Here it is, the first installment of “Pink Angora” here at l’eclisse. By popular demand, Matt has chosen The Buster Keaton Story (1957) as his topic. Read on!
They say that Buster Keaton could do more with his eyes between blinks than most Hollywood screenwriters could with pages of dialogue. If Keaton was the master of the subtle glance, his on-screen doppelganger in 1957’s “The Buster Keaton Story” is a cross-eyed spastic. There is nothing about The Buster Keaton Story, clever title aside, that makes it the Buster Keaton story. The film’s gross inaccuracies are infamous; Buster’s three wives are portrayed as one (Ann Blyth), his early films are shown as studio pictures when there were indeed independent productions, even the titles of his films are changed, presenting him in such works as “The Criminal” and “The Gambler.” Of course, artistic liberties must be taken with any historical film, but TBKS approaches Oliver Stone territory in its appraisal of Buster’s life and work. Yes, there was an actor named Buster Keaton, who did in fact wear a flat hat and own a big house, reality pretty much ends there. Oh yeah, and the booze. The real Buster liked booze too.
The movie opens with the Three Keatons on tour. The poster outside a ratty old vaudeville house advertises their “Pantomime” routine, although the only time we see them on stage, Mr. Keaton (Dave Willock) is singing opera. Perhaps they did a kind of dada-esque pantomime in which you could talk. Anyway, some time passes and we see a newspaper headline, “Movies kill Vaudeville.” My theory is that they hired the cartoons to drop an anvil on Vaudeville’s head. Theatre, being the older brother of Vaudeville, would forever hold a grunge over the killing and seek revenge on numerous occasions.
With vaudeville as dead as, well, vaudeville, Buster (Donald O’Connor) is forced into the moving pictures business. The year is 1920 (in reality, Buster had been making short films with Fatty Arbuckle since 1917 and was an established actor), and Buster is turned away at the studio gate. “Famous Studios” reads the sign on the gate, and like foods that use “Delicious” in the brand name, you are forced to take them at their word. Buster ends up sneaking past the guards by balancing a wooden plank on his head and following some workmen into the lot. This is actually surprisingly honest, playing on the little-known fact that security guards are unable to see anyone with a wooden plank balanced on their head (for more on this phenomenon, check out the 1930’s bank robber Billy “Plank Head” White). Once inside, he manages to impress the studio brass with own kind of “Folsom Prison Blues” moment, and is signed to a contract.
After filming his first movie, Buster becomes a man-about-town, dating blonde bombshells and ordering his beers two at a time. In a bit of dialogue that could have come from an upcoming American Pie sequel, the bombshell asks Buster about his desire to direct his own pictures. “Do you like to do EVERYTHING yourself?” Buster: “Well, not everything…” Heh, heh, heh.
Like any good (or awful) biopic, TBKS has a musical montage. Newspaper clippings show Buster’s star on the rise, with films both real and imagined. I cannot for the life of me figure out why they used some real titles (The Frozen North, The Ballonatic, The General), and some of the previously mentioned fakes. In any case, the real ones do not occur in their actual order, and the re-created routines often borrow from several sources and add heavy doses of dumpy ad-libbing on the part of O’Connor. In TBKS O’Connor looks more like hippie-kissing, presidential also-ran Dennis Kucinich than the title character. He wears Keaton’s famous outfit (often anachronistically), but brings nothing in the way of the physicality or voice of the man. I can hardly fault O’Connor (a very talented actor in his own right) for not being able to match Keaton in his pratfalls and comic grace. No one can be expected to do that. However, O’Connor lacks the basic fearlessness Keaton took into his work. In Marion Meade’s biography of Keaton, she writes that during rehearsals with Keaton, O’Connor flat-out refused to do many of the stunts the sixty-one year old was showing him. O’Connor called them “scary.”
So after a quick and steady rise, everyone knows what comes next in a biopic… rock bottom! Buster hits his with the help of the bottle, his condition being aggravated by the smashing success of the Jazz Singer. His latest silent is a flop, while the line snakes around the block for the new talkie. Distraught, Keaton meets up with his old pal Don Lockwood, and they get drunk on rye and speed down Alameda Boulevard, smashing mailboxes with a baseball bat (although I might have just dreamed that last part).
On a particularly wicked bender, Keaton marries his old casting director Gloria (Ann Blyth). She marries him to try to clean him up, I guess, but it doesn’t work so well. Buster tries talkies, but that doesn’t work so well, either. He is brow-beaten by director Peter Lorre, who plays a kind of bored, Nazi version of Ed Wood. Unable to nail his lines (not even after take four!!!), Buster kicks over a table, shouting “Rehabilitated! Rehabilitated!” the word he kept tripping over. I am told that in an early version of the “Dog Day Afternoon” script, Al Pacino was to chant “Rehabilitated!” instead of “Attica!”*
Out of chances with the movies and Gloria, she leaves him all alone in his “Italian Villa.” Genuine exterior shots of the famous residence are used in the movie (and were also used in the famous horse head scene in The Godfather). However, indoors, the massive house seems to only have two rooms (a foyer and library). They are the only two rooms in which any of the characters spend any time, and combined with the office of the studio head, about half of the film’s action takes place there. No one in the entire film seems to move very much at all. They are always in the same rooms, always dress the same, no one ever ages or cuts their hair. Time passes only in the newspapers and hammy dialogue. By the end, Buster quits drinking (he pours a brandy which he does not drink to illustrate this point) and goes back into vaudeville, reuniting with his wife and once again wowing audiences. Meanwhile, Don Lockwood isn’t returning his calls.
Perhaps the most astounding thing about The Buster Keaton Story in that, in its time, it was a rather successful film. Audiences enjoyed it and it had a rather long run years later as on television. Keaton himself hated the movie. He was shut out of the production process and claims to have never even read the script. After TBKS’s release, Buster was embarrassed by its portrayal of him as a dopey drunk, especially considering he was simultaneously appearing in TV and print ads for liquor and beer. Keaton’s second wife even went so far as to file suit against the filmmakers, claiming defamation over the wife character. She was forced to drop the suit, probably stemming from the fact the character was so far from the truth, it couldn’t be considered to be representative of any actual person. Buster received $50,000 for the rights to his name for the picture, and used the money to buy the ranch in California’s San Fernando Valley in which he lived out the rest of his days. So some good came from it. And yes, movie fans, this picture was actually not as bad as it could have been… also in consideration for the role of Buster were Jerry Lewis and Bob Hope. The horror…
Today, TBKS is a rather obscure film, never released on video or DVD (although bootlegs can be found) and off of TV for many years. The movie is worth seeing once as a curiosity for the true Keaton fan, but once is really enough. A drinking game could be made from the movie if you can get enough Busterheads together to watch it… every time something inaccurate happens in the film, someone shouts it out and everyone else takes a drink. If the inaccuracy is refuted by someone else in the room, the person who made the false claim takes three drinks… and, as always, double for flinching.
*I was not actually told this.