Considering we live in a time when irony has such great influence over the popular arts, is it any wonder Buster Keaton’s star shines brighter than ever? One can easily make the case Buster’s melancholic aristocrats and mama’s boys are the forefathers of the estranged slackers and anti-heroes populating the films of David Lynch, Richard Linklater and Jim Jarmusch. Keaton’s embrace of technology would certainly win favor with those geeks of the Gadget Generation lucky enough to stumble upon his films. This isn’t intended to be a backhanded swipe at Keaton (the most innovative American filmmaker between Griffith and Welles) as it is a tribute to his timelessness as an artist.
As an actor Keaton was a marvelous specimen. His sad, deadpan face and extraordinary talent for acrobatics made him a natural for silent comedy. Buster’s first appearances in the rowdy Fatty Arbuckle shorts remain fresh to modern eyes—it’s clear his was a special genius. Keaton was fascinated by the movie camera and spent countless hours off the set finding out what it could do. All of his great comedies (from One Week to Spite Marriage) are impeccably shot and framed. Keaton was also one of the first filmmakers who truly understood the language of film editing and it could be argued his invisible technique had a wider influence upon narrative film than the montage methodologies developed by Eisenstein or the German Expressionists. This seamless blend of angst and technique created a detached, absurd take on the world making Buster a darling of the Existentialists, the Surrealists, Cahiers du Cinema critics and Samuel Beckett.
At the risk of making Keaton’s films sound too much like a high fiber diet we should never lose sight of how much pleasure they deliver. Deep down, Buster was a romantic and his choice of flappers or tomboys for leading ladies gave his narratives a sexual tension not felt in the films of Chaplin or Harold Lloyd. Since these women had minds of their own, Buster had even greater obstacles to overcome, and stunts to perform, in order to win their love. While much is made of his sad, post-talkie demise, we should be thankful for ten glorious years of a perfect creative storm.
Like Chaplin, Keaton came from a family of actor/perfomers. His parents were popular touring medicine show performers (often billed with a young Harry Houdini), then as lower-billed vaudevillians and they ushered their toddling son Buster into the act. The grim-faced boy, who many took to be a midget, quickly helped turn “The Three Keatons” into a successful act touring North America and Europe. But, it wasn’t always a happy childhood for Buster for he had to endure many beatings at the hand of his father Joe, whose moods turned violent after excessive drink. His mother Myra, a sharp-witted pixie and no stranger to the bottle, was not exactly the sort of mum who’d offer much tea and sympathy to a young boy.
As a result, little Buster wrapped himself up in work. A quick study, he learned the values of comedic timing from many of the great vaudeville icons (Will Rogers, W.C. Fields, Eddie Cantor etc.) and eagerly embraced the art of the pratfall, to the joy and horror of his parents. These taxing physical lessons probably saved Keaton’s life as it was discovered late in life he had survived a broken neck, suffered while doing a stunt on Sherlock Jr.. If he had fallen inches to the right or left while performing the stunt, he would have died.
Joe Keaton’s chronic alcoholism made the break-up of “The Three Keatons” inevitable but Buster wasn’t out of work for long, landing a high-paying vaudeville job in the Schuberts’ latest follies production in the summer of 1917. As fate would have it, Keaton was soon introduced to Fatty Arbuckle who invited him to his midtown Manhattan studio where he was shooting his debut short for producer Joe Schenck’s Comique Film Company, a subsidiary of Famous Players Lasky. At Arbuckle’s custom-built studio, Buster quickly found himself fascinated with the process of filmmaking. Keaton worked on the building of sets, studied the process of editing, and got a firsthand tutorial about the movie camera. He also had a hand in writing the stories and gags during his collaboration with Arbuckle which ended up producing over a dozen two-reel comedy shorts.
For The Butcher Boy Buster took a walk-on part, playing a customer who wanders into Fatty’s busy general store looking to buy a jar of molasses. Audiences familiar with the impeccable Keaton filmmaking style could well be disappointed with the no-holds-barred approach of the Arbuckle shorts. The sets are cluttered and the action chaotic, offering plenty of opportunity for Buster to take plenty of pratfalls but leaving little room for him to show-off his feline-like grace. And indeed, as a sidekick, Buster often finds himself on the end of some pretty brutal treatment, but as his cheery attitude attests—the Great Stoneface even SMILES in some of these films—he does seem to be enjoying himself. Arbuckle turned out to be a generous director, giving plenty of screen time to Buster, friend Al St. John and even Joe Keaton.
The dainty-footed Fatty was one of the guys. His conquests were reasonable ones. Arbuckle’s leading ladies weren’t ethereal beauties, but cute chums who accompanied him every step of the way. This modern take on women could well have affected Keaton’s own tastes as, we soon shall see, Buster’s future leading ladies were joined-at-the-hip partners rather than ivory tower damsels. We also see in these films Fatty relies on his friends to help him get where he’s going and that communal spirit is probably a major reason Arbuckle has never achieved the same sort of critical acclaim allotted to the era’s big three silent comedians (Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd) or even Harry Langdon.
Still, these Arbuckle-Keaton shorts gave Buster a good schooling on the craft of filmmaking and they are a lot of fun, to boot. Fatty does a marvelous turn in drag in the frenetic Coney Island, a fond take on the famous amusement in all its shiny glory. Buster and Fatty seem remarkably at home in Out West, a sharp satire on the popular oaters of the day. The trap door in the floor of a saloon, where all bandits and card cheaters go to die, is one of Arbuckle’s finest sight gags. Fatty’s battle with the old demon rum in Good Night Nurse turns out to be a gruesome spin on Chaplin’s own take on sanitarium life in The Cure. In this berserk short, Buster plays a bloodied surgeon who is only too happy to attend to patient Arbuckle after he eats a thermometer.
Moonshine finds federal agents Fatty and Buster combing the back hills of the south to take on a clan of whiskey distillers who have just recently settled a bloody family feud. Back Stage rather resembles Buster’s brilliant The Play House as he and Fatty take on several demanding and absurd stage roles to satisfy their ornery audience. Their final film together, The Garage, pits Fatty and Buster as hopelessly befuddled partners mismanaging the business and their civic duty in the town’s garage-firehouse.
In 1919, Arbuckle signed with Adolph Zukor to make features for Paramount, leaving Buster with his friend and advisor Joe Schenck at Comique. Arbuckle’s career and personal life fell apart after he was charged of manslaughter in the death of actress Virginia Rappe. It would take three trials for Arbuckle to finally be acquitted, but by then his name was mud in Hollywood. Keaton and a few other friends gave him writing jobs throughout the 1920s, but Fatty died just as it seemed he was on the comeback trail in 1933.
Producer Joseph Schenck was the most important professional collaborator in Keaton’s career. In the beginning, Schenck proved to be extremely sympathetic to his shy client, erecting a cocoon around Keaton in order to get the most out of his extraordinary talent. In order to jump start Buster’s new life as a leading man Schenck assigned him to a star in a feature called The Saphead, based on a popular play starring Douglas Fairbanks. Here, Buster plays the none-too-bright son of a Wall Street tycoon who saves the family fortune in an amazing display of stock trading. Keaton would have little creative input in this sluggish, slow-paced film and it remains only memorable for his hilarious performance as the useless aristocrat, a role he would perfect in the coming years.
Meanwhile, Keaton had already begun filming a series of brilliant shorts that would lay the groundwork for his later masterpieces. It’s clear from the get-go these films will be nothing like the Arbuckle shorts. Keaton instinctively knows where to place the camera and the meticulous execution of gags help push the plots towards their climatic crescendos.
The marvelous One Week (shot with flair by the longtime Arbuckle and Keaton cinematographer Elgin Lessley) finds newlywed Buster and spunky bride Sybil Seely at a loss on how to construct one of their wedding presents, a portable house. When the incompetent pair finish they find their new misshapen home looks like something that came from the drawing board of Frank Gehry. But, the couple’s domestic bliss is short-lived as Buster accidentally drives the house onto a railroad track where it is smashed to pieces by a locomotive.
The rootless Keaton’s fascination with the destruction of houses (and homes?) was very much evident in the futuristic The Electric House before peaking during the famous hurricane sequence in Steamboat Bill Jr.. The darkly funny Convict 13 finds unwitting sportsman Buster falsely imprisoned and destined for a date with the hangman, who here happens to be his co-director Edward F. Cline. Keaton redeems himself, and wins the hand of the warden’s daughter (Sybil Seely), by quelling a riot led by a giant, out of control prisoner (Joe Roberts). Neighbors is a clever urban update of Romeo & Juliet with acrobat Keaton butting heads with Roberts again, while trying to woo the girl next door (Virginia Fox).
Like Chaplin, Buster seemed to have little use for the police as evidenced by both The Goat and Cops. In the former short, innocent Buster is literally framed by the outlaw Dead Shot Dan (Malcolm St. Clair) and finds himself on the receiving end of some unwanted attention from the boys in blue. Narrowly avoiding arrest, Buster thinks he’s found an oasis of sanity in a sympathetic girl (Virginia Fox) but as luck would have it, she turns out to be the police chief’s daughter.
The Keystone-esque Cops is The Goat on steroids. Here, we find the opportunistic Buster a recipient of a cart of furniture which he hauls off to a different part of town. When he intercepts an anarchist’s bomb and throws it into a crowd of policemen, chaos ensues and Buster is chased through the streets by the horde of angry cops. Bigger in scope than Keaton’s previous ventures, the grand, elaborately staged chase sequences in Cops turned out to be a template for even more chaotic, budget-busting climaxes in Seven Chances, Go West and The General.
As Keaton’s filmmaking chops improved his palette became increasingly dark and surreal. A remarkably complex work that skirts the line between illusion and reality, Playhouse finds Buster taking in a minstrel matinee at a vaudeville theatre. Once seated, he is taken aback to find bears a remarkable resemblance to each of the blackface players and the members of the orchestra. He is also surprised to find everyone in the audience, a motley crew of patrons, look eerily like him, too. His program says Buster Keaton is playing every role and has all of the production jobs as well. Not surprisingly we find this bizarre sequence to be nothing more than a dream, but Buster’s job as a put upon stagehand is similarly weird. When a performing chimp gets free from his cage, Buster ends up doubling for the monkey and his anarchic hijinks brings the house down. Keaton also falls in love with a young woman (Virginia Fox) starring in an underwater act. But, he mistakenly ends up kissing her twin sister, leading him to resolve giving up drinking then taking it up again.
The revisionist western The Paleface opens with simpleton Buster kidnapped by a band of local Indians. Evicted from their land by oil barons, the angry tribe is ready to make an example out of the meek butterfly collector. But Buster somehow manages to win the trust of the elders and joining the tribe, he helps turn the tables on the greedy white man. Daydreams is a hilarious portrait of a hopelessly inept Buster who leaves his hometown and fiancée (Renee Adoree) behind to land an important job in the big city. Though his intentions are noble, he fails miserably in every task. But that doesn’t stop Buster from writing a series of misleading letters that gives dreamy Renee delusions of his grandeur.
The Balloonatic finds Buster at odds with nature and lovely Phyllis Haver, who doubts his prowess as an outdoorsman. It will take some nimble navigating of a raging river for Keaton to prove himself worthy of her affections. The thrilling finale, where balloonist Buster swoops under a waterfall to save Phyllis from certain death, may well be Keaton’s most breathtaking stunt work.
Both The Boat and The Love Nest anticipate the disastrous and sublimely funny seafaring adventures of The Navigator. In The BoatBuster and his little family set out for a day at the sea in his rig, the appropriately-named “Damifino”. After nearly destroying their house just to get to the dock, Buster sets the ship to sail only to spend most of the ensuing journey patching the boat’s many leaks with his wife’s rubbery pancakes. The Love Nest takes an even more pessimistic view of a sailor’s calling. Here, we find brokenhearted Buster stumbling aboard a whaling ship with a Bligh-like captain (Joe Roberts) who makes members of his crew walk the plank at the drop of a hat. Though Buster proves unseaworthy, he manages to stay one step ahead of his boss until he makes the inevitable gaff and ends up being the target for a Navy destroyer on nautical maneuvers.
Again, Buster’s nightmare turns out only to be a dream but, as is clear from all of these shorts, this is the flip side of the sort of can-do spirit that propelled Harold Lloyd out of danger. Though Keaton was not a self-conscious filmmaker, he was natural philosopher and taking into the consideration the pessimism which runs rampant in his work it’s not much of a stretch to say he wasn’t a big proponent of the American dream.
Keaton’s first self-directed feature Three Ages was a splendid spoof of Griffith’s sprawling, self-righteous epic Intolerance. Thread concurrently, these stories chronicle earnest Buster trying to win a girl (Margaret Leahy) during the Stone Age, at the height of the Roman Empire and in the equally treacherous Jazz Age. Burly Wallace Beery plays the heavy-handed rival for Margaret’s heart, but most of the humor derives from an onslaught of clever visual props and gags introduced into the plots by Keaton and his fine stable of writers, Jean C. Haver, Clyde Bruckman and Joseph A. Mitchell.
Our Hospitality is a mellow and rather wonderful spin on the Hatfield-McCoy feud. We open with Nancy-boy Buster (a “McKay”) receiving word he has inherited a fortune, but this means he must leave his safe rural home in 1830s Manhattan and ride on an early locomotive to his destination in the far away Appalachians. The ensuing bumpy ride on the primitive train across the enchanted woodland is a sweet precursor of Keaton’s ultimate train saga, The General. Buster falls in love with a snooty passenger (his real life wife Natalie Talmadge) but he’s chagrined to find the pretty girl is a Canfield, a sworn enemy to his clan.
As aesthetically ambitious as The Play House was, Sherlock Jr. managed to tie-up similarly eclectic material in a more coherent and satisfying package. Here, Keaton pulls out all stops, literally threading a film projectionist’s fantasy of becoming great private eye into a pulpy movie melodrama. While setting up reels at the local movie house Buster spends a good part of his day studying to become a gumshoe. The rest of the day he spends wooing a local girl (Kathryn McGuire) unaware he is being set up by a rival (Ward Crane) to take a large fall from grace. After being falsely accused of stealing a wrist watch from the father of his beloved, Buster returns to his job at the theatre where he falls asleep then soon walks up on stage and into the overwrought whodunit unfolding upon the screen.
Sherlock quickly finds himself as much at the mercy of the villain (Crane, again) as he does the film’s seemingly sadistic editor who keeps throwing wrenches into the murky plot. Keaton’s deadpan acting style plays perfectly against the escalating chaos of the scenario, creating a cinematic surrealistic manifesto much imitated (by Bunuel, Dali, Breton, Cocteau and Man Ray, etc.) but never duplicated with such wit and duplicity. Keaton shied away from making more of these free-form flights of fancy but, even at this late date, it’s hard to imagine a more accomplished movie about the filmmaking process than Sherlock Jr..
The Navigator was a pet project of Keaton’s. The idea of shooting another tale set at sea sprung from Buster’s purchases of an ocean liner destined for the scrapyard. Keaton decided his story would revolve around two rich young people (neither of whom would have any experience sailing a boat) cast adrift on a yacht in the Pacific. After Rollo Treadway (Keaton) has his ridiculous marriage proposal rejected by neighbor Betsy O”Brien (Kathryn McGuire), the couple somehow manages to end up together on the ghostly ship in the dark waters of the Pacific. After finally discovering one another aboard (in a brilliantly choreographed sequence), the hopelessly inept couple mismanages the ship’s course until they end up just off the coast of an island inhabited by hungry cannibals. Betsy looks doomed to be the main course at that evening’s meal until Buster emerges triumphantly from the surf in a frogman suit, frightening the natives just long enough to save his beloved from her grisly fate. McGuire, who as Betsy may be even a more useless sailor than her awkward shipmate, proves a good comic partner for Keaton.
Ultimately, Rollo does become seaworthy, finding the ship’s supply of coffee, applying some mettle to open cans of food and finally donning the unwieldy underwater suit to loosen the stuck ship from its moorings, battle starfish and save Betsy from the disbelieving cannibals. Though it takes a while for Rollo to wear down Betsy’s reserve, these aristocratic klutzes do seem destined for one another. The Navigator is, arguably, Keaton’s warmest and most charming film, a work he would cherish until the end of his life. The same couldn’t be said of his next feature.
Loosely based on a creaky play originally produced by David Belasco, Seven Chances started out as a slight affair in which Buster plays an inept stockbroker who learns he must marry in a matter of hours to inherit his late grandfather’s fortune. With a 7PM deadline staring him in the face, Jimmy Shannon (Keaton) makes half-hearted proposals to seven different young women, but his lame efforts only elicit mocking laughter. A chilly proposal to his longtime girl Mary Jones (Ruth Dwyer) only hurts her pride. Despairing he’ll never find a mate in time, Jimmy lets his friend and business partner (T. Roy Barnes) place an ad in the local newspaper for a bride, who if willing to go through with the ceremony will share in a massive fortune.
Jimmy arrives at the church listed in the ad only to find hundreds of would-be brides angry about being made fools of and ready to tear the perpetrator of this sour joke limb from limb. Frightened Jimmy takes flight and the ensuing madcap chase through the busy city streets to the not so serene hills of the countryside turns out to be one of the most hilarious sequences in film history. Not only has Jimmy have to duck the hordes of bitter brides in all shapes and sizes, he also has to dodge an avalanche of huge rocks that seem to have it out for him as well. This extended chase, directed with an impeccable sense of cinematic space and comic timing, elevates the otherwise commonplace Seven Chances to solid second-rate Keaton.
A parody on the popular genre, Go West found Keaton gently poking fun at the earnest and humorless heroes (William S. Hart, Tom Mix, etc), who mostly misrepresented the dusty old west to moviegoers of the jazz age. Here, Buster is a young man (identified as “Friendless”) from a small town who after finding himself crowded out of New York City hops on a freight train westward in search of bluer skies. He ends up on a cattle ranch where he is reluctantly taken on as a hired hand. Buster is scoffed at and ignored by the other cowboys, finding his only friend in Brown Eyes, a fetching cow who has a crush on him. Eager to save his business, the ranch’s owner (Howard Truesdale) orders Buster and the men to round up all the cattle (including Brown Eyes) and take the precious cargo to the slaughterhouses in Los Angeles.
Hoping to impress the boss, Buster does a yeoman’s task in delivering the cattle on time and his heroic efforts saves Brown Eyes from being ground into hamburger. As befits the low-key tempos set in the era’s early oaters, Go West unfolds at a leisurely pace building to the chaotic finale where hordes of cattle run amok in the streets and shops of downtown Los Angeles.
Buster’s enthusiasm for sports tweaked his interest in making Battling Butler, a fall and rise of a weakling who masquerades as a champion prizefighter. The pampered, young and filthy rich Alfred Butler is ordered to get back to nature by his disapproving father. But, instead of winging it solo, Alfred brings his trusty valet (Snitz Edwards) and all the posh comforts of home he can fit in a tent. Alfred is a disaster as an outdoorsman, but he does win the heart of a backwoods girl (Sally O’Neil). Unfortunately, her folks don’t approve of a weakling like Alfred marrying into the family.
Looking out for his boss, Alfred’s valet lets it drop that the young man is actually Alfred Butler, the famous boxer. Alfred unwisely plays along unaware the real Butler (Francis McDonald) is training nearby for his championship fight with the Alabama Murderer. After stumbling on Battling Butler’s camp, Alfred is vamped by boxer’s tarty wife (Mary O’Brien). When the jealous boxer finds posh Alfred is masquerading as himself, he quits camp paving the way for the novice millionaire’s debut fight against the Murderer.
At turns clever and predictable, Battling Butler is another delightful take on Buster’s playing the callow mama’s boy. And while the disappointing boxing scenes don’t really make the case for his being the second coming of Sugar Ray Robinson, they do show-off Buster’s athletic physique and give witness to a ferocity not seen in his performances since the Arbuckle days.
While his last three films were decent box office successes, Keaton felt they were lacking the sort of character and heart evident in more personal projects like Sherlock Jr. and The Navigator. Sensing he had a window for opportunity, he talked Joe Schenck into OK-ing the large budget for a film which would become universally recognized as his greatest masterpiece.
The General was inspired by a true Civil War story about a group of Union soldiers who dressed as southern civilians, steal a locomotive in Georgia and on their way back up to the Mason-Dixon Line, destroy all the lines of communication. But Keaton, sensing the public would be more sympathetic to the rebel underdogs, does a flip-flop with this slice of history. Buster plays Johnnie Gray, owner and engineer of The General his beloved locomotive. When the Rebs take Fort Sumpter, Johnnie tries to enlist but, unbeknownst to him, he is turned down because he is invaluable as the local engineer.
Johnnie’s high maintenance girlfriend Annabelle (played by adorable Marian Mack) thinks he is a coward and breaks their engagement. But, she is soon kidnapped by a band of Union spies who have also absconded with The General. The lovelorn Johnnie goes hot on their trail and in a hilarious series of sight gags Buster crashes a handcar and fails to navigate a ridiculous bike before finally getting his hands on another locomotive to continue his quest. Johnnie ultimately gets Annabelle and his train back and then sabotages his pursuers in a spectacular train wreck.
It’s hard to believe a film with so much rich humor and good old-fashioned thrills could have been a failure, but The General was rejected by the era’s critics and public, alike. It would be an ominous sign for Keaton the filmmaker. Though he didn’t have the extravagant tastes of De Mille, Buster had little fiscal sense and there was no big studio boss around to say no when his films ran way over budget. He wouldn’t be a bankable asset for much longer and when MGM did finally put him in a creative harness three years later, it also seemed to minimize him as a romantic performer.
Audiences rediscovering Keaton in the 1950s had to be taken aback by Buster’s performance as a leading man in The General. As the loyal and industrious Johnnie, who has the misfortune to be smitten by the airheaded Annabelle, Keaton is as handsome and regal as the era’s sleek matinee idols. He would never scale these heights again. Buster would go back to playing mama’s boys and klutzes, but he still had two near-masterpieces to make.
College wasn’t one of them. Stripped of directing credit, this funny but workmanlike comedy about a nerdy academic who throws his academic career to the wind to win a superficial girl may have had less creative input from Keaton than almost all of his other features. But, as in Battling Butler, Keaton enjoyed showing off his prowess in sport, especially the film’s extended baseball scenes which are hilarious. In College Buster plays Ronald, the valedictorian of his high school class and the butt of his classmates’ cruel jokes. Ronald is in love with Mary (Anne Cornwall), but she rejects him because he looks down on athletics.
Settled into college life, Ronald still hopes to win Mary’s favor. He rooms with his nemesis Jeff (Harold Goodwin), an accomplished jock, and then tries out for the track and baseball teams. Ronald’s grades begin to slip, prompting a visit from the Dean (Snitz Edwards) who can’t understand why this bright pupil is ready to throw his bright future away just to play sports. When he learns Ronald’s troubles are all on the account of a woman, the sympathetic Dean installs him as the coxswain on the college’s rowing team. Ronald overcomes his teammates’ initial resentment and some bizarre obstacles in leading the men to an upset in the big race.
Keaton’s next project, the marvelous Steamboat Bill, Jr., was a return to form, but it would also be the film that ended Buster’s career as an independent entity in Hollywood. Not having seen his son since childhood, Mississippi Riverboat Captain William Canfield (Ernest Torrence) is understandably excited by the prospect of the young man’s visit. But, his renuion with Willie (Keaton), now a foppish college student, at the train depot goes off poorly. The Boston lifestyle has spoiled Willie and it is clear Bill Sr. has his work cut out for him if he wants to make a man out of his boy. Sporting a pencil mustache and beret, Willie is a sight to behold. The captain tries to set his son up with a wardrobe befitting a sailor, but Willie rejects his father’s efforts.
Instead, Willie spends most of his time pursuing Marion (Marion Byron), a local college girl he knows from Boston who just happens to be the daughter of John James King (Tom McGuire), Bill Sr.’s rival on the river. Deeply disappointed in Willie, the Captain buys his son a return ticket back to Boston. But just as Willie is set to leave, Bill Sr. is arrested and a cyclone hits town, threatening the old man’s livelihood and life. Willie shows off his college educated smarts and exhibits some unexpected backbone in fishing his father out of the raging river and reconciling the two warring families.
Bolstered by an extremely droll performance by Keaton, spectacularly staged stunts and some breathtaking, big scale directing during the famous storm sequences, Steamboat Bill Jr. is a joy to behold. But once again, an ambitious (and expensive) Keaton film bombed at the box office. Its failure could be attributed to the lack of publicity generated at Joe Schenck’s slumping United Artists or it could have been just another victim of the talkie craze sweeping the land.
Not willing or able to invest any more money into his irresponsible client (and brother in-law) Schenck convinced Buster into signing on with MGM, the most profitable of the major Hollywood studios. Keaton would later claim both Chaplin and Harold Lloyd tried to talk him out of this creatively-stifling business endeavor, but the money being waved at the cash-strapped genius proved too seductive. And in the beginning, it looked like this arrangement could be a successful marriage of art and commerce.
The Cameraman, Buster’s first effort for the “Tiffany’s” of studios, turned out to be one of Keaton’s finest films. It’s certainly his most romantic feature and its success seemed to make a case for Buster carving out a new career as a “boy next door” sort of leading man. Here, Buster plays a tintype photographer who takes up a motion picture camera to win the heart of Sally (Marceline Day), a fetching secretary who works for MGM’s newsreel company in Manhattan. After his first effort gets laughed out of the screening room, Buster sulks until Sally gives him a tip on a Tong War ready to break out in Chinatown.
On the way downtown, Buster acquires an organ grinder’s monkey who has a knack for meddling with the movie camera while his new master isn’t looking. In the heat of battle, Buster plants his old Bell and Howell and begins to crank, capturing some great action sequences bound to impress the editor (Sidney Bracey). But, once back at the studio, Buster finds the film had snapped off in the camera and he has nothing to show for his efforts. Crushed, Buster leaves the studio in shame, but his spirit isn’t broken for long.
We next see Buster and the monkey venturing out to Long Island where he films the local rich folk hot-dogging it in their speedboats. As it turns out Sally is in one of the boats driven by Stagg (Harold Goodwin), his arrogant rival at the studio. The boat crashes and the pair leap for their lives and it’s up to Buster to save Sally from drowning. He risks life and limb by swimming out into the dangerous surf, drags her to shore, then rushes off to find help. In the meantime, the cowardly Stagg crawls to shore and revives Sally, who thinks the lout is her savior. Fortunately, Buster’s faithful monkey has filmed the entire dramatic episode. Later, Sally, Stagg and the editor reconvene in the MGM screening room to watch the most recent footage Buster has unwittingly dropped off at the studio. The rushes not only reveal Buster’s great work in capturing the Tong War, but they also show him to be the true hero in the Long Island boating accident. Sally breaks off with Stagg and tracks down her beloved Buster working the streets as a still photographer.
One of the finest films about New York City, The Cameraman also gives Buster the opportunity to give a nuanced performance of greater warmth and intimacy than we have seen before. His adoration of the pretty Marceline Day is obvious from their “meet cute” scene in front of the studio. Their romance evolves in a shy and altogether charming manner, topping out in what could have been an embarrassing episode at a public pool where Buster finally manages to outwit a narcissistic diver looking to score with Sally. The plot takes an unexpected turn for the dire, climaxing in Buster’s despair at losing Sally to the undeserving Stagg at the beach in Long Island. It’s as heartbreaking and poetic a scene as anything in Chaplin’s oeuvre. The film’s success at the box office only made MGM production head Irving Thalberg want to tighten the screws on Keaton further by cutting the large set pieces and sight gags out of his productions.
This streamlining of Keaton’s genius actually works in his last silent picture Spite Marriage where Buster plays a dry cleaner who tries to pass himself off as a millionaire to impress a temperamental stage actress. Elmer (Keaton) spends most of his limited wages buying expensive front row tickets each and every evening to watch a hoary old Civil War play starring the resplendent Trilby Drew (Dorothy Sebastian). The haughty actress is amused by her adoring Elmer, but her heart really belongs to her vain leading man Lionel Benmore (Edward Earle) who, to her horror, has taken up with a backstage blonde (Leila Hyams). Under the impression her biggest fan is actually a millionaire she begins to date Elmer to make Lionel jealous. But, the big ham doesn’t bite and actually ends up getting engaged to the blonde, driving Trilby into a tizzy. She marries Elmer on the rebound, but try as he may he just cannot seem to win her love.
Spite Marriage is a different sort of Keaton film. Beyond a spectacular scurry up the mast of a ship (bringing to mind some of the more daring stunts in The Navigator), Buster isn’t called upon to do many acts of physical foolishness or bravery. As in The Cameraman, the best scenes are subtle ones, taking advantage of Keaton’s deadpan demeanor. Buster’s studied brilliance in front of the make-up mirror at the theater, where the pressed into service actor fails hilariously in transforming himself into a hairy Confederate foot soldier, is a terrific example of the sort of hilarious slow-burn comedy Keaton was capable of, but given little example to put into play during his stay at MGM.
The talented Dorothy Sebastian (Buster’s lover at the time) gets more screen time than the usual Keaton heroine and she distinguishes herself mightily as a physical comedienne with pluck. Spite Marriage was a hit but MGM remained unsure to do with such a unique property at the dawn of the talkies, so they kept Keaton under wraps for nearly a year before giving him a chance to find his new voice.
Much has been written about Keaton’s fall from grace in Hollywood. Many blame MGM for treating the sensitive and brilliant artist like a mere contract player, not worthy of having a say in his stories or the direction of his films. And indeed, they would be correct. Keaton’s MGM talkies are a dismal lot and it did seem as if Thalberg and Louis B. Mayer went out of their ways to humiliate Buster by casting him as a rube and co-starring him with the mediocre Jimmy Durante. Keaton complained his sound films were far too talky and the gags weren’t particularly funny to boot. And he was correct. MGM’s writers did not seem to grasp what Keaton was all about and by putting too many words in the pantomime’s mouth they zapped the poetry from his performances. But, Thalberg and Mayer weren’t interested in making art as much as a tidy profit and this new Keaton formula proved to be a money-maker.
Buster’s first talkie Free & Easy, cast him as Elmer Butts, the agent and professional escort of Elvira Plunkett (Anita Page), winner of the Gopher City Kansas beauty pageant. The city fathers send Elvira and Elmer to Hollywood in the hopes she can become a movie star. Oddly enough, the powers that be at MGM are more impressed by Elmer’s comic potential, so they cast him against Elvira’s caterwauling mother (Trixie Friganza), who has joined the troupe, in a bombastic musical. Though grotesque and messy, Free & Easy turned out to be one of Keaton’s few watchable talkies and he gives a very fine performance. His froggish voice seems to fit his diminished status, but one barely notices it here. Sadly, this film has little of Keaton’s visual sensibility and it’s clear Buster was only along for the ride.
Alcoholism begin to take its toll on Keaton’s aristocratic looks and by the end of his reign at MGM, he looked much older than his thirty-eight years. Sensing Buster was losing his appeal to the ladies the studio soon turned him into their prize yokel, zapping his romantic appeal once and for all. Neither Thalberg nor Mayer had much use for Keaton’s high-risk style of filmmaking and they could point to the fact Buster’s low budget movies showed a much better profit margin. Even Chaplin and Harold Lloyd realized their sort of pantomime comedy had run its course. Wisecracking vaudevillians like Eddie Cantor, the Marx Brothers, Mae West and W.C. Fields were becoming all the rage on the silver screen.
After City Lights, Chaplin cut his production schedule back and ultimately phased out the Tramp while the wealthy the Lloyd only made a handful of uninspired talkies. Given where the public’s taste was heading and even under the best of circumstances it was unlikely Keaton’s sort of pristine and classical sort of comedy would have found its audience in the chatty cinema of the 1930s.
Cut loose from MGM because of his unreliability in 1933 Buster caught on with Educational Pictures, a distribution company which, at one time or another, was the home for Harry Langdon, Shirley Temple, Milton Berle among scores of other former and future Hollywood fixtures. Working with old pros like Charles Lamont and Al Christie, Keaton made fifteen shorts for Educational—several of surprisingly decent quality. While they exhibit little of the great invention of Keaton’s silent shorts both Grand Slam Opera and The Chemist still gave Buster plenty of opportunity to shine as a brilliant comic actor.
After a spell at a sanitarium, Keaton was back at Columbia then MGM directing short films and writing gags for talented newcomers like Red Skelton. But, this story actually has a happy ending. In 1940, Buster married Eleanor Norris, a twenty-two year old Hollywood ingénue. Giving up her shot at stardom to manage her husband’s career and finances, Eleanor gave Buster much joy and peace of mind in the twilight of his years.
Thanks to film archivist Raymond Rohauer’s restoration of Keaton’s masterpieces during the 1950s and 60s, Buster finally received long overdue critical recognition, putting him in the exalted company of his comedic rival and old friend, Charles Chaplin. It was a bittersweet swansong, but this newfound success never went to Buster’s head. Keaton was just happy to keep getting acting gigs, no matter how minor, which he acted with the sort of relish expected from a trouper from the vaudeville stage.
Books on Keaton:
Keaton: The Man Who Wouldn’t Lie Down – Tom Dardis **** This refreshingly unpretentious, informative, and sympathetic account of Keaton’s rise and fall has long been the best book available about the stone-faced genius.
Buster Keaton: Interviews – (Kevin W. Sweeney ed.) ****- Editor Sweeney painstakingly put together this incisive collection of rare interviews with the master comedian and director. Keaton is mostly in a mellow mood and when he does open up we are treated to a tutorial of filmmaking. Another in the altogether winning series of directors’ interviews published by the University Press of Mississippi, this is a gem of film scholarship.
Buster Keaton Remembered – Eleanor Keaton & Jeffrey Vance **** A lush coffee table book co-written by Buster’s wife and great champion features page after page of gorgeous photographic stills and a surprisingly good text.
My Wonderful World Of Slapstick – Buster Keaton ***1/2 A capable “as told to” put together late in Keaton’s life. Carelessly constructed and not as well-written as Chaplin’s autobiography, this comic memoir still contains many charms.
Keaton – Rudi Blesh ***1/2 This is a very good, detail-packed bio written in an affectionate manner with Keaton’s co-operation and blessing. Out of print.
Buster Keaton: Cut to the Chase – Marion Meade **1/2 A disappointing, slightly sour take on Keaton which dwells too much on his self-destruction and too little on the greatness of his art.
Films by Arbuckle & Keaton:
All of these seminal comedy shorts were solely directed by Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle unless otherwise noted.
1917 Butcher Boy ***
1917 The Rough House ***1/2 (co-directed by Keaton)
1917 Coney Island ***1/2
1918 Out West ***1/2
1918 The Bell Boy ***
1918 Moonshine ***1/2
1918 Good Night Nurse ***1/2
1919 Back Stage ***1/2
1919 The Hayseed ***1/2
1919 The Garage ***1/2
Short Films by Keaton:
I’m including the proper director’s credits here in parenthesis, but they should be taken with a large grain of salt. Keaton was very generous about giving out director credits to his talented crew of writers and technicians. From One Week through Spite Marriage there is little doubt Keaton was calling the shots.
1920 One Week **** (Edward F. Cline & Keaton)
1920 Convict 13 ***1/2 (Cline & Keaton)
1920 Neighbors ***1/2 (Cline & Keaton)
1920 The Scarecrow **** (Cline & Keaton)
1921 The Haunted House ***1/2 (Cline & Keaton)
1921 Hard Luck ***1/2 (Cline & Keaton)
1921 The High Sign ***1/2 (Cline & Keaton)
1921 The Goat ***1/2 (Malcolm St. Clair & Keaton)
1921 The Play House **** (Keaton)
1921 The Boat **** (Keaton)
1921 The Paleface ***1/2 (Keaton)
1922 Cops **** (Cline & Keaton)
1922 My Wife’s Relations **** (Keaton)
1922 The Blacksmith ***1/2 (St. Clair & Keaton)
1922 The Frozen North ***1/2 (Cline & Keaton)
1922 The Electric House **** (Cline & Keaton)
1922 Daydreams ***1/2 (Cline & Keaton)
1923 The Balloonatic **** (Cline & Keaton)
1923 The Love Nest **** (Kline & Keaton)
1936 Grand Slam Opera ***1/2 (short directed by Keaton & CharlesLamont)
1936 The Chemist ***1/2 (short directed by Al Christie)
Feature Films by Keaton
1920 The Saphead ***1/2 (Herbet Blache)
1923 The Three Ages ***1/2 (Keaton)
1923 Our Hospitality **** (John G. Blystone & Keaton)
1924 Sherlock Jr. ***** (Keaton)
1924 The Navigator ****1/2 (Donald Crisp & Keaton)
1925 The Seven Chances **** (Keaton)
1925 Go West **** (Keaton)
1926 Battling Butler ***1/2 (Keaton)
1926 The General ***** (Clyde Bruckman & Keaton)
1927 College ***1/2 (James W. Horne, Keaton-uncredited)
1927 Steamboat Bill Jr. ****1/2 (Charles Reisner, Keaton-uncredited)
1928 The Cameraman ****1/2 (Edward Sedgwick, Keaton-uncredited)
1929 Spite Marriage **** (Edward Sedgwick, Keaton-uncredited)
1930 Free and Easy *** (Edward Sedgwick)
1930 Doughboys **1/2 (Edward Sedgwick)
1931 Parlour, Bedroom and Bath **1/2 (Edward Sedgwick)
1931 The Sidewalks of New York **1/2 (Zion Myers & Jules White)
1932 The Passionate Plumber **1/2 (Edward Sedgwick)
1932 Speak Easily ***1/2 (Edward Sedgwick)
1933 What, No Beer? **1/2 (Edward Sedgwick)