Monday, March 11, 2013

Anecdote of the Week: Buster Keaton Confronts Disaster (and Joe Schenck)

From an interview with Buster Keaton in Sight and Sound, Winter 1965/66:

My original situation in [Steamboat Bill, Jr.] was a flood. But my so-called producer on that film was Joe Schenck...Schenck was supposed to be my producer but he never knew when or what I was shooting. He just turned me loose.

Well, the publicity man on Steamboat Bill goes to Schenck and he says: 'He can't do a flood sequence because we have floods every year and too many people are lost. It's too painful to get laughs with.' So Schenck told me, 'You can't do a flood.' I said, 'That's funny, since it seems to me that Chaplin during World War One made a picture called Shoulder Arms, which was the biggest money-maker he'd made at that time. You can't get a bigger disaster than that, and yet he made his biggest laughing picture out of it.' He said, 'Oh, that's different.' I don't know why it was different. I asked if it was all right to make it a cyclone, and he agreed that was better. Now he didn't know it, but there are four times more people killed in the United States by hurricanes and cyclones than by floods. But it was all right as long as he didn't find that out, and so I went ahead with my technical man and did the cyclone.'


Dave said...

That's like Eddie Selzer telling the Termite Terrace crew that bullfights weren't funny, so they couldn't do a picture about them, and Jones and company turning out "Bully for Bugs,"

Lokke H. said...

Since the story had a water theme, a flood does seem more appropriate. One wonders what gags they would have come up with. Considering the production challenges of a flood, maybe a windstorm wasn't such a bad idea.

D Cairns said...

He manages to create the same situation as a flood by simply blowing the jailhouse into the river, so that Buster still has to rescue his dad from a sinking building... Ingenious guy.

gmoke said...

If it was a flood, would we still have had Buster surviving a building falling on him by happening to stand just where the open window is?

I read once that Keaton was asked what he would have liked to be if he wasn't in pictures. He said he'd have liked to have been an engineer - and I think of "The Electric House" and the automated kitchen in "The Navigator."

Shamus said...

In that interview, Keaton not only gives fairly elaborate details of the productions of many of his films but gives us a glimpse of how complex and carefully worked out his mise-en-scene was- even though everything seems so light and effortless in his films- for instance, he gives a fascinating reason why he usually eschewed close-ups in his films. It's wonderful to hear Buster talk like a director.