Aug 13 2010

The Fall of Buster Keaton by James L. Neibaur

Richard Beck

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One day in 1927, Buster Keaton spent forty-two thousand dollars to film a locomotive engine rush across a burning bridge and plunge into a river. The climax of his great Civil War adventure film, The General, it was the most expensive single shot in the medium's history to date. Like the industrialists who produced the trains and steamships he loved, Buster Keaton knew how to spend money. His greatest achievements—Steamboat Bill, Jr. , The Navigator, Sherlock, Jr. —were almost always his most expensive ones as well.

But what happens when the studio bosses cut you off? That is the subject of James L. Neibaur's book The Fall of Buster Keaton: His films for M-G-M, Educational Pictures, and Columbia. After producing a string of terrific silent films (including The General) at his own production unit, Keaton committed what he later called the worst mistake of his life, signing a contract with M-G-M in 1928 and handing over almost all creative control in the process. Charlie Chaplin told him not to do it, and Keaton should have listened—alcoholism, divorce, and bankruptcy followed in quick succession. By 1933, major studios considered him essentially unemployable.

Neibaur aims to reassess the films Keaton made from his M-G-M period on, and on this count his book is a disaster. Again and again, Neibaur mistakes having an opinion for having an idea, repeatedly using words like solid, good, funny, and interesting, as though they could be made true by insisting on them. He leans too much on the interpretive work of other critics, especially Leonard Maltin. In his analysis of Sherlock, Jr. , Neibaur writes, "For 1924, it was a remarkable use of cinema technology, not only creating funny scenes, but also activating the part of the viewer's mind that thinks." I stared at this sentence for more than a minute, wondering which "part" he was talking about.

Neibaur does provide two services, albeit minor ones. Although the general reader will not want to read The Fall of Buster Keaton, it's a book that researchers might be happy to find in the library stacks. Do you need a detailed summary of Keaton's performance in The Home Owner, a 1961 industrial film advertising the benefits of home design? Somebody, someday, almost certainly will. It is on page 192.

The book also—almost accidentally—evokes the tedium and repetition that characterize so much of what it means to be a screen actor. Today, Buster Keaton is remembered as film's greatest physical comedian on the basis of five or six early masterpieces, but he actually made eighty-seven films in the course of his career. In 1935 and 1936 alone, Keaton starred in Palooka from Paducah, One Run Elmer, Hayseed Romance, Tars and Stripes, The E-Flat Man, The Timid Young Man, Three on a Limb, Grand Slam Opera, Blue Blazes, The Chemist, and Mixed Magic. These and similar films—middlebrow comedies designed for short, profitable box-office runs—constituted the vast majority of Keaton's working life, and none of them are remembered today.

It is easy to read this as a reflection on the humiliation of a great artist, but Keaton doesn't come across as a tragic figure, nor should he. In 1940, eight years after his expensive divorce, Keaton married a nineteen-year-old dancer named Eleanor Morris, who by all accounts more or less cured his alcoholism. He was happily employed for the rest of his life, appearing regularly in television shows, commercials, and even industrial films, until smoking finally killed him in 1966. Chaplin may have been a self-conscious auteur, but Keaton (as Neibaur points out) was a "pure working comedian."

Still, it stings when Neibaur quotes an extra from How to Stuff a Wild Bikini—a 1966 beach romp in which Keaton played a drunken Indian chief—as saying, "He was just so weird with those glass-ball eyes." The quotation isn't completely inaccurate, but I prefer Orson Welles, who said (correctly) that Keaton was one of the most beautiful people ever photographed. Yes, the space between his eyes is unsettling, but it is also the source of his beauty: It makes it possible to see his face as just a perfectly arranged collection of mechanical parts.

Keaton's ability to embody the Industrial Revolution's symbiosis between man and machine was his greatest gift. The most striking thing about his on-screen athleticism was that while most action heroes yell and sweat, Keaton's famous deadpan never flinched; and this combination of affectless determination and physical power resembled nothing so much as an engine speeding down the tracks. What's upsetting about the films Keaton made for M-G-M—and this is exactly what the details-obsessed Neibaur misses—is how quickly Keaton's half-mechanical grandeur broke down. In the 1933 Prohibition comedy What! No Beer? , filmed during the worst years of Keaton's life, Keaton's face is swollen and lined—nothing but a lump of decaying flesh. While Keaton found happiness and regular employment in his later years, that immortal anti-spark—the metallic glint in the back of his alien eyes—was gone for good.

Richard Beck is a writer from Wallingford, Pa. He has written for n+1 and the Boston Phoenix.

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