This post is a sample from Chris Wade's book BUSTER KEATON: THE LATER YEARS, available on Amazon now...
One thing that was unavoidable for Keaton, one of the last remaining silent film stars not only still working, but totally reachable and accessible, was that he would find himself, quite frequently in fact, referencing his own rich and iconic past. As the decades went on, the silent comedy era grew in reverence, and by the mid 1950s, while most of Buster’s classic films were some thirty odd years old, they were firm classics. The silent era was so long ago that it was open for pastiche and parody, not to mention affectionate tribute. Not only that, it was pretty easy for modern filmmakers and TV producers to authentically reproduce the feel and look of the era, even more so when one of its most well known icons was still around, and readily employable.
Of course, Buster didn’t mind self referencing his own legacy at all; in fact, he was often more than happy to, at least it seemed that way. After all, he was proud of that work, and spoke fondly, though modestly, of it in various latter day interviews. He had played a crumpled up parody of himself in Sunset Boulevard (a ghost from the past, a has-been, a waxwork),but there were other times where he got to affectionately reproduce the vibe of his golden years, given free reign to move his well known persona into another era and a whole new medium. He was no longer the maker, the director or the conjurer of illusions, but he could doff his flat hat to the days when he was.
One of the more respectful self-referencing credits (this one being close to self examination even) came in 1955 with a little known TV special called Silent Partner. Made for the Screen Director’s Playhouse series, and produced by Hal Roach Studios, Silent Partner not only gave Keaton a chance to don his trademark outfit, but also perform a more dramatic role with a fair amount of pathos.
The film begins on Oscar night, as the stars hob-nob and natter as a cheesy TV reporter informs us it’s the busiest Oscar night in years. Meanwhile, faded old silent film actor Kelsey Dutton (Buster Keaton) arrives in his favourite bar where the drinkers and the bar man speak of the fakeness of Hollywood. “A bunch of hoke,” says one customer. A rather glum Buster sits by the bar. The barman switches on the TV to watch the Oscar ceremony (Buster doesn’t care either way if he turns the television on or not), and a bunch of rowdy drinkers come in with a sports trophy, all ready to mock the phony award shindig.
On comes Bob Hope, presenting a “new award” for a respected figure, a movie mogul who has given so much to the motion picture industry. Mr Bale, the respected producer, takes the statuette, steps up to the microphone, and begins a rambling speech. Unexpectedly, he dedicates his award to Kelsey, who covers his face in embarrassment back in the bar. There is then a nicely (and authentically) shot flashback to Dutton’s first film role, a chaotic scene involving a ladder and Dutton attempting to save a girl from a house fire. The following scenes illustrate Dutton’s natural comic ability, cutting back to the Oscar speech speaking of the decline of Dutton’s popularity when the sound era arrived. Now it becomes painfully clear that Buster's own career is being referred to,
When he finishes his speech, the drinkers mock the ceremony, and say they’ve never heard of Kelsey Dutton. An ageing customer says Dutton was the biggest star in Hollywood, unaware that she is standing right beside him. The self-deprecating Dutton does not tell the drinkers he is in fact the star, in true Keaton style being a man with no ego. The ceremony continues, and we are shown more footage of Dutton’s classic silent films, with Buster donning a wig for the younger sequences. When the woman in the bar starts to realise Dutton is in the room with her, it takes a completely different turn. All of a sudden the cynicism for the shallowness of the movie world disappears, and Dutton becomes the focal point of the night. When the angriest of the macho drinkers attempts to rough Dutton up, he turns on him and humiliates the half wit. In walks the movie mogul, just at the right moment, to pick up Dutton and take him next door to the ceremony, where they are all eagerly awaiting his arrival. There he will be celebrated as a hero, while the producer hopes to rescue Dutton's flagging career.
Though The Silent Partner is a fun and entertaining quickie, it also has its fair share of sad irony. Buster is playing a variation of himself here, a silent legend long forgotten and tossed aside by Hollywood. There were other ironies too. He just happened to be playing this character, a very Buster creation, on a TV lot owned by Hal Roach, the very man who had led the likes of Laurel and Hardy through the silent glory years. Keaton is excellent in his role, but the silent segments do his legacy little justice. In reality, Keaton’s vintage classics were more surreal, much more sophisticated and accomplished than Dutton's. Still, the Dutton scenes are fun and accurate, but only to lesser silent comics, not reflecting the genius of Keaton. The saddest part of it all, of course, is the end, where the movie mogul expresses his gratefulness, and also his regret that the man responsible for his own current status as a respected Hollywood producer, showered with money, praise and awards, is all down to him. If it were not for this forgotten man, the producer suggests, he wouldn’t be where he is. Finally showing his gratitude for the man killed by the arrival of the sound era, he promises to revitalise his career. In reality, Hollywood had spat Keaton out, and wouldn’t let him near a starring role in a feature film. Guest roles and cameo bit parts were fine, but none of these Hollywood producers trusted Keaton to direct or star in a picture all of his own. The irony cannot have been lost on Keaton, and this egoless genius must have seen how apt it was that he was playing a character in such a predicament on a creaky low budget TV stage.
Still, despite these negative aspects and slightly tragicomic elements, The Silent Partner is one of the best things Keaton did in this era. And to be fair, the sudden appreciation the producer shows him, and promises Hollywood will too, did kind of come true, in a fashion at least. In 1960, he was given an honorary Oscar, a nod of respect to a man who had helped make the movie industry what it was. They would never give him another chance, but could at least pat him on the back and say “Well done, you did good.” Buster was touched by the Oscar, and though they had done him wrong in the past, he was big enough to accept it and move on ahead with the rest of his career; not in Hollywood mind you, but on the small screen and the world of independent film. The Silent Partner silently walked away from Hollywood, taking the hint.