Keaton's loss of independence as a filmmaker coincided with the coming of sound films although he was interested in making the transition and mounting personal problems, and his career in the early sound era was hurt as a result.
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Keaton signed with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in , a business decision that he would later call the worst of his life. He realized too late that the studio system MGM represented would severely limit his creative input. For instance, the studio refused his request to make his early project, Spite Marriage , as a sound film and after the studio converted, he was obliged to adhere to dialogue-laden scripts.
Keaton was forced to use a stunt double during some of the more dangerous scenes, something he had never done in his heyday, as MGM wanted badly to protect its investment. Some of his most financially successful films for the studio were during this period. No Beer? The films proved popular. In the first Keaton pictures with sound, he and his fellow actors would shoot each scene three times: one in English, one in Spanish, and one in either French or German.
The actors would phonetically memorize the foreign-language scripts a few lines at a time and shoot immediately after. Keaton was so demoralized during the production of 's What! Upon Keaton's return to Hollywood in , he made a screen comeback in two-reel comedies for Educational Pictures. Most of these 16 films are simple visual comedies, with many of the gags supplied by Keaton himself, often recycling ideas from his family vaudeville act and his earlier films.
In , Columbia Pictures hired Keaton to star in 10 two-reel comedies; the series ran for two years, and comprise his last series as a starring comedian. The director was usually Jules White , whose emphasis on slapstick and farce made most of these films resemble White's famous Three Stooges shorts.
Keaton's personal favorite was the series's debut, Pest from the West , a shorter, tighter remake of Keaton's little-viewed feature The Invader ; it was directed not by White but by Del Lord , a veteran director for Mack Sennett. Moviegoers and exhibitors welcomed Keaton's Columbia comedies, proving that the comedian had not lost his appeal.
However, director White's insistence on blunt, violent gags resulted in the Columbia shorts being the least inventive comedies he made. Columbia and White wanted to sign Keaton for more shorts but the comedian declined, resolving that he would never again "make another crummy two-reeler. Keaton's personal life had stabilized with his marriage to MGM dancer Eleanor Norris, and now he was taking life a little easier, abandoning Columbia for the less strenuous field of feature films.
Keaton accepted various character roles in both "A" and "B" features. He made his last starring feature El Moderno Barba Azul in Mexico; the film was a low-budget production, and it may not have been seen in the United States until its release on VHS in the s, under the title Boom in the Moon. Critics rediscovered Keaton in and producers occasionally hired him for bigger "prestige" pictures. In In the Good Old Summertime , Keaton personally directed the stars Judy Garland and Van Johnson in their first scene together, where they bump into each other on the street.
Keaton invented comedy bits where Johnson keeps trying to apologize to a seething Garland, but winds up messing up her hairdo and tearing her dress. Keaton also appeared in a comedy routine about two inept stage musicians in Charlie Chaplin 's Limelight released in , recalling the vaudeville of The Playhouse.
With the exception of Seeing Stars , a minor publicity film produced in , Limelight was the only time in which the two would ever appear together on film. Kinescopes were made for distribution of the programs to other parts of the country, since there was no transcontinental coaxial cable until September Reaction was strong enough for a local Los Angeles station to offer Keaton his own show, also broadcast live, in Life with Buster Keaton was an attempt to recreate the first series on film, allowing the program to be broadcast nationwide.
Buster Keaton's wife Eleanor also was seen in the series notably as Juliet to Buster's Romeo in a little-theater vignette. The theatrical feature film The Misadventures of Buster Keaton was fashioned from the series. Keaton said that he canceled the filmed series himself, because he was unable to create enough fresh material to produce a new show each week.
Keaton's periodic television appearances helped to revive interest in his silent films during the s and s.
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He appeared in the early television series Faye Emerson's Wonderful Town. Well into his fifties, Keaton successfully recreated his old routines, including one stunt in which he propped one foot onto a table, then swung the second foot up next to it and held the awkward position in midair for a moment before crashing to the stage floor. Garry Moore recalled, "I asked Keaton how he did all those falls, and he said, 'I'll show you. So that's how he did it—it hurt —but you had to care enough not to care.
In , Buster and Eleanor Keaton met film programmer Raymond Rohauer , with whom they developed a business partnership to re-release his films. Actor James Mason had bought the Keatons' house and found numerous cans of films, among which was Keaton's long-lost classic The Boat. Much of the film was shot on location on the Sacramento River , which doubled for the Mississippi River setting of Twain's book.
He worked with comedian Ernie Kovacs on a television pilot tentatively titled "Medicine Man," shooting scenes for it on January 12, —the day before Kovacs died in a car crash. Keaton also found steady work as an actor in TV commercials, including a series of silent ads for Simon Pure Beer made in by Jim Mohr in Buffalo, New York in which he revisited some of the gags from his silent film days. Meanwhile, Keaton's big-screen career continued. Jimmy assists Spencer Tracy 's character, Captain C. Culpepper, by readying Culpepper's ultimately-unused boat for his abortive escape.
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The restored version of that film, released in , contains a scene where Jimmy and Culpeper talk on the telephone. Lost after the comedy epic's " roadshow " exhibition, the audio of that scene was discovered, and combined with still pictures to recreate the scene. Director William Asher recalled:. I always loved Buster Keaton. He'd say, "How about this? He travelled from one end of Canada to the other on a motorized handcar, wearing his traditional pork pie hat and performing gags similar to those in films that he made 50 years before. The film is also notable for being his last silent screen performance.
In he appeared on the CBS television special A Salute to Stan Laurel , a tribute to the comedian and friend of Keaton who had died earlier that year. He amazed the cast and crew by doing many of his own stunts, although Thames Television said that his increasingly ill health did force the use of a stunt double for some scenes. His final appearance on film was a safety film produced in Toronto by the Construction Safety Associations of Ontario, and he died shortly after completing it. Keaton started experimenting with parody during his vaudeville years, where most frequently his performances involved impressions and burlesques of other performers' acts.
Most of these parodies targeted acts with which Keaton had shared the bill. Keaton parodied the tired formula of the melodramatic transformation from bad guy to good guy, through which went Hart's character, known as "the good badman". However, Hart himself was not amused by Keaton's antics, particularly the crying scene, and did not speak to Buster for two years after he had seen the film. In The Playhouse , he parodied his contemporary Thomas H. Ince , Hart's producer, who indulged in over-crediting himself in his film productions. The short also featured the impression of a performing monkey which was likely derived from a co-biller's act called Peter the Great.
Griffith 's Intolerance , from which it replicates the three inter-cut shorts structure. Film critic David Thomson later described Keaton's style of comedy: "Buster plainly is a man inclined towards a belief in nothing but mathematics and absurdity Look at his face—as beautiful but as inhuman as a butterfly—and you see that utter failure to identify sentiment. His large, deep eyes are the most eloquent feature; with merely a stare, he can convey a wide range of emotions, from longing to mistrust, from puzzlement to sorrow.
The traditional Buster stance requires that he remain upstanding, full of backbone, looking ahead It is the angle that you remember: the figure perfectly straight but tilted forward, like the Spirit of Ecstasy on the hood of a Rolls-Royce Rerun it on video, and you can see Buster riding the collapse like a surfer, hanging onto the steering wheel, coming beautifully to rest as the wave of wreckage breaks. Buster Keaton's comedy endures not just because he had a face that belongs on Mount Rushmore, at once hauntingly immovable and classically American, but because that face was attached to one of the most gifted actors and directors who ever graced the screen.
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Evolved from the knockabout upbringing of the vaudeville stage, Keaton's comedy is a whirlwind of hilarious, technically precise, adroitly executed, and surprising gags, very often set against a backdrop of visually stunning set pieces and locations—all this masked behind his unflinching, stoic veneer. Keaton has inspired full academic study. She co-starred with him in Our Hospitality.
The couple had sons Joseph,  called James June 2, — February 14, ,  and Robert February 3, — July 19, ,  both of whom later took the surname Talmadge. After the birth of Robert, the relationship began to suffer. Her financial extravagance was another factor in the breakdown of the marriage, as she would spend up to a third of his salary on clothes. Keaton dated actress Dorothy Sebastian beginning in the s and Kathleen Key  in the early s. After attempts at reconciliation, Talmadge divorced him in , taking his entire fortune [ citation needed ] and refusing to allow any contact between him and his sons.
With the failure of his marriage and the loss of his independence as a film-maker, Keaton lapsed into a period of alcoholism.
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He escaped a straitjacket with tricks learned from Harry Houdini. In , he married his nurse Mae Scriven during an alcoholic binge about which he afterwards claimed to remember nothing. Scriven claimed that she didn't know Keaton's real first name until after the marriage. She filed for divorce in after finding Keaton with Leah Clampitt Sewell, the libertine wife of millionaire Barton Sewell ,  in a hotel in Santa Barbara.
They divorced in  at great financial cost to Keaton. Keaton was given large amounts of alcohol and aversion therapy. He stopped drinking for five years. She has been credited with saving his life by stopping his heavy drinking and helping to salvage his career. Between and , they appeared regularly in the Cirque Medrano in Paris as a double act. She came to know his routines so well that she often participated in them on TV revivals. Keaton was a proud owner of several St.
Bernard dogs and always named them Elmer. Keaton died of lung cancer on February 1, , aged 70, in Woodland Hills, California. Keaton thought that he was recovering from a severe case of bronchitis.
Confined to a hospital during his final days, Keaton was restless and paced the room endlessly, desiring to return home. In a British television documentary about his career, his widow Eleanor told producers of Thames Television that Keaton was up out of bed and moving around, and even played cards with friends who came to visit the day before he died. Dedicated to bringing greater public attention to Keaton's life and work, the membership includes many individuals from the television and film industry: actors, producers, authors, artists, graphic novelists, musicians, and designers, as well as those who simply admire the magic of Buster Keaton.
The Society's nickname, the "Damfinos," draws its name from a boat in Buster's comedy, The Boat. Film critic Roger Ebert stated, "The greatest of the silent clowns is Buster Keaton, not only because of what he did, but because of how he did it. Harold Lloyd made us laugh as much, Charlie Chaplin moved us more deeply, but no one had more courage than Buster. In his presentation for The General , filmmaker Orson Welles hailed Buster Keaton as "the greatest of all the clowns in the history of the cinema Filmmaker Mel Brooks has credited Buster Keaton as a major influence, saying: "I owe Buster a lot on two levels: One for being such a great teacher for me as a filmmaker myself, and the other just as a human being watching this gifted person doing these amazing things.
He made me believe in make-believe. Actor and stunt performer Johnny Knoxville cites Keaton as an inspiration when coming up with ideas for Jackass projects. He re-enacted a famous Keaton stunt for the finale of Jackass Number 2.