Sunday, October 16, 2011

Buster Keaton's downfall

The introduction of talking pictures brought a premature end to a lot of careers. Some of those were foreign-born actors who hadn't mastered English well enough to make the transition to talkies; some were people who were deemed by the studio bosses to have the "wrong" sort of voice for the movies. And then there's Buster Keaton, whose career nosedived for an entirely different reason. The reason why Keaton's career ground to a halt is examined in the short documentary So Funny It Hurt: Buster Keaton and MGM, which was a TCM Original back in 2004 and which is showing again tomorrow morning at 6:00 AM.

Basically, Keaton's problems began when he signed a contract to work at MGM. Before that, he had been more or less independent, which meant that he had a lot of control over his movies. MGM didn't really want that. They had high standards, to be sure, but those were different standards from what somebody like Buster Keaton had. The had to churn movies out quickly in order to satisfy the demand from the movie going public, which meant that the production facitilies really were like a sort of assembly line. Also, with the advent of talking in pictures, it meant that you didn't just have to have physical comedy; you could do jokes based on language or funny dialogue. The writers in the employ of MGM tried to write such witty dialogue for Keaton's films, but he was really still wedded to a greater emphasis on visual comedy.

It didn't really help that Keaton's marriage to Natalie Talmadge was falling apart at this time. Part of this was his own fault in that he liked to see other women; part of it was Natalie's fault in that she was a profligate spender. Also, Keaton was becoming a raging alcoholic, which interefered with MGM's production schedule. Ironically, Keaton's talkies for MGM were generally quite successful financially.

All in all, it's a sad story, although at least Keaton was able to have a comeback by the end of his life.

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