Much has been written about Buster Keaton, the silent film comedian who grew up performing in a rough-and-tumble vaudeville act with his parents, later to become became one of the pioneers of the film medium during the 1920s. The silent comedies he created are classics—The General (1926) is his most famous, but others, including Sherlock Jr. (1924) and Our Hospitality (1923), are brilliant as well. Keaton’s silent films showcased his adeptness at physical comedy, and he was popular with audiences; Keaton, along with Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, is one of the Big Three of silent film comedy.
James L. Neibaur’s new book, The Fall of Buster Keaton: His Films for M-G-M, Educational Pictures, and Columbia (Scarecrow Press, Inc., 242 Pages, $32.40), focuses on a period of Keaton’s life that has often been neglected in favor of authors telling stories of the glory days of silent films. Keaton had creative control over his silents (even if he didn’t produce them outright), and when he accepted a deal to make films for M-G-M, he thought he would be given creative control on par with what he had enjoyed before. But the decades Keaton spent making talkies did not produce any truly great films, and Keaton eventually became regarded as a forgotten has-been from the early days of cinema.
Neibaur discusses the films Keaton made with M-G-M, Educational Pictures, and Columbia, with other sections devoted to his work on television shows, commercials, and industrial films. Many fans have taken to dismissing Keaton’s talkies, just as Keaton would do in interviews later in his life. Not all of the films are good; Neibaur points out that, in quite a few of them, any comedian could have taken Keaton’s role and done well with the part. But Neibaur is not willing to dismiss these films outright; it is his contention that Keaton, depressed that he was no longer in control of his films, brought a signature touch to many of the works from this period that remind the viewer that they are indeed watching Buster Keaton, and he is considered a comedy genius for a reason.
An interesting issue addressed in Neibaur’s book is whether Keaton’s final decades could be considered “successful.” Neibaur looks at this from both sides. Late in his life, Keaton was acting in cheesy Beach Party movies and Milky Way commercials—not great works of art by any stretch of the imagination, but at least Keaton was still working and earning an income. As Neibaur points out, Keaton’s spirits were buoyed when he was being productive. And it is true that, though modern audiences consider Keaton’s silents to be classics, the talkies he made while working for M-G-M, like Sidewalks of New York (1931) and Free and Easy (1930), made more money than his silents ever did.
One area The Fall of Buster Keaton does not delve into is Keaton’s personal life. The focus here is on the work, not Keaton’s personal problems, of which there were many. For those who want to read about Keaton’s private life—his alcoholism, his divorce, his second marriage that lasted approximately a week—Marion Meade’s Buster Keaton: Cut to the Chase (1997) is a more gossipy account of Keaton’s life.
Those who are already fans of Keaton’s silent work could easily get depressed while reading The Fall of Buster Keaton. This is not because the book is badly written (it is far from it), but because reading about the troubled later life of someone who contributed so much to film history is legitimately disheartening. Still, for those interested in the body of Keaton’s work in its entirety, The Fall of Buster Keaton is a good read that addresses parts of Keaton’s career that many other books gloss over or completely ignore.