Hanging on in Hollywood: Buster Keaton’s Educational and Columbia short subjects (1934-1941)

Columbia

Now that Buster Keaton’s entire short-subject output from the 1930’s and early ’40s is available on DVD, this entire period of Buster’s film career has come under re-evaluation, in much the same way as when Laurel & Hardy’s 1940’s Big Studio films came under the light of more sympathetic biographers. What the DVDs prove is that, while none of Keaton’s late-period shorts are up to the tantalizing quality of One Week or Cops, they’re far more enjoyable to watch than was once believed.

As is well-documented elsewhere, by the early 1930’s, Keaton’s personal and professional life had hit the skids. But if none of the major studios wanted to take a chance on him, his name was still a commodity from which money could be made, and Keaton had bills to pay. Based on this matter-of-fact viewpoint, Keaton signed with Educational Pictures in 1934 and eventually performed in 16 shorts for them.

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Educational blithely billed their movies as “The Spice of the Program,” but if the studio could actually have been a spice, it might have been close to arsenic. By the ’30s, Educationals featured either up-and-coming stars who used these shorts only as a stepping stone to bigger things, or former big names such as Harry Langdon and Keaton for whom Educational was a last resort.

Many of Keaton’s Educationals get by sheerly on their audience’s goodwill; you feel they could have been great comedies if they’d just had a little more time and budget bestowed upon them. Some of them actually work as is. The one that everyone always cites as old-style Keaton (and the only short for which Keaton gets [or takes?] a screen credit) is Grand Slam Opera, and with Keaton deftly showing his physicality and his old stage routines, it does indeed work well. But others in the series are quite nice. The Chemist, with Keaton as a milquetoast inventor who runs afoul of some gangsters, is fast-paced, character-driven, and quite funny. Ditto seems to take off on The Playhouse‘s subplot of Buster falling in love with a woman who happens to have a look-alike twin. The short is so otherworldly, with an almost surreal ending, that it wouldn’t have been out of place in Keaton’s ’20s filmography.

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After Keaton’s Educational contract expired, he starred in 10 shorts for Columbia Pictures. Shorts-wise, Columbia was best known as the home of The Three Stooges, and the studio did their best to fit square-pegged Buster into a similarly round hole. Stooges producer-director Jules White served the same function on nearly all of Keaton’s shorts, and his slam-bang approach to comedy ruffled Keaton’s feathers to no end.

To be sure, Columbia, like Educational, was no return to Keaton’s salad days. The Columbia shorts were each filmed in just a few days, and after Keaton finished the final one, he vowed never again to appear “in another crummy short.” Yet it’s completely unfair to say, as Keaton biographer Marion Meade stated, that Buster “phoned in” his Columbia performances.

In his take on Laurel & Hardy’s Big Studio films of the 1940’s, L&H biographer Scott MacGillivray likened The Boys’ studio years to a magician wresting his way out of a strait-jacket, finding it interesting to see how the comedians could pull off their old tricks despite being hemmed in. Similarly, though many of the plot elements and gag structures of the Columbia films seem as old as cinema itself, they’re worth watching just for the grace and nuance that Buster brings to them. He takes moth-eaten situations and makes them look as though he had just invented them.

One element that certainly helps is the shorts’ writing, done mostly by Laurel and Hardy veteran Felix Adler and Buster’s old sidekick Clyde Bruckman. (Bruckman, a co-writer of Keaton’s famed feature The General, must have had more than a say in the making of Mooching Through Georgia, a delightful Civil War send-up.)

Although, again, the quality of these Educational/Columbia shorts is mostly middling, each series bears only one short that is downright painful to watch. Educational’s Allez Oop depicts Keaton’s Elmer becoming jealous when his erstwhile girl (Spite Marriage‘s Dorothy Sebastian) falls for a trapeze artist, and then trying to master similar trapeze tricks in his own backyard. It’s saddening to watch the man who swooped all over a moving train in The General fall flat on his face while trying to swing just a few yards above the ground. (The movie’s sped-up film and music make the situation even more garish.)

In Columbia’s His Ex Marks the Spot, Buster, much to the consternation of his second wife (Dorothy Appleby), decides to let his ex-wife (Elsie Ames) and her boyfriend (Matt McHugh) live in his (Buster’s) apartment so that Buster won’t have to pay alimony. (The boyfriend lives with the ex-wife?? How did this get past the 1940’s censors?) It’s a very mean-spirited short that simply makes Buster look like a doofus in everything he does. The film isn’t helped by its constant cutaways to close-ups of McHugh’s derisive laughter at everyone’s stupid behavior.

But the rest of the shorts are no source of shame for the Keaton buff; just watching Buster’s body language in some of the scenes is worth the viewing. For the most part, the Educational and Columbia shorts are watchable at worst, and the best of them are worthy additions to the Keaton canon — even if Buster himself wouldn’t have agreed.

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