The Buster Keaton Story (1957), is a film made perhaps too soon, and which many fans of Buster Keaton would agree should never have been made at all. It is an example of one of the most unrealistic biographies produced by Hollywood, bearing very little fact in the story. But it is an interesting attempt at trying to portray the life of a giant of the early days of the film industry in an era where that giant, Buster Keaton, was only just beginning to be rediscovered by a new generation.
The bright spots of this story are Donald O’Connor, who plays Buster Keaton and Ann Blyth, who is a fictional character, a sort of composite of his wives. She has a fictional name and a fictional back story.
The film began shooting in June 1956, a very busy year for Ann, who was 27 years old when this film was made, but, incongruously, her film career was actually winding down. There would be only one more year after this.
In March 1956 she appeared as a guest on the Perry Como television show, and in May, she appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, Mother’s Day, May 13, 1956 as a recipient of Sullivan’s Mother of the Year Awards (along with fellow recipients Betty Grable, Deborah Kerr, Betty Hutton, Rosemary Clooney and June Allyson). A bevy of beautiful moms.
By August, it was reported that she had to cancel a singing engagement at the Sahara Hotel in Las Vegas, slated for September, because MGM, to which she was under contract at the time, ordered her back to start another film as soon as The Buster Keaton Story for Paramount was finished up.
Her work in The Buster Keaton Story was understated and solid, but apart from the acrobatic final scene, which we’ll get to, seemed not much of a challenge. From The Schenectady Gazette in an article by Louise Boyka from May 1957: “Attractive Ann Blyth does much to keep up the caliber of the film with her high quality acting and personal appeal."
But Ann’s sincerity could not help the basic faults of this film, which suffered a loss of credibility through the clumsy handling of the film’s producers
With so much fictional in this movie about such a remarkable figure in film history, viewing it will quickly become an exercise in frustration. This is not the place to go looking for the truth about Buster Keaton. There are documentaries, such as the excellent Buster Keaton - A Hard Act to Follow (currently here on YouTube), but the best source on Buster Keaton’s genius are his own films. Happily, many have been restored and make up some of the finest comedies made of the silent era. That he was an exceptionally talented man, and brilliant, though down-to-earth storyteller cannot be denied, but The Buster Keaton Story ignores his genius and slides into lazy cliché. We have the beginning of the down and out vaudevillians trudging through the snow to the theatrical boardinghouse where Buster is fighting for food as a child in a scene which we will later recognize from one of his movies.
Though the film does lean heavily on Buster’s drinking to supply the drama and the tension, it does not really go into the reasons for his drinking. In the movie, we are told that sound films have destroyed the silent era, and have left him without a job. We even have a reference to John Gilbert’s professional demise because his voice was no friend to the microphone, a myth which has been proven false, but which is one of the clichés that the film perpetuates.
Written by Sidney Sheldon and Richard Smith, produced by them, and directed by Sheldon, the main fault of this movie is the script. It is rife with clichés and so full of inaccuracies that the embarrassment Buster Keaton apparently felt at its premiere and the critical hammering the film received, giving both the careers of Ann Blyth and Donald O’Connor a black eye, is really the fault of the script and the production. The direction was lackluster.
And I can’t help but wonder what Peter Lorre was doing in this film as a belittling director. It was a role that could have been played by anyone, so much so that it feels odd to have a man of such strong screen presence and a notable history of quirky roles play it.
Cecil B. DeMille has a cameo playing himself, and Jackie Coogan plays the silent star Elmer Case, but I think that’s it for the greats of the silent era. Richard Anderson, an actor I’ve always liked, has the thankless role of the boring nice man who doesn’t get the girl.
Buster’s real-life parents also get bit roles.
Rhonda Fleming has a fun and flashy role as a snobby starlet, complete with liveried chauffer and hounds on a leash. She turns Buster’s head for a while.
Donald O’Connor’s work in the film, despite the material, is good. He handles the drama with subtle intensity, and most especially the physicality of Buster Keaton, very well. Mr. O’Connor is an old vaudevillian himself, and when he speaks of Buster’s childhood on the road, we can imagine he knows all about that. He was a vaudevillian from his childhood.
He performs and re-creates a few of Buster’s famous stunts for indeed, most of Buster’s gags were actually stunts and I can think of no other dancer, no other actor who could have played Buster Keaton as well as Donald O’Connor. He was the most acrobatic young dancer/actor in Hollywood at the time, able to do things neither Gene Kelly nor Fred Astaire could ever do. It is this kind of athleticism needed to portray Buster Keaton, who was sublimely athletic.
Buster Keaton served as a technical advisor on the film and in her book on her husband, Buster Keaton Remembered, Eleanor Keaton writes, “For eight weeks Buster helped Donald with the comedy sequences, and he had wonderful time working with him. However, the finished film The Buster Keaton Story was awful.” On the particularly difficult illusion of diving through the brick wall from Sherlock Jr, she writes, “Donald did an admirable job executing this risky stunt... It was a very dangerous stunt.”
There are two elements of Buster Keaton’s real life that would’ve made a very interesting movie had that movie been made. When it comes to his drinking, Buster Keaton was spurred on by two great heartbreaks. One was the fact that his studio, The Buster Keaton Studio, set up for him by producer Joseph Schenck, whose sister-in-law, Natalie Talmadge, Buster Keaton married, was taken from Buster because he had a tendency to go over budget on his elaborate films. Buster was put under the thumb of producers and writers writing gags for him, and when he came to work for MGM, his creativity was stifled and he became frustrated. He was paired on screen with larger-than-life lovable motor-mouth Jimmy Durante. Buster was now a second banana, and miserable.
The second great sadness of Buster’s life was his first marriage to Natalie Talmadge, with whom he had two sons. Talmadge was a spendthrift who went through Buster’s money and quickly lost all affection for him. When they divorced, she refused to allow her sons to see him, and even changed their surname to her maiden name. She bore such a hatred for Buster the rest of her life that she refused to allow his name mentioned in her presence.
At the time The Buster Keaton Story was made, both Natalie Talmadge and MGM were still alive and had lawyers and would’ve come down hard on this film if it had come anywhere close to vilifying them. So we have no mention of Buster’s first wife and unhappy marriage, and we have no mention of MGM. The studio he works for is lamely called Famous Studio and the bad guys are sound pictures.
There is a scene in the movie where Ann Blyth’s character, a casting director for Famous Studio (kudos to the film for placing a woman in a position of responsibility and authority, which was common in the early days of film), falls in love with Buster, who barely knows she’s alive. After one of his drunken benders, she bails him out of jail and marries him when he is too drunk to realize it. The scene seems far-fetched, but it does have some basis to reality. Buster’s second wife, a nurse at the sanitarium where he was being treated for alcoholism, actually did marry him under similar circumstances, and Buster would later remark that he could not remember the ceremony.
The greatest part of Ann Blyth’s fictional character resembles Buster Keaton’s third wife, a young Hollywood dancer named Eleanor Norris and with whom he was happily married for twenty-six years until his death in 1966. Eleanor was a supportive and stable influence on the real Buster Keaton and Ann Blyth’s stoic endurance of Buster’s foibles, her understanding and kindness make her more Eleanor-like than any of his other relationships, but she is not really Eleanor.
The real Buster and the real Eleanor Keaton on This is Your Life.
Donald O’Connor was able to match Buster’s quirky difficult social interaction with people that made him sometimes come off as rude, and mimicked his physical jerks quite well. You can spot the little tricks of habit throughout the film.
There are two particularly fine scenes between Ann Blyth and Donald O’Connor. One is when he has reverted to drinking after his latest failure, and she struggles to guide him to the couch, where he flops, mumbling about episodes from his past. She kneels beside him, trying to soothe him, and they talk over each other, their words overlapping in a heartbreaking inability to reach each other.
The truest and most delightful part of the film comes at the very end when Buster decides to revive his vaudeville act where he is free to create. He does not make much money, but he is overjoyed to be making people laugh. Ann Blyth is standing in the wings, and he grabs her impulsively and pulls her on stage with him to re-create a famous skit that he has performed many times, and with which she is familiar. His real-life third wife Eleanor also performed such skits with Buster in later years in Europe and on television.
This skit performed in pantomime is Buster’s true medium. They play a husband and wife who arrive home in the wee hours of the morning after celebrating too much on New Year’s Eve. They are both a bit tipsy and exhausted. They prepare to go to bed, but as Buster’s fumbles and hurts himself on a chest of drawers, Ann wearily stretches out on the floor and falls asleep. Donald as Buster discovers her there and through a series of acrobatics, physics and applied geometry has to get her into bed while she is completely unconscious. He has to move her dead weight.
It is a funny skit and, for me, the only laugh out loud moments of the movie. I can imagine Donald and Ann working through the scenario in rehearsals. They must’ve been laughing their heads off. Especially funny is one moment where he holds her in his arms and is trying to figure out a way to get her on the bed such that her head goes with the pillows and her feet go in the proper direction, but he can’t figure out how to do it. So he sits down on the bed and attempts to throw her over his head, hoping she will land in the right position, but he doesn’t toss her high enough and she flops right on his neck, strangling him.
When he extricates himself and stands, she lies limply over his shoulder like a towel. It’s very well done and really requires a great deal of athleticism from both of them.
The film did make money and earned $50,000 for Buster Keaton as technical advisor, with which he and his wife were able to buy a comfortable home. Moreover, it brought more notice to this great artist’s place in film history, and those are two things for which we as film fans can be happy. Watching this to learn more about the real Buster Keaton’s life or work is fruitless.
However, for those fans of Ann Blyth and Donald O’Connor, watch it simply for their last pairing on film. They work well together. They look like old friends who understand each other and it is a very pleasant thing to see them when you remember Ann got her start in film in a series of four musicals for Universal and Donald O’Connor was her first co-star. We’ll talk about them down the road.
Here they are six years earlier at the premiere of Harvey in 1950, taken from a newsreel of the event.
And just because I like it, here's a clip from 12 years earlier of their duet from Chip Off the Old Block (1944):
You can watch The Buster Keaton Story here on YouTube.
Our friend Robby Cress notes some location shooting from this film at his Dear Old Hollywood post.
On April 3, 1957, Buster was surprised by Ralph Edwards and the merciless This is Your Life show, in which Donald O’Connor appeared, dressed in his Buster outfit, to wish him well. The program was part of the film’s publicity efforts. Watch it here onYouTube, but jump to 24:00 minutes because it is the second half of the video. The first half belongs to Laurel and Hardy. (We mentioned Ann Blyth’s turn as honoree/victim of This is Your Life two years later in 1959 in this previous post.)
Come back next Thursday when we travel back to 1949 and a trip to Ireland with Ann, Bing Crosby, and Barry Fitzgerald in Top o’ the Morning.
**************Buster Keaton A Hard Act to Follow (Thames Television, 1987)
Keaton, Eleanor, and Jeffrey Vance. Buster Keaton Remembered (NY: Harry N. Abrams, Inc. Publishers) 2001, p. 38
Schenectady Gazette, May 17, 1957, article by Louise Boyka, p. 19.
This is Your Life, Ralph Edwards Productions, April 3, 1957
The Warsaw (Indiana) Times-Union, August 3, 1956, syndicated article by Harrison Carroll, p. 5.
This week marks the seventh anniversary of Another Old Movie Blog. Thank you so much for the pleasure of your company.
UPDATE: This series on Ann Blyth is now a book - ANN BLYTH: ACTRESS. SINGER. STAR. -
The audio book for Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is now for sale on Audible.com, and on Amazon and iTunes.
The audio book for Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is now for sale on Audible.com, and on Amazon and iTunes.
"Lynch’s book is organized and well-written – and has plenty of amusing observations – but when it comes to describing Blyth’s movies, Lynch’s writing sparkles." - Ruth Kerr, Silver Screenings
"Jacqueline T. Lynch creates a poignant and thoroughly-researched mosaic of memories of a fine, upstanding human being who also happens to be a legendary entertainer." - Deborah Thomas, Java's Journey
"One of the great strengths of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is that Lynch not only gives an excellent overview of Blyth's career -- she offers detailed analyses of each of Blyth's roles -- but she puts them in the context of the larger issues of the day."- Amanda Garrett, Old Hollywood Films
"Jacqueline's book will hopefully cause many more people to take a look at this multitalented woman whose career encompassed just about every possible aspect of 20th Century entertainment." - Laura Grieve, Laura's Miscellaneous Musings''
"Jacqueline T. Lynch’s Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is an extremely well researched undertaking that is a must for all Blyth fans." - Annette Bochenek, Hometowns to Hollywood
Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star.
by Jacqueline T. Lynch
The first book on the career of actress Ann Blyth. Multitalented and remarkably versatile, Blyth began on radio as a child, appeared on Broadway at the age of twelve in Lillian Hellman's Watch on the Rhine, and enjoyed a long and diverse career in films, theatre, television, and concerts. A sensitive dramatic actress, the youngest at the time to be nominated for her role in Mildred Pierce (1945), she also displayed a gift for comedy, and was especially endeared to fans for her expressive and exquisite lyric soprano, which was showcased in many film and stage musicals. Still a popular guest at film festivals, lovely Ms. Blyth remains a treasure of the Hollywood's golden age.