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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.
A short look at Buster Keaton's troublesome MGM years, when he lost control over the films he worked on and went from being one of the most innovative stars in the world to being Jimmy Durante's straight man. Some interesting material, simply served up, though it's very narrow in its focus, and doesn't really have much new to offer about Buster's nightmarish fall from grace. Definitely worth having a look at if you're a Buster fan, though for a much fuller, meatier and satisfying dip into Buster's life and career, you need to watch Brownlow & Gill's magnificent documentary, Buster Keaton:A Hard Act To Follow. The problem is, that film is currently unavailable on DVD -- a shocking oversight which will hopefully be rectified sooner rather than later.
This isn't your usual documentary about a film comedian, as instead of
being a documentary or going through their films sequentially, it's
focused only on the downward spiral of a career. In this case, Buster
Keaton's early successes are only briefly mentioned and the gist of the
film is how Keaton and especially MGM ruined his career. I liked this,
as it helped to explain how a man who was one of the greatest silent
comedians became a has-been so quickly.
As for Keaton, his drinking and lavish lifestyle did take their toll and made him truly the one responsible for his decline. Even with the irresponsible meddling by MGM brass, the film doesn't omit that Keaton drank his career into oblivion--though it did seem to excuse some of his irresponsible behaviors (such as his many affairs that lead to his wife taking everything in a divorce settlement).
As for MGM, in 1928 they brought Keaton to their studio. This SHOULD have been "a marriage made in heaven", for Keaton was now working for the richest and most influential studio in the world. However, they stupidly insisted on remaking Keaton into a "team player" and no longer allowed him the independence that lead to such classics as THE GENERAL and STEAMBOAT BILL JUNIOR. Instead, the scripts were almost completely created without Keaton's input and they stuck him in plots that were very foreign to his style--especially later when he was teamed with Jimmy Durante for three god-awful films.
All this was very interesting. However, what bothered me about the show was that it pretty much ignored Keaton's career after the early 1930s. This is a darn shame because he had a very long career--including directing shorts in the late 30s (under an assumed name), acting with Chaplin in the great film LIMELIGHT as well as a comeback, of sorts, in the 1960s (including appearances in some of the awful Beach movies as well as a few decent performances, such as his last film A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM). All in all, worth seeing but woefully incomplete. A serious discussion of Keaton's later career isn't done in this film, though it did do a good job in explaining MGM's part in sabotaging Keaton's career.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Before I say anything else, let me say that Buster Keaton was a
remarkably talented man.
However, I think this is a horrible "documentary".
The theme is: "Poor Buster Keaton. How dare MGM hire him and pay him." When the theme ought to be: "He's a big boy now. He signed a contract. He signed a contract renewal. And now he...or at least the people who made this documentary...are bitching because he didn't want to work for someone else." My conclusion is that Buster Keaton's downfall was caused by Buster Keaton.
Don't get me wrong. I wish we had had so much more of Keaton's brilliance. But I think this "documentary" is terribly misguided.
The one thing this film deserves credit for is wonderfully restored film clips fro Keaton's entire career.
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