This is the strangest family portrait I’ve ever seen. A ghoul dressed like a drunk ballroom dancer talks to his son, his wizened double, who looks somehow older than his dad; between them stands a woman, serene, a rose melting on her dress. It’s a supremely creepy Gothic snapshot, something you might find in the archives of a derelict madhouse. But it’s actually a stray frame from a set of publicity photographs from 1901 for ‘The Three Keatons’ – father, mother, son – and their vaudeville show. Buster is, according to advertisements, ‘The Little Boy Who Can’t Be Damaged!’ Their act was a loose, violent guide to disciplining a child: the father punished his son in various ways whilst performing a crazed ‘expert’ monologue on the subject. (Imagine an episode of Tom and Jerry where the cat explains exactly what he’d like to do to that pesky mouse.) Meanwhile, Mother provided musical accompaniment. Years later, his splendid, eerie films were re-discovered (how did he move like that?), but Buster was as glum as a gargoyle after decades spent drunk and in ruin and told an interviewer about the act. His mother was, he said, ‘the first woman in America to play the saxophone’. Queen Victoria had died that winter, and the audiences they played to ‘didn’t even know what the instrument was’. They wore baggy, ragged ‘misfit clothes’, to give their moves a comic clumsiness, then added the ticklish furs – Keaton called them ‘Irish wigs’. They look as if they’re turning into birds – crows, perhaps – or brooms. To outfox schools and child-protection agencies, it was circulated that Buster was a dwarf and his mother was his wife. When adult, he kept that look of an orphaned dog, his face as deeply melancholic as certain hounds.
He never said the act was traumatic, though his father threw him around like hot jelly to wild applause. Like a Diane Arbus photograph, this tableau contains a tricky mixture of ‘strange’ and ‘normal’, the two moods never balancing correctly, so we’re left with that sinister feeling unique to dreams just before they turn bad. (Arbus would’ve adored the greyness of the shot, in everything but the silver, swan-like neck of the saxophone.) Perhaps Buster is simply sleepy – after all, he’s only six years old – staring into the saxophone’s bell, as if longing for its sound to fill the room. His father became an alcoholic, suspicious of the cinema which came and soon killed vaudeville. (‘We spend years perfecting an act and you want to show it a nickel a head on a dirty sheet?’ he asked a producer, enraged.) Then sound arrived and stopped his son’s films stone dead. A sad story, but what else would you expect? Nobody has ever looked so lonely, so far from the waking world.