Monday, April 20, 2009

Spite Marriage

Buster Keaton's last silent film, Spite Marriage, was released by MGM in 1929, during the terrible interim period in which sound was taking over, and it demonstrates just how ill-served a genius could be by a major Hollywood studio. Keaton's decline after he signed a contract with MGM was precipitous not because he gave up creative control over his work but because the studio had no understanding of his particular talents. Unlike Chaplin, who did everything himself (and took credit for it) Keaton relied on collaborators, people he knew and trusted and - more importantly - who knew Keaton and exactly what his comedic strengths were.

One of Chaplin's great failings was insisting on absolute control over every aspect of his films. More than one critic commented, after the release of his near-miss The Circus (1928), that what Chaplin needed was a good director and story writer. He could have made one film a year instead of one every three or more. In the same six years, 1923 to 1929, that it took Chaplin to make three feature-length films, A Woman of Paris (1923), The Gold Rush (1925), and The Circus, Buster Keaton made eleven - including at least five masterpieces.(1)

Although we are assured in the opening credits that Spite Marriage is a "Buster Keaton Production," (which, of course, is the only reason why anyone is still watching it eighty years later), far too much of the film's time is taken up with Dorothy Sebastian, who is otherwise utterly forgotten. And she is the worst sort of heroine for Buster - too old and too worldly. Keaton's heroines were always genuine, if a trifle incompetent. But MGM, clearly, paid no attention to Keaton's previous work. Making him, in Spite Marriage, the infatuated dry-cleaner who spends all his money and spare time gazing lovingly at Trilby Drew (Sebastian) onstage in a Civil War melodrama, showed to what extent MGM wanted to alter Keaton's image, and otherwise wreck his career.

Carl Harbaugh and Lew Lipton, two of MGM's trustiest hacks, are credited with the script for Spite Marriage. Keaton's old designer, Fred Gabourie, did the excellent sets. But the scenes on the yacht seem like outtakes from The Navigator. Keaton manages to come up with enough wonderful gags to keep the story moving, but they come at his own expense. And his "happy" ending is not nearly so sweet as those he used in all of his great comedies. Even the last kiss is missing, even if it would have been more than a little unwelcome. The two of them, Trilby and Elmer, walk together through the front door of a hotel. But Buster is being led by Dorothy Sebastian by the hand. And the hand-shaking, hat-tipping gag with which the film closes, and which was used in two prior scenes, was already tired when Max Linder used it in Max Between Two Fires (1915).

Making Keaton into a lapdog was too cruel even for MGM. It is hard to believe that they wanted to ruin him. He was an important property for them. But he was having problems. His films were no longer the hits they once were, and he was personally embittered about the treatment of his old friend Roscoe Arbuckle at the hands of the Hollywood gossip columnists, who effectively ended his career in films. And he was drinking heavily. What might have become of him if he hadn't signed with MGM isn't hard to figure out. He had only two real peers in the late 1920s, Harold Lloyd and Chaplin. But they were much better at handling their fortunes. When Spite Marriage was shunned by critics and audiences, and when MGM found there was nothing they could do with Keaton's harsh midwestern voice, he was relegated to smaller roles in smaller pictures, until, in obvious desperation, he was even paired with Jimmy Durante. And when they had nothing for him to do, the studio used him as a gag man. Typically, it would take thirty years of obscurity before film archivists and critics re-discovered his genius. Some comment that it was because Keaton was too far ahead of his time. It is some consolation that Keaton lived long enough to enjoy a little of his own re-discovery.

(1) Our Hospitality (1923), Sherlock Jr. (1924), The Navigator (1924), Seven Chances (1925), Go West (1925), Battling Butler (1926), The General (1926), College (1927), Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928), The Cameraman (1928), and Spite Marriage (1929). My own favorite of these films is the laconic Go West.

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