Keaton on the Cutting Edge

(Click to see at a higher resolution)

Today I offer a rare and precious photograph of filmmaker Buster Keaton. I’ve only ever seen it in one place (described below), and it is seemingly a still taken during the shoot for his 1924 film Sherlock, Jr. (I’ve come to this conclusion since there’s a projector behind him, to the right, that’s seen in the film.)

I’ve been mesmerized by this poster since 1989, and I still can’t figure out why. Is it because of his intense profile?

Or because the “COMEDY” label is cryptically lifted up a little? Is that on purpose?

And how about the scissors in his hands, jaws open?

And I frequently stare at the detail of the bottle of FILM CEMENT next to a film rewind, which isn’t very different from the gear I used in film school.

And what is it for? Why was this picture taken? Is it an outtake from the mind-blowing Sherlock, Jr? (For those familiar with the film, it actually could figure into its imaginative plot.) Pictures of filmmakers from the silent era, in the editing room, with film in their hands, are as rare as hen’s teeth, though it’s pretty clear this is a set and not a real edit room. (More accurately, it’s a projectionist’s bench.)

Anyway, I’ve kept it in as many edit rooms as possible for 20 years, as a good luck charm, a source of inspiration. And at one point, sadly, it was almost lost to me forever. If you care to know that story, please read on…

In early 1989, I took a life-changing course in college. It was Silent Film Comedy, taught by the brilliant Tom Gunning. Unlike his other classes which had upwards of 40 official students (and half as many again monitoring), this had only eight students. All young men. And we’d gather on Thursday mornings and sit in a huge auditorium. Tom would enlighten us with tales of Chaplin and Keaton and others, then the lights would go down, the projector would start, and we’d laugh, laugh, laugh. And Tom would be laughing the loudest.

A few months later, in a completely unrelated event, I saw magazine ad for a film archive (a stock house where you could license footage of just about anything for your documentary) and called the 800 number for a free catalog. When it arrived, I was thrilled to discover it was a 16×20 poster folded into a catalog shape. On one side was the info, on the other was this picture. I got several more free catalogs and passed them out like so many nickels and dimes.

By the late 90s, I had lost my last copy, between gigs. In a panic, I called the archive and asked if they had any more of their 1989 catalogs, one they could spare or sell to me. The woman on the phone said, in typical New York fashion, that no, they didn’t keep such things. I said, “But you’re an archive.”

I begged and cajoled long enough that the woman finally gave up and agreed to take a look. She asked for my name and number. When I said my name, she did a 180. Turns out we had been neighbors at my first NYC apartment in Long Island City, five years earlier.

A few days later, a fresh copy arrived. (Whew.)

So now it’s framed in my office, and I still haven’t seen it anywhere else. The other night, I carefully removed it from its frame, scanned it in six chunks and stitched it together, just for this blog. For all the post people, Keaton fans and film lovers out there.

Perhaps Buster, with his scissors cocked like Harry Callahan’s .44 magnum, will inspire you, too.


Filed under Comedy, Film, Plucked from Obscurity

5 responses to “Keaton on the Cutting Edge

  1. Mose West

    Great post. I’ll always remember you as the person who really introduced me to Buster Keaton and this picture was a big part of it. Thanks for taking the time to painstakingly scan the image. Keep up the good work. Love Peel Slowly.

  2. mary ellen porto

    I love this photo. I am a HUGE Buster Keaton fan myself. I remember when I was living in Cambridge (Mass.) back in 1983 and the Orson Welles cinema re-released all his films in brand new 35mm prints with live musical accompaniment. It was one of the highlights of my film going experiences. For one of the screenings I even sat next to Buster Keaton’s grand daughter which seemed so cool to me. Anyway, thanks for the post. It really made my day to see that photo.

  3. Harry McCoy

    That same poster was in the Edit Bay when I took my job at an advertising agency in 1988. I was an editor then and a huge film history geek, and therefore automatically a lover of Keaton. I moved on in my career and often have thought of that poster and wondered whatever happened to it (the Agency closed its doors long ago). Boy I wish I had one now. I came across your blog by googling THIS particular image, so you can be proud that you may be THE guy keeping this alive. I say let’s chip in and print another round of posters!

  4. Thank you so much for scanning this photo! I am a more recent fan of Buster, I’ve been trying to get my hands on any images/film/print that I can, and as you mentioned outtakes and behind the scenes photos are almost impossible to find. I know this is part of a set as you has said, but it helps towards imagining what it may have been like behind the scenes 🙂

  5. THANK YOU!!!! I googled “film editing Buster Keaton image” in a vain hope and found your post. Going up on my wall tomorrow.

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