Throughout the 1920’s Buster Keaton was one the greatest silent film comedians. He would not only star in some of the great silent films, but would also direct, write and be the creative force behind them with both his mind and body. His talents for creating visual gags and his ability to execute them made him a popular star and his films are still as entertaining today as when he first made them.
As the 1920s were coming to a close, Keaton got an an offer to work for the richest and most influential studio in the world – MGM. Keaton who was used to complete creative control in his work would find things very different at MGM. He would become a paid performer, his independence he enjoyed as a filmmaker was gone and his ideas were ignored. He would soon find himself awkwardly starring in films that no longer played to his strengths.
After starring in a string of forgettable films, engaging in affairs, having family issues and a growing dependence on alcohol to get through his days Buster would leave MGM five years later. In that short span of time he went from being one of the most revered comedians of his time to being practically unemployable.
Buster would later say signing with MGM was the worst mistake he made in his life.
The documentary So Funny It Hurt: Buster Keaton & MGM covers these turbulent years. It’s something of a unique look at Keaton in the sense his silent masterpieces are barely, if ever, mentioned. At the beginning it’s already established the powerhouse of an artist Keaton is as he moseyed through the gates of MGM. What might have seemed like a great opportunity turned into something that practically ruined his career and Keaton’s best years would be behind him.
Narrated by Keaton friend James Karen (who will forever be ‘The Pathmark Guy’ to me) the doc examines how underutilized and unappreciated Keaton was by MGM. They had very little regard for his unique talents and would use him in subpar comedies that ironically were quite successful with audiences, but would leave Keaton feeling confused and depressed.
I haven’t actually seen that many of Keaton’s MGM comedies and based on the clips of them they feature still leaves me uninterested in them. The pairings of Keaton and Jimmie Durante don’t look very funny.
The doc does hold Keaton partly responsible for the spiral his career would take. With the problems he was having with his wife and his escalation of using alcohol assisted Buster to depend on the studio for a salary.
Plus, at the time his films weren’t considered ‘classics’ as they are today. MGM had to be a bit nervous considering Keaton’s The General would have the most expensive shot in the silent era and Steamboat Bill Jr. from what I’ve heard was not exactly very profitable. There must of been some trepidation on MGM’s part as to what might have happened had they given Buster complete creative control.
There are some great behind-the-scenes footage of Keaton filming The Cameraman in New York, along with later interviews of him reflecting on his time spent at MGM. One thing that I always found fascinating and stood out to me in this 1964 interview sitdown, which I’ve seen parts before, is how Keaton refers to his movies as “pictures”. “When we made pictures we ate, slept and dreamed of pictures”.
I don’t know why I’ve always hooked onto that term. I’ve repeated that line to my line to myself since hearing him say that. It’s such an old school way to refer to movies and sounds so passé now. I can’t imagine turning on an entertainment show, watching an interview or reading an article today with an actor promoting their latest ‘picture’.
The doc quickly breezes over the aftermath and what became of Buster after he left MGM. Later he would become a gagman for two-reel comedies, reworking some of his early silent work for contemporary comedians (very blatant when the scenes are compared) and then gradually appearing in supporting parts. But the doc is meant to focus on that five-year span of Keaton’s time at MGM and once he was fired the story ends.
It almost feels like just one part of a larger documentary. It’s an extra on one of Keaton’s Collection DVD’s, but I watched this on Turner Classic Movies during a Keaton marathon. At forty minutes it offers some interesting insights into the worst period of Keaton’s career. It depresses me as I watched this thinking had Keaton not signed with MGM what he might have done during this period. What films might he have made if it was all up to him. I think fans were robbed.
Here’s a short Buster montage I made quite awhile ago featuring many of his most famous scenes and stunts.