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.”
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.”
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).
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: