It’s the films he made in the 1920s that he’ll always be remembered for. From 1920-1929 he directed 19 shorts and 12 features, and while not all of them are masterpieces, quite a few of them are and many others are close to it. During this time period even his misfires were at least entertaining if nothing else. No director in history has ever made such a remarkable, sustained run in one decade. And that, in an instant, it was gone. He signed the contract with MGM, got to make two features his way, and then nothing else. He spent the last 37 years of his life mostly working on projects that were beneath his genius – but he kept plugging away.
That damned contract has got to be one of the worst things that ever happened in cinema history. Keaton thought that it was getting too expensive to be an Independent Filmmaker – and that by signing the contract, he would be securing his financial future, and that the studio would still allow him some degree of freedom. Why else would they sign Buster Keaton to a contract if they didn’t want him to be Buster Keaton?
Charles Chaplin, to who Keaton will be forever compared, stayed independent – and as a result was able to do some of his very best work after Keaton’s career was over in terms of his producing his own works. Chaplin’s two greatest silent films were City Lights (1931) and Modern Times (1936) – both of which he made long after everyone else had given up making silent films. He made at least two great sound films as well – The Great Dictator (1940) and Monsieur Verdoux (1947) – as well as the very good Limelight (1952) – featuring Keaton. He never had to degrade himself by taking roles unworthy of his talent – he pretty much controlled his entire career, and after he became a star, never had to appear in a film he didn’t direct.
Sadly, that was not the case for Keaton – who lost everything. For 10 years, he was one of the best filmmakers in the world – and he remains the best actor/director ever because of those 10 years. After that, he pretty much had to do whatever was offered to him – whether or not it was any good. That’s no way to treat a genius – and yet Keaton really only has himself to blame. Chaplin – and others – told him not to sign that contract. If only he had listened, we may live in a world where Keaton kept right on making masterpieces for years to come. One of the great tragedies of film culture is that will never really know what Keaton could have done in the years after 1929.