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Friday, August 11, 2006

Being Their Off-Screen Selves

Once you’ve pretty well covered respective canons of the three comedy pantheons (by that I mean Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd), chances are you’ll delve into their off-screen lives just to maintain the contact. A really dedicated fan isn’t content to merely watch the movies over and over. You want to follow them home, examine their family lives, ask yourself (and other fans) why that transition to sound did or didn’t work out, how come this or that marriage failed. Locations they used have become sacred ground. Keaton’s have been covered in one outstanding book (Silent Echoes) --- a similar work on Chaplin is forthcoming. All those ancillary figures in their lives take on fascination as well --- Lita Grey, Natalie Talmadge, Mildred Davis, all the wives. Children and grandchildren become objects of interest. Everything these comedians did away from the set impacts on their work in some way, or at the very least provides further insights into their characters. Any fresh image rediscovered and published tells its own story, provides new revelation. Details in the lives of these three are thankfully so plentiful that we can look at photos such as ones here and apply our own background comedy, or drama, depending on the pose and one’s mood.

Charlie Chaplin might have hung a sign here reading NO Custard Pies in the Organ Loft, for here is a man determined to be taken very seriously during quiet moments of contemplation at home. Could he actually play that organ he’d installed at great expense in the house on Summit Drive? Yes and no, from what I understand. He was no doubt better than I was before my own sixth grade piano recital debacle, though Chuck was no Jesse Crawford. I understand his noodling at the keys got on Paulette Goddard’s nerves, but what was he doing playing on that organ with Paulette’s available? She never liked the wheezing instrument and all those inscrutable servants creeping around a lonely, quiet house. I think this was where Kono finally hit the bricks --- Paulette said it’s either him or me (well, which would you choose? --- this is Paulette Goddard we’re talking about). Chaplin was way deep into showing off famous friends. If you’re judged by the company you keep, then it’s no wonder he was tagged as a genius early on. Anyway, Charlie was a seasoned collector of other geniuses. Albert Einstein was his date to the City Lights premiere. I wonder if either of them picked up concessions before going in to watch the feature. Baby Ruths were sold in 1931. That would have been my choice had I been invited along for a threesome.

Buster and Harold had a different approach to their portrait sittings. Keaton liked the brooding look. With him, it went beyond the stone face of silents. By the time he was securely imprisoned at MGM, Buster’s gallery expression took on a resignation and look of despair that betrayed his awareness of having made the defining error in judgment of his life. Harold, on the other hand, maintained the sunny smile of a man very much in control of his destiny (was there any comedian so dapper and handsome off-screen?). That jaunty way with the cigarette (above) was just another bit of fun for a man constantly picking four-leaf clovers in the garden of life. Boxoffice decline never brought him down --- Lloyd just picked himself up, dusted himself off, started all over … well, you get the picture (tough enough, though, to pick himself up from the hospital bed after that "prop" bomb accident that nearly finished his budding career). This man had plenty of hobbies to substitute for the business of making movies. With Harold’s kind of millions, who worries when stardom plays out? He had to be the most self-contained personality to ever work in pictures. Between Shriner’s duty, amateur photography, record collecting and what not, when did he have time to worry about Mildred’s drinking problem (she’s with him here) or the kid’s ongoing mishaps? I get the feeling Harold never let anything bum him out.

Poor Buster was something else. Trouble dogged him constantly from the time those Talmadge sisters advised Natalie to quit the marital bed and put a lock on her door. Too bad Keaton didn’t have the benefit of Rhett Butler’s exit line that day --- The world is full of many things and many people, and I shan’t be lonely --- for indeed he sought comfort elsewhere (Dorothy Sebastian, anyone?). That, along with the alcohol, was where his downfall really got underway. By 1932, when this still was taken on the Metro lot, Buster was only months, if not weeks, away from a divorce that would strip him of house, kids, and fortune. The "land yacht" shown here was like a burlesque house on wheels --- there was no Volsted Act enforced here --- a recent hair-pulling melee between two of Buster’s competing mistresses had given his rolling party boat a very bad name at MGM. This was probably one of the last times he’d see the two boys (shown here with their father, along with Jimmy Durante and Lew Cody) for a number of years. Natalie’s enmity toward Buster inspired her to change their son’s names from Keaton to Talmadge (suppose either of them ever changed it back?). She cursed Buster till the day she died a hopeless drunk in 1969. He got the last laugh with a good marriage in 1940 and twenty-six happy wedded years till his death in 1966.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I do know that Buster's eldest son, Jim drove up to see Buster with his brother on the very day that he got his drivers licence; and without his mother's approval. No they kept the name Talmadge and do to this day, as I understand both are still alive.

7:52 AM  
Blogger East Side said...

Why the heck didn't Chaplin offer Keaton a contract at United Artists after he washed out at Metro?

9:05 PM  

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