The Buster Keaton Story is an interesting film to say the least. Interesting in that the filmmakers simply use Buster’s name and assume that makes it a biopic. The movie is no different from a studio simply slapping the name of a popular book onto a film and hoping the brand recognition will get butts in seats. Buster Keaton was alive and well when this film was released, and is actually cited as a technical adviser although it’s well-known he had nothing to contribute to this movie. The film could be called “The Bob Smith Story” as it tells nothing about Keaton himself. Donald O’Connor is good, but he’s good playing a guy who is famous in movies; not Buster Keaton. Bizarrely enough, this film plays like a bastard sequel to Singin’ in the Rain than a biopic. I’d recommend this just to watch how frustrating this movie is in trying to tell a story about a famous person in the most cliché way possible.
Buster Keaton (O’Connor) hopes to make it as a Hollywood star. The greater the acclaim, and the more power he’s given cause Keaton to lose his way through alcoholism and the advent of the talkies. The only one who hopes to save him is the beautiful Gloria Brent (Ann Blyth).
Buster Keaton famously sold the rights to his life story for $50,000 which caused him to be financially solvent for the rest of his life. With all due respect to Keaton, that wasn’t the best choice. The film was directed by Sidney Sheldon who’s done a few films I enjoy, and from a directing standpoint he’s good. He also co-wrote the script which is grossly inaccurate despite Keaton being touted as the technical adviser. The film opens with a prologue discussing how this is the “sad, happy, loving story” of Keaton’s life and I’d have to say that bipolar list of adjectives is right. The tone of this movie is all over the board ranging from wildly comic to morbidly depressing. At one point the film pulls a technique I noticed in Gable and Lombard of making Keaton’s life like a Buster Keaton movie with a scene where he plays baseball with little kids and ends up in a series of comic pratfalls. The film never knows where to go, and by the end Keaton seemingly regresses to a childlike state with Gloria being his mother and telling the little boys from the previous scene that Buster can’t come out to play….wait what?
The problem is that the film may have Keaton’s name in the title, but there’s zero connection to Keaton within the narrative. The tale of a star’s abrupt rise to fame only to fall from grace due to alcoholism is nothing new in the world of Hollywood. On top of that the film makes the bizarre assertion that the talkies single-handedly ruined Keaton’s career which is untrue. I started to wonder through various lines of dialogue, and with O’Connor in the starring role, if the filmmakers didn’t want to remind the audience of Singin’ in the Rain. The story of talkies ruining success might be a stretch because it’s so generic, but the film recreates the “right on the nose” scene from Singin‘ between two actors struggling for a gun. The film introduces a snooty blonde actress named Peggy Courtney (Rhonda Fleming) that’s a Lina Lamont rip-off, and Gloria asks Buster to “make me laugh.” I rolled my eyes a few times watching this because it’s obviously meant to remind audiences of that film. Why isn’t this called Singin’ 2 then? As if that wasn’t bad enough when Buster is trying to get involved in the talkies he can’t find the mic. I started thinking he became Lina Lamont!
Suffice to say this movie is highly inaccurate which is sad because in researching Keaton’s life for this review its remarkably fascinating. The film only has about three minutes of Keaton’s childhood on the vaudeville circuit which doesn’t include some of the fantastic and bizarre events that happened to him including being lifted up by a tornado and almost suffocating in a trunk. The movie introduces tiny Keaton for three minutes before putting the rest of the film in O’Connor’s hands. Keaton’s story could be anyone’s. Hell, it could have been the “Donald O’Connor Story” for all the things that supposedly happened to Keaton here. For a 90 minute film events move so quickly you’re unable to understand how Keaton could get so famous; famous enough to buy a 32 room house! Not only are events truncated, but there’s zip in the character development. Keaton and Peggy Courtney go on one date and Keaton is prepared to marry her in the next scene. Is there relationship one-sided, or have they been involved in a relationship we just didn’t see? The film also either doesn’t mention Keaton’s biggest films (The General, Steamboat Bill Jr., etc) or was unable to use the titles. The movie does include long recreations of Keaton’s comedy, but I was unable to place them within the historical context of Keaton’s career.
The lone savior of the film is Donald O’Connor. He’s great at the physical humor which shouldn’t be a surprise considering the “Make ‘Em Laugh” number from Singin’ in the Rain. Unfortunately, those expecting to see that iconic stoneface of Keaton’s will be irritated because O’Connor isn’t restrained enough to keep his face bland. He’s always got a smile somewhere or a twinkle in his eye. He’s far too lively for the role. The second half of the movie makes Keaton out to be a lush (which was true) without the redemption. He starts conning fans out of money to buy booze, and is left all alone. The thing is the film doesn’t develop Keaton’s alcoholism which did nearly kill him. At one point Keaton was forced to stay in a sanitarium which this film ignores; the movie just keeps him confined to his home.
Acting as his love interest is Ann Blyth who you may know as Veda from Mildred Pierce. I loved Blyth in that film, and couldn’t find anything that I loved about her here. Blyth herself is too dour to play Gloria, and feels uncomfortable throughout the film, especially at the end. Her character Gloria is meant to be a composite of all three of Keaton’s wives, but boy is she a doormat. She starts out as a strong casting director who isn’t hip to Keaton’s game, but by the end she’s relegated to being his mother! The film never develops their relationship, and a character asks her if she married Keaton out of pity which the film makes you believe. When she finally up and leaves Keaton as he’s in the throes of alcoholism it comes off heartless. In the final two minutes, when Keaton returns to vaudeville because apparently he never did movies again (UNTRUE), Gloria returns and she’s pregnant! Um, so the baby’s not yours Buster? Because she hasn’t been living with you, unless the filmmakers know something I don’t know. Of course it’s a happy ending with baby making three…I call for a sequel where a paternity test is taken.
I didn’t like The Buster Keaton Story and that’s not me being sarcastic. The film is so generic that there’s nothing memorable or upsetting about it. I don’t know much about Keaton’s life, so I couldn’t point out anything more than the biggest omissions, so I’m assuming that die-hard fans will be livid while watching this. O’Connor is good, but he’s good playing a stereotypical Hollywood wannabe. It’s not a good movie folks, go watch a real Keaton film instead.
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.