early 1928, Keaton had made 31 films of his own. There is
no way he could have foreseen that within five years, his personal
and professional life would be a shambles. Until 1928, Keaton had
worked independently, his films produced by Schenck and released
through other studios, including First National, United Artists
"In 1928, I made the worst mistake of
my career. Against my better judgment I let Joe Schenck talk me
into giving up my own studio to make pictures at the booming Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
lot in Culver City. "
In allowing himself to be signed
over to MGM, Buster indeed made an irretrievable mistakehe
would never again be completely free to create films, although he
never gave up hope that he would be allowed to return to the work
he adored. "I don't know if it was human nature, greed, or
power, but the big companies were out to kill the independents,"
he said years later.
According to Keaton, Charlie
Chaplin told him at the time: "'What's this I hear? Don't do
it. They'll ruin you helping you. They'll warp your judgment. You'll
get tired of arguing for things you know are right.'" Harold
Lloyd apparently also advised him against the move.
It's hard not to make MGM the
villain in what happened next. Many have blamed the studio for destroying
Keaton's career as a filmmaker and, in retrospect, that is exactly
what MGM did.
When he came to MGM, Keaton
had had an unparalleled run of success; in fact, he had never had
a failure since he crawled on stage at the age of nine months. The
world belonged to him and the future had no limits. He was accustomed
to complete creative independence and working in an environment
that encouraged innovation, so when MGM began insisting that its
studio system knew better than he what made a good film, Keaton
was naturally flabbergasted. His personal decline was swift and
"He couldn't get any work
done that he thought was quality, because there were too many people
interfering," his widow Eleanor Keaton said of that unfortunate
time. Buster: "They were picking stories and material without
consulting me and I couldn't argue 'em out of it. I'd only argue
about so far and then let it go. They'd say, 'This is funny,' and
I'd say, 'It stinks.' It didn't make any difference. We did it anyhow."
His first film under the new
rules is still pure Keaton; the battles behind the scenes just don't
show in The Cameraman (1928), a nearly perfect example of Keaton's
seamless filmmaking. The situation soon became
intolerable. Within a few months, Keaton's work suffered drastically.
By 1933 and What, No Beer? with Jimmy Durante as his highly unsuitable
partner, the on-screen Keaton is so miserable and in such an alcoholic
state that he is almost unbearable to look at.
Where Keaton on his own is resourceful
and poetic, with a startling vision of the world, Keaton at MGM
is a bumbling idiot stuck in mundane and wordy plots. Both on- and
off-screen, Keaton was trying to break out of a prison to which
he had been sentenced with no knowledge of his crime.
"No one saw it for four or five pictures. Then
it got so bad, no one could miss itWhat,
No Beer? and Sidewalks of New York. Oh, they were brutal! I knew
before the camera turned on the first scene that we had the perfect
foundation for a stinker. And by now, I couldn't tell anyone anything
. . . . So I slipped. I did what so many others have done. I started
to drink. And that's when I blew it."
"He was always playing
the dope," said Eleanor. "So they tabbed him as a dope
and figured they could get away with murdergyp
him, put him down, knife him. Too many times he went along rather
than make a scene."