Though remembered now as one of the high points of Buster Keaton’s career, the 1927 Civil War comedy The General marked the beginning of the end for Keaton as an independent auteur. After the film flopped, United Artists exerted more control over the rest of the movies Keaton made for them, and then when Keaton signed with MGM in 1928 and began his transition to the sound era, he quickly learned that his new studio wanted him for his face and name-recognition, not for his creative input. Keaton did some good work during his five years with MGM, and remained a decent box-office draw, but he often had to submit to other people’s ideas about what was funny.
Of the three sound-era MGM Keatons just released MOD by Warner Archive, 1930’s Doughboys could’ve most used Keaton’s particular genius. A clear predecessor to such later military romps as Buck Privates, At War With The Army, Caught In The Draft, and Private Benjamin, Doughboys stars Keaton as a spoiled rich kid who accidentally volunteers for the army while trying to hire a new chauffeur. (He was fooled by all the men in uniforms.) He then serves out his hitch in France during WWI in order to impress a girl. Some of the funniest bits in Doughboys aren’t Keaton-specific. One drill sergeant’s lusty description of ripping a man apart with a bayonet is a piece of shtick that wouldn’t have worked without sound, because the excited tone of his voice is a big part of the joke. But there are flashes of classic Keaton here and there, as our man trudges forlornly through the European mud, or dresses in women’s clothes and allows himself to be flung about a stage by a fellow dogface. A little more of that kind of business and Doughboys could’ve been a classic.
The 1931 romantic comedy Sidewalks Of New York doesn’t suffer as much for not being as traditionally Keaton-esque, if only because there’s so little physical comedy in the film that just about anyone could’ve been the star. A spin on the then-popular “Who will help the poor street kids?” genre, Sidewalks Of New York stars Keaton—once again—as a spoiled rich kid who takes on an unlikely task to impress a dame. This time he opens a community center for troubled youth, but has trouble convincing the urchins to show up. That sets up the biggest slapstick set-piece in the movie: a boxing match between Keaton and a palooka that Keaton thinks (erroneously) has been paid to take a dive, so that Keaton can impress the kids with his manliness. That bit works, but most of Sidewalks Of New York ranges from ordinary to maudlin, especially once the brother of Keaton’s lady-friend gets in trouble with the law. Really, the best gags in Sidewalks are verbal, as when Keaton proposes to his girl by reading off the titles in a sheet music store, or when a judge asks him, “Do you swear?” and Keaton answers, “No, but I know all the words.”
Towards the end of Keaton’s MGM tenure—when he was reportedly so soused that the studio couldn’t count on him to carry a picture alone—he was paired with Jimmy Durante in a series of dialogue-heavy comedies. Keaton’s last film with MGM was 1933’s What! No Beer?, a strained farce that casts Durante and Keaton as hapless entrepreneurs who buy a brewery and try to be the first guys in the city with booze to sell after prohibition is repealed. What! No Beer? is largely a Durante movie, fishing for laughs with the veteran vaudevillian’s hot-cha-cha-chas and his jokes about how he once missed a skunk with his shotgun and “boy, was I incensed.” (“For days I was incensed.”) But again Keaton has a few moments of near-classic slapstick, as when he struggles to hold back—and then runs away from—the payload of a truck full of beer barrels. The best Keaton gags always emphasized the calamitous fury of the world aligned against Keaton’s futile stoicism. In the last years of his run as a feature film star, those routines became a metaphor for Keaton’s whole Hollywood career.
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