Friday, 5 May 2017

The Buster That Could've Been: Ten stone-faced alternate realities

“I’ve had a very interesting career. In other words, I have no complaints.” – Buster Keaton to Tony Thomas, 1960

Interesting is an understatement. Buster Keaton’s tumultuous 65-year career in vaudeville, film and television was a literal rollercoaster of ups, downs, missed opportunities and fascinating “what if’s”. If the fates had played out just a little differently, what could Buster’s alternate reality have looked like? 

#1 Hollywood's first child star. Apparently, in 1913 or thereabouts, William Randolph Hearst approached Joe Keaton with the idea of casting The Three Keatons in a screen version of George McManus' comic strip, "Bringing Up Father".  Nix, said Joe. “Nobody’s going to see The Three Keatons on a dirty sheet for a nickel.” (Or words to that effect.) 

But imagine the highly visual, hugely physical Keaton family act on the big screen. It’s a natural, I tell ya. And though the chronology isn’t quite right (Buster would have been 18 in 1913, not exactly a “child”), picture pint-sized Buster as celluloid’s original enfant terrible, bedevilling parents Joe and Myra in a series of split-reel slapstick escapades. Because there’s no filmed record of The Three Keatons’ act, it’s easy to forget just how big-time Buster was as a kid. What a shame there aren’t even a few fragile frames of nitrate where we could “keep our eye on the kid”. 

#2. Huge in France. 1934. With his Hollywood career in tatters, a bad marriage, depressed, alcoholic, unemployed — why not a completely fresh start? After all, Josephine Baker and le jazz hot were just a few of the American imports impacting Parisian culture at the time, and “Malec” had already been embraced by the French intelligentsia. If Hemingway could find his muse in Paris, why not Buster?

So let’s imagine an alternate reality where Buster sails to France to film “Le Roi de Champs Elysees” and figures, “I think I’ll just stay”. He finds a small studio willing to give him creative freedom, and the language barrier actually works to his advantage, minimizing dialogue and accentuating pantomime in his Parisian productions. His creative use of sound informs (to a greater point than it ultimately did in reality) the work of Jacques Tati and Pierre Etaix, and ultimately he joins his old friends Stan Laurel & Oliver Hardy, playing the “Antoine” role in their Franco-Italian production “Atoll K”. 

#3. Fred Mertz. Buster’s established stoneface persona would have captured the same good natured curmudgeonliness William Frawley brought to the role of Ricky and Lucy Ricardo’s landlord and best friend. Plus Fred Mertz was allegedly an ex-vaudevillian, creating the perfect rationale for Buster to engage in some slapstick shenanigans with Lucille Ball. 

Btw, is it just me, or is it weird that Lucy — who professed a huge admiration for Keaton, considered him a mentor, and who’d forged a friendship with him on the MGM lot in in the ‘40s — never had Buster as a guest star on "I Love Lucy" or her later "The Lucy Show"?* It wasn't until the summer of 1965 that they "officially" performed together, in what was technically Buster's final television sketch, on "A Salute to Stan Laurel". At least we have that, but seriously, WTF?

*Same goes for Red Skelton, who never invited Buster on his TV show. What’s up with that?

#4. A B-Western sidekick, just like Al St. John.  Buster’s old Comique cohort Al St. John enjoyed an entire second career (and gained a certain immortality) as “Fuzzy Q. Jones”, a bearded, bumbling but brighter-than-he-seems codger in countless horse operas alongside Lash Larue, etc. etc. 

From the dawn of talkies to the advent of television, B-westerns were legion — and the lone prairie turned out to be the last refuge for many a silent comedian; Andy Clyde, Snub Pollard, Jimmy Aubrey, Poodles Hanneford and even Max Davidson found themselves bringing comic relief to any number of B-westerns from the ‘30s into the early ‘50s. Could Buster have found a home in the cinematic sagebrush?

He certainly had an affinity for the old west, as seen in his silent classics “The Paleface” and “Go West”. Obviously, Buster belongs in the wide open plains. Into the ‘40s he has a secondary sidekick role (literally the sidekick to grizzled sidekick #1 Si Jenks) in the less-than-aptly named Action Pictures’ less-than-classic Cinecolor nature film, “God’s Country”. The film isn’t really a western, but anything where Buster’s porkpie hat is replaced by a coonskin cap gets by on a technicality. 

Buster came closest to reaching true “western sidekick” status in the early ‘60s, when he was cast as Ernie Kovacs’ native American partner-in-crime in the pilot for the half-hour sitcom, “Medicine Man”. Sadly, Kovacs’ tragic death in a car crash kept more than one episode from being filmed. What a damn shame on so many levels. While the finished pilot isn’t great (Kovacs can’t quite pull off the con-man-with-a-soft-heart, and Buster’s role — imagine Chief Rotten Eagle from “Pajama Party” — would draw plenty of PC winces today), who wouldn’t have loved seeing Buster popping up on their TV screens, week after week after week, with one of the era’s most idiosyncratic comedy stars?

#5. A pioneer in sound film. Buster Keaton, the quietest of the silent clowns, had a simple philosophy when it came to sound: “We talk when we’re supposed to talk, but we lay out material that doesn’t call for dialogue.” In other words, unless you have a reason to talk, don't.

With the advent of talkies, Chaplin managed to avoid sound. Keaton didn’t have the luxury — or the interest, frankly — to do so. He had every intention of embracing this new technology… on his own terms. MGM, unfortunately, had other ideas. “So the minute they started laying out a script, they’re looking for those funny lines, puns, little jokes, anything else.” 

Unfortunately, due to MGM's approach to talkies, Buster wouldn't have the opportunity to put this theory into practice until his first Educational shorts. "The Gold Ghost" gives Buster a full three lines of dialogue (one of them being “Stop!”) in the first reel. Ultimately, the Educationals would acquiesce to “modern” expectation (these churned out cheapies affording very little time or “artistic vision), although a few gems still reveal Buster’s austere approach to sound (notably "One Run Elmer").  

But given the opportunity, it’s easy to imagine Buster creating films in which silence is anything but silent, and the aural experience would be every bit as quirky as the visual. The French comic filmmakers Jacques Tati and Pierre Etaix were masters at this, and both readily acknowledged the influence of Keaton in their work. 

Finally, look at 1965’s “The Railrodder”. Technically, yes, it’s a silent film — but really the only reason it’s silent is that Buster has nobody to talk to. So why talk? A more recent equation would be Robert Redford’s 2013 solo performance in “All Is Lost”, with its single line of dialogue: “fuuuuuuuck”. Give me a moment while I picture Buster in that role. 

#6 MGM’s comeback kid. By the end of 1932, Buster was given the boot by MGM and was pretty much washed up in Hollywood. The road back led to Florida, Paris, England and ultimately Educational’s address on Poverty Row. A humbling return to MGM as a gagman seemed to cement Buster’s bottom-tier status at the studio where he once reigned — until he was offered a high-profile (and well publicized) supporting role in the Nelson Eddy/Jeanette McDonald operetta, “New Moon”. 

How thrilling must this have been for Buster? An opportunity to vindicate himself in a major MGM production, far away from the Columbia “cheaters” currently bearing his name. A role like this could have re-established Keaton’s worth to MGM — if not as a star, then as a solid, reliable, laugh-getting contract player. He must have been salivating at the opportunity.

But it never happened, and of the many dashed dreams Buster encountered in the wake of his initial MGM firing, this one must have really hurt. In the end, Keaton was cut from the final film (although he can be glimpsed in a few frames). One theory was that he was “too funny”, upstaging everyone and stealing the picture.  (Buster being “too funny” and having his scenes cut accordingly is always a great story, as in the legend of “Limelight”.) The real story, it seems, was that Buster shared a number of scenes with Nat Pendleton, who fell ill and couldn’t complete the picture. With Pendleton gone, and Keaton’s role so dependent on his presence, the easiest thing to do was simply to scissor Buster. 

MGM never gave Buster a second chance after that — not when he needed it, anyway. (You could argue they did with “In The Good Old Summertime”, but it was too little too late. And by that time his later career renaissance was on the rise. Buster did fine without MGM after that, thank you.) 

#7. A dramatic actor. Buster’s onscreen stoicism automatically suggests a certain gravitas to his comedy, and we know him to be a man who took his comedy very, very seriously. His best films all had a sober undercurrent, and anyone who’s seen “The General” or the finale of “Battling Butler” knows just how fine a dramatic actor Buster could be. (At his best he’s more authentic than Chaplin, and more interesting than Lloyd.)

Various rumors and publicity blurbs had Buster making his “formal” dramatic debut in MGM’s “Grand Hotel” (supposedly in the role played by Lionel Barrymore). I can only assume that would have been magnificent, and could have carved out a very different career for Buster at MGM beyond the endless iterations of “Elmer”. But it never happened. 

Ultimately, it took television to give Buster some all-too-rare dramatic opportunities. One of his finest performances is “The Awakening”, an adaptation of Gogol’s story “The Overcoat” presented by Douglas Fairbanks Jr. as part of the Rheingold Theatre anthology series. Buster portrays a bureaucrat content in his role within the system until he, himself, becomes a victim of it. His impassioned speech at the film’s climax is a Keaton we’d never seen before and, unfortunately, one we wouldn’t really see again.

A later TV drama, “The Silent Partner” is a solid piece of mid-‘50s hokum completely saved by Buster playing, essentially, an alternate reality version of himself. “Kelsey Dutton” is a washed up silent comedy star, hiding from his past behind a glass of beer. It had to have cut pretty close to the bone for Buster, but his superb underplaying makes Kelsey neither pitiful or a caricature. In fact, it’s the re-creations of silent slapstick that torpedo the show; if Buster’d been left to his dramatic devices while the “flashbacks” were represented by actual clips from Keaton’s silent classics, “The Silent Partner” might have been a classic of its own kind.

#8. Karl Dane.  The silent comedy graveyard is littered with those who succumbed to drink and/or despair. Larry Semon, Lloyd Hamilton, Charley Chase all died young and haunted. Harry Langdon clung on as long as he could before finally slipping away. Perhaps most tragic of all was Buster’s best friend, Roscoe Arbuckle, who scandal hoped to destroy but couldn't, but whose mighty heart gave out on the dawn of what could have been a glorious comeback. 

Then there’s Buster’s MGM stablemate, Karl Dane. Unlike Buster, it wasn’t loss of creative control and alcoholism that ended his career at MGM. It was his voice; a thick Danish accent mangled his attempts at comedy in the talkie era. Ultimately, MGM let him go… within a few years, Karl Dane ended it all with a revolver. 

It’s not hard to imagine Buster at the end of his MGM tether — drunk, frustrated, angry, at a loss for how far and fast he fell — staring into the barrel of a gun. Once again, Buster’s work ethic saved his life. As he’d done in his family vaudeville act so many times when his father threw him into a backdrop, he picked himself up, dusted himself off, and started all over again.

#9. A wax works. By 1950, the silent stars of a generation ago had a permanent address in has-been-land. Buster could have just as easily taken up residence alongside H.B. Warner and Anna Q. Nillson on Sunset Boulevard. But nope. Buster had already embraced television with his own local (later syndicated TV show) and was busily engineering a comeback. 

Yes, TV too often portrayed him as an old-timey pie throwing Kop (something that started with Hollywood Cavalcade in 1939, and a persona Buster was quite willing to adopt if it meant a paycheck) — but beyond that, Buster refused to live in the past, quite vocally expressing dismay when, at a reunion of silent Hollywood icons, “Some of them had never heard a Beatles record. They haven’t kept up with the times.” If keeping up with the times meant doing the twist with Bobbi Shaw over the end credits of “Beach Blanket Bingo”, then let’s twist! 

#10. A very old man. He could've been on Laugh-In. He could've taken all of Burt Mustin's kindly codger roles. He could've been a mainstay on Carson, regaling audiences with stories of his triumphs and tragedies over the course of showbiz history. All I know is 70 is waaaay too young to have left us.


  1. That's great! I like to think Buster would have been outstanding doing Fred Astaire-type comedy musicals. Buster was a wonderful dancer (and not too bad a singer), and one can only imagine what kind of comedy musicals he could have come up with in the 30s, as they can be a great basis for physical comedy with very little dialogue. We've seen him do great things in Doughboys or Grand Slam Opera, and even Free and Easy. That's one I like to think about at times. :)

    1. Those are definitely three of Buster's absolute best moments from the '30s. Despite the visual metaphor of Buster being yanked around by a puppeteer's strings, the song & dance in FREE & EASY is terrific. On a much smaller note, so is his little number with Elsie Ames in GENERAL NUISANCE.

  2. These alternate realities sound pretty cool, and I also like Babette's suggestion!
    Your article was excellent. Very entertaining.
    Keep it up!

  3. good timing - I have been thinking that "Modern Times" and "The Graduate" could both have been Keaton films -- but was looking for a good writer who might make the case -- Now I know who I'm going to ask! Great Story!

    1. LOL, well Bob, let's talk! A Buster version of "Modern Times" would be fascinating -- and of course totally different from Chaplin's take. And "The Graduate" is almost a Keatonian elevation of a Harold Lloyd film!

  4. What an intriguing article - thank you

  5. Chris,

    There's one more alternate Keaton reality I once postulated on, I always though if Roscoe Arbuckle had lived to fulfill his newly signed Warner Brothers contract for features n 1933, he would have hired the newly fired from MGM Buster to co-star with him in features, and both careers would have been revived.

    As far as dramatic roles, Buster did several more that most people forget, the best one being the 1958 PLAYHOUSE 90 episode THE INNOCENT SLEEP, in which Buster plays a deaf-mute who may or may not have murdered his parents. It's an amazing silent part for Keaton, directed by Franklin J. Shaffner. Buster did another serious role in another PLAYHOUSE 90 episode, NO TIME AT ALL in 1958, where he plays an airline executive. That same year, he also played an essentially straight role on THE DONNA REED SHOW's Christmas episode as a janitor at a hospital who plays Santa Claus.


    1. Hey Richard, just saw this now! (Sorry!) I'd never heard of THE INNOCENT SLEEP, that sounds like an absolute must-see! And I didn't mention NO TIME AT ALL since I recall his role being pretty small (part of an all-star cast). You're right, he's very good in THE DONNA REED SHOW, with a lovely close-up while the cast sings "Silent Night".

      As for reuniting with Roscoe -- well, we can only imagine how wonderful that might have been.