Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Films of Buster Keaton: Post 1938 Career

Buster Keaton’s directing career pretty much came to a close after those three shorts for MGM in 1938.  Over the rest of his career, he would only get a few uncredited directing jobs – on forgotten films  like Hollywood Cavalcade (1939), Easy to Wed (1946), In the Good Old Summertime (1949)  and Excuse My Dust (1951). I couldn’t find anything about what he actually did on those movies – with the exception of In the Good Old Summertime – where he devised a pratfall that would result in a broken violin – and was able to perform the scene himself (appearing in an MGM film for the first time since being fired in 1933) – and also working on a few other sequences in the film. I assume those other directing credits were something similar – filmmakers needing a gag to work, and getting Keaton to step in and direct a scene to make it work.

His acting career wasn’t much better. He’d appear in 11 shorts for Columbia Pictures between 1939 and 1941 – before swearing those off entirely. They are even less well known than his work for Educational Pictures, mainly because he had even less control over them. Between the end of his time working with Educational Pictures in 1936 and his death 30 years later, he had some 65 screen credits – often in small roles in small films. TV gave him a second career – he had not one, but two different TV shows in the early days of the medium – The Buster Keaton Show and Life with Buster Keaton – but neither lasted long. He did quite a lot of work on other TV shows – either as a guest star or back when they used to air what were essentially filmed plays. Most of this work is long forgotten. For children of the 1960s, they recognize Keaton as the old guy who showed up in Beach Party movies like Beach Blanket Bingo and How to Stuff a Wild Bikini. Throughout most of this time, it was thought that much of Keaton’s work in the 1920s – especially the shorts – were lost, although they were re-discovered in the 1960s, and he finally got his due as the genius that he was.

His most memorable film roles during this span of his career are inarguably his cameo as himself in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd. (1950) – playing one of Gloria Swanson’s card playing friends – the forgotten silent screen stars and in Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight (1952) – where he played Chaplin’s onstage assistant – and apparently was so good that Chaplin feared he’d upstage him, so he drastically cut his part (what’s in the final film is genius by Keaton).

In 1965 though, he made two shorts – one for the National Film Board of Canada (for which he did some uncredited directing – the last of his career) and one a collaboration with the famed writer Samuel Becket – who initially wanted Chaplin for the film, but he couldn’t be tracked down. Becket, who had tried to cast Keaton in the original Broadway production of Waiting for Godot (but Keaton turned him down) later said Keaton was the right choice for the film – and he was. Tomorrow’s post will be about these two odd films for 1965 – The Railrodder and Film.

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