This post is our small contribution to Project Keaton, a month-long celebration of all things Buster Keaton. Check out The Kitty Packard Pictorial for more information, and see the Project Keaton Tumblr site for contributions from other bloggers and participating writers from around the world!
By the 1940s, Buster Keaton’s days as one of the giants of silent film were long over. It would take another couple of decades for the genius of his early work to gain the critical appreciation it enjoys now. In the meantime, Keaton existed in a kind of cinematic limbo. While on contract with MGM–the studio where he had found such great success with silent classics The Navigator (1924) and The Cameraman (1928)–he spent much of his time as a gag writer, preparing and choreographing bits for other performers. But even though most of his work was behind the scenes, Keaton did appear in supporting roles in a dozen B-pictures throughout the 1940s, culminating in his appearance in the 1949 musical In the Good Old Summertime.
Summertime is a musical remake of the 1940 Ernst Lubitsch charmer The Shop Around the Corner, starring Van Johnson and Judy Garland in the roles played by James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan in the earlier film. The action is moved from Budapest to Chicago, and the main characters are coworkers in a music store which is, coincidentally enough, owned by the Hungarian Otto Oberkugen (who is rather appropriately played by Hungarian actor S.Z. “Cuddles” Sakall). The essential plot remains the same: Andy (Johnson) and Veronica (Garland) are constantly at one another’s throats, but unbeknownst to each other, they are secret pen pals who have gradually fallen in love with one another through their correspondence. Like its predecessor, Summertime is populated with a fantastic supporting cast, including Keaton, Spring Byington, and True Classics’ beloved “Cuddles.” There’s even a brief cameo at the end of the movie by Garland’s two-year-old daughter, Liza Minnelli.
Keaton plays the role of Oberkugen’s put-upon nephew, Hickey (the counterpart to Felix Bressart’s abused underling Pirovitch in Corner), and his trademark “stone-faced” persona is put to excellent use here. But his finest moment in the film comes from a spectacular pratfall which destroys a violin. Oberkugen’s most prized possession is a rare Stradivarius violin, even though he cannot play the instrument worth a damn. Andy “borrows” the violin one evening, loaning it to a friend of his for an important recital. On the same night, however, Oberkugen wants to give a performance at his engagement party to Nellie (Byington). Andy substitutes another violin, but as Hickey carries it to the stage for Oberkugen’s performance, he stumbles and smashes the instrument beyond recognition, much to Oberkugen’s horror.
Keaton executes the fall brilliantly. There is nothing contrived about his stumble; to the audience, it looks as though the actor has genuinely tripped on his own two feet without forethought, and even though his arms windmill comically, the performance is not overly exaggerated. And afterwards, as Keaton tries in vain to put the demolished instrument back together, his panicked befuddlement is still believable. Classic Buster, in every sense.
As seamlessly as Keaton performs the stunt, however, he was not originally supposed to even play the role. In the first script of the film, the character of Hickey was conceived as a young romantic rival to Andy. MGM turned to Keaton to come up with a plausible and funny scenario for the violin-breaking scene. Yet after composing the trick, director Robert Z. Leonard realized that no one else would be able to pull off the scene as believably as Buster Keaton. The part was rewritten as an older man specifically for the actor.
Keaton also coached Johnson and Garland through the inspired shtick of their characters’ initial meeting (which you can see in the first few minutes of the video embedded above), during which Andy inadvertently destroys Garland’s umbrella, dress, and hat. Garland is particularly winning in this bit–she does all the heavy lifting, from the tumble to dealing with her suddenly unruly mop of hair–while Johnson lays on a thick layer of slightly befuddled charm.
As a side note, this wasn’t the first nor the last time Keaton would serve in the role of comedic mentor. For instance, in the mid-1940s, Keaton shared an office at the studio (jokingly christened “The Boors Nest”) with his former silent screen director Ed Sedgwick and starlet/B-movie queen Lucille Ball. Recognizing her skill and strong sense of comedic timing, Keaton showed her all of his patented “tricks of the trade” when it came to the rigors of physical comedy and the intricacies of working with props. Perhaps most importantly, Keaton taught Ball how to own and yet respect her props, a quality that can be seen in countless I Love Lucy episodes. Indeed, Keaton’s influence on the development of the Lucy Ricardo character cannot be denied–it’s there every time Lucy accidentally sets her putty nose on fire or ends up with a loving cup on her head.
In the Good Old Summertime shows that, even at the age of fifty-four and years removed from his heyday of dangerous stunt work in silent pictures, Buster Keaton could still throw his body around with sheer abandon, and make even the most slapstick-y of pratfalls look completely natural and effortless. Summertime was the final movie Keaton would make for MGM, and in some ways, it marks the end of an era. Before his death in 1966, Keaton would go on to small parts in other movies–a brief appearance in Sunset Blvd., a role opposite fellow silent screen legend Charlie Chaplin in Limelight (1952), the obligatory cameo in the comedian-packed It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963)–but leaving the studio that had produced some of his biggest hits put a definitive period on a major chapter in Keaton’s life and career.