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Coming February 15

One of Literary Hub's "Most Anticipated Books of 2022"

It was James Agee who first christened Buster Keaton "The Great Stone Face," but to audiences who had known Keaton since the age of five, it was merely a formality. The whole world had come to accept his stoic features as one of the genuine trademarks of silent film comedy, a deadpan in a pork pie hat as famous as Charlie Chaplin's disreputable tramp or Harold Lloyd's eager beaver in straw boater and spectacles. "He was the only major comedian who kept sentiment almost entirely out of his work," Agee wrote, "and he brought pure physical comedy to its greatest heights."


Keaton's singular look and acrobatic brilliance obscured the fact that behind the camera he was also one of the silent era's most gifted filmmakers. Through a string of nineteen short comedies and twelve extraordinary features he distinguished himself with such indelible works as "One Week", "The Play House", "The Boat", "Cops", "Our Hospitality", "Sherlock Jr.", "The Navigator", "Seven Chances", "Steamboat Bill, Jr.", "The Cameraman", and his magnum opus "The General". As a body of work, they rival Chaplin's in terms of quality and sheer comic invention. In 1960 Keaton was awarded an honorary Oscar.


Over the past century, Buster Keaton's story has become mired in myth and legend. Now James Curtis, the award-winning biographer of W.C. Fields, Preston Sturges, James Whale, and Spencer Tracy, follows Keaton's extraordinary life of triumph and tragedy in the first major biography in more than a quarter century. Drawing on newly unearthed archival resources, as well as interviews with family, friends, and co-workers, Keaton's complex genius emerges as never before.


Curtis brings new insights to Keaton's medicine show and vaudeville years as Buster becomes one of America's most famous performing children. Entering films as the protégée of Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, Keaton quickly ascends to co-director of some of the world's most popular short comedies. And when Arbuckle moves into features in 1920, Keaton begins to write, direct, and star in his own series of comedy classics, films that are still revived and honored today as some of the screen's greatest treasures.


Curtis also examines in unprecedented detail what happens when a confluence of events brings an end to Keaton's time as a top star just as he appears to have mastered talking pictures. As Buster later put it, "There I was on the top of the world–on a toboggan."


Illustrated with 130 images, some never before published, "Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker's Life" is a compelling work of research and synthesis worthy of the man who has been called "the D.W. Griffith of Comedy" and who continues to be an potent influence on movies the world over.


Published by

Alfred A. Knopf


819 pages/130 images

Also available as an e-book

and an audio book from

Pengiun Random House


"It is brilliant--I was totally absorbed, couldn't stop reading it and was very sorry when it ended." -- Kevin Brownlow


"Just as Buster Keaton's work transcends its flowering in silent films, so James Curtis's biography transcends the catagory of show business biography. In a narrative that majestically carries its subject from 19th century vaudeville to Cinerama to immortality, Keaton is given his due, not just as an artist, but as a man who lived a paradigmatic American life." -- Scott Eyman


"At long last, Buster Keaton gets the biography he deserves. James Curtis has given us a monumental book, one of the best Hollywood biographies ever written. Curtis has authored the definitive biographies of W. C. Fields, Preston Sturges, and Spencer Tracy, but this might well be his masterpiece." -- David Weddle, author of "If They Move, Kill 'Em! The Life and Times of Sam Peckinpah", writer/executive producer "For All Mankind", and writer/supervising producer "Battlestar Galactica"     


"Buster Keaton (1895-1966), a director and star of silent comedy classics, emerges as a great auteur and a martyr to Hollywood in this vibrant biography... The story is evocative, entertaining, and laced with lyrical detail. This is an engrossing portrait of a Hollywood legend." -- Publishers Weekly (starred review)


"Curtis draws on abundant archival sources as well as interviews, memoirs, and previous biographies to create a comprehensive, warmly sympathetic life of iconic entertainer Joseph Frank "Buster" Keaton... In lively detail, Curtis... recounts the highs and lows of Keaton's prolific career, tracing 'the development of gags, the logic of gags, the mechanics of gags' as he acted on stage and in silent movies, talkies and TV... Meticulous research informs a brisk biography of an entertainment icon."  -- Kirkus Reviews (starred review)   


"A definitive biography that delves into the mystery behind the man who made America laugh in the early days of film." -- Literary Hub


"Authoritative... [Keaton] emerges from the pages of Curtis's [book] not just as the first indie auteur but as the direct forerunner of Indiana Jones and Jason Bourne: the first action hero." -- Tom Shone, Avenue


"Those who are [interested in the entirety of Keaton's story] will feast on Curtis' overstuffed book, which belongs in any film fan's library for providing a close look at the silent era and all of Keaton's efforts, whether big or small, triumph or failure." -- Douglass K. Daniel, Associated Press


"James Curtis's [book] is an immense year-by-year, sometimes week-by-week, account of Keaton as an artist and a man. Every detail of his life and work is here... Curtis takes us through the progress of the brutal comedy act that Joe Keaton raised his son to star in... We even hear about gags that Buster Keaton helped invent for Abbott and Costello in his later, seeming fallow, years." -- Adam Gopnik, The New Yorker       


"Curtis is clearly an admirer of Keaton, but he doesn't view his subject through rose-colored glasses: he discusses and puts into context Keaton's battles with alcoholism and mental illness, his rocky marriage, and the devastating impact of poor reviews on some of Keaton's most personal projects. A valuable addition to the literature of film history." -- Booklist