Buster Keaton Blogathon- Buster Keaton’s Influence on Lucille Ball

Lucy’s new red hair, given to her in the early 1940s at MGM.

By the late 1940s, Lucille Ball’s movie career was going nowhere. After a few years as “Queen of the Bs” at RKO, she moved to MGM. Despite being at the more glamorous studio known for “having more stars than there are in heaven,” Lucy wasn’t one of them. The biggest impact MGM had on Lucy’s career was setting Sydney Guilaroff up to do her hair for DuBarry Was a Lady (1943). He dyed her hair its signature shade of red. The red hair eventually became her trademark and she would wear it for the rest of her life. However, despite her new vivacious hair color, MGM was not giving her any roles that would catapult her into super stardom. Lucy was also in her late 30s, not old obviously, but definitely not the age of ingenue. After fifteen years in the business, it was looking like Lucy wasn’t going to make it as a movie star.

“The Great Stone Face.”

Also toiling away at MGM was silent comedy legend Buster Keaton. Buster had been a superstar back in the 1920s with his groundbreaking silent film classics such as The General (1926), Steamboat Bill Jr (1928), and Sherlock, Jr. (1924). He was known for his expert stunt work, impeccable timing, hilarious gags using props, and of course, being “The Great Stone Face.” In the late 1920s, MGM offered Buster a contract with their studio, which he signed despite the protests of colleagues such as Harold Lloyd and Charles Chaplin. Both men warned Buster that he’d be signing away all creative control if he were to sign a studio contract. Unfortunately for Buster, Lloyd and Chaplin were correct. Buster’s career was effectively ruined after signing on with MGM. The Cameraman (1928) is arguably his last, great film.

Buster ended up being tasked with making some truly terrible films in the 1930s. The direction of his career, along with pain emanating from a previously undiagnosed broken neck (broken during Sherlock, Jr.), and the breakup of his marriage to Natalie Talmadge led to him becoming an alcoholic. He languished for a while, but thankfully pulled it together by the 1940s. MGM also gave him a gig as a gag writer. He would write gags for the Marx Brothers’ last three films: At the Circus, Go West, and The Big Store. He also wrote gags for In the Good Old Summertime (1949) and Easy to Wed (1946) co-starring Lucille Ball.

Lucille Ball as “The Professor,” a comedy bit that got her “I Love Lucy” and a well-earned spot as a television legend.

It was during the 1940s when Buster, seeing Lucy’s potential for physical comedy, began coaching her on how to use props and how to do pratfalls without getting injured. Buster was an expert on the latter, having been literally thrown around the stage as a child during his parents’ vaudeville act. It was during one of these throws where Buster acquired his nickname, “Buster.” Buster also coached Lucy on how to keep a straight face during her comedic bits, a quality that suited her well as a key part of her “Lucy” character’s comedy is that she fully believes in any stunt she cooks up. Whether it’s Lucy Ricardo deciding to “soak up local color” in a wine vat in Rome, or pretending to be Ricky’s hillbilly date, one thing is for certain, when Lucy wants something, that woman does not screw around. She gives 110% percent each and every time.

Buster was known for his impeccable timing and he recognized this quality in Lucy as well. In the late 1940s, Buster was working at Columbia Studios starring in a series of comedic short films, and he recommended Lucy for a contract. She was given a three picture deal. Her first film under her new contract was Miss Grant Takes Richmond (1948) co-starring a then up-and-coming William Holden. He was two years away from his breakthrough, star-making role in Sunset Boulevard (1950). In ‘Richmond,’ Lucy was given the opportunity to show her physical comedy chops, including a scene where she deals with a typewriter ribbon that comes unspooled, and later a scene on a jackhammer. Her next film, The Fuller Brush Girl (1950), teamed Lucy with Eddie Albert. This film features a funny scene where Lucy and Eddie get drunk on wine while hiding in a wine barrel. Lucy’s last film in her picture deal was The Magic Carpet (1951), and the story behind that movie is stuff of legend and worth discussing in another blog entry.

Desi Arnaz, Buster Keaton, and Lucille Ball on the set of “I Love Lucy.”

At the same time Lucy was making films for Columbia, she was also appearing on CBS’ radio show, “My Favorite Husband.” This show had the same writing staff as I Love Lucy, and as a result, many of the season one I Love Lucy plots are re-hashed versions of some “My Favorite Husband” plotlines. Lucy’s radio show was very popular and successful. CBS, recognizing the potential in the new burgeoning medium of television, wanted to bring “My Favorite Husband” to the small screen, with Lucy and her radio show husband, Richard Denning, reprising their roles. However, Lucy wanted her real-life husband, Desi Arnaz to co-star with her. Desi was a bandleader with his Desi Arnaz Orchestra and as a result, was always on the road. Lucy wanted him closer to home and thought that a television show would be the perfect vehicle for both of them. However, CBS didn’t want the Cuban Arnaz playing All American Lucy’s husband, thinking that the audience wouldn’t “buy” it–despite them actually being married in real life.

To prove to CBS that the American public would accept them as a couple, Lucy and Desi decided to put together a vaudeville act and tour the country. The success of the tour would dictate whether Americans wanted to see Lucy and Desi together as a couple. Lucy and Desi enlisted the writers from “My Favorite Husband,” Madelyn Pugh, Bob Carroll, Jr., and Jess Oppenheimer, to put together a couple comedy bits. In one of the bits, Lucy plays “The Professor,” a cellist who wants a job in Desi’s orchestra. Not seeing her potential, Desi insists that she audition. This act would later find its way into the sixth episode of I Love Lucy, titled “The Audition.”

The cello that Lucy used in her “Professor” bit. For more information about the cello, I highly recommend this link: https://cellomuseum.org/a-cello-helped-launch-one-of-the-most-popular-tv-shows-of-all-time/

While Lucy rehearsed the comedic cello bit, Buster coached her on how to use the cello prop to get as many jokes out of it as possible. The cello itself was over 90% of the comedy of the sketch. He worked with Lucy on how to handle the props, the timing, everything. Part of Buster’s advice to Lucy was that she needed to treat the cello as if it were a Stradivarius and guard it with her life when she’s not using it. She couldn’t risk anyone messing around with it, since the entire act is built around the cello. A friend of Desi’s, Pepito Perez, had customized the particular cello that Lucy was using. Lucy borrowed for it the vaudeville act, the eventual pilot episode, and for the aforementioned episode of I Love Lucy. The cello had a compartment in the back which held a stool, a plunger, and other props needed for the act. Without one of these props the act would have been ruined.

Buster’s coaching paid off, the vaudeville tour and subsequent pilot were a massive success and CBS bought I Love Lucy which went on to make megastars out the entire cast, Desi Arnaz, Vivian Vance, and William Frawley, but especially Lucille Ball. Lucille Ball became a superstar. She took her stardom and built an entire 30+ year career on playing her “Lucy” character. Buster Keaton’s mentorship was a big factor in Lucy’s success and it’s not hard to see his influence. He would appear with Lucy on various television programs throughout the rest of his life. There is no doubt that Lucy and Buster had great mutual respect for one another. I Love Lucy was reported to be one of Buster’s favorite television programs.

Lucy and Buster in a sketch featured in a 1965 televised tribute to Stan Laurel.

The Buster Keaton Blogathon- “The Great Buster” (2018)

Peter Bogdanovich passed away at the age of 82 this past January. Aside from directing such amazing classic films like The Last Picture Show (1971), What’s Up Doc? (1972) and Paper Moon (1973), Bogdanovich was known for being a fan of Classic Hollywood. In the TCM podcast, I’m Still Peter Bogdanovich, he talks about how he was a fan of the Golden Age from a young age, having been introduced to the silent comedians: Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, and Buster Keaton from a very young age. This love of movies eventually led to Bogdanovich keeping a file of 4″ x 6″ index cards where he’d record his thoughts about the movies he’d seen. When he was a young adult, he worked as a programmer at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City where he’d schedule film retrospectives of Old Hollywood directors like Orson Welles, John Ford, and Alfred Hitchcock. He eventually developed a friendship with Welles.

Throughout Bogdanovich’s sometimes tumultuous career, he always maintained a love of Classic Hollywood. He was considered a film historian, having written multiple books and conducted many interviews with prominent figures in Classic Hollywood. One of his best documentaries is the one he finished toward the end of his career– The Great Buster: A Celebration, which premiered in 2018 and was distributed on blu ray by Cohen Media Group.

The Great Buster: A Celebration is a fantastic documentary. Bogdanovich’s narration is perfect for the subject. It is obvious that he loves Buster Keaton as much as we do. He also includes some wonderful interviews with people like Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, and Dick Van Dyke. There are countless other interviews included, but the three I mentioned are my favorites. The documentary has a somewhat conventional narrative, the film starts with Buster’s birth on October 4, 1895 and concludes Buster’s story with his passing on February 1, 1966. However, Bogdanovich manages to change things up a bit by devoting a large portion of the documentary on the ten films considered to be Buster’s masterpieces.

I appreciate that Bogdanovich presented a balanced look at Buster’s life. He didn’t choose to only focus on the good, nor did he only focus on the bad. Buster’s rise to fame is covered, as well as the monumental career mistake he made in the late 1920s when he agreed to sign with MGM—against the advice of his contemporaries like Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd. This decision killed Buster’s career because he lost his autonomy. The Cameraman (1928) is the first film that Buster made under his new MGM contract, and while it is funny and has its moments (I like it, I own the Criterion), and Buster was able to direct, it is nothing like the films he made previously. Bogdanovich gives some space to Buster’s subsequent alcohol issue; but doesn’t dwell on it. I loved that a fair amount of time was devoted to Buster’s childhood. The idea that Buster’s parents were big successes on the vaudeville circuit because their act literally involved throwing their child (Buster) around the stage is hysterical. Buster’s parents had a suitcase handle sewn into Buster’s shirt so he’d be easier to throw.

Buster in “Sherlock Jr.”

I loved seeing the footage of Buster’s later career–especially his appearances in commercials and on Candid Camera. I could watch Buster Keaton on Candid Camera all day. He was hilarious. I was happy to see that even late in life, Buster was going through a renaissance. His services were still in demand and people still found his work funny. Even now, almost 100 years after Buster’s films, he is still funny. I just saw The General in the theater a few months ago with a live organ accompaniment, and the theater was packed. The jokes in The General were still funny now as they were then. It was wonderful to see how many people still had an interest in not only classic film, but silent film, but most of all, wanted to see Buster Keaton. The fact that The General was filmed in my home state of Oregon and I saw the film at a theater in Oregon probably helped too.

I highly recommend Peter Bogdanovich’s documentary, The Great Buster: A Celebration to anyone who loves Buster Keaton, or loves a great documentary in general. It is funny, it is poignant, it is inspirational, and it’s just plain entertaining. Bogdanovich includes lots of great scenes of all of Buster’s funniest gags and even some funny pictures of Buster when he was a child in vaudeville. It is obvious from watching this documentary that it was made by someone who loves Buster Keaton and appreciates his brand of comedy.

Bogdanovich asserts that the 10 films that Buster made in the 1920s when he was his own production studio (Buster Keaton Productions) were his masterpieces. These 10 films are:

  1. Three Ages (1923)
  2. Our Hospitality (1923)
  3. Sherlock, Jr. (1924)
  4. The Navigator (1924)
  5. Seven Chances (1925)
  6. Go West (1925)
  7. Battling Butler (1926)
  8. The General (1926)
  9. College (1927)
  10. Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)

I haven’t seen all of Buster’s masterpieces, but I can say that of the ones I have seen: Our Hospitality, Sherlock Jr., The General, and Steamboat Bill, Jr., Buster Keaton’s films fully deserve the adjective “masterpieces.” Sherlock Jr., in particular is fascinating for the amount of practical special effects used in this film. Some of the special effects are still fascinating now, and it’s been almost 98 years!

The famous falling wall gag in “Steamboat Bill Jr.” How Buster Keaton didn’t get hurt is fascinating to me.

Buster Keaton Blogathon- “The General” (1926)

This is super late. I’m not even going to pretend that it’s even vaguely on-time. I ended up being busy this weekend and didn’t have time to write the post. But I wanted to write about this film regardless of whether or not it was part of an event. As a native Oregonian, I’m always interested in seeing films that were filmed in Oregon, especially classic films in Oregon. Oregon doesn’t seem to be a filming hot spot. It’s especially fun to see things that were around at the time of the film’s production that are still around today.

Buster Keaton’s The General was one of Keaton’s pet projects as he was a big fan of trains and had read the William Pittenger’s (former Union Army soldier) 1863 memoir, The Great Locomotive Chase. In his book, Pittenger describes the events of the 1862 “Great Locomotive Chase” which was a military raid that occurred in Georgia during the Civil War. Keaton wanted to bring the story of the Great Locomotive Chase to the silver screen, but of course wanted to tell the story using his patented brand of comedy. He wanted to rent the actual General locomotive that was used in the real chase, but the owners denied his request upon hearing that his envisioned film was a comedy. In the story, Keaton also changed the perspective of the story by presenting the Confederates in a positive light. Obviously, these days that decision would probably be quite controversial.

The next step was to find a suitable filming location. Keaton’s location manager ended up discovering Cottage Grove, OR a small town about 30 minutes south of Eugene, 2.5 hours south of Portland. Near Cottage Grove, there was an old-fashioned railroad already intact which was perfect for The General. The crew also discovered that the local railway–Oregon, Pacific and Eastern Railway owned two Civil War-era vintage trains. They purchased a third locomotive to serve as the “Texas,” solely to use in a planned trainwreck scene. With the location and needed trains in place, production was underway.

The General is simply a story about Johnnie Gray (Keaton), the Western & Atlantic train engineer. He operates the locomotive, “The General.” He is visiting his fiancee, Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack) in Marietta, GA when the Civil War breaks out. To impress his fiancee’s father, he tries to enlist in the Confederate Army but is denied because his occupation as a train engineer is too valuable to risk his death in the war. He accepts this reasoning and tries to walk away but in the process, he is spotted by Annabelle’s father and brother who assume that he is uninterested in joining the war. Upset about her husband-to-be’s supposed lack of patriotism, Annabelle tells Johnnie that she will not marry him unless he joins the Confederacy.

A year passes and Johnnie continues his work as the engineer of The General. One day, Annabelle boards the train with Johnnie’s General guiding the way. Annabelle’s father is ill and she is traveling to see him. Shortly after boarding, the train is hijacked by the Union Army spies and they end up stealing not only the train, but The General too. After giving chase, Johnnie ends up manning another locomotive, the Texas. Much of the remainder of the film involves Johnnie trying to not only save Annabel, but also The General as well.

Buster Keaton actually counted out individual grains of gunpowder to achieve the desired cannon effect!

There are many very impressive scenes, including the famous scene of The Texas driving onto a burning bridge and collapsing into the water below. There’s another very dangerous stunt that Keaton pulls off which involves him dislodging a railroad tie while a train quickly approaches. There’s another amazing (but dangerous) stunt where Keaton sits on the coupling rod on the wheel of the train while it is moving. Keaton had a lot of fearlessness and nerve when performing his stunts and they’re fascinating to watch. He was in a league of his own when it came to physical stunts.

The General, while maybe not my favorite Keaton film, is very funny and had a lot of amazing scenes. And while there aren’t really any scenes of Cottage Grove or neighboring Oregon locales that I recognize, I love knowing that Buster Keaton was here in 1926 filming one of his classic films–a classic film that Orson “Citizen Kane” Welles declared “perhaps the greatest film ever made.” The town of Cottage Grove very much embraces their place in Buster Keaton history and in 2002, painted a mural of Keaton in The General, on the side of the former Cottage Grove Hotel in the historic downtown district. The mural is due to be refurbished this year. There’s also a cafe called “Buster’s Main Street Cafe” that (I believe) is housed in the building that the mural is painted on.

As a native Oregonian, I am proud to have had The General filmed in my state.

The Buster Keaton mural in Cottage Grove, OR