September 24, 1979 12:00 PM

by Tom Dardis

His father literally threw Buster around vaudeville stages while his mother played a saxophone to add a little class to the act. Somehow nobody laughed if Buster smiled onstage, so from the age of 3 he was trained to have that legendary solemn face. Then at 21 he was introduced to movies by Fatty Arbuckle. Instant success, easy money, lavish living, too much booze and three wives—all the clichés of movie fame—were his. Then in 1952, with Keaton’s career in eclipse, critic Walter Kerr wrote an appraisal that set people searching out old Keaton films. The comedian returned to the only thing he loved, making movies, until he died at 70 in 1966. The history of early moviemaking in New York and Hollywood is nicely told, but author Dardis is less successful, and often repetitious, in recounting Keaton’s chaotic private life. He does make a case, though, that Keaton, often regarded as a tragic figure, looked at his own life more positively. But then Buster did not see that unforgettable, hopeless Keaton face the way everyone else did. (Scribner’s, $12.50)

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