The two-disc TCM Archives: The Buster Keaton Collection, released this week, picks up where our hero, one of the greatest comedians of silent film’s golden age, is about to pull off what presumably would be the crowning achievement in an already illustrious career: signing with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer for a startling $3,000 a week. That was 1928. Keaton later called it “the worst mistake of my life.”
For my money, a familiarity with Buster Keaton practically defines a true movie lover. If you haven’t seen the indescribable, mind-altering 1924 comedy Sherlock Jr., you’re little more than a cinematic hick. Keaton, whose powers peaked in the dizzy days of 1920′s Hollywood, is the most modern of the silent clowns: darker than wholesome Harold Lloyd, less sentimental than hammy Charlie Chaplin and a hell of a lot funnier than both. He was a daring and wildly original auteur who wrote, directed, edited and starred in every one of the 29 films his independent studio released between 1920 and 1928. But with the talkie revolution waiting in the wings, Joe Schenck, the mogul behind the Keaton studio, got out of the production game, leaving his star-who couldn’t afford to self-finance his own films-to join a major studio.
Keaton’s move to MGM signaled the beginning of the end. In five years, he would be untouchable in mainstream Hollywood. Keaton’s MGM years are as unhappy as the films themselves (see such later duds as What! No Beer?). he is on the verge of a fall into alcoholism, into despair, into a period of professional and personal ruin. So why bundle MGM’s first three Keaton vehicles into a lavish double-disc set?
At first glance, the release smacks of misguided opportunism-this is not the DVD Keaton deserves, but the most expedient: TCM owns the contents of the MGM vaults. Even the cover art seems confused, the photo coming from a movie not included in the collection. That said, the more Keaton, the merrier-usually-and while the films render the corrosion of a genius in heartbreaking detail, one of them alone makes the set worthwhile.
The three films neatly bridge the silent-sound divide. The Cameraman (1928) is silent; Spite Marriage (1929) features a synchronized Vitaphone score and sound effects; Free and Easy (1930) is a full-fledged talkie. Unquestionably, The Cameraman is the best of the bunch. Keaton plays a lowly tintype photographer who falls in love at a parade. Sally is a secretary in the newsreel office at MGM; Buster pawns his tintype for a clunky movie camera and goes hunting for footage that will win her heart. The film looks great-it is a crisp, clean transfer-and the disc includes a nice photo montage (albeit heavy on the pan-and-zoom “Ken Burns effect”). There is also commentary on the film, and a new score by former Frank Zappa bandmate Arthur Barrow. The commentary is informative, but the score is intrusive: This silent film doesn’t need so jaunty a champion-it speaks volumes for itself. For The Cameraman is the last great Keaton masterpiece, full of ineffably sublime moments.
My favorite gag is vintage Keaton: a simple one-man stunt, playful, spontaneous, athletic, breathtaking. The film is set in New York (though only a fraction was filmed on location), and in his quest for footage, our cameraman journeys to the House That Ruth Built. He heard that the Yankees were playing that day, and they were-in St. Louis. Unfazed, Buster sets his camera down in the middle of an empty stadium and-with a glance over his shoulder-takes the mound. He shakes off the catcher’s signals; he adjusts his outfield; he eyes the runner on base. A few hard-won outs later (including a leaping tag at home), he’s at bat. After getting the brush-back, he hauls off and swats one, and in a gorgeous tracking shot, Keaton rounds the bases, coattails flapping, legs a blur, and slides face-first into the plate. A home run. Buster soaks up the silent ovation and salutes the phantom multitudes-then stumbles onto the groundskeeper. With a jolt, he’s just a guy without a girl or a job, goofing around in the dust. But we know better.
Such celebrated bits aside, clearly something is amiss in the film. There are running gags that are run right into the ground, and the often dopey, off-key intertitles render Buster something of a mooncalf. (In the past, he was more a good-hearted but shrewd misfit.) But perhaps most jarring is the byzantine plot. There’s a meddling monkey, misplaced footage, misunderstood heroics and a tong war. Keaton was a master of the streamlined gag and the economic plot; he once said, “A good comedy story can be written on a penny postcard.” But at MGM, how many studio hacks did it take to write that penny postcard? In the case of The Cameraman, 22.
Indeed, Keaton found comedy in the unrehearsed moment. MGM wanted it assembled on the line. The movies had met mass production. Keaton’s freewheeling working method ran counter to the studio system’s fantasy of precision-MGM wanted scripts, budgets and schedules drawn up and followed. But Keaton had never worked that way. His independent studio had been a collective free-for-all, a kind of relentless comic improv. There were no scripts. Keaton and his men would come up with a simple premise loaded with dynamite-say, Buster and his girl adrift on an ocean liner-and then figure out the ending (something snappy and not too sappy). The rest they made up as they went along. But at MGM, Buster lost creative control. A damning new short documentary-made for TCM and somewhat surprisingly included in this set-cites Buster’s third wife (an MGM dancer) as the only good thing the studio ever gave him.
The next MGM release included here, Spite Marriage (1929), is a doozy about a dim-witted pants-presser who falls for a stage ingénue who marries him to spite a wayward lover. Throw in bootleggers, some high-seas high jinks and an oft-imitated bit about putting a drunk wife to bed (which Keaton had to fight to keep from getting cut), and there you have it. The collection concludes with Free and Easy (1930), which is … a musical. The less said, the better. Simply picture Keaton, dressed as a sad clown, strung up like a puppet and haplessly yanked about. (Surely an unintended dig on behalf of the studio writers.) After Free and Easy, the films get worse, Keaton’s life falls apart, and the screen loses its brightest clown-for a while. (Lest the tale grow too gloomy, it must be pointed out that Keaton eventually got a triumphant second act: In 1965, a few months before he died, having done everything from B-grade beach movies to a highbrow Beckett film, a content Keaton could brag, “I work more than Doris Day.”)
History tacks on a final irony. In the 1950′s, decades after The Cameraman, a friend of Keaton’s went to the studio and asked to view the film. But the print had long since worn out. For years, MGM had used it as a training film, screening it over and over for studio newcomers-comedians like the Marx Brothers, Abbott and Costello, Mickey Rooney and Red Skelton-to demonstrate faultless comedic structure. What the new MGM box set reminds us is that the film was not one of the studio system’s greatest successes, but perhaps its most searing indictment.
Edward McPherson’s Buster Keaton: Tempest in a Flat Hat will be published in the U.S. this April.