Friday, February 14, 2014

The Fall of Buster Keaton book traces comic legend's career in talkies

Review by Doug Gibson

In 1933, after former silent movie comic star Buster Keaton -- still an A talkie star -- had been canned by MGM for drunkeness, the trade papers announced that Keaton was heading to Florida, at a fat salary, to star in independent films. Keaton, it was reported, would have creative freedom (a luxury he did not have at MGM, despite the films' success.)

It sounded great, but it was too good to be true, as genre author James L. Neibaur recounts in "The Fall of Buster Keaton: His Films for MGM, Educational Pictures, and Columbia," 2010, Scarecrow (Buy). The independent project was underfunded, and the studio in Florida was fit for only two-reelers. Things collapsed and Keaton found himself unemployed long before a would-be film could even pass pre-production.

This anecdote is not important for the project's collapse, many a film star has seen a production close early. What makes the Florida effort interesting is that it was the last serious chance that Buster Keaton ever had to be a star of high-budget "A" films. Although Keaton would work for another 33 years, literally until his death, he would not star in a major film.

Keaton, who literally started vaudeville as a toddler, was discovered in part by Fatty Arbuckle and became a major silent comedian star. "The General," for example, is considered among the top two or three silent film comedy features. Keaton's stony facial expression hid an ingenuity and determination that surprised and pleased audiences when he achieved success, whether in love, money, or other goals.

But that history in the book is finished quickly. Neibaur is interested in explaining why Keaton, just two-decades plus later, was considered ideal to play himself as a has-been actor in the classic "Sunset Boulevard." At first, things looked promising for Keaton, as he signed -- in the waning days of silents, a star contract with MGM. Despite not having the final decisions, Keaton thrived with MGM silents, such as "The Cameraman," and "Spite Marriage," and even displayed talkie talent in MGM pre-code films, including "Doughboys," and "Speak Easily," in which he was paired with the loud, abrasive Jimmy Durante.

Nevertheless, Keaton melted down at MGM and, as mentioned, was canned after completing "What No Beer?" a so-bad-it-"improves"-on repeat-viewings movie. Durante is spectacularly unfunny, and Keaton is unfortunately drunk in many of the film's scenes. Keaton was AWOL during filming, had drunken rampages and MGM was glad to get rid of him. The film plays often on Turner Classic Movies, probably due to its time-capsule feel today as a glimpse at the last days of prohibition in the USA.

Neibaur recounts the various reasons that Keaton flamed out at MGM: A crumbling marriage to celebrity Natalie Talmadge, loss of creative control at MGM, a new acting persona that cast him as a buffoon rather than a determined underdog, and of course alcoholism. Being a drunk is what harmed Keaton's career. The rest are symptoms that drove him to the bottle, and unreliability.

One key strength of Neibaur's books is that there are in-depth recaps of the MGM, Educational and Columbia films Keaton made. A plus for readers is that Neibaur debunks a common perception that the Educational and Columbia shorts were all artistic failures. In fact, the author serves to rehabilitate Keaton's talkie shorts' image by extolling the virtues of short films such as "Allez Oop," "One-Run Elmer," "The Gold Ghost," "Jail Bait," (Educational) and "Pardon My Berth Marks," Pest From the West," "Nothing But Pleasure," (Columbia) and a few others. The author makes a convincing case that Keaton needs to be re-evaluated as a talkie comedy shorts talent..

To be fair, Keaton seemed to enjoy dissing his Educational and Columbia shorts over the last 20-plus years of his life. And during that era, comedy shorts commanded little respect in Hollywood. As Neibaur notes, one of the ironies of today is that the shorts of Keaton, and more notably The Three Stooges, are far better known than virtually all the features they played with. Nevertheless, it's true that one constant in both the Educational and Columbia shorts, as Neibaur notes, is that the quality of the series, after promising starts, dipped and a few duds found their way into production. It's hypothesized that Keaton's dissatisfaction with being in two-reel movie fillers may have dampened his initial enthusiasm after the contracts were signed

The Columbia era (late 1930s, early '40s) signified a consistent monetary comeback for Keaton. He would never earn cash similar to what he earned in his silents/MGM era, but after several years of being broke after his divorce, he added income with work as a gagman with the major studios and played featured parts and cameos in A and B productions. It as during this era that Keaton enjoyed a successful, until-death marriage with his wife Eleanor, and later benefited from the advent of television, something his colleagues Harry Langdon, Ben Turpin and Charley Chase did not live to enjoy. Some fans may recall Keaton's excellent guest role on a "Twilight Zone" episode that plays off his silent routines.

Besides TV and the occasional small role in a big film, Neibaur also devotes time to industrial films that Keaton made for executives and workers in companies. These were usually comedy couched in a film that dealt with training or promotion. As Keaton moved into his mid-60s, he received small, frankly demeaning roles, in the beach movies films, even playing an Indian. As Neibaur notes, it was money, and the chance to stay busy that motivated the senior citizen. Another film he had a cameo in was Stanley Kramer's "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World."

One reason I am very glad I read this book is that it sent me to YouTube to watch two films that Keaton completed only 15 or so months before his death in 1966 at age 70. The first is "The Railrodder," a silent color film, made by Canadian TV, that has Buster traveling across Canada via a track-speeder all the way to the Pacific Ocean. It may be the last comic silent short made and it's very funny, with Buster showing remarkable skills for a 68-69 year old man with "bronchitis."

The other film is a documentary on the making of "Railrodder," titled "Buster Keaton Rides Again." It's a treat for Keaton and genre fans as Buster's life on the set and production  is captured in detail, traveling across Canada, shooting the film, meeting fans, and most importantly, bantering with his wife, Eleanor, director Gerald Potterton, and the crew on the train in between scenes. He's a pleasant senior citizen,who smokes, talks, acts, interacts with fans and media, and thoroughly enjoys the attention he is receiving. He looks quite healthy at that time and he has the energy to argue with Potterton over how a shot should be done and win the argument. I absolutely love the scene where Buster explains the difference between a suspense shot and a comedy shot.

But getting back to Neibaur's detailed look at the final 35 years or so of Keaton's career. It's clear that the bad publicity from the MGM experience, although covered up well in the press, solidified Keaton's diminished status. The Educational years, although a steady paycheck, was also a time where Keaton was still heavily drinking, and that hurt comeback attempts. It's re-assuring that Keaton collected himself to stay busy, write gags for The Marx Brothers and others, get the drinking under control, get married, and continue acting. That was a triumph. Eventually, Keaton's "bronchitis" turned into cancer. But he worked virtually until his death at 70, dying a day or two after the cancer was diagnosed.

Genre books such as Neibaur's may have a tough time gathering circulation (they are very expensive) but if they can help to properly reassess Keaton's later comedies (Many of the Educationals are on YouTube and the Columbia series is inexpensively priced as a DVD) that is a enduring positive. We should appreciate the love that produces books of this dedicated scholarship.

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