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Buster Keaton, Slapstick Genius - A Biography

by Mike Haberfelner

August 2009

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Of all the slapstick comedies from the 1920's, Buster Keaton's have perhaps remained the freshest, be it for their narrative stringency, their incredible pace (even though Keaton was one of the few directors who didn't speed up the chase sequences in his films for additional comical effect), be it for their incredible (and highly dangerous) stunt setpieces or for his visionary directorial skills that pushed the medium to its limits, creating shots and sequences in a pre-digital age that are unsurpassed even today.

Interestingly enough, in his high time in the 1920's, Keaton didn't even play in the same league concerning box office success as other slapstick greats Harold Lloyd, Harry Langdon and especially Charlie Chaplin, yet his best films have stood the test of time much better than those of his competition, as their clockwork-like fatalistic narratives with their almost mechanic (yet highly hilarious) gags and hair-raising yet effortlessly executed stunts seem much more timeless and universal than those of his rivals that often went out of their way to have a heart - which meant nothing else but kitsch of course.

(By the way, Keaton's intentionally expressionless face wasn't too suited for cheesy stories anyways - but it was perfect for the role of the little man fighting overpowering ods he tended to play.)

 


 

Born into Vaudeville

 

Regarding Buster Keaton's childhood, it was already hard to imagine that he would become anything but a slapstick comic: Buster was born Joseph Frank Keaton in 1895 in Pickway, Kansas. It wasn't that his parents Joseph Hallie (Joe) Keaton and Myra Cutler Keaton were living in Pickway, or even in Kansas, they were just touring the country as a comic act with a medicine show that interestingly enough also featured a pre-star Harry Houdini.

Buster was only about three when his parents tested him on stage for the first time, and at the request of the manager of the vaudeville theatre they were then working for, Buster became a part of his parents act when he was merely four years old. The early acts of young Buster were already a precursor of things to come: His father would throw Buster around on stage and have him perform little stunts, and the main function Buster had was to endure everything that was happening to him without showing any emotion - with the same stoneface that would remain his trademark all through his career. The acts of the Three Keatons, as they called themselves then, were pretty rough - especially since Buster showed a natural talent for stunting from an early age -, but they were a hit with the audience ... not so with child welfare organisations though, which especially in bigger cities often forced the Keatons' shows to shut down. However, for travelling theatre folks like the Keatons having to shut down in one spot only meant to open in another, and the law never could really catch up with them to book them for child neglect or something. Buster's own memories of his childhood, which he mainly spent being mistreated on stage (from an objective point of view) were primarily positive though, and it stands without a doubt that his early experiences directly influenced his later career.

 

During Keaton's childhood and youth, Buster also developed an interest in mechanics and all sorts of machines, which might have influenced his films' almost clockwork-like plots. Especially locomotives and trains fascinated him, which later became evident in two of his masterpieces, Our Hospitality (1923) and The General (1926). Buster also became a bit of an inventor during his formative years, though his inventions were barely notable for their practibcability but rather for their fascination with mechanics. The short The Electric House (1922) or an extended scene in The Navigator (1924), in which he has created all sorts of crazy kitchen appliances to make himself breakfast on a drifting boat, perfectly mirror this talent.

It's interesting to note at this point that while Buster might have inherited his comic talent from his father Joe, dad Keaton had no talent in mechanics whatsoever and is said to have been afraid of machines (which allegedly is why the Three Keatons never made it to the screen during their career as a trio).

 

Even after Buster Keaton had outgrown his childstar status, the Three Keatons continued to perform, and to great success as well - after all, the act wasn't successful for Buster being a child but Buster being a great performer of physical comedy. However, over the years, the family troupe ran into more and more problems, and the main one was father Joe Keaton himself. The older he got, the more he took to drinking, his fitness deteriorated and with that, his precision - on which Buster had to rely in order to not get injured in his stunts - got worse. Add to that jealousy directed towards his son who already showed more talent than he had ever had and more and more grew the center of the act, Joe Keaton's increasingly bad temper (caused at least in part by his alcoholism), and the like.

This all led to the seperation of the Three Keatons comedy troupe in 1917, and Buster went to New York, 21 years of age. Thanks to his talent and (relative) fame, it took Buster a mere few days to find a well-paid job as a solo comic in a revue, The Passing Show of 1917, but that engagement didn't last long ...

 


 

Fatty Arbuckle

 


Having only yet spent a few months in New York, Buster Keaton made the acquaintance of Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle via a friend from his vaudeville days. Besides Charlie Chaplin, Arbuckle was the leading slapstick comedian of the latter part of the 1910's, and just like Chaplin, he directed his films himself. Arbuckle had just quit his contract with Mack Sennett and decided to hook up with independent producer Joseph M.Schenck to form the Comique Film Company. At first, Buster was nothing but an observer on Arbuckle's filmsets, but he was fascinated by the whole filmmaking process and its many possibilities pretty much right away - little wonder, would making movies, with all its possibilities of editing and camera setup, correspond with Buster's mechanical mind far better than live theatre.

Even though it meant much worse wages, Keaton quit his theatre job pretty much immediately and became a part of Arbuckle's troupe - and Arbuckle was quick to notice the young man's potential, as within a short time, Buster did not only become Arbuckle's most important co-star alongside former Keystone Cop Al St.John, but also his assistant director.

 

Arbuckle's first film with Keaton was The Butcher Boy (1917, Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle), basically your typical Arbuckle short that takes a certain scenery - in this case a department store - and squeezes as many funny situations as possible out of it. Buster's performance in this film is remarkable though since it already perfectly anticipates things to expect from this future landmark slapstick comedian and sees his screen persona - down to the characteristic flat straw hat - already fully developed - and all Buster does here is test brooms and buy molasses.

(Buster wasn't in character in all of his Arbuckle films though, for example in The Rough House [1917, Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle], he can even be seen laughing.)

 


Buster's on-screen persona caught on quickly, and he had soon become a fixture in the Arbuckle-shorts. And when Arbuckle moved production from New York to Hollywood (back then not yet the movie mekka it is today) in later 1917 after only a handful of movies, it was no question for Buster to move to the West Coast as well. Once in Los Angeles, Buster at first moved in with his father Joe, whom he even persuaded to accept a part in Arbuckle's first Hollywood-film, A Country Hero (1917, Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle), and though dad Keaton was sceptic towards the (relatively) new medium at first, he soon caught on and would appear in supporting roles in many of Buster's shorts and features.

With the move to Hollywood, Buster's importance gradually grew in Arbuckle's team, and he soon became Arbuckle's lead sidekick, a position previously occupied by Al St.John. Now that's not to say that St.John - who remained with Arbuckle all through Keaton's years with him, helped him through hard times and eventually wound up to become one of B-Western's most popular sidekick Fuzzy - was a bad comic, he was actually quite ok, but he simply lacked the genius and analytical mind of Buster Keaton. Still, there is no report that the two men were actually fighting over Arbuckle's attentions or had a private rivalry going on between them, quite the contrary - actually, over the years St.John even appeared in a couple of Keaton's post-Arbuckle shorts, including The High Sign (1921, Buster Keaton, Edward F.Cline), the first solo shord Buster made (though not released) after he and Arbuckle parted ways.

As a pairing, Arbuckle and Keaton seemed almost ideal, as Arbuckle's good-natured, playful, even childlike character was perfectly contrasted by Buster's emotionless face and permanent seriousness. That both were masters of slapstick comedy and knew how to perfectly react to one another of course made their act even better.

 

In 1918. Buster had to leave Arbuckle's production unit for a year because he got drafted to fight in World War I, but when he got to the front, the war was already over, and his service was limited to entertaining the troops. Returning to Hollywood and Arbuckle in 1919, he quickly reassumed his old position, but after a mere three films (Backstage, The Hayseed, The Garage [all 1919, Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle]), Arbuckle decided to move on to make feature films (which turned out to be a blessing for Keaton) before his career got cut short by a nasty early-Hollywood scandal that involved the death of a starlet in 1921 ...

 

The time with Arbuckle may vvery well be considered as Buster's formative years as a filmmaker, and most of what Buster learned about comedy filmmaking, he learned from Arbuckle - however, Buster's analytical mind, his vision and his predeliction for all things mechanic (even on a narrative level) saw him surpass Arbuckle's rather simplistic and episodic understanding of comedy before long, and when he and Arbuckle parted ways (professionally, they remained close friends until Arbuckle's premature death in 1933), he was already halfways to finding his very own cinematic language.

 


 

The Buster Keaton-Shorts

 

In 1919, Fatty Arbuckle has reached such a level of popularity that it was almost compulsory to let him move to feature films - yet at that time, that was a bite too big to take for his producer Joseph M.Schenck (yet), so he loaned Arbuckle out to the Famous Players-Lasky Corporation (later Paramount). This though left the Comique Film Company short of a leading man to build a series upon, but considering the status that Buster Keaton already had in Arbuckle's shorts, it was pretty much a given that he would take over from his mentor - and that Keaton was engaged to Schenck's movie star wife Norma Talmadge, Natalie, probably didn't hurt either. The Comique Film Company was rechristened Buster Keaton Productions to put former emphasis on its new star.

 


It's interesting to mention in this context that Buster, before making his starring debut in a short film, made his debut in a feature film, The Saphead (1920, Herbert Blaché, Winchell Smith), when he was on loan to Metro Pictures while Schenck was busy assembling Buster's production staff. The film though, an adaptation of a popular stageplay, can hardly be described as a typical Buster Keaton, as it is way too complex in plot and Keaton's physical comedy sits rather ill with the narrative about a crash at the stock market and Buster's clumsiness that ultiamtely kickstarts business again.

 

Also before his debut as a short film star, Keaton made an appearance in Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle's feature film debut, The Round-up (1920, George Melford), but playing an Indian falling from a horse, his role is only just above extra-status, and it was probably little more than a favour to a friend.

 


The first short film Buster Keaton shot - even before The Saphead and The Round-up - was The High Sign, which he co-directed with Edward F.Cline (his most frequent co-director while making shorts) in 1920, but he found the film, a gangster comedy in which Buster plays a shooting gallery employee becoming mixed up with the world of crime by accident, a failure and initially shelved it. The High Sign was dusted off in 1921 though when an injury inflicted during the filming of The Electric House (1922, Buster Keaton, Edward F.Cline) caused him to take a pause and the production company needed a filler.

By the way, The High Sign featured Al St.John, Keaton's co-star from his days with Arbuckle, in a guest role.

 

Keaton thought (with some justification) that The High Sign was too much reminiscent of the roughhouse style of his films with Arbuckle, which often had a brutal side to them, and not in tune with the more refined comedies he intended to direct. His next film though can already be considered as pure Keaton, One Week (1920, Buster Keaton, Edward F.Cline), in which Buster and his fiancée, played by Sybil Seely, try to build a prefabricated house on their own - to hilarious results. The film shows Buster at war with a bigger fate than he can ever hope to master in the form of the house-to-be, while Keaton's analytical mind as a director succeeds in making the most of this highly technical situation. It's also remarkable that in this film the mechanics of the story are mirrored by the actual mechanic action (building a house) going on on the screen - a theme that would be picked up in many of his best feature films.

Also apparent is another recurring theme in Keaton's films: Construction and subsequent destruction, both brought to the screen in the funniest ways possible. In fact, with noone construction as such looked as funny as with Buster Keaton, and the destruction scenes he featured were always done on a grand scale - plus he never used any miniatures or cameratricks to show destruction scenes either, as apparent in One Week, in which his house is run over by a train (!) in the finale, with both house and train being the real thing.

 

With One Week, Buster had already reached such heights as filmmaker that only few - if any - of his subsequent shorts managed to equal it in quality. Still, there are points of interest in almost all of them: 


  • In The Play House (1921, Buster Keaton, Edward F.Cline) for example he pushed the technical possibilites of contemporary filmmaking to the limits when in an extended sequence, he played all of the roles himself, which meant appearing on the screen up to nine (!) times in one image, something that in pre-CGI days could be achieved only via a very sophisticated device - which was abandoned again after Keaton's film, as he showed how to master such scenes (also concerning simultaneity and interaction with himself) that nobody else could hope to come even close to this. 
  • In The Boat (1921, Buster Keaton, Edward F.Cline), the destruction of the house that ended One Week is put at the beginning - and this time it's the titular boat that does the job -, and in the subsequent story, Buster manages to destroy the pier he starts his boat's maiden voyage from and one after the other sink his car, his boat and the lifeboat.
  • In The Electric House (1922, Buster Keaton, Edward F.Cline), Keaton pushed the idea of One Week a tad further by having himself (as a character) building a fully automated house, but once he has amazed everybody with the house's functionality, Buster the filmmaker enjoys to have the house turn against its creator. Again, the narrative mechanics are mirrored in the mechanic goings-on onscreen.

 


 

The Buster Keaton-Features

 

When watching Buster Keaton's shorts (apart from his very best), one can't help but feel that in all their greatness, they would have needed (and deserved) more screentime to fully develop, a feeling totally shared by Keaton himself, who actually wanted to go into feature filmmaking right after his split from Fatty Arbuckle. However, Buster's producer Joseph M.Schenck did not believe slapstick comedies could work as feature films - after all, in 1920 comedy features were still only experimented with and even Charlie Chaplin and Fatty Arbuckle were only making their first attempts in the new medium.

In 1923, the situation was already a tad different though, as it was proven at the box office that slapstick comedies could indeed carry feature film running time, and even Joseph M.Schenck was beginning to accept that. So he let Buster make his first feature, The Three Ages (1923, Buster Keaton, Edward F.Cline), yet he wasn't quite convinced about going feature length yet, so The Three Ages is a sort of anthology movie that tells three stories - all slapstick-lovestories - set in three different ages, the stone age (conmplete with a sop-motion dinosaur), Ancient Rome and modern times, so if the film failed as a feature, it could be cut down to three shorts. To not make this strategy too obvious though, the three stories - that all told almost the same plot - were each cut up into segments, where similar segments from different periods were put one after the other to emphasize on their parallels. This was of course not the kind of feature film Buster had wanted to make, and it was indeed not as good as his better shorts, yet at the box office it was successful enough to win over Schenck to the side of feature film producers.

 

Buster Keaton's second feature, Our Hospitality (1923, Buster Keaton, John G.Blystone) was already his first masterpiece in that medium, the story of a young man (Buster himself) who in 1830's Kentucky gets caught up in a family feud he knows nothing about and doesn't want to be part of, and the whole thing isn't made any easier by the fact that he has fallen in love with the daughter (his now-wife Natalie Talmadge) of the man he's supposed to be having a feud with. As with all of Keaton's best films, the story moves along like a clockwork and sees Buster's character trying to handle a fate too big for him to master (like in most of his features, Buster succeeds though), and the stunt setpieces are simply breathtaking. Plus, it's the first film that gives evidence of Keaton's fascination with trains (which eventually should lead to his absolute masterpiece The General) in an extended ride on a genuine 1830's steamtrain - to quite hilarious results.

 

Compared to Our Hospitality, Keaton's next film Sherlock jr (1924, Buster Keaton) was actually a step back, as it lacked the stringency and unavoidability of onscreen events because of being a dream story, yet taken on its own, the film, which has Buster playing a film projectionist and wannabe detective who after being accused of a crime he didn't commit dreams about being a super sleuth in your typical pulpy detective story, is still pretty funny. And for once, Keaton, who normally avoided cameratricks or even effective editing as he felt it would mean cheating the audience, showed his mastery in that field in an extended hilarious scene in which he enters the screen only to be made a fool of by one jumpcut after the next. The scene is not only brilliantly brought to the screen on a technical level, it also shows a deep understanding for filmmaking that goes beyond the obvious. In fact this scene is so well done that it was later replicated only in cartoons - and quite often, too.

 

While Sherlock jr might not have been the most keatonesque of his films (though stil a great movie), his next, The Navigator (1924, Buster Keaton, Donald Crisp) was pure Keaton again, the story of a young man (Keaton) who accidently gets caught on a massive battleship drifting on the Ocean with noone else but the girl he loves - and since neither of them has the slightest idea of how to steer a ship of this (or any other) size, and (being spoilt brats) they both have only rudimentary ideas about feeding themselves, this leads to one hilarious situation after the next without ever becoming just episodical or losing its basic narrative - which Keaton always tried to keep as simple as possible - in its gags.

 

Keaton's next three films were of a lesser nature:


  • Seven Chances (1925, Buster Keaton) was based on a Broadway play  by David Belasco that didn't correspond particularly well with Keaton's brand of humour and methods of storytelling.
  • Go West (1925, Buster Keaton) is an attempt to make a film with heart along the lines of Charlie Chaplin's recent success The Gold Rush (1925, Charlie Chaplin), but Keaton's stone-faced screen persona was much less suited for doing something altruistic (in this case saving a cow from being slaughtered) than Chaplin's loveable tramp.
  • Battling Butler (1926, Buster Keaton) was once again an adaptation, and the Broadway musical by Stanley Brightman and Austin Melford about a man (Buster) who becomes a boxer to impress the girl he loves, is just too idiotic to work as a Buster Keaton-comedy.


While these three films were not exactly masterpieces though, they did well enough at the box office to encourage Buster to work on what he intended to be his magnum opus (which it turned out to be, too), a Civil War-set film about a train - which was also a slapstick comedy. After the successes of his previous (lesser) films, everybody thought Buster was able to pull of such a feat, and thus The General (1926, Buster Keaton, Clyde Bruckman), Keaton's most costly film, was put into production ... and the outcome was nothing short of amazing, as Keaton pushed his brand of storytelling and of comedy to the limits, featured many great stunt sequences and destruction scenes (including one in which a bridge is blown up while a steam train is passing over), beautifully incorporates the film's underlying theme - trains and locomotives - into the movie's main plot and many of its gags, and no other of Keaton's films has worked more like a clockwork than this one.

And yet, upon its initial release The General became Keaton's first box office failure, and even the critics, who were much more appreciative of Keaton's sophisticated humour than the general public, were (inexplicably) less than impressed with Keaton's latest effort.

 


Keaton was devastated by The General's failure, since he saw the film as his masterpiece and personal favourite - an opinion that nowadays pretty much everyone shares, as the film is in almot every film critic's top 100 (mine included), usually quite far up, but that was of course no consolation back in the day, and while we might wonder what critics didn't like about the film back in the day, these were the opinions he had to deal with. Keaton fell into a depression subsequently, a depression he attempted to drown in alcohol. He had never been a stranger to drinking, but now he hit the bottle harder than before, but still had himself under control. It would get much worse only later on.

 

The General's failure with contemporary audiences is much easier explained than its failure with critics: Fact is that all of Keaton's earlier features were distributed by Metro Pictures/MGM where he was what you could call the house comic and was thus given star treatment, but with The General, he moved over to United Artists, of which Charlie Chaplin, back in the day the much bigger star, was one of the co-founders - and thus Keaton was forced to play second fiddle, which also meant he didn't have the same channels of distribution that Chaplin had ...

 


The first consequence of The General's failure was to relieve Keaton of directorial responsibilities of his films (at least officially), responsibilities he sadly enough never regained - which is weird in a way, since whatever the problems of The General might have been, they couldn't have been found on a directorial level. Also, Joseph M.Schenck took closer watch over budgetary matters, as the high budget (naturally) was part of the reason The General hardly broke even.

However, none of these measures could save Buster's next film, College (1927, James W.Horne) from becoming an even bigger failure than The General - and rightfully so, as it is one of Keaton's weakest features so far. While in previous films, Keaton tried and (most of the times) succeeded to have their plots told by its gags and stunt setpieces, the plot of College is little more than a collection of scenes of a young man (Buster) failing at sports, with their sequence being pretty much interchangeable ... and in that way was much closer to Buster's early films with Fatty Arbuckle than his own features or even shorts.

 


Quite a different matter was Steamboat Bill jr (1928, Charles Reisner), a film about steamboats (hence the title) and a momma's boy who becomes an unlikely hero during a hurricane. This film is once again based on the typical Keaton-premise of a man forced to handle a fate much too big for him to master, again the plot moves along stringently and with admirable unavoidability, and the mechanic possibilities of steamboats don't go unnoticed with Buster Keaton. Plus, Steamboat Bill jr features large scale destruction seldom seen on screen anywhere (especially without the use of miniatures or anything) - though interestingly, originally the film was to be not about a hurricane but a flood, but a real Mississippi flood occurring back then led the producers to rethink the film's basic plot - not to the film's disadvantage for a change. It's thanks to the change from flood to hurricane, actually, that Steamboat Bill jr contains probably the most iconic Buster Keaton sequence ever in which he's about to be hit by a falling wall and is saved from being squashed only by going right through an open window - a stunt that actually was even more dangerous than it looks on screen, as Buster, always the perfectionist, insisted on using a full-weight wall that could have killed him if he was slightly off mark. Sure, there already was a similar scene in Buster's first short, One Week, but with a stunt like this, it's the scale that counts, and only on repeat viewing one can truly appreciate what daring went into the routine when depicted in Steamboat Bill jr.

 

Steamboat Bill jr unfortunately became an even bigger failure than The General and College, again partly thanks to United Artists' studio policies of invariably favouring Charlie Chaplin over Buster Keaton (which they had every reason to, back in the days, unfortunately) - and with three failures in a row, Keaton's producer so far, Joseph M.Schenck - who has since been made president of United Artists -, decided to let his former star go. Back then though, Buster was still big enough a star despite his recent failures, that he didn't have to look for a new job for long, and he found it at MGM, a studio that still didn't have a comic of its own and that took Buster on with open arms ...

 


 

Artistic Decline at MGM

 

The contract with MGM was actually what led to Buster Keaton's downfall. Now one might argue that Keaton had worked for MGM and its predecessor Metro Pictures earlier on, but back then he was not their contract player, both studios were merely distributing his films which were produced independently. Now though whoever wanted to and was high enough up in the ranks at MGM (including famed studio-head Irving Thalberg himself, who wasn't exactly well-versed in comedy) could take influence on Keaton's films and tell him how to make comedies - quite a bitter irony given Keaton's comedic genius.

 

Keaton's first film at MGM, The Cameraman (1928, Edward Sedgwick) was pretty good in that respect though and became the last of the typical Buster Keaton-films, given its rather simple story build-up, the character Keaton played and the stunt-heavy comedy including breathtaking setpieces. Sure, The Cameraman was no match to Our Hospitality, The General or Steamboat Bill jr, but taken on its own, this story about a news cameraman (Keaton) who grows from a big klutz to the saviour of the heroine during the proceedings is still fun.

The movie is successful on an artistic level though because back then, Buster still cared, he fought for creative input on the film, rewrote the over-complicated script to be more in line with his character's requirements, and imprinted his style of comedy onto the film rather than just lending it his famous name.

 

After three failures at United Artists, The Cameraman became one of Keaton's most successful films, and one would think the powers that be at MGM should have taken this as a hint to let Buster continue to do things his way - but far from it, Buster's next, Spite Marriage (1929, Edward Sedgwick), already showed a new Buster Keaton, transformed from his classic stonefaced android-like persona into a loveable idiot by a bunch of moderately talented comedy writers at the studio.

For The Cameraman, Buster was still able to stand his own, but when it came to Spite Marriage, Keaton was going through massive personal problems and his alcoholism was taking its toll, thus he simply didn't have the power anymore to fight for the film. And thus, Spite Marriage, a meaningless romantic farce, became possibly his worst (and certainly last) silent movie ... yet the film became another success, even though in 1929, silent movies were already beginning to become a thing from the past.

 

Sound film was the career-wrecker of many a silent slapstick comedian, and with the new dimension of sound, slapstick comedy did get a whole new dimension that transformed genre rather than destroying it - there were a few slapstick comedians who were actually able to take advantage of it, first and foremost of course Laurel & Hardy, who only really came into their own with the advent of sound.

Keaton's comedies on the other hand were never relying much on sound and he personally saw to it that even the dialogues on titlecards were kept to a minimum to not destroy his films' rhythm - yet on a commercial level, he made the transition from sound surprisingly well.

 


The first movie that saw Buster talking (and singing) was The Hollywood Revue of 1929 (1929, Charles Reisner), a variety film that brought together as many of MGM's contract players and stars as possible in a film that amounts to nothing in particular. Keaton's little gag that is reminiscent of his vaudeville days however is pretty much the highlight of the film.

Keaton was not an actor who had problems with sound as such, he had spent years on stage, knew how to articulate, had an ok voice and had no annoying accent. However, his style of comedy that was heavily relying on movement suffered badly, since early soundfilm cameras were heavy and sluggish and could hardly keep track with him when on top of his form. This though played right into the hands of his bosses at MGM, who didn't want their star to do any dangerous stunts (like the ones he's become famous for) or the like to protect their investment ... and that's the main difference between Buster's independent films for Joseph M.Schenck and his studio films at MGM: For Schenck, who was certainly not a philanthropist and patron of art but a businessman, it was Buster and his comedy that counted, including hair-raising stunts (which most of the times paid off on screen), for MGM, Buster was an investment that was by no means to endanger, not even by the threat of making good movies.

And indeed, with the arrival of sound it seemed that there was no more Buster Keaton standing in the way of MGM's Buster Keaton comedies, he was just some funnyman thrown into a handful of badly written comedies that gave him no opportunity to really kick into gear and show his talent.

 



This was already apparent in the first talkie Keaton headlined, Free and Easy (1930, Edward Sedgwick): The plot is not at all tailored towards Keaton's needs and talents, his role could have been played by pretty much anyone, the slapstick is disappointingly cookiecutter routine, and the musical finale ... well, that's actually the most interesting part of the movie, and Keaton does not embarrass himself as singer, dancer and funnyman at the same time, but at the same time the shoe just doesn't fit.

 

In a few later films, probably for surplus appeal, Keaton was coupled with fellow comedian Jimmy Durante, themn being The Passionate Plumber and Speak Easily in 1932, and What! No Beer? (all three Edward Sedgwick) in 1933.

Now Jimmy Durante is by no means an unfunny comedian in his own terms, but his collaborations with Keaton were rather terrible because there was simply no chemistry between the two men, and Durante's talky brand of comedy didn't go well with Buster's silent but physical jokes.

But whatever my points of criticism from a distance of more than 75 years, the audience back in the days seemed to like the new Buster Keaton, and all of his talkies for MGM made substantially more profits than even his most successful silent features ... and this was yet another reason why it was less and less possible for Buster to push through his comic style, when the box office proved the heads at MGM right.

 

Buster Keaton's time at MGM might have been Buster's commercially most successful, but it was also his least fulfilling on both a professional and personal level: Professionally, he could never get over the loss of control he once had with Joseph M.Schenck. Sure, his films sold much better than back in the day, but they had very little to do with his actual vision, and he felt pretty much reduced to a cntract player in his own movies. On top of his professional frustration, his marriage to Natalie Talmadge broke up in 1932 - and Buster tried to drown all of this in alcohol, so much so that his alcoholism was beginning to affect his work and he occasionally stayed away from a shoot for several days. MGM hired a nurse, Mae Scribbens, to keep Keaton in line, but after another of his drinking binges, the two of them eloped and got married in Mexico - and this was pretty much the last straw for MGM, as the studio simply could not afford a star who constantly evaded their control and sabotaged his own films, so only days after the completion of  What! No Beer?, Buster was sacked by the studio heads (and one can't really blame them), and his next project Buddies, that had him starring next to Jackie Coogan from Charlie Chaplin's The Kid (1921), was scrapped ...

 


 

Surviving the 1930's and 40's

 

His alcohol-induced shenanigans at MGM had not only ruined his career at the studio and taken a toll on his health, they also seriously hurt his reputation with all studios Hollywood-wide, and thus, when he was set free by MGM, it was impossible for Buster Keaton to find filmwork at first (even though What! No Beer? at the same time ran successfully throughout the country), and for a time, Keaton had to return to the vaudeville stages he has long grown out of to at least ensure an income for himself.

 

It was only in late 1933 that Buster finally got another film contract, with little company Educational Films, to make a series of shorts with him in the lead, for which he earned $5,000 apiece. These films were far from great, just low budget comedies that couldn't even dream of the large scale destruction Buster loved to feature in his own silent shorts, and time was too scarce to cook up any elaborate slapstick setpieces, but even in these films one is able to occasionally catch a hint of Keaton's comic genius.

Of some interest among Buster's films for Educational might be Palooka from Paducah (1935, Charles Lamont) because it features both his parents and his sister Louise, and Love Nest on Wheels (1937, Charles Lamont), which reunited Keaton with Al St.John from his Fatty Arbuckle-days. But even if these films are "of interest", they are not exactly memorable, especially when compared to Keaton's earlier (silent) work. If at all, these films are more reminiscent of his shorts with Arbuckle than his own films in their lack of a proper story and often episodic structure - but here one has to keep in mind that Arbuckle's films were made 15 to 20 years earlier, and film comedy had become much more refined and sophisticated in the meantime.

 

While working on the Educational-shorts, Buster Keaton took trips to Europe, where he was as big a star as back in the States, with the difference that his alcohol binges were less well-known in the old world - which is probably why he was hired for two features, Le Roi des Champs-Élysées/The King of the Champs-Elysees (1934, Max Nosseck) in France, and The Invader (1935, Adrian Brunel) in Great Britain - but while the former was an acceptable slapstick gangster comedy that ends on a smiling Buster (!) and was a notch or two above his MGM-efforts, the latter was simply horrible, a badly concieved film about a jealous husband that hardly features plot enough for a short let alone a 60+ minute movie. Neither of the features became a success though, and thus Buster returned to the USA and Educational Films.

 

Educational went bust in 1937 and left Buster without any kind of income rather abroptly - but by then, Buster was already reformed, his marriage to Mae Scribbens had long been divorced, he had his drinking under control again, and his bad reputation had at least been partially faded away. Because of all of this, Keaton was welcomed back at MGM, though not as actor but as gagman (and director of three forgotten shorts which did not star him himself).

 



His writing for MGM included gags for Too Hot to Handle (1938, Jack Conway) starring Clark Gable and Myrna Loy, At the Circus (1939, Edward Buzzell), one of the weaker comedies starring the Marx Brothers and a film Keaton was not too satisfied with, the Esther Williams-vehicles Bathing Beauty (1944, George Sidney) - co-starring Red Skelton - and Neptune's Daughter (1949, Edward Buzzell) - co-starring Red Skelton and Ricardo Montalban -, the Laurel & Hardy-comedy Nothing But Trouble (1944, Sam Taylor), It Happened in Brooklyn (1947, Richard Whorf) starring Frank Sinatra, and In the Good Old Summertime (1949, Robert Z.Leonard) with Judy Garland, among others.

In the mid-to-late 1940's, MGM also released a trio of semi-remakes of Buster Keaton classics with Red Skelton in the lead: I Dood It (1943, Vincente Minelli), a version of Spite Marriage, A Southern Yankee (1948, Edward Sedgwick), which was based on The General, and Watch the Birdie (1950, Jack Donohue), based on The Cameraman. These three films presented Skelton as a likeable guy and a talented mime, but hardly a match for Buster Keaton concerning physical comedy, and in terms of direction, the Skelton-films hardly lived up to the originals, over which Keaton had at least some directorial control.

 



Aside from his writing for MGM - and for Twentieth Century Fox's Jones Family-films The Jones Family in Hollywood and Quick Millions (both 1939, Mal St.Clair) - Buster also found work as an actor again from the late 1930's onwards, be it for a new series of (rather unremarkable) shorts for Columbia or supporting roles of any size starting with Hollywood Cavalcade (1939, Irving Cummings) starring Alice Faye and Don Ameche, his first ever supporting role in a feature. Other supporting performances of interest include Li'l Abner (1940, Albert S.Rogell) based on the popular comicstrip by Al Capp, The Villain Still Pursued Her (1940) by the frequent collaborator from his silent days Edward F.Cline, San Diego, I Love You (1944, Reginald Le Borg) with Louise Allbritton and John Hall [Jon Hall bio - click here], That's the Spirit (1945, Charles Lamont), in which Buster plays the heavenly gatekeeper who sends Jack Oakie back to the world of the living, and God's Country (1946, Robert Emmett Tansey), a Western only barely held together by two interludes by Keaton.

 

Buster Keaton played his last lead in a feature film in the Mexican production El Moderno Barba Azul/Boom in the Moon (Jaime Salvador) in 1946, a atrociously written, cheaply produced and sloppily shot film that hardly even deserves the label comedy, as it is that unfunny, much less a comedy genius like Buster Keaton in the lead. Deservedly, this film did not become a success ...

 

In 1947, Buster went to Europe again, where he did not make another film this time but appeared at the Cirque Médrano in Paris. These performances were a spectacular success, again deservedly so ...

 

By the end of the 1940's, a new medium was about to catch on with general audiences, and while many moviestars, be they at the top of their game or already fading back into obscurity, avoided the medium like the plague, Buster was one of the first name stars to realize its potential, and from 1949 onwards, he made many appearances on the small screen - and he was successful enough that he was able to quit his gagman job at MGM as early as 1950, because he no longer needed the income.

 


 

Comeback

 

Mainly recreating his old slapstick routines on any number of shows and even commercials, Buster had soon become a household name on TV, and it wasn't long before he got his first half-hour show, The Buster Keaton Show, basically a comedy series that featured reworking of many of Buster's old slapstick sequences and a few new ones, and while these TV-recreations lacked the scale and the narrative stringency of Buster's work in the silent era, they also show that Buster as a comedian was still spot on and able to do amazing physical comedy despite being in his mid-50's. The show, which was broadcast live (like pretty much all television back then) and in front of a studio audience, only ran on the West Coast, but it was a big enough success for the producers to consider a filmed version of the series, Life with Buster Keaton (1951), which could then be aired nationwide. Life with Buster Keaton did not become a breakthrough success though, and was cancelled after only one season, yet several episodes were edited together into a movie, The Misadventures of Buster Keaton (1950, Arthur Hilton), which might not have been a great movie - first and foremost it was too episodic for that - but  is still totally watchable for Keaton's comedy alone.

 



Recogniton for Buster's place in film history came when he got a small part in Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard (1950), in itself an hommage to old-dime cinema, and in 1952, when Buster's friend from the silent days, Charlie Chaplin, asked him to play a supporting role as his stage partner in his film Limelight (1952, Charlie Chaplin). But while Limelight is nowadays considered as one of Chaplin's best films from his later years, and the sequence with Keaton - a hommage to the vaudeville - one of the film's best scenes, Keaton's inclusion in the film did virtually nothing for his comeback because the film only played in a handful of theatres upon its release and was then released into oblivion when commie hunters accused Chaplin of being a party member and had him evicted from the USA later that year. The film wasn't even screened in Los Angeles until 1972 (after Keaton's death), but when it was, it actually got an Academy Award for best movie score (Academy rules favour the LA release date of a film over the actual release date for the inclusion in the race for the Oscars, which is why a 20 year old film might still be eligible for an Academy Award).

Interestingly, while Chaplin and Keaton fought for the same audience in the silent days, they were friends off-screen - but never appeared in a film together until Limelight.

 

While Limelight was a hommage to the vaudeville days, The Silent Partner (1955, George Marshall), an episode of Screen Directors Playhouse, was an actual hommage to silent slapstick comedy and Buster Keaton himself, a rather sentimental story about a silent comedy director (fellow comedian Joe E.Brown) who receives an honorary Oscar and honours the long-forgotten comic (Keaton) who made his career possible. The episode is bittersweet and simplistic rather than good, but there's quite a bit of newly staged Keaton comedy material in here to keep the whole thing going. Keaton himself received an honorary Oscar in 1960 by the way.

 

In 1957, Buster's life was made into a movie by Paramount, the a tad unimaginatively titled The Buster Keaton Story (Sidney Sheldon), with Donald O'Connor in the lead, but even though Buster himself served as technical adviser, the film had precious little to do with his actual life.

 

With his his TV series, hommages like Limelight and The Silent Partner, of course The Buster Keaton Story and his appearances on numerous TV-shows and even commercials during the 1950's, Buster Keaton was pretty much rediscovered by an audience too young to have seen him in his prime, and before long he was considered the greatest silent, slapstick comedian next to Chaplin, something he never actually was in the silent era (talking only about the commercial aspect of his films). But it might be that the timelessness of his films earned him the recognition in the 1950's that he didn't get in the 1920's, when he was by far outranked by Harold Lloyd and Harry Langdon. Even Keaton's biggest failure from back in the day, The General, got a second chance at film festivals and the like, and it was now hailed as a major rediscovery.

 





 


His rediscovery kept Buster Keaton in constant employ in the 1960's, pretty much up until his death: On TV, he even got roles in a handful of unusual roles for a man of his talents, including the lead as a time traveler in an episode of The Twilight Zone (Once Upon a Time, 1961, Norman Z.McLeod) and a guest spot on Burke's Law (Who Killed 1/2 of Glory Lee?, 1964, Don Weis). His motion pictures from that time include several beach party movies produced by AIP - Pajama Party (1964, Don Weis), Beach Blanket Bingo and How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (both 1965, William Asher)  -, a rather weak Frankie Avalon-comedy - Sergeant Dead Head (1965, Norman Taurog) -, several all-star pictures - Around the World in Eighty Days (1956, Michael Anderson), It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963, Stanley Kramer) -, and an Italian comedy starring Sicilian comic superstars Ciccio Ingrassia and Franco Franchi - Due Marines e un Generale/War Italian Style (1966, Luigi Scattini)

 


Of course, within Buster Keaton's filmography, none of these films are too remakrable, rather footnotes. Of more interest might be two shorts he shot in the 1960's, The Railrodder (1965, Gerald Potterton) and Film (1965, Alan Schneider).

The Railrodder, a travelogue through Canada which Buster crosses on a railcar, is pretty much a hommage to Keaton's silent shorts, but one done with style and understanding of slapstick humour - plus it once again features one of Buster Keaton's favourite subjects, trains.

Film is a different matter altogether, it's famed stagewriter Samuel Beckett's first experiment with moving pictures, and in Buster Keaton he thought he had found the perfect embodiment of his favoured lead character, the man thrown into an absurd fate he fails to understand. In this film, Buster plays a man who thinks he's constantly followed by some all-seeing eye he desperately tries to evade - until he has to realize the eye is himself. Buster did not like the film too much because despite being the perfect choice for the role, he lacked the intellectual access to the story. Yet his performance is just great, especially considering he plays with his back to the camera most of the time (which is part of the story, actually) - which was another thing Buster hated.

 


Buster Keaton had his last screen appearance in A Funny Thing Happened to Me on the Way to the Forum (1966, Richard Lester), a comedy set in ancient Rome in which Keaton provides the (literal) running gag, playing a man who stoically circles Rome by foot while plenty of mad things happen within his long walk's radius.

 


 

Closing Words

 


In early 1966, Buster Keaton died from lung cancer. He was 70 years of age and had worked almost until his death.

It's ironic with Keaton that during the height of his crativity in the 1920's, when he pretty much delivered one masterpiece after the next, he never gained quite the recognition that Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd or Harry Langdon did, but now, decades after his death, while the films of these three men have more or less faded or look old-fashioned (yes, even Chaplin's), Keaton's films with their fatalistic storylines, fascination for all things mechanic (both metaphorically and literally), with their great and refined slapstick setpieces and hair-raising stunts still seem as fresh now as they were then, and it shouldn't surprise anyone one bit when a latter-day stunt-comedians like Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung cite Buster Keaton as their major inspiration. Thing is, that while Keaton might not exactly have created slapstick cinema as such, he still hasn't been surpassed until today, both as a performer and as a director, and as most of his best films are readily available nowadays on DVD, he is not likely to soon be forgotten either.

 

© by Mike Haberfelner


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