Time Warp, 1928-1966

On Jan. 26, 1928 - eight years and one month, almost to the day, that Keaton had signed with Joe Schenck to get his own studio - Buster Keaton signed a contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Productions. He hadn't been left with much of a choice, since Schenck had dissolved Buster Keaton Productions. Conveniently, Joe's brother Nick had recently become the president of Loew's Inc., the parent company of MGM.

Keaton knew already that the move didn't feel right, but there was no shortage of people to confirm his gut reaction. Charlie Chaplin warned him, "They'll warp your judgment. You'll get tired of fighting for things you know are right." And fight he did, winning tiny battles along the way but ultimately losing to the Studio System.

MGM in the 1930's was famous for its slogan "More Stars Than There Are In Heaven." To comedy-film enthusiasts, a more correct slogan would have been, "Putting Iconoclastic Comedy Legends in Their Place." Keaton was the first icon from The Golden Age of Comedy to be stamped down at MGM, but he was hardly the last. The Marx Brothers' movie career was resuscitated at MGM, but once their sympathetic producer Irving Thalberg died, their comedy got watered down, and they ended up appearing as comic relief in their own movies. Laurel & Hardy, when their 1940's careers weren't getting done in at Twentieth Century-Fox, worked for MGM in two of their unfunniest movies. (Ironically, Keaton, who was back at MGM as a writer, served as a gag-man for both teams.)

(One wonders if the angelic spirits of these great comics aren't savoring the poetic justice of MGM's demise; after the 1960's, the studio was dismantled and its rights fell into many different hands. It is now completely gone, its many movies now owned by Warner Bros. and Sony [Columbia] Pictures.)

The general consensus is that Keaton managed to turn out one MGM movie in his own style: the first one, The Cameraman (1928). After that, the studio took each movie more and more out of Keaton's hands, until Keaton became half of a "comedy team" with up-and-coming Jimmy Durante.

With his control diminishing, Keaton became enveloped in alcoholism and scandal. (Once, when studio head Louis B. Mayer tried to intervene in the drunken proceedings at Keaton's studio bungalow, Keaton told him, "You studio people warp my character.")

Keaton got fired from MGM, went through two marriages, starred in cheapie shorts for studios Educational and Columbia, and worked his way back up the ladder. His two most fortuitous relationships came with Eleanor Norris (a dancer to whom he was happily married for 25 years, until his death) and Raymond Rohauer (an often unscruptulous movie dealer who, nevertheless, was most responsible for preserving many Keaton movies that were nearly decomposed; restoring the rights and monies for those movies to Keaton; and bringing about the re-discovery of Keaton as a movie pioneer, in the 1950's and '60s).

On the morning of Feb. 1, 1966, at the age of seventy, Buster Keaton died of lung cancer. Happily, his movies of 80 or more years ago still play as though they were made yesterday. Because of them, Keaton's comedy will never die.

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