Stone Face, the working man

Industrial Strength Keaton

What was once a maverick opinion is now the received wisdom: Buster Keaton was the greatest of silent comedians. His most creative period lasted only from 1921 to ’29, and he was never as big a star as Charlie Chaplin or Harold Lloyd. Unlike them, he was plagued by personal and professional problems when the heyday was over. Chaplin and Lloyd went out on top, spending their last decades in wealthy retirement, but Keaton had to keep working right up ’til the day he died in 1966.

It’s also the received wisdom that Keaton’s life after 1930 was one long, sad decline into shabby obscurity. Industrial Strength Keaton, a new DVD set, offers a strong rebuttal to that part of the Keaton legend. Because he needed the jobs, he left behind a substantial body of work that’s been all but ignored and—as this set persuasively argues—is overdue for reappraisal. These discs contain a real grab bag, mostly from Keaton’s last years, 1949-’66—early TV appearances; industrial films; commercials for Alka-Seltzer, Milky Way, Jeep and Country Club Malt Liquor—as well as a couple of his classic silent shorts and early (inferior) talkies.

Is this stuff up there with Buster’s masterpieces like The General and Our Hospitality? Of course not. In fact, one of them, an industrial film called The Devil to Pay makes Ed Wood look like Steven Spielberg. Then again, The Homeowner (done to publicize a Phoenix housing development in 1961) is as funny as almost anything Keaton ever did. The set also shows that he never lost his ingenuity, his comic timing or his agility.

And that shabby-obscurity business? Nonsense. Keaton was a trouper and a household name to the end—he made more money during his last 15 years than he had at any other time in his life.