Buster Keaton: Assassin for Freedom

*One of the most enduring myths regarding the US film industry’s widespread switchover from silent to sound production is that its stars were caught unaware, unprepared to adapt their particularized styles to the demands of the talkies. There’s a bit of truth to that, but a good number of performers were ready and willing to tackle the new world as it arrived. It’s thus really no surprise to discover that silent comedian Joseph 'Buster' Keaton, die-hard tinkerer and lover of technological play, was really quite interested in exploiting the properties of sound film. After all, he’d been performing on stage for well over a decade prior to entering the cinema as a protégé of the ill-fated Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle, so he knew how to deliver lines and utilize verbal humor. Hell, if you’re going to meticulously repeat camera setups in order to play every character in a scene, as Keaton did in 1921’s The Playhouse, figuring out sound technology shouldn't be all that hard.

No, Keaton’s problem was not that he was blindsided by technology; rather, he was blindsided by business. Keaton’s prior producer (and father-in-law), who had offered him great creative freedom, had sold out his contract to MGM shortly prior to the popularization of sound. And while at first blush things seemed hardly different working for MGM, even a bit more lavish, the studio quickly brought the whip down during the sound changeover, stripping Keaton of the creative input he’d normally have, and plugging him willy-nilly into whatever ill-fitting vehicle seemed to touch the public’s fancy, artistic satisfaction to the star be damned. The grand irony of it all: often these films were popular. Audiences paid well to see Keaton teamed up with Jimmy Durante, despite the rather patent clash between the two men’s individual comedic approaches. This only encouraged the MGM heads, while Keaton tumbled downward into a pit of alcohol abuse, culminating in a brief stay in a sanitarium in the mid-‘30s and the destruction of his viability as a feature leading man in American film.

But that was not the end of Keaton. It was not the end of the new technologies he’d be confronted with either. Indeed, the advent of that in-home miracle box - television - would provide Keaton with much of the star attraction support that the cinema would deny him in his later years, vindicating his hopeful interest in new technologies. Television, in its early days, provided financial succor to vaudevillians and comical bit-players through its abundance of variety shows, and Keaton took great advantage of the opportunity - as early as 1949, Keaton was starring in his own live west coast broadcast, The Buster Keaton Show, which was then cleared for a second (taped) season and national syndication as Life With Buster Keaton. Keaton terminated the program after that sophomore run, but continued as a frequent guest on many different shows, usually performing in silent-influenced (often adapted) skits.

Oh, and he also once played the completely dramatic lead role of a reluctant revolutionary who violently tears down a bureaucracy-stuffed totalitarian regime.

Yes, Keaton (very) occasionally scored ‘serious’ roles on the tube, the first and most fascinating of which can be found in Episode #49 of Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Presents, an anthology series that ran from 1953-57, filmed in England (though commissioned by NBC in the US) as a showcase for original half-hour dramatic, comedic, mysterious, and fantastical stories. A bit like Playhouse 90 or The Twilight Zone, both of which also featured Keaton in episodes, though earlier than either.

The episode in question is titled The Awakening, and first aired on July 14, 1954. As the chipper, pencil-thin mustached Mr. Fairbanks himself mentions in his introduction, it’s an adaptation of the famous Nikolai Gogol short story The Cloak; he’s no Rod Sterling, but Fairbanks does a decent job of hyping the show up, placing special emphasis on the fact that this is Buster Keaton’s first dramatic role (it’d be more accurate to say ‘wholly’ dramatic, given the lightly melodramatic nature of Keaton’s feature debut, 1920’s The Saphead, but what can you expect?). Plainly, Keaton still had name recognition (whether carried over from the silent era or freshly produced in television), and his appearing in a drama could act as a genuine selling point. And what an odd little drama it is!

It soon becomes apparent, as the show proper starts, that we’re looking at a rather loose adaptation of Gogol, one turned to the service of explicit political allegory, some of it still amusingly modern today. Keaton plays a meek file clerk in some unstuck-in-time totalitarian municipality, valued for his ability at memorizing difficult document numbers and knowing just where to store all the right files. Never mind that these files concern things like the apportioning of much-needed medicine for sick people - the good clerk’s task is to distinguish between form 456.32(A)(25) and form 456.32(B)(15), thus keeping the gears of bureaucracy well-oiled (and if you’re anything like me, you’re already whistling the theme to Brazil). Speaking of oily, all citizens are urged to tune into their fearless leader The Chief’s blatantly propagandist radio broadcasts, in which he boasts of how much he cares about his people, and much smiting of the enemy is going on. Keaton is a good follower, taking it all in unquestioningly as he traverses his world, which is wedged uncomfortably between '19th century village' and 'art deco Hell' in terms of set design. The environmental jumble even extends to language, with all of the salt-of-the-earth common folk speaking in vaguely Eastern European tones, all of the government tools sporting British accents, and Keaton himself retaining his twangy Kansas baritone.

This patchwork aesthetic distracts, but it doesn’t really detract from Keaton’s performance, which is really quite sublime. His voice has always carried a slightly pleading, emphatic quality, and it’s put to fitting effect with this character. But the real trick behind his success is even simpler to appreciate: Keaton is fundamentally playing exactly the same ‘great stone face’ character he plays in his most famous comedies, only now the character exists in a world with no jokes. And just as removing all of the thought balloons from Garfield makes the strip seem oddly poignant, eradicating all surrounding slapstick from the archetypical Keaton character’s universe suddenly renders him depressive, sad, even ominous. It helps that Keaton is now 58 years old; his hair largely fallen out, deep wrinkles and crags pressed into his familiar expression, and large, piercing eyes growing visibly watery at times, Keaton looks incredibly weathered yet utterly unique, and immediately draws all audience attention whenever he’s on screen. All of the best of this show’s scenes have him silently walking around, acting with only that face. It makes me wonder what a visually masterful director like F.W. Murnau could have done with an older Keaton, had the former been up for it and the latter alive in the sound era.

Anyway, the plot involves Keaton visiting a tailor’s shop on his lunch hour in order to fix his overcoat; the ratty rag has been attracting derision from various quarters, and Keaton is eager to get it mended before winter. Keaton dozes off in the middle of one of the fearless leader’s broadcasts, kindly telegraphing the big final twist for everyone who’s seen more than two films or dramatic television programs in their life. The tailor wakes Keaton, saying the coat is beyond help - only a new cloak will do, and it will be the very best of the best, so hungry is the tailor to create something real in so awful a world. Keaton reluctantly agrees, saving his cash for the purchase, and it’s all worth it when the new coat arrives - it truly is the finest in the land! Coworkers don’t even recognize Keaton, and women suddenly think he’s handsome! It gives him self-esteem like he’s never known, but it all comes crashing down when he attracts the city’s criminal element, a mugging resulting in the theft of that damned fine jacket.

Needless to say, Keaton suddenly develops a sense of empathy for the common person. He tries to talk to the police about finding his beloved coat, but they only ask him to file the appropriate forms and wait. When he protests, he’s immediately sent to prison (not much for subtlety, this regime). Upon release, Keaton finds that he can no longer perform his filing duties without thinking of the people behind the numbers, an attitude that makes him even less popular than before among his coworkers. Finally, he decides to write a personal plea for aid to the fearless leader himself. After all, the man keeps saying he cares about the people, right?

Before he knows it, Keaton is brought before the Chief (played with gregariously hammy gusto by British character actor James Hayter), and he pleads his case on a live radio broadcast. Instantly, the Chief orders a bunch of workers assigned to the mater dismissed, and declares the problem solved. This solution has produced a distinct lack of ‘coat’ though, and Keaton starts getting mad. Finally realizing that his leader only has petty power games in mind, Buster uses his pulpit to deliver a top-of-his lungs message of dissent to the people, his eyes bugging out and his voice booming as a crowd of armed guards try to restrain him, but no human bondage can tie down justice and/or Buster Keaton! Seizing an officer’s pistol, Our Hero busts a cap (several, really) in the head of repression, a climax that certainly would have made some of those later MGM films more lively. Then, as everyone who hadn’t been using the toilet for the first ten minutes of the show had expected, we return to the tailor’s office, where Keaton awakes once again (granted, the whole thing is titled The Awakening...).

Just a dream! Or was it… a vision?! Keaton becomes agitated when his conversation with the tailor begins repeating itself from earlier. Why, if the tailor makes that coat, then Buster will be driven to assassinate the Chief again! Keaton saunters out of the store. What will he do?

And then he saunters back in.

(come on, all together now…)

Make me the coat!” he demands! YEAH! Now it’s B for Vendetta! A triumphant orchestral refrain rises up, as the camera frames Keaton’s granite countenance, the sheer contours of revolution now carved onto his stone face! Silent clowns should not be afraid of their governments; governments should be afraid of their silent clowns!

And fade to black.

So clearly, I loved the damn thing. It says a lot about what makes Keaton's humor work, even as he strove to find new means of support in a fresh era. The whole show is available on Kino's R1 dvd of latter-period Keaton miscellany, Keaton Plus. It's a great disc for fans, also rounding up some television commercials, bargain-basement sound two-reelers, behind-the-scenes footage from The General (!!), home movies, content from John Bengtson wonderful book Silent Echoes: Discovering Early Hollywood Through the Films of Buster Keaton, and tributes from various famous folk, including a tipsy-looking Orson Welles in front of a blood-red background. Also available is a second latter-period Buster disc, Industrial Strength Keaton from Mackinac Media, which boasts a generous selection of the man's work in industrial film, a venue that allowed him almost all the creative freedom he craved, so long as the necessary message got across in the end.

And he still did his own pratfalls, even at age 68.