MGM Stories Part Three: Buster Keaton's Biggest Mistake / by Karina Longworth


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In 1928, silent comedy star Buster Keaton made what he would later call “the worst mistake of my career”: against the advice of fellow silent comedy auteurs like Charlie Chaplin, he gave up his independent production shingle and signed a contract with MGM. A vaudevillian who got his start working with Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, by the late 1920s Keaton had established himself as a solo writer, director and star who was known for doing his own spectacular but reckless stunts. Keaton joined MGM with a promise from his friend Joe Schenck that nothing would change, only to find himself in his new situation demoted from artistic boss to employee of a corporation interested in protecting its investment above all. The lack of agency and ability to personally control the quality of his own work within the confines of Mayer’s studio drove Keaton to alcoholism, which further doomed his tenure at MGM. Keaton’s experience is perhaps the first major example of an indie filmmaker “selling out” to a big studio, only to be swallowed up by the system.

This episode was edited by Henry Molofsky.

Sources for this episode: 

My Wonderful World of Slapstick by Buster Keaton and Charles Samuels

Buster Keaton Oral History, Columbia Rare Book and Manuscript Library

Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer by Scott Eyman

The Fall of Buster Keaton by James L. Neibaur

"Movie Classic" article about Keaton's "kidnapping" scandal

This episode includes clips of Keaton speaking, found at the following two sources:

So Funny it Hurt: Buster Keaton & MGM, a documentary by Kevin Brownlow and Christopher Bird:

Keaton in conversation with Studs Turkel, September 1960: 

We also borrowed this clip from Sunset Boulevard: