Buster Keaton: After the Silents

buster-blogathon-3“You studio people warp my character”

(Buster Keaton: The Persistence of Comedy, 169)

As biographer James L. Neibaur points out in his book “The Fall of Buster Keaton,” there are two ways to view Keaton’s career after the silent era: 

“We can sadly or angrily dismiss the last 37 years of his career, seeing him as having been abused, unengaged, despondent, and financially strapped. Or we can realize that Buster Keaton’s personal life became happy, that he kept working and , in the process, managed to find possibilities to tap into his creative mind throughout his talking-picture career.”

(Neibaur, 208)

Buster Keaton enjoyed a solid ten years of success as a silent film star, a slapstick comedian on par with Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd. He had creative control over his work and was able to do all his own stunts. He made almost 50 short and feature length films between 1917 and 1928. But it was in 1928 that he made the mistake of a lifetime, a choice that would change the trajectory of his career irreparably.

“In 1928 I made the worst mistake of my career. Against my better judgment I let Joe Schenck talk me into giving up my own studio to make pictures at the booming Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer lot in Culver City.”

(Buster Keaton, My Wonderful World of Slapstick, 201)

At MGM, Keaton became just another of the studio’s legions of star talents. In doing so, he sacrificed his creative independence and was forced to answer to a much higher power – the manipulative studio hierarchy and the science of mass-produced moving pictures for mass profits.

“No one at MGM ‘got’ Buster Keaton; the plainest evidence is the way they misrepresented his screen character. Since he was a slapstick comedian, they cast him as a bumbling lunkhead, and since he was short and didn’t smile, they saw him as unattractive and pathetic.”

(Buster Keaton: The Persistence of Comedy, 171)

Buster Keaton is not amused.

Buster Keaton is not amused.

Nothing better represents the studio’s abuse of Keaton’s talents than this clip from one of the first films he made at MGM, FREE AND EASY (1930)

Buster Keaton found this kind of work, and the work he would do after his departure from MGM, including the Educational Pictures and A and B movie bit parts at Columbia, terribly discouraging.

“Yes, the slapstick stuff is gone. No longer will folks pay to see that kind of stuff. The movie public demands drama, punctuated with comedy.”

(Buster Keaton, Buster Keaton: The Persistence of Comedy, 159)

Nevertheless, Buster Keaton did persist at making comedy, and there are several films made after 1928 that can be considered valuable additions to the Keaton slapstick canon, including STEAMBOAT BILL, JR. (1928) and THE CAMERAMAN (1928), DOUGHBOYS (1930), JAIL BAIT (1937), and THE RAILRODDER (1968).

In addition to these feature films and shorts, Keaton made character appearances and cameo appearances in many classic films, with some of the era’s biggest stars, including INT HE GOOD OLD SUMMERTIME (1949), SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950), Charlie Chaplin’s LIMELIGHT (1952), the hilariously star-studded, action-packed Universal masterpiece IT’S A MAD MAD MAD MAD WORLD (1963), and his final film appearance as Erronius in A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM (1966). BUSTER KEATON

During the 1950s and 60s, Keaton appeared regularly on television. He had his own successful, though short-lived show in 1950 called The Buster Keaton Show, episodes from which would later comprise the feature length film THE MISADVENTURES OF BUSTER KEATON (1951).

Despite his gradual decline in success in the United States, Keaton was like Chaplin in that his popularity thrived in Europe and Central and South America. Wherever he traveled, people on the street would recognize him and greet him like an old friend. Even today, his comedy from the silent era and beyond continues to charm young audiences who are experiencing his great talent for the first time.

“Who would not wish to live a hundred years in a world where there are so many people who remember with gratitude and affection a little man with a frozen face who made them laugh a bit long years ago when they and I were both young?”

(Buster Keaton, My Wonderful World of Slapstick, 282)

And, in case you thought “Old Stoneface” never smiled:

Keaton laugh

This post is written in conjunction with The First Annual Buster Keaton Blogathon hosted by Silent-ology.

8 thoughts on “Buster Keaton: After the Silents

  • Silent-ology

    Few things make me happier than an appreciative, clear-sighted look at Buster’s later career or an appreciative, clear-sighted look that starts by quoting one of my favorite books, “Buster Keaton: The Persistence of Comedy.” (And the Neibaur book and Buster’s autobiography are excellent too!)

    Thank you so much for joining the blogathon, all these entries have been a joy to read!

  • Patricia Nolan-Hall (@CaftanWoman)

    We tend to place our stars in a box neatly tied up with “he’s from the 20s” or “she’s from the 30s” labels when they lived entire lifetimes. Buster’s was indeed a full life where the peaks could be appreciated because of the valleys.

  • Silver Screenings

    I love that you included the gif of Buster Keaton laughing. And I’m also glad you mentioned “The Railrodder”, which has a special place in every Canadian’s heart.

    Great post, and wonderful tribute to a man who overcame a tremendous obstacles in his life. 🙂

  • Lesley

    Thanks for highlighting Keaton’s work in his comeback years. I’m also a huge fan of The Persistence of Comedy and her focus on his resurrection rather than the fall. To me it’s not just shortsighted but it distorts the story to leave out the last act. Buster lost everything and then found Eleanor, got cleaned up, went humbly back to work, and lived long enough to see people go nuts over The General, which wasn’t that well received on original release. That had to have been sweet… I don’t think he ever doubted the quality of the work, but after all, he wanted to make people laugh, and I hope it was totally gratifying that people not only remembered him, but loved and valued the work he had dedicated himself to so completely.

  • Joe Thompson

    This was a good appreciation of Buster’s later career. I’m glad you point out that it was not the tragedy that many people thought it was. Thanks for sharing with all of us.

  • Marsha Collock

    Lovely post. I am with those who are glad that Buster’s later life was happy and that he pretty much beat his demons. Thank goodness he was there for later generations to get to know and then discover his earlier work. Work is good and I’m glad Buster kept at it until the end.

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