Buster Keaton Can Smile After Business Hours, by Dorothy Day – originally published in the New York Telegraph on October 21, 1923
I went to interview Buster Keaton with one ambition in mind–I would make him smile just to see if he could. He can. He favored me with a broad grin, upon our introduction. Maybe he thought I was funny, but that’s another story.
The comedian makes a business of never smiling during his films. When he was asked why he said that he didn’t consider his work any joke. He has acquired the habit of keeping his face immobile only through years of study, and it is perhaps because of this very trait that the Keaton face has become famous. At least that is one of the reasons. It was difficult to make him say anything. I never saw anybody so unwilling to talk. This is a characteristic which Buster must find very helpful on lost of occasions. Anyway, being a star of the silent drama seems to have its effect.
Well, after we sat quite still for a few moments I decided to ask him how he liked the baseball games. He came on for the especial purpose of viewing the world series and so it was not amiss to imagine that he would want to say something about it.
“Oh, the games,” said Mr. Keaton, “they were fine.”
“Were you satisfied with the outcome of them?” said I.
“Sure,” replied Buster. “I bet on the Yanks.”
“Did you win much?”
“Not much; a couple of dinners and the tickets.”
That seemed to conclude the conversation so far as he was concerned.
“When are you going back to Los Angeles?” I ventured next. I knew all the time that he was leaving in the afternoon of the same day, but it made something to say.
“This afternoon,” and Buster considered that settled.
“You will be glad to get back, I suppose.”
It seemed that he agreed with me on that subject too. Buster fumbled for his watch, and I thought he was about to commit the deadly sin of looking at it, but he had no such idea in mind. Attached to the other end of the watch chain was a little platinum locket. Silently he opened it and presented it to me. A cherubic face smiled out at me. It was Buster Keaton, Jr.
“Does he look like you?” I ventured.
“Exactly,” Buster assured me. It was the first display of enthusiasm.
“I thought so,” said I as I handed him back the locket, assuring him it was the loveliest picture of a child I had ever seen. That must have made a hit with Buster, for right away he began to take more of an interest in the interview. The next time I interview anybody who seems to not care much about it I am going to ask straight away if he happens to have a picture of his baby with him. If he has I’ll know what to do, and if he hasn’t I’m going to consider myself out of luck.
Mr. Keaton then proceeded to divulge some secret about the making of comedy pictures. It seems they have no script at all.
“You could write the whole plot on a post card,” said he, “we do the rest.”
So far as I could understand the making of comedies is very much like the juvenile sport of “playin’ theatre.” You don’t know just what you’ll do until you do it.
“The director, a couple of scenario writers and I sit around and discuss a scene. That is how the gags are made,” said Mr. Keaton. “Then we shoot the scene. Lots of things develop during the actual taking of the picture which we hadn’t thought out at all.”
Having learned all there seemed to be to learn about the simple process of making comedies I asked him if he ever thought of confining his activities to the more serious drama. Did he have any secret longing to play Hamlet or Macbeth? Buster hadn’t. He looked disapprovingly at me for the mere suggestion of such a thing. I don’t believe he cares much about the two gentlemen in question.
“I would like to play ‘Merton of the Movies’ though,” he said.
Then somebody said something which struck Buster as humorous and he smiled a broader smile than I thought him capable of.
“How,” said I, “do you keep from laughing during the filming of your pictures, or don’t you believe in laughing at your own jokes?”
“It is hard sometimes,” he confided. “I particularly remember one time in Philadelphia, where I went to attend the opening of one of the Loew theatres. We paraded up and down the streets in automobiles and I had on my serious expression. Lots of little kids yelled, ‘Why don’t yer give us a smile. Somebody tickle him and make him laugh,’ and so on, and it was hard that time not to burst right out laughing.”
Then we came back to the subject of Buster, Jr., again. He appeared in Buster, Sr.’s last picture, “Hospitality.” It was his debut as a screen actor. Incidentally, father and mother Keaton appeared in the same picture with son Buster, and Natalie was in it, too, making three generations of Keatons in the one offering.
“He’s a great kid,” said Buster, Sr., proudly. “And there’s a vacant space in the other side of the locket, you may have noticed. I’m reserving that.”
“Well, he sure is a lovely kid,” I reiterated, first because I really meant it and secondly because the subject of the baby seemed to be a common bond of interest.
“He sure is,” Buster agreed, and it was plain to be seen there was no argument there.
“Well,” I chirped, “know any more jokes?”
It was inopportune and Buster noticed it. He actually laughed, but loud this time.
“What do you think of that; I show her the baby’s picture and she asks me do I know any more jokes.”
Evidently I had made an unforeseen nifty, but we laughed that off and everything was fine. Keaton left for Los Angeles last week and expects to begin work on a new picture soon. What it will be about he hasn’t an idea, but between you and me and the rest of the world I’ll bet it will be funny.