The Buster Keaton Story (1957)

91 mins | Biography | May 1957

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HISTORY

The opening credits include the following written statement: "This is the sad, happy, loving story of one of the immortals of the silent screen." As pointed out in many contemporary reviews, The Buster Keaton Story is a highly fictionalized account of the famous comedian's life. Unlike the film's depiction, "The Three Keatons" were vaudeville headliners and Keaton entered the motion picture industry due to a chance meeting in 1917 with his old vaudeville friend, Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, who asked Keaton to appear in his short film The Butcher Boy. Keaton continued to work with Arbuckle until 1919, when he began making his own short films. In 1923, the comedian made his first feature film as an independent producer, and later starred in such classics as 1924's The Navigator and 1927's The General (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1921-30). In May 1921, Keaton married Natalie Talmadge, with whom he had two sons, Joseph and Robert. After completing Steamboat Bill, Jr. in 1928, Keaton's production company was absorbed by M-G-M, for which he continued to make films until 1933's What--No Beer? at which time the studio terminated his contract (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1921-30 and 1931-40). After Keaton divorced Talmadge in 1932 and began suffering from alcoholism, his life and career remained in decline until 1940, when the forty-five-year-old comedian married his third wife, twenty-one year old Eleanor Norris. In Sep 1949, interest in Keaton was renewed when noted critic James Agee's essay "Comedy's Greatest Era" was published in Time. In addition to appearing ...

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The opening credits include the following written statement: "This is the sad, happy, loving story of one of the immortals of the silent screen." As pointed out in many contemporary reviews, The Buster Keaton Story is a highly fictionalized account of the famous comedian's life. Unlike the film's depiction, "The Three Keatons" were vaudeville headliners and Keaton entered the motion picture industry due to a chance meeting in 1917 with his old vaudeville friend, Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, who asked Keaton to appear in his short film The Butcher Boy. Keaton continued to work with Arbuckle until 1919, when he began making his own short films. In 1923, the comedian made his first feature film as an independent producer, and later starred in such classics as 1924's The Navigator and 1927's The General (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1921-30). In May 1921, Keaton married Natalie Talmadge, with whom he had two sons, Joseph and Robert. After completing Steamboat Bill, Jr. in 1928, Keaton's production company was absorbed by M-G-M, for which he continued to make films until 1933's What--No Beer? at which time the studio terminated his contract (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1921-30 and 1931-40). After Keaton divorced Talmadge in 1932 and began suffering from alcoholism, his life and career remained in decline until 1940, when the forty-five-year-old comedian married his third wife, twenty-one year old Eleanor Norris. In Sep 1949, interest in Keaton was renewed when noted critic James Agee's essay "Comedy's Greatest Era" was published in Time. In addition to appearing with his new wife at the "Cirque Medrano" in Paris, Keaton worked regularly in film and television throughout the 1950s and 1960s, receiving a special Academy Award in 1959 "for his unique talents which brought immortal comedies to the screen." The fictional Keaton film The Criminal depicted in The Buster Keaton Story was a reworking of the comedian's 1922 short film Cops, including gags from his 1924 feature film Sherlock, Jr. (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1921-30).
       In Jun 1955, HR reported that producer-screenwriter Robert Smith had purchased the screen rights to Keaton's story, with the agreement stipulating that the film could be produced independently or in conjunction with a major studio. According to the file on the film in the Paramount Collection at the AMPAS Library, The Buster Keaton Story was originally budgeted at $1,400,000, including $86,000 paid by Forum Productions for the screen rights and screenplay combined. Smith and Sidney Sheldon shared $100,000 for their producing duties, while performers Donald O'Connor, Ann Blyth and Rhonda Fleming received $200,000, $75,000 and $20,000 respectively. DV reported in Jan 1956 that O'Connor was being paid $150,000 to star in The Buster Keaton Story, as well as receiving a substantial sum under a second contract with Paramount to be a "consultant" on the producton, working with Smith and Sheldon in developing the Keaton character and assisting in the selection of film excerpts, which were to be gathered from 300 pieces of Keaton's film material. According to HR, portions of the film were shot on location at the Santa Susana Pass and at the Ray Corrigan Ranch in Simi Valley, CA. HR news items include Emmett Smith and Bill Walker in the cast, but their appearance in the released film has not been confirmed.
       In Aug 1957, DV reported that Buster Keaton's former wife Mae Scribbens, now named Jewell Steven and living in New York City, had filed suit against Paramount for $5,000,000, claiming the film depicted her "falsely and maliciously" as it showed her marrying Keaton while he was in a drunken state, and made her appear a "disreputable person of low character and mean design." Modern biographies of Keaton depict Scribbens as a "gold digger" who used her position as a nurse to take advantage of her famous patients, including nightclub comedian Joe E. Lewis, and state that she worked as a prostitute during her brief marriage to Keaton. Unlike the character of "Gloria Brent," Scribbens was a nurse who met Keaton while the comedian was undergoing treatment for his alcoholism. In 1933, she became Keaton's second wife, and the two were divorced in 1935. The final disposition of Scribbens' case against Paramount has not been ascertained.
       According to modern sources, writer-producer-director Sheldon decided to do a film based on Keaton's life story due to the great success of M-G-M's 1955 production I'll Cry Tomorrow, which was the story of alcoholic singing star Lillian Roth (See Entry). In modern interviews, Sheldon stated that after he was brought into the picture by Smith, the two rushed the film into production without a finished script because of O'Connor's limited availability, and that their haste led to the film's critical and financial failure. Although the Keatons were very displeased with the resulting film, the money they made from The Buster Keaton Story was used as to purchase a home in Woodland Hills, CA, where the two lived happily until Keaton's death on 1 Feb 1966.

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GEOGRAPHIC LOCATIONS
PERSONAL & COMPANY INDEX CREDITS
CREDIT
HISTORY CREDITS
CREDIT TYPE
CREDIT
Personal note credit:
SOURCE CITATIONS
SOURCE
DATE
PAGE
Box Office
27 Apr 1957
---
Daily Variety
31 Jan 1956
---
Daily Variety
17 Apr 1957
p. 3
Daily Variety
29 Aug 1957
---
Film Daily
17 Apr 1957
p. 8
Hollywood Reporter
5 Jun 1956
p. 1
Hollywood Reporter
28 Jun 1956
p. 13
Hollywood Reporter
29 Jun 1956
p. 12
Hollywood Reporter
31 Jul 1956
p. 9
Hollywood Reporter
9 Aug 1956
p. 4
Hollywood Reporter
21 Sep 1956
p. 12
Hollywood Reporter
17 Apr 1957
p. 3
Motion Picture Herald Product Digest
20 Apr 1957
p. 345
New York Times
22 Apr 1957
p. 31
Variety
17 Apr 1957
p. 6
CAST
NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT
Edward Wahrman
Paul Francis DeRolf
Bill Meader
+
PRODUCTION CREDITS
NAME
PARENT COMPANY
DISTRIBUTION COMPANY
NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT
DIRECTORS
Asst dir
PRODUCERS
WRITERS
PHOTOGRAPHY
Dir of photog
ART DIRECTORS
Art dir
Art dir
FILM EDITOR
SET DECORATORS
Set dec
Set dec
COSTUMES
Cost
MUSIC
Mus score
SOUND
Gene Merritt
Sd rec
Sd ed
VISUAL EFFECTS
Spec photog eff
MAKEUP
Makeup supv
Hair style supv
PRODUCTION MISC
Tech adv
DETAILS
Release Date:
May 1957
Premiere Information:
New York opening: 21 Apr 1957
Production Date:
25 Jun--8 Aug 1956
Copyright Info
Claimant
Date
Copyright Number
Paramount Pictures Corp., Forum Productions, Inc. and Robert Smith
20 April 1957
LP8172
Physical Properties:
Sound
Western Electric Recording
Black and White
Widescreen/ratio
VistaVision Motion Picture High-Fidelity
Duration(in mins):
91
Country:
United States
Language:
English
PCA No:
18311
SYNOPSIS

"The Three Keatons," a poor vaudeville family consisting of Joe, his wife Myra and their seven-year-old son Buster, arrive in Fargo, North Dakota on a snowy winter's day in 1904, with dreams of becoming stars. Sixteen years later, however, they are still an opening act. Buster then decides to leave his struggling family and try his luck in Hollywood. Arriving at Famous Studios, Buster sneaks onto the lot, where he tries to demonstrate his comedic abilities to director Kurt Bergner. Though Kurt merely mocks the vaudevillian, Gloria Brent, a casting director, recognizes Buster's talent and convinces Larry Winters, the head of the studio, to take a chance on the brash young man. Though given only a bit part in his first picture, Buster steals the film and is soon offered a studio contract, which he refuses to sign unless he is allowed to direct himself. Winters reluctantly agrees, and in celebration, Buster asks Peggy Courtney, the studio's scheming leading lady, out to dinner. After she laughs at his poor table manners, Buster angrily drags Peggy out of the fancy nightclub, then takes Gloria out to eat at a bar that same night. There, he tells her about his life in vaudeville, how he began his career when he was only three days old and had appeared in his family's "knock-about" act ever since, receiving little, if any, formal education along the way. Later, following the great success of his film, The Criminal , writer-director-star Buster uses his newfound wealth to buy a gigantic thirty-two room Hollywood mansion, then breaks Gloria's heart by telling her that he has bought the estate for ...

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"The Three Keatons," a poor vaudeville family consisting of Joe, his wife Myra and their seven-year-old son Buster, arrive in Fargo, North Dakota on a snowy winter's day in 1904, with dreams of becoming stars. Sixteen years later, however, they are still an opening act. Buster then decides to leave his struggling family and try his luck in Hollywood. Arriving at Famous Studios, Buster sneaks onto the lot, where he tries to demonstrate his comedic abilities to director Kurt Bergner. Though Kurt merely mocks the vaudevillian, Gloria Brent, a casting director, recognizes Buster's talent and convinces Larry Winters, the head of the studio, to take a chance on the brash young man. Though given only a bit part in his first picture, Buster steals the film and is soon offered a studio contract, which he refuses to sign unless he is allowed to direct himself. Winters reluctantly agrees, and in celebration, Buster asks Peggy Courtney, the studio's scheming leading lady, out to dinner. After she laughs at his poor table manners, Buster angrily drags Peggy out of the fancy nightclub, then takes Gloria out to eat at a bar that same night. There, he tells her about his life in vaudeville, how he began his career when he was only three days old and had appeared in his family's "knock-about" act ever since, receiving little, if any, formal education along the way. Later, following the great success of his film, The Criminal , writer-director-star Buster uses his newfound wealth to buy a gigantic thirty-two room Hollywood mansion, then breaks Gloria's heart by telling her that he has bought the estate for Peggy. In turn, Buster's heart is broken when the gold-digging Peggy instead becomes engaged to Duke Alexander Michael David of Bulgaria. Despite the unprecedented success of his film career, an unhappy Buster begins drinking. Wanting a share of his next film's profits, Buster mortgages his mansion in order to pay half the production costs of The Gambler . His film is a box-office flop, however, as The Jazz Singer opens the same night, effectively ending the silent film era. Now financially ruined, Buster is forced to make a sound picture under the studio's terms, which include Kurt as the film's director. Discouraged because his director is more interested in elocution than entertainment, Buster seeks his inspiration from the bottle and the film flops. Meanwhile, Gloria returns from the European trip she had taken to forget about Buster and soon becomes engaged to Tom McAfee, the studio's legal chief. On their wedding day, however, Gloria leaves Tom in order to bail a drunken Buster out of jail. The next morning, a hung-over Buster is informed that he and Gloria are married. Later, Gloria tells Larry that she married Buster in hopes of stopping his self-destructive behavior, but has had little success in that endeavor. Forced to live on his wife's meager savings, the unemployed Buster initially agrees to take a small part in a Famous Studios production, but upon seeing a photograph of himself from his glory days, the still-proud comedian walks out of the studio and directly into a bar. Refused service because he has used up all his credit, Buster goes for a walk and soon finds himself starring in a pickup baseball game, much to the delight of the neighborhood children and himself. The next day, however, Buster falls back into his alcoholic daze after borrowing ten dollars from a fan and getting drunk. In turn, Gloria leaves her husband, feeling her continued presence in his life is not helping matters. Finally forced to sell his mansion, Buster makes a final trip to Famous Studios, where he informs Gloria that he has stopped drinking and decided to go back into vaudeville, having finally realized it is making people laugh, not money or fame, that he enjoys. While performing his new juggling act in a vaudeville house in Fresno, California, Buster is greeted backstage by Gloria. Reunited with his wife, Buster quickly makes her part of his act, stating that he plans to change its name to "The Two Keatons." A pregnant Gloria, however, tells him to make it "The Three Keatons."

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Legend
Viewed by AFI
Partially Viewed
Offscreen Credit
Name Occurs Before Title
AFI Life Achievement Award

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The American Film Institute is grateful to Sir Paul Getty KBE and the Sir Paul Getty KBE Estate for their dedication to the art of the moving image and their support for the AFI Catalog of Feature Films and without whose support AFI would not have been able to achieve this historical landmark in this epic scholarly endeavor.