To celebrate Buster Keaton’s 100th year in film, here’s an excerpt from my screenplay of his life. It’s not proper screenplay format, but, hopefully, this style makes it a bit more readable.
This is the day in 1917 that Buster changed trajectory from stage to screen.
VOICE (Off Screen)
Buster turns. The VOICE belongs to a squat little man in his fifties, LOU ANGER. He’s dressed in a heavy overcoat and derby hat circa 1917. Lou walks toward Buster, reaching out to shake hands.
Buster shivers. Staring at Lou in disbelief, he extends his hand. Lou approaches … closer … closer …
EXT. TIMES SQUARE – NEW YORK CITY – 1917 – DAY
Buster (age 21) shakes Lou’s hand. Falling snow speckles their coats.
Well, if it ain’t free, white … and twenty-one?
Good to see ya, kid. I heard the Three Keatons broke up.
Finally got tired of Joe kickin’ the crap out of ya, huh?
You can shut up about my old man! He made me!
Aw, don’t get in a snit. Got a job?
At the Winter Garden.
So, it’s Broadway Buster, now.
Guess so. You look prosperous. Where ya playin’?
I gave it up. I manage a moving picture studio for Joe Schenck.
I don’t go to the flickers. Pop says nobody legit would ever appear on a bed sheet for a dime.
My boy, it’s taking over. I’m on my way there now. Come have a look.
I dunno, I been rehearsin’ all morning.
Roscoe Arbuckle’s on the set – –
That fat slob! He stole two of the Keatons’ best gags in that last picture of his!
I thought you never went to the movies. Besides, there ain’t no Three Keatons no more.
Buster thinks a moment then motions for Lou to lead on.
EXT. COLONY STUDIO
The studio on 48th street is a warehouse three stories high.
INT. COLONY STUDIO – GROUND FLOOR
Buster and Lou enter, shaking snow off their coats. A sign in artistic script signifies that this level of the building houses the Norma Talmadge Film Corporation. Several stage sets indicate a film under production.
NORMA TALMADGE, age 22, and her husband, JOE SCHENCK, age 37, are together on the set. He rants. She ignores him.
That’s the boss, Joe Schenck, and Norma Talmadge, you know, the actress. He married her six months ago.
(Lou nudges Buster)
Can you believe a beauty like her wakin’ up next to that ugly mug every morning? What money can’t buy! The Talmadge girls have the first two floors—the two talented ones anyway.
They head for a staircase.
COLONY STUDIO – SECOND FLOOR
CONSTANCE TALMADGE, age 18, is in the middle of a scene. PEG TALMADGE, mid-50’s, sits like a queen off to one side.
Constance Talmadge, a real up-and-comer. That’s the mother, Peg. Watch yourself around her and those three girls of hers. She’ll make you a eunuch with a look.
Lou hurries up the next flight of stairs. Buster moves a bit slower as he takes it all in.
He climbs the stairs.
COLONY STUDIO – THIRD FLOOR
A messy chalkboard heralds Comique Film Productions.
CREW members work on tasks. Behind Buster, Lou waves to get the attention of ROSCOE “FATTY” ARBUCKLE, age 30. He’s dressed for a comedy scene: high-water pants, checked shirt, and “way too small” bowler hat.
Roscoe spots Lou and Buster. Lou points to Buster, mouths “Keaton” then gives a thumbs up; Roscoe acknowledges it. Buster catches the signal and Lou returns a sheepish grin. Buster’s expression shows he realizes this is a set-up. Roscoe walks over, grabs Buster’s hand, and gives it a vigorous shake.
Hey, Roscoe, this is – –
Buster Keaton! I’ve been a fan of your family for years. We’re just getting ready to shoot a scene … care to wet your feet?
The handshake turns into a tug toward the set, but Buster let’s go and puts his hands in his pockets.
Stick around and watch. I’ll show you the place when we’re through.
Roscoe parks Buster by the cameraman then steps onto the set, a two story interior of a general store, complete with trolley ladder, barrels, canned goods, and a bulldog.
A chalkboard with scene and take numbers, titled: “The Butcher Boy” rests against the camera. Buster picks it up. A crew member yanks it from his hands and holds it in front of the camera lens.
The lights come up, the cameraman grinds, the chalkboard is taken away, Roscoe and company do their thing. The ensuing knock-about comedy holds little interest for Buster, but …
Buster’s gaze fixes on the CLACKING Bell and Howell. Strips of film litter the area. Buster kneels and picks a long curling piece off the dusty floor. He eyes it closely, takes a sniff. He holds the film up to the light. The negative images dance as he slides it between his fingers.
If there is love at first sight – this is it.
Roscoe’s scene ends. He comes up to Buster who stands.
Think I’ll try it after all.
Roscoe smiles and slaps him on the back. Buster lets the film slip through fingers.
Before the end of this day in 1917, I show Buster meeting his future wife, Natalie Talmadge, at the studio, but that’s a bit more than I wanted to put here.
I realize my poor old screenplay will never be an actual film, but, more than anything, I’d love to hear a dramatic reading of it, with real actors, just once. Oh, well ….