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So Funny It Hurt: Buster Keaton & MGM (2004)

A documentary which explores movie comedian Buster Keaton's five years under contract at MGM, where personal problems and studio tyranny nearly destroyed him.
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A documentary which explores movie comedian Buster Keaton's five years under contract at MGM, where personal problems and studio tyranny nearly destroyed him.

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7 December 2004 (USA)  »

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Included in the 2-disc DVD set "The Buster Keaton Collection", released by Warner Home Video in December 2004. See more »

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Some interesting new material on an almost unbelievable story
5 March 2006 | by (England) – See all my reviews

This documentary is more or less exactly what it announces itself to be at the start; a straightforward account of how MGM took in one of the most famous international stars in the world at the pinnacle of his career, stuffed him through the cogs of their studio machine, spat him out in a matter of years at the far end as an "unemployable" alcoholic, and ultimately signed him on again as a lowly gag-writer to recycle his own material for others to perform. In any other era the tale would be considered incredible: but Buster Keaton's fall has been written off in popular myth as just one more casualty of sound, another silent star whose voice failed to live up to the promise of his face. This film sets out to set the recollection straight.

We learn that Keaton, who loved gadgets and innovation, was all in favour of making films in sound, for example; it was MGM who were first reluctant to allow it and then so nervous as to cram reams of deeply unfunny dialogue into their new comic productions. Conversely, Keaton's woeful "talkies" actually made more money for the studio than the silent comedies we now consider his classics -- which both explains MGM's determination to force him into further such vehicles, and Keaton's own bewilderment and ultimate breakdown, as material he considered worthless was demonstrated to be more valuable than the ideas he fought to have them include.

Clips from films of the period are used to illustrate all too clearly the gulf between the star's previous style and that of the new era, and the direct cloning of gag after gag for a later generation of MGM productions. No longer able to perform his famous stunts (the studio thought it too dangerous), improvise a string of stunning illogical gags on the fly (scripts had to be submitted in advance) or even retain the grace and inner dignity that had characterised his former screen persona through every mishap, it is perhaps unsurprising that Keaton found his star billing sliding steadily downhill along with his morale.

The documentary does have a certain tendency to use images and clips out of context; sometimes this works, as in the juxtaposition of the parade-ground scene from "Flesh and the Devil" with discussion of MGM's regimented expectations of the famous directors on its payroll. Sometimes, as in the use of scenes from a farce shot in Keaton's ruinously expensive mansion to illustrate tensions in his domestic life, I felt it to be inappropriate.

It covers much the same ground as does Kevin Brownlow's intricate three-hour Keaton documentary during its examination of this period, although perhaps with a slightly more populist slant. However, it forms an interesting complement to the earlier work, since both contain fascinating information and footage not included in the other: here, for example, we learn that Buster occupied his empty hours hanging around the Marx Brothers' sets on gag-writing duty in constructing intricate mechanical contraptions, and get to see one of them -- apparently it functioned to crack walnuts while raising the Star-Spangled Banner! There is also amateur footage of the famously frustrated attempts to shoot "The Cameraman" on location... and of the crowds that drove Keaton into retreat.

As well as illustrating some of the truly awful dialogue perpetrated by MGM's new and uncertain comedy-writing teams, this documentary does also show us excerpts from the scenes Keaton himself felt worked, illustrating the style that -- studio wisdom apart -- we might perhaps have experienced from the films of Buster Keaton in the sound era. His ideas were basically the same as they ever were: to rely principally on sight gags for the laughs, using sound simply to provide a more 'natural' set-up to replace the need for title cards and soundless dialogue. There is, of course, no knowing if a fickle audience would have maintained their adulation of such fare in the era of motormouth comedy; but it's an interesting glimpse of Keaton's own vision for his career.

It would be tempting to condemn MGM for their chronic mishandling of Buster Keaton's abilities; but the documentary's conclusions are more even-handed than that. MGM was in the business of success: of audience preview, high production values, teamwork and clockwork precision -- an assembly line, but a "Rolls-Royce" assembly line, as they are described here. Keaton's early talkies reaped financial and critical success at the time of release. Nobody set out to destroy his talent; his impractical and improvisational working style simply didn't fit the rigid studio template, and financial problems kept him locked in to a system he no longer cared enough to fight.


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