Film scholar and essayist Dessem goes deep in his debut book about a seminal but largely forgotten figure of early Hollywood history.
The Gag Man could easily be the title of one of the films that writer/director Clyde Bruckman (1894-1955) created for Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, W. C. Fields, or Laurel and Hardy; it has the same straightforward punch as The Navigator, The General, or even The Fatal Glass of Beer. The title of the last-named film—one of Fields’ biggest hits—proved all-too-prophetic. Bruckman ascended to the stratosphere of the comedy film profession, but drink pulled him back down; by the end, he was recycling gags for The Three Stooges. As Dessem notes, “No more features, no more premieres, no more stars—only Stooges.” Bruckman finally etched his own end credit by committing suicide with a gun he’d borrowed from his old pal Keaton. This book is an expansion of Dessem’s superb 2014 essay for the now-defunct website The Dissolve, but the added freedom it affords him is a mixed blessing. The author has a keen eye for offhanded detail; for example, he relates how the soon-to-be-ex-Mrs. Keaton told a judge, “As a husband, Buster was an excellent comedian.” However, Dessem too often gives in to his film-geek side; for instance, he tells the story of an exceptionally painful lawsuit that Lloyd filed against Bruckman in excruciating detail. This is doubly annoying because Dessem’s critical insights are so exhilarating, as in this passage, in which he compares and contrasts a handful of classic comedians: “Keaton responded to tribulations with stoicism; Lloyd with optimism. Laurel and Hardy were boneheaded, but looked out for each other; even W.C. Fields…was smart and would usually just as soon be left alone. The Stooges were something else, a perfect storm of stupidity and viciousness.” Alas, Bruckman found himself in his own storm of alcoholism and failure; late in the book, Dessem recounts a conversation between Bruckman and Keaton about the ending of The Navigator. The former insisted that the story should’ve ended with Keaton and the girl on a sinking lifeboat. “Oh, it was in the books for us to die all right,” Keaton allowed. “But not in the jokebooks. We were making a comedy, remember?” Somehow, Bruckman forgot to remember.
This definitive biography of Clyde Bruckman is everything you always wanted to know (and more) about the little-known filmmaker.