Thursday, February 09, 2006

Mr. Keaton Goes to Columbia

I have mixed feelings about this one. On March 7th, Sony is releasing a double-DVD set featuring all ten of Buster Keaton's Columbia shorts. Keaton was, bar none, the greatest talent ever to work for the Columbia comedy shorts department. Unfortunately, as had been proven at MGM, Buster never fared well when working within the rigid confines of the studio system and no shorts unit in Hollywood was as rigid as Columbia's, which is why it outlived every other such department in town. Take this with a grain of salt if you will as I haven't seen all of Buster's Columbia material and there may very well be a loose gem rattling around in there, but what I've seen smacks of "product" just like most post-1938 Columbia shorts; slick and streamlined and mostly flavorless (except when Elsie Ames appears, at which point they become downright obnoxious). Nevertheless, although they may not hold a candle to Buster's silent work, these films served their purpose. Buster was happy for the employment (if not about the quality of the shorts), Jules White was happy to have Buster's name on his department's roster, and undemanding audiences were happy to see Buster back on the screen, especially as his best work was a dim memory by 1939. Could anyone recall a time when Buster didn't play a bumbling idiot named Elmer?

But why Columbia? After Educational Pictures folded, there were still other studios producing quality comedy shorts. Frankly, just about any of Columbia's competitors could have produced a better series of Buster Keaton shorts. Warners had the wonderful Joe McDoakes series starring George O'Hanlon (later to perform the voice of George Jetson), and RKO's short subjects department was certainly producing excellent comedies and would continue to do so until they closed shop in 1953 or '54 (the Gil Lamb shorts must have been to blame). Come to think of it, Columbia's unit didn't outlive RKO's by that many years, and unlike Columbia, RKO never, as far as I know, recycled old footage to keep costs down. In short, Columbia wasn't, as it has so frequently been portrayed, the only game in town.. at least not yet. But shopping around was never Buster Keaton's forte', and this appears to be another instance in which he left his career on autopilot and let others make the decisions for him. As it happened, Buster's old "director" and gagman Clyde Bruckman was on White's payroll at Columbia, and it was he who suggested Buster to his boss. The job just fell into Buster's lap, apparently. Two factors aside from Bruckman may have made Columbia, rather than its competitors, seem a logical new home. First, the salary, the standard $2,500 a picture Columbia offered all of their regular short comedy stars, may have been better than other studios could offer, although in an interview with David Bruskin, White claimed that comedians like Keaton and Langdon were so down on their luck that "they'd take whatever salary I offered". This is, of course, a rather broad mischaracterization of the situation. Secondly, by 1939, Buster's reputation had, for whatever reason, become that of a pie-tossing, Keystone-style zany, and Columbia was the new Mecca of slapstick. Nonetheless, Keaton must have felt ensnared the moment he started work. In his autobiography, he claims to have tried to convince studio president Harry Cohn to spend more money and time on the shorts in order to make them marketable commodities in their own right rather than giveaways as a part of Columbia's package deal to theaters. In the end, Buster writes that he was happy to leave Columbia because he "couldn't stomach turning out even one more crummy two-reeler." You're not likely to see Sony use that quote in their publicity.

While a gig at RKO or Warners would probably have resulted in better films (and his much maligned shorts for Educational are superior), these aren't a total loss. Nothing Buster Keaton is in is a total loss. Buster is as agile as ever, his timing is flawless, and while the scripts are from hunger, there are still moments to be enjoyed... until Elsie Ames enters the frame, at least. And the graphics for the title sequences are downright beautiful and, for me, worth the price of the set alone.

As for my mixed feelings, while I find it encouraging that Sony/Columbia has suddenly realized that they're in possession of other shorts besides those starring the Three Stooges, I can only wish this set were devoted to one of the series that have good reputations. The comedy shorts unit was capable of excellent work in the 1930s, particularly under Hugh McCollum, and the Charley Chase comedies, at least the ones I've seen, must be counted among this unsung genius's best work. I can only hope that sales are brisk enough, despite the grumblings of picky knowitalls like myself, for Sony to consider raiding the vaults for more, and better, material (including, one hopes, their Screen Gems cartoons! I can dream, can't I?). The price is certainly right, $16.19 at Amazon.

Incidentally, Sony is calling this set the "65th Anniversary Collection". 65th anniversary of what? 1941 was the year Keaton left Columbia. Seems an odd thing to celebrate to me, although I think Buster might have disagreed.

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Anonymous steverino said...

RKO was phasing out new comedy short series by 1939-40, while Warners hardly made any at all[that I can think of]by then besides McDoaks.Columbia may not have been the only game in town, but it was practically the only studio initiating new "stars".

3:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Both buster Keaton and Harry Langdon were paid only $1,000 per Columbia short, although Keaton in his autobiography claimed it was $2,500. The existing Columbia Pictures contracts indicate that Keaton received $1,000 per picture, a figure that escalated to $1,250 for Buster's final shorts at Columbia. So...he really was a bargain-priced commodity in his treadmill years.

2:22 AM  
Blogger Aaron Neathery said...

That's extremely depressing.. And that'll also teach me to trust celebrity autobiographies for such details! Where did you dig up that info?

Given the (surprisingly) positive contemporary reviews of Keaton's Columbia series, though, I'm still surprised he didn't shop around after it was apparent that he still had drawing power.

8:04 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was a friend of the widows (Eleanor Keaton and Mabel Langdon) of Buster and Harry, so I got to see the old contracts that they preserved. I have copies of the contracts as well.

9:50 AM  
Blogger Aaron Neathery said...

Good gosh! Would you be at all interested in sending along scans of those contracts? I know I'd love to look over those and I'm sure my readers would as well.

BTW, having known Mabel Langdon, would you know whether or not a formal bio of Harry has ever been officially discussed? It's remarkable that the only substantial book on Langdon to date is Joyce Rheuban's critical overview.

2:20 PM  

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