Buster Keaton and the Craft of the Misquote

I’m in the middle of My Wonderful World of Slapstick at the moment, Buster Keaton’s own contribution to an already impressive body of work covering his extensive career as an auteur (although I’m sure he would have balked at the idea of being labelled in such terms). It’s a pretty thrilling read – we get the man’s own story behind his film-making, including his early start in vaudeville theatre at the tender age of four.

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The vaudeville years, I have to say, are absolutely enchanting. Keaton’s anecdotal writing style treats us to a glimpse behind the scenes of showbiz, before showbiz even existed in its own right. Back then, it seems, it was simply another way of making an honest living. Speaking of honest livings, here’s a favourite passage of mine:

It seems to me that if you are a good craftsman your principal concern should be to keep working. If you manage to do that your employers will have to pay you sooner or later exactly what you are worth. How can they avoid it?

Wise words, Buster. How indeed?

Between travelling between cities, Keaton regales us with rites of passage that are not unfamiliar – his childhood hijinks at the family vacation spot, the panic of losing siblings on a stroll about town, and his first taste of the “pure evil” whiskey aged seventeen that would eventually contribute to the end of his career. The documentation of these small moments of his life is what sets his own writing apart from the more scholarly analyses by Marion Meade, Kevin Sweeney, Robert Knopf, et al. What better way to learn the workings of such a great mind than to get the story straight from the horse’s mouth?

With this philosophy dancing around in my head, I set out to see what other worldly wisdom my favourite director had to offer. Not such a mystical quest – in this modern age, this merely consists of brewing another coffee and simply opening your browser.

That’s when I came across this gem:

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What a beauty! Could there be anything more relevant to the principles of Keaton’s work? It’s a paradigm of that classic cinematic philosophy – show, don’t tell. As Keaton tells us through voiceover in Tony Zhou’s recent The Art of the Gag, Keaton used no more than 56 title cards in his each of his features (at a time when the average was 240 per picture). There is no doubting his hardy little character’s determination in The General, or the case of mistaken criminal identity in The Goat. No caption can rival the subtle emotional shifts in the character’s face, or his explosions of physicality.

In his autobiography, Keaton recalls a minor dispute with his best friend and comedy mentor, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle:

“You must never forget,” he told me that day, “that the average mentality of our audience is twelve years.”
I thought that over for a long time, for three whole months in fact. Then I said to Roscoe, “I think you’d better forget the idea that the movie audience has a twelve-year-old mind. Anyone who believes that won’t be in pictures for very long, in my opinion.”

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Buster Keaton trusted viewers’ ability to use their brains, to interpret what they saw on the screen and read between the lines. They didn’t need to have storylines spoon-fed to them. In other words, he believed in his audience.

He may also have disagreed with Arbuckle for the following reason – if you don’t respect what you’re doing, then why do it at all? He leaves this point out of the book, but the implication is there.

Silence is dignity and reverence for your craft. Shouting from the treetops is better left to the apes.

Thrilled with this discovery, I posted the quote to The Buster Keaton Appreciation Society on Facebook (I know – once I get my claws into an interest, it’s hard to shake). Within moments, a flurry of Likes appeared. My work was done.

That is, until someone asked where the quote came from. And I had no idea.

I found no evidence that suggested Buster Keaton had ever uttered those words. However, I eventually discovered this 1921 article.

As it turns out, the quote does not come from Keaton himself, but from Wilis Goldbeck, his interviewer in Motion Picture magazine:

“Silence is of the gods; only monkeys chatter.” I sat once in a famous theater in the London Haymarket, and heard that proverb drip from the oily tongue of an aged Chinese philosopher. It glittered for the moment on the surface of my mind and then sank into the depths; depths termed by a recently famous philosopher and theorist, the Unconscious.

Disappointing, perhaps. The Buster-monkeys quote is repeated over and over on quotation sites, Goodreads, IMDB, Pinterest, and all manner of spiritual healing websites. And next to most of them, you’ll find a picture of Buster’s hauntingly melancholy face. It’s funny how time warps perspective. It brings to mind the “If you can’t handle me at my worst, then you sure as hell don’t deserve me at my best” feel-good meme attributed to Marilyn Monroe.

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This one.

Does a quote lose its depth when it is wrongly attributed? Does misdirection render it meaningless? I think not. The Keaton quote is just as much about superior film-making as it is about medieval Asian philosophy. Even though we can’t claim our role models uttered it, can’t we, the audience, make the connection independently? In the 1920s, Keaton argued that his viewers didn’t need title cards to form opinions. In the 21st century, nor should we.

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