It’s not uncommon for Hollywood to slightly alter the events in a person’s life when it comes to making the biopic. For example, in the Andy Kaufman biopic “Man on the Moon,” Kaufman does his famous Carnegie Hall performance as a sort of farewell, after he has been diagnosed with cancer. In fact, that event happened about five years before Kaufman was diagnosed with the disease. But, I guess it was more cinematic to change things around a bit. If that theory is true, there must not have been very much at all that was “cinematic” about Buster Keaton’s life, since when “The Buster Keaton Story” came to the screen there was very little that actually resembled his life in the movie.
Released in 1957, “The Buster Keaton Story” featured Donald O’Connor as the great silent film comedian. We see him as a kid growing up on the vaudeville circuit…we see him become a successful movie star…and we see him drink himself silly, after all, a key element too many biopics is the “drinking problem.” These things they got right, but that’s about it.
In this version, Keaton comes to Hollywood as a young man to make it in the pictures. He sneaks his way on to a movie set and interrupts a pompous film director played by Peter Lorre, explaining that the scene Lorre is about to shoot isn’t funny. Then Keaton, with just a few quick whispered instructions to the supporting cast, performs his version of the scene. It reminded me of the scene from “Your Cheatin’ Heart” where Hank Williams, played by George Hamilton, writes one of his all-time hits on the spur of the moment in an audition. In both cases, the scenes are an interesting look at the lead character’s talent, but also ridiculously unbelievable.
Keaton’s impromptu antics are enough to impress the studio’s casting director, Gloria Brent (Ann Blyth). He begins working in bit parts, but soon makes it up to lead roles and quickly insists that he be allowed to write and direct his own films. Though he comes off as a bit of a scheming jerk, the studio agrees and a string of huge hits follow. All the while, the lovely Miss Brent clearly has eyes for Buster, though he’s too blind to see it. Instead, he buys big houses and throws lavish parties to try to impress the studio’s biggest actress, Peggy Courtney (Rhonda Flemming).
Things seem to be going great for Buster, but with the advent of “talking movies,” the demand for silent stars falls. The audience is smacked in the face with this concept in a scene in which a made up Keaton film, “The Gambler,” opens on the same night as Al Jolsson’s “The Jazz Singer.” The two films open right down the road from each other…the Jolsson film is packed and turning away customers, while the theater showing Keaton’s movie is nearly empty. Buster ends up hitting the bottle hard as he struggles to fit into a world of sound movies.
Most of the other reviews I’ve found for this picture have been very negative, mostly because this film has almost no resemblance to Keaton’s actual life. Though Buster Keaton is credited as a consultant on the movie, and was still very much a part of the film industry when this was made, many online sources claim that he was not even asked about the events of his life by the filmmakers. I do think it’s sad that a biopic of one of the absolute all-time greats of cinema strayed so far from reality…but at the same time, I can’t call this a bad film. I enjoyed watching it, even if it is really a work of fiction.
Donald O’Connor does a fine job in the lead role. I admit, he didn’t seem right for the part at first. Let’s face it, Donald O’Connor looks about as much like “The Old Stone Face” as my parakeet does. Plus, his high-pitched gosh-golly-gee-whilakers style of talking sounds nothing like the deep gravely voice we know Keaton had from his sound pictures. Ultimately, though, I guess you could say that O’Connor is playing a fictional character. Since the story bears little resemblance to Keaton’s life, why should the actor that plays him be any different? Seriously, though, O’Connor does a good job. The scenes in which he recreates some of Keaton’s bits are some of the film’s best moments. These aren’t note for note recreations of Keaton’s scenes…how could they be? But I’m sure that in 1957, they were enough to make some younger viewers curious about seeing the real Buster at work.
Ann Blyth is also enjoyable, even if her role is a strange mash-up of Keaton’s three wives and who knows who else. The most pleasant surprise in the movie, though, is Peter Lorre, playing a film director who is completely bored with his existence. He’s hilarious!
I’m sure many classic film fans will have a hard time enjoying this film, simply because of how far it strays from the facts. But looked at simply as entertainment, it’s kind of a fun little film…just don’t use it as source material for Keaton’s Wikipedia page.