for that, and none of us ever made a picture that we didn't go back and set that camera up for at least three days, sometimes longer. There's something you said a And it wasn't a case of adding laughs here or there that failed us as it was to help the high spots. Said we need another one- something else to happen right about now to help build that laugh bigger. But has to be part of the whole- Yes. It can't be brought in from nowhere. Oh no. It has to be part of that whole design. No. No, a poisonous thing to us was a, a misplaced gag. A misplaced gag. Yeah. It A great gag but it didn't belong there. You know, even though you have a beginning and an end and that is all, at the same time there is a unity throughout, even though that thing happens accidentally. Well it's, when I say that the, the padding of the middle is easy, because once you got the start and you know where you're going- You It's- that's the easiest part to go in and gag up and, and keep your story alive and fill in. You know, Mr. Keaton, earlier you said something about, today you wouldn't be able to do certain of the routines you did some 40 years ago. Yet a funny thing happened. Limelight is not too old. You were - you and Chester Conklin, I believe, were in Charlie Chaplin's Limelight- That's right. When that tremendous vaudeville acrobatic routine, and you bounced around like a rubber ball there, the three of you did. Oh I still turn over as far as that goes. What of the art of Chaplin? I think on, on -- when I met you 10 years ago you mentioned The Woman of Paris, a film he directed, I think, The Woman of Paris- That's You were speaking of his greatness as a director there. What was it about him as a director? Well, Charlie was one of the best directors ever in the picture business. The Woman of Paris was with Adolphe Menjou, his first motion picture. Edna Purvience. Edna Purviance.

Buster Keaton Who had always been Chaplin's leading lady. And he made this high society drama, the background Paris. He just directed it. And for the first time on the screen, in that dramatic story he kept doing things by suggestion. Well, every director in pictures went to see that picture more than once just to study that technique. He absolutely revolutionized the directsher- directors of pictures.

Stud Terkel You say by suggestion. Could you sort of give an example?

Buster Keaton Well he wanted Adolphe Menjou- he wanted the audience to know that Menjou paid for the apartment that Edna Purviance was living in, and the way he did it was that he called on her one- one evening to take her out, give her a little bouquet or something like that, and he looked in the mirror and saw a spot on his collar, he took the collar off, went over in a bureau drawer and got out a clean one.

Stud Terkel And that tells the whole story right

Buster Keaton That, that told the whole situation.

Stud Terkel And this was- and this was the first time something of this sort happened in films?

Buster Keaton Yes.

Stud Terkel It was not diagram, but suggestion.

Buster Keaton That's right.

Stud Terkel As A Woman of Paris was one of the films that revolutionized in directing.

Buster Keaton I'll show something that leads into that. I went into pictures with Roscoe Arbuckle. I mean his, his pictures are the first ones I appeared in. And I'd only been with him a short time and he says, "Here's something you want to bear in mind, that the average mind of the Motion Picture audience is 12 years old. It's a 12-year-old mind that you're entertaining". I was only with him about another couple of months or something like that, and I said Roscoe something tells me that those that continue to make pictures for 12 year old minds ain't going to be with us long. Well, it was only a couple of years later a scene like this with Chaplin's kind of proved that.

Stud Terkel And that [unintelligible]-

Buster Keaton It jumped, the minds jumped much faster than we were making pictures.

Stud Terkel That's marvelous, the same principle applies of course to- we hear it today applying to television and radio, the same false belief-

Buster Keaton Yes.

Stud Terkel That the public isn't ready for adult, or I use the imagination. What Chaplin did and what you appear to do in so many of these early films is allow the imagination of the audience to flow freely.

Buster Keaton Oh sure. I always tried to do that. I always wanted an audience to outguess me. And then, then I double-cross them sometimes.

Stud Terkel [Laughs] I'm thinking you finally just return to Limelight for a second, here's a film that deals with old-time English vaudeville music hall, and Chaplin called on you and and was it Chester Conklin, I'm trying to remember.

Buster Keaton Yeah.

Stud Terkel With this routine. And yet both- all three of you were pretty mature men by then.

Buster Keaton That's right.

Stud Terkel Yet what was it? I mean, we think of the ability the three of you had, the physical ability and the imagination to do it there. It threw everybody in, in seeing that. I remember seeing that particular sequence.

Buster Keaton Well, I don't know. Guess, all lucky that we can move fast and still can I mean.

Stud Terkel How do you, how do you find working with a live audience in

Buster Keaton Oh, I always liked a live audience. When I first tried a television show, when it was a young business, we were working to an audience. Then later on they talked me into doing them just to a silent motion picture camera. Well, it don't work. Because no matter what you did, it looked like something that had been shot 30 years ago. It didn't look up to date. It just looked old fashion. But the same material done in front of a live audience.

Stud Terkel New reaction, fresh

Buster Keaton Yeah. People sitting in their living room where there's only three or four people, well this one here don't laugh out loud to start the others laughing. It's not like being in a motion picture theater where you got a couple thousand people there to help you laugh. You're looking at just a dead machine when that, you do it to a silent camera. And the canned laughs are absolutely no good at all. They don't ring true at all.

Stud Terkel You can tell those

Buster Keaton That has a false note all the way through when it's the mechanical canned laughs in there. But the live audience, that's a different proposition. And the same material, I only need two thirds of, I can eliminate a third of the material to do a half-hour show, work it to a silent camera. Alright, now take and do the same material to a live audience and I can throw one third of that material away and save it for the next show.

Stud Terkel Because

Buster Keaton Because the laughs-

Stud Terkel The audience's reaction.

Buster Keaton Their reaction will make you work to them, which you don't do to a silent camera. You don't work to a silent camera, but you do to an audience.

Stud Terkel You mean hearing their laughs.

Buster Keaton They, they space it for you. I mean just find a laugh is going to come up, you don't hurt that laugh, you helped build it. Where I'd slide right past it to a silent camera.

Stud Terkel Cause hearing the reaction in that audience. Hearing that reaction. You actually add something that's like a wave.

Buster Keaton That's right.

Stud Terkel One wave on top of another.

Buster Keaton That's right.

Stud Terkel Mr. Keaton, thank you very much for giving us just this bit of a, a touch of the, of that period known as the golden era of com- anything else you care to add? some reminiscence

Buster Keaton Oh, I think you covered it pretty good.

Stud Terkel And perhaps someday you'll do Three Men On a Horse again, and I'll do Charlie to your Erwin, as we did 10 years ago it was.

Buster Keaton That's right.

Stud Terkel In any event, thank you very much for being our guest and being the, the artist you are. Thanks a lot.

Buster Keaton Adios.