- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 1, 2009

Buster Keaton’s evolution as a genius of silent film comedy can be traced in considerable detail in a multidisc set from Kino Video, “The Art of Buster Keaton,” which begins with his work as a sidekick for Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle in 1919 and concludes a decade later with “Steamboat Bill, Jr.,” the last of his independently made features.

The immediate aftermath, a discouraging tale of professional reversal that coincided with the advent of talking pictures, can be observed in a more compact set from TCM Archives and Warner Video, “Buster Keaton Collection.”

Preoccupied in recent weeks with this pivotal changeover period in movie history, I might as well round off the subject by recalling its strange curtailment of the Keaton career between 1928 and 1930. Unlike some luminaries of the silent screen, Buster Keaton (1895-1966) was not undermined by recorded sound itself.

Though perhaps surprisingly deep and raspy to moviegoers who had never heard it, his voice did not contradict his admirably stoic, resourceful and inimitable personality as a comic hero. A change of venue pulled the rug out from under his creativity, reducing him from a self-starting cinematic innovator to a drunken has-been while still in his middle 30s.

All Keaton biographers get around to the subject’s own account of his misfortune: “In 1928 I made the worst mistake of my life. Against my better judgment I let Joe Schenck talk me into giving up my own studio to make pictures at the booming Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer lot in Culver City. … I was assured that every effort would be made to let me continue working with my team whenever possible. It turned out to be possible very seldom.”

To be specific, it was possible during his first two features at MGM, “The Cameraman” and “Spite Marriage.” They were the last of Mr. Keaton’s silent comedies and display a characteristic command of slapstick invention and humorous characterization. Sometimes undervalued, they shouldn’t be; they’re as accomplished and satisfying as any Keaton classics of the middle 1920s. Disillusion intrudes, with a vengeance, during the first of his talking comedies, “Free and Easy,” released in 1930. A more appropriate title might be “Bound and Gagged.”

Buster Keaton could have disregarded the advice of Joe Schenck, a pioneering producer who was juggling the business affairs of United Artists, the Talmadge Sisters and the Keaton company in the late 1920s. However, Mr. Schenck was also a brother-in-law, married to the pre-eminent Talmadge, Norma, while Buster was hitched to the kid sister, Natalie.

There was another Schenck in the background: Joe’s brother Nick, who ran Loew’s Inc., the parent company of MGM. Supposedly, the Keaton franchise would be in good hands. It was also true that young MGM executive Irving Thalberg was fond of Keaton. The problem was that Metro’s corporate set-up was calculated to smother its new comic asset in superfluous advice, supervision, nitpicking and revamping.

Once he turned to features in 1923, Buster Keaton typically completed two every year. As a rule, they were timed for release during spring and the Christmas season. He was the focus of a tight-knit production company that excelled at improvising gags around story pretexts in which the start and finish were predetermined but everything in-between was subject to ongoing invention and change.

The key members of this proven, specialized team could be reassigned once they too were MGM employees. There was a second brother-in-law complication: Lawrence Weingarten, a brother-in-law of Mr. Thalberg, was given general supervision of the Keaton movies but seemed to get his nose out of joint when Buster’s decisions and methods ran counter to his own.

Mr. Keaton appeared to be on a roll while making a hilarious sound debut in “The Hollywood Revue of 1929,” spoofing one of the film’s own production numbers. The year before he had orchestrated a cyclone during the spectacular comic finale of “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” and made New York City a delightful personal playground in “The Cameraman.”

He still appears to be in peak form in “Spite Marriage” while blundering on stage as a lovesick amateur and then returning to sea, where he was always a confident comic voyager. In fact, there are shipboard gags that surpass comparable situations in “Bill, Jr.,” notably a fight that extends from one end of a luxury yacht to the other before dumping Buster in the ocean temporarily.

Everything changes for the disheartening in “Free and Easy.” It’s part of MGM lore that “The Cameraman” became a training film at the studio for many years, the house model on how to structure and shoot slapstick comedy. And a fine model it would be. “Free and Easy” might be just as useful as a sabotage blueprint: It appears to degrade the ostensible star systematically.

Moreover, the maltreatment occurs within the setting of the studio itself. Mr. Keaton’s character, a rube from Kansas called Elmer Butz, hopes to promote a film career for his sweetheart Elvira, played by Anita Page, fresh from “The Broadway Melody” but denied anything resembling an active role. Although Elmer is supposed to emerge as a comic prospect after blundering around the lot, Buster is showcased so abominably from one flatfooted sequence to the next that you’d swear the guiding intention of the movie was to wreck his reputation.

Freudians might treasure it as an example of how unconscious malice and resentment can overwhelm superficial good will and encouragement. “Free and Easy” gets the self-defeating process of mismanaging the talents of Buster Keaton off to a bewildering and sinister start. It makes him appear an unwelcome newcomer to the Metro domain. He even loses the heroine to Robert Montgomery.

In addition, the musical flair demonstrated in “The Broadway Melody” and “The Hollywood Revue” do a disappearing act. Every song and/or dance number cooked up for “Free and Easy” proves a dud. Under the circumstances, it even kind of hurts to see that Buster’s eccentric hoofing in the number meant to introduce a dance called the “free and easy” is funny — and might have salvaged something in a less stupefying and humiliating context. Nevertheless, I think I now realize where choreographer Danny Daniels got the idea for the bogus dance craze called the “chameleon” in Woody Allen’s “Zelig.” It’s a fond recollection of the vintage clumsiness of the free and easy.

TITLE: “Steamboat Bill, Jr.”

CREDITS: A Buster Keaton production directed by Charles F. Reisner. Scenario by Carl Harbaugh. Photography by Dev Jennings and Bert Haines. Technical supervisor: Fred Gabourie. Released in June 1928

RUNNING TIME: 70 minutes, supplemented by the two-reel Keaton shorts “Convict 13” and “Day Dreams,” which total about 40 minutes

VHS AND DVD EDITIONS: Kino Video

WEB SITE: www.kino.com

•••


TITLE: “Buster Keaton Collection”

CONTENTS: The final two Keaton silent features, “The Cameraman” and “Spite Marriage,” both released in 1929; and his first talking feature, “Free and Easy,” released in 1930

RUNNING TIMES: 76 minutes each for “Cameraman” and “Marriage”; 93 minutes for “Free and Easy”; plus the documentary featurette “So Funny It Hurts.”

DVD EDITION: TCM Archives & Warner Bros. Home Entertainment

WEB SITES: www.turnerclassicmovies.com; www.warnervideo.com

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