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