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Deep Dives

Keaton at the Crossroads: Buster’s Last Silent Comedy, Spite Marriage

Keaton at the Crossroads: Buster’s Last Silent Comedy, <i>Spite Marriage</i>

In later years, Buster Keaton referred to his signing of a contract with MGM as “the worst mistake of my career.” In 1928 it was purely a business decision. The last few films he had made for his own production company had been expensive and less profitable than he had hoped. MGM was a huge and successful company, as powerful as the lion that was its mascot. Working there would, in theory, remove the burdens that came with being an independent and allow him to concentrate on the films themselves. Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd warned Buster against it, telling him he would be unhappy inside the machinery of a major studio, but Buster couldn’t see the problem. From his first day in front of a camera in 1917 until that moment, he had had the luxury, rare even then, of never working without artistic control. His apprenticeship saw him teamed with Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle at Arbuckle’s studio, and Arbuckle always functioned more as friend and collaborator than as boss. Keaton formed his own company in 1920 and, making films his way, quickly became one of the most important comic artists of his time. Perhaps he was naive, but it just didn’t occur to him that this wouldn’t continue at MGM. And he certainly couldn’t foresee that in five short years with the company he would find his career in ruins.

MGM had a way of working. Actors were actors and not creators. The studio would provide the scripts. The actors would perform them, word for word, and collect their paychecks. Buster liked their first idea, for him to play a newsreel cameraman, but beseeched executive Irving Thalberg to throw out their script and let him reinvent it. Thalberg ultimately agreed. The result, The Cameraman, made largely Keaton’s way, was a critical and commercial hit, and so for his next film, MGM, in its infinite wisdom, decided to give him less control.

The story idea for Spite Marriage was Buster’s. But MGM would disperse Keaton’s creative team and provide a script and a humorless producer named Larry Weingarten. It could have been a disaster, but Spite Marriage is a small miracle. Under the most trying circumstances, Keaton created one more genuinely funny movie.

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