Tuesday, November 25, 2014

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

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Before The Freshman TCM ran So Funny It Hurt: Buster Keaton & MGM, a documentary by Kevin Brownlow (who had previously collaborated with the late David Gill on a three-hour film about Keaton’s whole career, A Hard Act to Follow) and Christopher Bird, about how Keaton’s career collapsed when Joseph Schenck, who’d produced his films throughout the 1920’s, decided to close the company he and Keaton had formed after Steamboat Bill, Jr. in 1928. Schenck urged Keaton to sign with MGM because Schenck’s brother Nicholas was the company president and would protect him. Alas, though Nicholas Schenck ran the business end of MGM from New York, he had little or no creative role in the company; the studio itself was run by Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg, who were excellent producers (Mayer was mostly responsible for keeping the studio going administratively and Thalberg was the creative production head) but had little or no patience with unique filmmaking talents who wanted to control their own destinies. The list of directors who bombed out at MGM because they couldn’t deal with the factory-like production system is legendary, including Erich von Stroheim, Joseph von Sternberg, Mauritz Stiller, Victor Seastrom, Rupert Hughes (Howard Hughes’ uncle), Maurice Tourneur (Jacques Tourneur’s father) and Buster Keaton.

Actually Keaton’s career had begun to decline in 1926, two years before the date given here, with the release of The General; today it’s considered Keaton’s masterpiece, a comedy classic with a nervy mix of terror and humor that seems quite modern today. But in 1926 it was a movie that had cost way too much to make — Keaton’s mania for authenticity, especially in depicting Civil War-era railroading (he insisted on shooting the film in Oregon because they still had a railroad that ran on the narrow-gauge track in use during the Civil War), meant the film cost more than $1 million to make (more than had ever been spent on a comedy before), and it was Keaton’s first box-office flop. At least part of that may be due to Joseph Schenck having just taken the reins of United Artists, and bringing the Keaton releases with him — United Artists didn’t have the clout of Schenck’s previous distributor, MGM — but the contemporary reviews indicate that the nervous mix of comedy and war drama that seems modern about The General simply put off 1926 audiences. “Some of the gags are in gruesomely bad taste,” the New York Herald-Tribune reviewer sniffed — and it’s not hard to figure out which ones he was talking about.

After The General bombed at the box office, Schenck put Keaton into a film called College that was a blatant ripoff of Harold Lloyd’s The Freshman — complete with a big pole-vaulting scene in which, for the first time in his career, Buster Keaton had a stunt double — and then made a truly Keatonesque movie called Steamboat Bill, Jr. with a thrill climax of Keaton blown wildly about by a storm (inspired by the real Mississippi River floods of 1927 and created on the set by six giant wind machines powered by airplane motors) that includes the famous scene of the front of a building detaching itself and falling towards Keaton. He escapes because he’s standing on the spot where the house has an open window — and given that the house front weighed two tons, Keaton had to be in exactly the right spot or he’d have been killed for real. This too was released to disappointing box-office results, so Schenck decided to place Keaton at MGM — where, in spite of studio interference, he made two more masterpieces, The Cameraman and Spite Marriage. Then sound came in, which — unlike Chaplin — Keaton actually welcomed. He was a gadget freak (the show contains an interview clip with Keaton in which he recalled that the first time he visited a movie set the first thing he wanted to do was take apart the camera to see how it functioned) and he’d already done gags, like the scene set to the song “Asleep in the Deep” in The Navigator, that are funny as they stand but would have been even funnier in a sound film. But MGM decided first to make Spite Marriage a silent with synchronized music and effects instead of a talkie, and then plunged Keaton into a lumbering musical called Free and Easy as his first talking film.

Most of So Funny It Hurt is narrated by Keaton himself, via interviews he filmed in the last years of his life (when he’d become a respected elder statesman of comedy), which are fascinating not only in his comments about what happened to him but also his bitching about other comedians (he regarded the Marx Brothers as irresponsible and Abbott and Costello as just lazy), including the ones he wrote gags for when MGM rehired him to write for other performers in the 1940’s. As Keaton explained it, the big problem with his MGM movies was that the screenwriters wanted him to do wisecracks, and he pleaded with them to give him as few lines as possible and let him do long silent sequences in which he could do the kind of comedy he did best. This really got to be a problem when the “suits” at MGM got the bright idea of teaming Keaton with Jimmy Durante, who wouldn’t shut up; Durante’s rapid-fire delivery of verbal comedy just overwhelmed Keaton. As both his career and his first marriage (to Natalie Talmadge, whose far more famous sister Norma was Mrs. Joseph Schenck) disintegrated, Keaton sought refuge in partying and drinking — his dad was an alcoholic and it seems to have run in the family — though the narrator, James Karen (who actually knew Keaton), diplomatically avoids making the point that had Keaton been as compulsively frugal as Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, it’s entirely possible he could have bought out Joseph Schenck’s interest in the Schenck-Keaton comedy studio and continued to make his movies independently. Instead he paid for the upkeep on the lavish “Italian villa” he’d bought for Natalie Talmadge (and put in her name, with the result that she sold it out from under him, divorced him, got sole custody of their kids, changed their name from Keaton to Talmadge and had him arrested at the U.S.-Mexico border when he tried to take them on vacation) and then moved into what he called his “land yacht,” a converted bus (today it would be called an R.V.) in which he could live, drink and party, conveniently parking it on the MGM lot when he was working so he didn’t have to face a drunken commute.

It’s a familiar and tragic story — though the truth of Keaton’s decline is considerably more complicated than the version we get here — which left Keaton blacklisted by Louis B. Mayer and virtually unemployable (after MGM fired him he’d make two films in Europe, The King of the Champs-Élysées in France and The Invader in England, then he returned to the U.S. for a dreary series of two-reel shorts for Educational and Columbia), though he occasionally appeared on screen for MGM and other studios (including his marvelous cameo as a bus driver in Universal’s San Diego, I Love You). Then in 1949 director Robert Z. Leonard asked Keaton to work out a gag sequence for the film In the Good Old Summertime in which an actor would take a pratfall while carrying a violin, breaking the instrument, and Leonard like Keaton’s demonstration so well he hired him to play the character on screen. Keaton got to do a local TV series in L.A. recycling his old gags, and meanwhile the Italian villa was sold to actor James Mason, who looked in a cupboard behind the projector in the house’s built-in movie theatre and saw a pile of film reels that turned out to be all Keaton’s silent features and most of his silent shorts. Mason called in Raymond Rohauer, who was running a silent-film revival house in L.A., and Rohauer called in Keaton, who went over the movies and supervised their reissue to a more appreciative audience than they’d had on their first go-round.