Maltin is Vocal about a Silent Comic

By Dan Lybarger

August 15, 1996


Leonard Maltin, best known as the movie correspondent for the syndicated TV-show Entertainment Tonight, has always been an avid fan of the silent comic Buster Keaton (1895-1966), so itís not surprising that he is scheduled to be one of several presenters at the Fourth Annual Keaton Celebration at the Bowlus Fine Arts Center in Iola, KS (which is approximately 100 miles south from Metro KC) on September 27 and 28.

Maltinís fascination with Keaton and with silent films in general began early. Speaking by telephone from the offices of Entertainment Tonight, He recalls, "I remember being taken at the age of eight to see Robert Youngsonís film The Golden Age of Comedy, and thatís what really turned me on to silent comedy. .I also started collecting silent movies on 8mm, and the first ones I got were (Keatonís) Cops and The Balloonatic. I watched them over and over again and would show them to anyone who would let me."

Maltin recalls that his fascination led him to meet the comic. Maltin took the subway from his home in New Jersey to Manhattan where Buster was shooting Samuel Beckettís 1965 effort, Film. He chatted briefly with Keaton, and the actor autographed some pictures. Maltin remembers, "I was a kid, and I didnít know what else to say to him, and he was not a very outgoing person. Other people started coming around to the car and wanting to meet him, so I just backed away." He adds, "It was a very small encounter, but it was a very big thing in my life."

During his subsequent career as a movie historian and critic, Maltin has featured Keatonís life and work numerous times. For example, he wrote the brief biography of Buster that appears in the New Grolier Encyclopedia and profiled the actor-director in his 1978 book The Great Movie Comedians.

Most recently, he spotlighted Keaton on an episode of Entertainment Tonight. During the segment, he compared the current blockbuster Twister with Keatonís 1928 silent Steamboat Bill, Jr. Maltin says, "Iím always looking for a hook here at the show that will allow me to relate some current picture to something from the past. Itís a device that has worked for me before and has allowed me to get a lot of great old movies on the show."

According to Maltin, Keatonís low-tech comedy holds up against the computerized hit. "Buster did a pretty amazing Twister of sorts himself 70 years ago, and they hadnít even thought of the computer then. They just did it. What Keaton achieved without any high tech devices or 90ís capabilities, just through sheer ingenuity and through his incredible acrobatic skill and determination to contrive what he needed to make the effects work on camera then, is really pretty eye-popping."

Maltin also edits a Leonard Maltinís Movie and Video Guide. It is one of the most popular video guides on the market, and the 1996 edition features several new entries about Keaton. He explains, "Because all the (silent) films had come out on video, I was able to include a great many of them in my video guide that werenít there before, so that was a happy opportunity."

In addition to introducing home video and TV fans to Keatonís movies, Maltin spent a weekend last winter presenting Busterís Sherlock Jr. to Hollywood insiders. He says, "I was invited to go down to Orlando, FL for a corporate retreat for executives of the Walt Disney company. I had the opportunity of trying to set this film in context for people who had perhaps never seen a silent film projected on a screen before. That was a real privilege to do what I call Ďmissionary work.í" Maltin adds, "my role was minor; Buster did the real work."

Maltin is not alone in his fondness for Keaton. In fact, Keatonís films, themselves, may speak more to todayís audiences than the fans of the past. Maltin states, "We donít live in an age of sentiment. Things are harder-edged nowadays, and so because Buster is so unsentimental he appeals more readily to todayís younger audience than (Charlie) Chaplin does." He adds, "I refuse to ever get involved with Chaplin-bashing. These were two great geniuses, and Iím not using the word lightly, but their approaches were different. You donít have to tear one down to build the other up."

Maltin has just finished the 1997 edition of his Video Guide and has been hosting a syndicated daily one-minute radio show called Leonard Maltin on Video. He has also begun writing a weekly column for Cinemania Online. Despite his hectic schedule, Maltin is still intent on coming to Iola, which is seven miles from Keatonís birthplace in Piqua. "I never miss an opportunity to talk about or show Buster Keatonís work."



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This page was last updated on 10/29/97.
Ó 1997 Dan Lybarger



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