Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Buster Keaton Story (1957)

In a lot of ways, The Buster Keaton Story is the worst biopic that I've ever seen in my life. That's because virtually none of it is true! Yes, Buster Keaton performed in vaudeville with his family as a child.  Yes, he had phenomenal success in the silent films. And yes, sadly he was an alcoholic. None of the characters in this film except for Buster's parents are real. I've seen some whitewashed movie biographies in my day, but this is ridiculous.

The second egregious problem with the movie is that it doesn't focus much on Keaton's phenomenal movie career.  Let's face it -- the only reason any of us are interested in Keaton at all is because of the groundbreaking and truly innovative work that he did on his silent films.  The 1920s fly by in this film in about 10 minutes. Part of that time is spent re-creating scenes from two of Keaton's films (and one of those scenes, from Keaton's College, is rather dull and unfunny!). The bulk of the movie is spent on Keaton's alcoholism and resulting decline, and his relationship to casting director Gloria Brent whom he marries. (In life, none of Keaton's three wives were either casting directors or named Gloria.)

Fundamentally, I believe a movie maker has a right to make a movie any way he or she pleases.  In this case, since it is mostly fiction anyway, Buster Keaton's name could have been excised completely and the movie would not have been hurt. In fact, it would have helped in my eyes because I wouldn't have been irritated that it essentially had nothing to do with Buster Keaton.

So who's to blame for this mess? Surely some executive at Paramount Pictures received his walking papers for approving this drivel. But I lay the blame squarely on the shoulders of director and co-writer Sidney Sheldon.  This is the same Sidney Sheldon who would create The Patty Duke Show, I Dream of Jeannie, and Hart to Hart for TV -- and write most of the scripts for these shows. And it's the same Sidney Sheldon who would become the seventh best-selling writer of all time by churning out titillating beach reads like The Other Side of Midnight, A Stranger in the Mirror, and Rage of Angels. Sheldon ain't known for high quality art. (To be fair, Sheldon did win an Oscar for writing The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer  -- a film I haven't seen -- in 1947. And I've enjoyed my share of I Dream of Jeannie episodes.)

Poor Donald O'Connor tries valiantly to re-create Keaton. I don't think his performance is terrible; it just doesn't remind me of Buster Keaton. At all.  Beautiful Ann Blyth's performance as Keaton's wife is decidedly one-note until her final scene when she's finally allowed to loosen up.  Peter Lorre -- also delivering a one-note performance -- has a truly wretchedly-written role as a movie director who seems to hate Buster Keaton on sight for no explicable reason.  Larry Keating is well-cast as a movie studio head.  I saw on the movie credits that Richard Anderson (the boss on TV's The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman) and Jackie Coogan (Uncle Fester on TV's The Addams Family) were in the film, but I didn't recognize them while watching the movie and wasn't interested enough to go back and look for them.

I wish that I had watched a Buster Keaton film instead of The Buster Keaton Story. But I didn't, and it's hardly among the films that I absolutely loathe, so it gets a C-.

I watched this black-and-white film on Netflix streaming on December 30, 2012.

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