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The opening credits include the following written statement: "This is the sad, happy, loving story of one of the immortals of the silent screen." As pointed out in many contemporary reviews, The Buster Keaton Story is a highly fictionalized account of the famous comedian's life. Unlike the film's depiction, "The Three Keatons" were vaudeville headliners and Keaton entered the motion picture industry due to a chance meeting in 1917 with his old vaudeville friend, Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, who asked Keaton to appear in his short film The Butcher Boy. Keaton continued to work with Arbuckle until 1919, when he began making his own short films. In 1923, the comedian made his first feature film as an independent producer, and later starred in such classics as 1924's The Navigator and 1927's The General (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1921-30). In May 1921, Keaton married Natalie Talmadge, with whom he had two sons, Joseph and Robert. After completing Steamboat Bill, Jr. in 1928, Keaton's production company was absorbed by M-G-M, for which he continued to make films until 1933's What-No Beer? at which time the studio terminated his contract (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1921-30 and 1931-40). After Keaton divorced Talmadge in 1932 and began suffering from alcoholism, his life and career remained in decline until 1940, when the forty-five-year-old comedian married his third wife, twenty-one year old Eleanor Norris. In September 1949, interest in Keaton was renewed when noted critic James Agee's essay "Comedy's Greatest Era" was published in Time. In addition to appearing with his new wife at the "Cirque Medrano" in Paris, Keaton worked regularly in film and television throughout the 1950s and 1960s, receiving a special Academy Award in 1959 "for his unique talents which brought immortal comedies to the screen." The fictional Keaton film The Criminal depicted in The Buster Keaton Story was a reworking of the comedian's 1922 short film Cops, including gags from his 1924 feature film Sherlock, Jr. (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1921-30).
In June 1955, Hollywood Reporter reported that producer-screenwriter Robert Smith had purchased the screen rights to Keaton's story, with the agreement stipulating that the film could be produced independently or in conjunction with a major studio. According to the file on the film in the Paramount Collection at the AMPAS Library, The Buster Keaton Story was originally budgeted at $1,400,000, including $86,000 paid by Forum Productions for the screen rights and screenplay combined. Smith and Sidney Sheldon shared $100,000 for their producing duties, while performers Donald O'Connor, Ann Blyth and Rhonda Fleming received $200,000, $75,000 and $20,000 respectively. Daily Variety reported in January 1956 that O'Connor was being paid $150,000 to star in The Buster Keaton Story, as well as receiving a substantial sum under a second contract with Paramount to be a "consultant" on the producton, working with Smith and Sheldon in developing the Keaton character and assisting in the selection of film excerpts, which were to be gathered from 300 pieces of Keaton's film material. According to Hollywood Reporter, portions of the film were shot on location at the Santa Susana Pass and at the Ray Corrigan Ranch in Simi Valley, CA. Hollywood Reporter news items include Emmett Smith and Bill Walker in the cast, but their appearance in the released film has not been confirmed.
In August 1957, Daily Variety reported that Buster Keaton's former wife Mae Scribbens, now named Jewell Steven and living in New York City, had filed suit against Paramount for $5,000,000, claiming the film depicted her "falsely and maliciously" as it showed her marrying Keaton while he was in a drunken state, and made her appear a "disreputable person of low character and mean design." Modern biographies of Keaton depict Scribbens as a "gold digger" who used her position as a nurse to take advantage of her famous patients, including nightclub comedian Joe E. Lewis, and state that she worked as a prostitute during her brief marriage to Keaton. Unlike the character of "Gloria Brent," Scribbens was a nurse who met Keaton while the comedian was undergoing treatment for his alcoholism. In 1933, she became Keaton's second wife, and the two were divorced in 1935. The final disposition of Scribbens' case against Paramount has not been ascertained.
According to modern sources, writer-producer-director Sheldon decided to do a film based on Keaton's life story due to the great success of M-G-M's 1955 production I'll Cry Tomorrow, which was the story of alcoholic singing star Lillian Roth . In modern interviews, Sheldon stated that after he was brought into the picture by Smith, the two rushed the film into production without a finished script because of O'Connor's limited availability, and that their haste led to the film's critical and financial failure. Although the Keatons were very displeased with the resulting film, the money they made from The Buster Keaton Story was used as to purchase a home in Woodland Hills, CA, where the two lived happily until Keaton's death on February 1, 1966.