The Buster Keaton That I Knew by Bartine Zane

A copy of the following article was given to me by Bartine Burkett Zane in 1981. It was written in the late 1970s, when she had resumed her career after 50 years of retirement from acting. Bartine always claimed that she was only in show business because she “had to work” to support her family. She left films when she married Ralph Zane in 1928. After he passed away, she was encouraged by friends to return to acting. She continued working in television and films past the age of 80. She died in 1994, at the age of 96. Her memories of working with Buster Keaton were of a special friendship. She was very fond of Buster, and-judging by her stories-he felt the same way about her. Bartine owned a beautiful portrait photograph of Buster on which he wrote “Bartine – forever and a day, Buster.” – Mark Jungheim

This article was published for the first time in the Autumn 1996 edition of The Keaton Chronicle -The newsletter of The Damfinos

Keaton article imageWhen I was chosen, in the year 1919, to be Buster Keaton’s leading lady in his first starring picture, I was pleased, of course, but considered it no ‘big deal’. Although Buster was known as a comical young man in the Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle successful comedies, he was far from famous. While I had played parts in pictures with stars such as Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and other big names as well as having been featured in several series of light comedies (at Universal Studios) and so felt that Buster was rather fortunate in that I had been persuaded to play opposite him. Don’t say it! I know you’ve never heard of me – – but who hasn’t heard of Buster!

The High Sign Lobby Card

Lobby card for The High Sign
(from the collection of Mike Hawks)

My first meeting with Buster came about when I was called by the studio casting director and asked to come out and see about a part in a picture with “Mr. Keaton”. We did not have agents in those days and, fortunately, casting directors didn’t get ten percent from us performers — however, the same human element existed then as at present. If you were known and liked by a good casting director you worked more often and were better paid.
Scene from The High Sign
Anyway, as I remember it, my call-time was around eleven-thirty a.m., but I had to wait quite a while before Mr. Arbuckle and Buster came to meet me. The first thing Roscoe said was “We’re going to lunch before we interview you, wanna go with us?” without hesitation I said, “I’d love to”. Hollywood actresses were known then, as now, to be the hungriest women in the world.

It was soon thereafter that Buster and I became good friends. I lived with my family in Hollywood and the studio was in Culver City, about ten miles away. Buster came for me every workday and we drove over Robertson Boulevard, who now is a highly traveled thoroughfare but at the time (over sixty years ago) was a little unpaved country lane.
The High Sign
I remember those trips so well because on each one Buster, invariably, kept me in stitches. I’m sure I was one of his all-time best audience, because everything he said or did was screamingly funny to me.

For instance, he spoke to everyone we passed going in the opposite direction — only not one of them ever knew he had been spoken to because Buster’s greeting and subsequent minute or so of verbiage always came a fraction of a second after they had passed us. (His timing was fantastic!) We would be deep in conversation but when someone approached and passed us, either on foot or in some vehicle he would interrupt, bow ceremoniously and inquire of this person the state of his health — where was his wife today? How many children did he now have in school? Whatever happened to that one who was expelled? All that kind of thing without ever repeating himself. I would sit there literally doubled up with laughter.

To answer a question which has been asked of me hundreds of times, Was Buster solemn and unsmiling as he always appeared in his films? No! A thousand times no! I’ve never known anyone to laugh more than he did. In fact, when we were shooting he spoiled many a scene by cracking up with laughter.

Hollywood HotelBuster and I made only two pictures together with long lapses between working dates and during those months he came for me every Thursday evening and took me to the weekly dance at the Hollywood Hotel, a lovely rambling old building which occupied one corner of Highland Avenue and Hollywood Boulevard (and was considered very elite). I don’t really know why he did this because he did not care for dancing very much or me! He would take my card, which we called our programs and which all young ladies held in their hands and tried to appear unconcerned while waiting for one after another young man to claim her dances by number. Buster, how-ever, had no time for such amenities. He would take my card and circulate among the young men asking — “Wanna dance with Bartine?” and if someone had the nerve to show a lack of enthusiasm for this project, he’d say, “Aw come on she’s a pretty good dancer.” This of course embarrassed me, no end, but my protests were in vain; he would remind me that he had no time to ‘fool around’.

Buster with Viola Dana

He was always expected up in Viola Dana’s apartment (she was a reigning motion picture star at the time.) where I was never invited. I’m sure they did a bit of drinking and I would not see Buster again until right on the dot of eleven-thirty he would appear and announce that it was time for me to go home my family having told him in no uncertain terms that I must be home before midnight.

At no time did Buster and I have an ‘affair’. I was simply not his type, nor he mine. I was never expected, or asked, to kiss him goodnight. I’m sure everyone knows that people in the theatrical profession are a little freer and more outgoing than others, but believe me when I say that in those days we didn’t go ’round kissing each other all over the place as is done nowadays. Even so it would not have been a violation of propriety for two young people who liked each other, as Buster and I undeniably did, to have ‘smooched’ a little — We just didn’t!

I hope I’m not giving the impression that my association with Buster was ever a dull routine affair. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact it would have been impossible for anyone to be bored on uninterested while in his presence, as there seemed always something happening where he was concerned. Some rather far out things as for instance. One afternoon he called to ask if I would like to go down to the Santa Fe Station, (the only one in Los Angeles at the time, I believe) with him to meet Roscoe who was coming in from New York. I said I’d love to; so down we went. A number of other people were there and after the usual greetings we left but I soon realized we were not going toward Hollywood, so I said, “Where ya goin’ Buster?” “Oh,” said he, “I’m going out to Roscoe’s house where they’re having a party for him, but it’s not for you — so you’ll just go along home.” My family had managed to acquaint Buster with the fact that I had been carefully, even strictly, brought up. Also I’m sure he knew that I personally had no de-sire to attend an Arbuckle party. But in consternation I inquired, “How am I going to get there?” (This was long before cross-town taxies became available.) “Why, you’re gonna take the car” he said, as though’ surprised it had not occurred to me “But Buster I can’t drive!” I exclaimed “I’ve never driven a car in my life.” (And I’ll venture to say that women who had driven cars were, at that time, in extremely short supply.) “Oh, that’s O.K. It’s easy.” he said calmly. I’ll show ya.” Soon we stopped in front of Mr. Arbuckle’s palatial residence, on West Adams Boulevard, Buster got out, struck a match and said, “Now here’s low gear — here’s second, and here’s third. Here’s the brake pedal right over here.” (Showing me how they operated, by the light of the match as he went along.) “You’ll be O.K. kid –see ya in the morning.” I had gained a small reputation for being a ‘dare-devil’ in pictures but, as a matter of fact, I was never the least bit daring. My fame in this area came about because I simply could not bring myself to say ‘no’ to anything challenging I was asked to do. So now, although I was petrified with the thought of driving a car for the first time, plus being alone and at night –Everything, literally everything occurred to me except to say ‘no one simply could not do that! So while Buster stood there I did something that made me lurch off the spot. May I remind everyone reading this article that traffic as we know it today was nonexistent at the time. I remember seeing only a few cars along the eight to ten miles distance to my home in Hollywood; though I must say that each one of those few seemed to be headed straight for me with deadly intent! I hugged the curb every inch of the way and covered the distance almost entirely in lurches and stops, but at no time did I kill the engine which would, of course, have meant it had to be cranked in which case I think I would simply have disintegrated rather than meet such an emergency.

Needless to say my family flipped when, after finally regaining my voice, I aquainted them with what had happened. Had he lost his mind! What in heaven’s name could he have been thinking of to let me do such a thing! Ere now I had begun to experience a bit of pride in being the center of so much concern and attention, so I said, rather casually “Well I’m here, am I not?” I’m sure Buster had no intention of subjecting me to a traumatic experience and if I had in any way indicated that I was afraid and did not wish to he would not have had me involve myself — but being from a vaudeville family he learned very early to be extremely facile; was afraid of nothing and could do anything with his hands and at his youthful age, at the time I knew him, he had not as yet learned that not everyone was so gifted.

Only a few weeks after my unique driving lesson Buster and I were standing on one of our open air sets when we heard an airplane overhead. This was but one year after World War I had ended and a plane flying over Los Angeles was such a rarity that virtually every-one stopped whatever he was doing to look up, in awe, ’till it could no longer be seen or heard. Buster and I did just that and with his usual enthusiasm for any-thing new and intriguing he said, “Oh Boy! Wouldn’t ya just love to go up in one ‘o those things?” One would think that with my, oh so recent, experience I’d have known better but either I was young and dumb or else it was totally inconceivable to me that even Buster could, at that point in time, arrange an airplane flight. So with great gusto, I said, “I sure would!”
The High Sign
We did not work for a few days thereafter and I had completely forgotten the instance when Buster called one morning (less than a week later) and said, “Got a big surprise for ya, can you be ready at two this p.m. I happily said ‘yes’ and could hardly wait ’til two o’clock came. We drove over to Wilshire Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue. There were no buildings at that time, just open fields, but on the Northwest corner there was what could loosely be called an ‘airport’ (or an unreasonable facsimile thereof). A small shack in one corner and two or three very small one engine planes parked nearby — Buster drove over the field and right up to the shack, got out of the car and made a sweeping gesture. Saying, “Which one of these planes would you like to take a ride in this afternoon?” If there was anything in this whole wide world I did not wish to do it was to take a ride in one of these or any other planes. All I could say was “Ohooooo Buster!” “Knew you’d be tickled pink!” said he. I thought if I appear to be ‘tickled pink’ then I just have to be the world’s greatest actress! At that moment a young man stepped from the shack and Buster introduced him as an old friend who was in the Air Force during the war and now owned his own plane and knew that there were many people, like ourselves (said Buster) who were just dying to fly; and so was organizing this small ‘airport’ with two or three other pilots for those, like ourselves, who just couldn’t wait to go up. I felt I could have waited indefinitely but with one young man on either side of me I was, during this conversation, being piloted toward one of the little planes and, without a word out to me was being hoisted aboard onto a seat built for two; there was no difficulty there however as Buster and I were both small — but suddenly, as I was being strapped in, I came out of the trance I had been in and decided that saying ‘no’ (much as I disliked to) was far preferable to what I considered almost certain death in this unearthly contraption and I determined I would put an end to being thus shanghaied! I opened my mouth to elucidate on this theme when suddenly a most frightening and explosive noise drowned out what I was about to say and when it had subsided enough for me to be heard — I found we had taken off!

Then and there I promised the dear Lord that if ever he’d let me set foot on terra firma again I’d never leave it even to go up in a tall building or an elevator. I glanced at Buster. He was ecstatic! Looking like a small boy having the time of his life with a new toy. So, gradually, I began to feel that perhaps, just perhaps we might have some small chance of survival if only these two idiots, with whom I had cast my lot, would decide we had had enough and would use their limited resources to effect a safe landing. As usual I reasoned without Buster who, at this point, leaned across me to yell “O.K. Now!” at the pilot who smiled and nodded. So did I, thinking that this must be the signal to end this monstrous ordeal. I meant to do my best to try and pretend to enjoy the rest of it; when suddenly I was horror stricken to feel us rolling over and to see the earth below gyrating strangely in what seemed to me, all directions. This performance was repeated at least three times. I decided that I did not have to witness our demise so I covered my eyes with my hands and abandoned all hope. But then it seemed as if we were leveling off and I glanced up and in a flash I knew this had all been for my benefit! It made me so furious I concluded that death itself would be preferable to letting them know how terrified I had been. Ere now we really were landing. I had time to summon every bit of acting talent I possessed and managed to smile pleasantly. When finally we stopped bouncing and settled firmly on the ground Buster looked at me with a twinkle and said, “Wasn’t that fun?” I said “Boy! It sure was!” He slumped dejectedly and with the utmost disgust said “Aw You!”.

I am now a very old lady and long since learned to drive my own car and to enjoy flying but I’ve never flown without thinking of Buster and how tame all my other flights have been compared to that one with him. *End*