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THE FALL OF BUSTER KEATON by James L. Neibaur is a small and expensive book. I paid $82 Canadian for my copy. The book is worth every cent.

After producing Buster Keaton’s first short films and silent features Joseph Schenck threw in the towel.

He did not know that he had produced a body of work that would almost be lost to history but which, when rediscovered, established that Buster Keaton was one of the truly great masters of the cinema.

Schenck advised Keaton to make motion pictures for the newly established MGM (METRO-GOLDWYN-MAYER).

Neibaur states this was a time when the big studios were obliterating independent producers. That may well be so but I feel the real reason Schenck withdrew from producing Keaton’s pictures has more to with these few seconds from Keaton’s picture, STEAMBOAT BILL, JR. (1928):

Keaton had that flat built to weigh two tons so that it would not waver in the cyclone winds that form the climax of the film. He had figured out precisely where the open window on the top floor would fall.

I can see the look on Schenck’s face as he watched that harrowing moment. I can also see the look on the faces of the picture’s insurers.

Lacking the means to reign in Buster’s creative talents Sckenck closed shop as fast as he could.


MGM wanted Keaton as an actor only. They definitely did not want his stunts.

They got them in Keaton’s first for MGM, 1928’s THE CAMERAMAN. It is a a tour de force of what Buster could do best. It is also the last true Keaton film.

From then one it is Buster Keaton in an MGM picture.

Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd both warned Keaton against MGM.

The problem for Keaton was that the pictures he made for Leo the Lion fared better at the box office than his silent features had done.

MGM was in the business to make money. Everyone is in business to make money. No problem there. Even communists are in business to profit.

I did a performance piece in 1982 improvised out of Keaton’s life. I called the section on Buster At M.G.M. Mighty Gawdawful Moments.

Neibaur details all this and more.

THE FALL in the title refers to both the season and the literal fall that caused one of the greatest comic geniuses in motion picture history to perform in films where most, but not all, of that genius was kept under a shade.

I have in the CineForum archives almost all the films Neibaur writes about.

This book gives me new insight into their creation.

It is when we come to THE RAILRODDER (1964) that we see clearly what could have been had a studio like American International Pictures which featured Keaton in its Beach pictures decided to give Keaton his head. From start to finish THE RAILRODDER, for me, sparkles with the genius that shone so brightly in Keaton’s silent shorts.

At the same time, The National Film Board of Canada (which produced THE RAILRODDER) produced a documentary on its making titled BUSTER KEATON RIDES AGAIN.

In it we see director Gerald Potterton doing his best to kill a stunt that could kill Keaton. In his mind Potterton was surely seeing the same headlines Sckenck surely saw: SILENT STAR BUSTER KEATON DIES IN NFB FILM! Potterton knew he’d never work again should that happen He offers one alternate gag after another. Keaton does not resists. He just adds them to his original concept. A gag that was dangerous at the beginning became in the process of trying to kill it much more so.

Keaton understood what so few do. Without risk there is neither theatre nor a life.


–Reg Hartt 2023–08–30.


In 1981

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