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Thursday, February 09, 2006

Buster Keaton

Beckett fact no. 39.

Since there's a Buster Keaton festival on at the National Film Theatre in London at the moment here are some of Beckett's thoughts on working with him on Film, as reported to Kevin Brownlow in an interview for an ITV documentary on Keaton:

'Buster Keaton was inaccessible. He had a poker mind as well as a poker face. I doubt if he ever read the text - I don't think he approved of it or liked it. But he agreed to do it and he was very competent. He was not our first choice. Alan Schneider wanted Zero Mostel and I wanted Jack McGowran, but neither were available. It was Schneider's idea to use Keaton, who was available. Of course, I had seen his silent films and enjoyed them - don't suppose I could remember them now. He had a young woman with him - his wife, who had picked him up from his alcoholism. We met him at a hotel. I tried to engage him in conversation, but it was no good. He was absent. He didn't even offer us a drink. Not because he was being unfriendly, but because it never occured to him.

'One of the first things we did was to find the location - driving all over New York, looking for the wall - which we eventually found at the (Fulton Street) Fush Market - near Brooklyn Bridge. It was a building site - the wall was demolished shortly after that. The heat was terrible - while I was staggering in the humidity, Keaton was galloping up and down and doing whatever we asked of him. He had great endurance, he was very tough and, yes, reliable. And when you saw that face at the end - oh!' He smiled. 'At last.'

I asked if Keaton ever enquired what the film was about? Beckett laughed. 'No. He wasn't interested. ''Did you ever tell him?' 'I never did, no. I had very little to do with him. He sat in his dressing room, playing cards - patience or something, until he was needed. The only time he came alive was when he described what happened when they were making films in the old days. That was very enjoyable. I remember him saying that they started with a beginning and an end and improvised the rest as they went along.'

'Were you pleased with the way he moved - did he give you more than you expected? 'His movement was excellent - covering up the mirror, putting out the animals - all that was very well done. To cover the mirror, he took his big coat off and he asked me what he was wearing underneath. I hadn't thought of that. I said "the same coat" He liked that. The only gag he approved of was the scene where he tries to get rid of the animals - he put out the cat and the dog comes back and he puts out the dog and the cat comes back - that was really the only scene he enjoyed doing.'

{End quotation}

The young Keaton, I read in a festival-related article, once had his right index finger shredded by a clothes wringer, then his head gashed open by a falling brick, and then on retreating to his bedroom was sucked out the window by a passing tornado and dumped in a field. As reprised by Keaton in the 'When Tornadoes Strike' section of Film, which so sadly failed to make the final cut.

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