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Buster Keaton - Star of the Month
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Screen Directors Playhouse: The Silent Partner (1955)

Sunday October 30 10:00 pm ET

Making an unusual turn in a speaking role, silent film comedian Buster Keaton is the star of The Silent Partner, a 1955 episode of the 1955-1956 television anthology series Screen Directors Playhouse which brought leading actors and directors to America's TV audience including John Wayne, Peter Lorre, Robert Ryan, Jeanette MacDonald and Cloris Leachman.

The film opens amidst the pomp and circumstance of the annual Academy Awards as a bevy of stars including director Arthur Vail (Joe E. Brown) assemble for the ceremony. As he steps to the podium to accept a lifetime achievement award presented by host Bob Hope, Vail takes a moment to thank the silent movie star Kelsey Dutton (Buster Keaton), rendered obsolete with the coming of sound, but whose presence greatly enlivened his movies. The scene of Bob Hope at the Academy Awards was shot specifically for The Silent Partner.

Meanwhile, in a barroom close to the Academy Awards ceremony, silent actor Kelsey Dutton nurses a beer as the rest of the bar patrons watch the awards on television including devout movie fan Selma (Zasu Pitts). The event is occasionally interrupted by a trio of boisterous bowlers who have just won a trophy and seem determined to undermine the "highbrow" awards ceremony with their lowbrow antics. As the awards continue onscreen, footage shows Dutton in his earliest movie appearance as a hapless amateur getting a shave who mistakes the wails of a film actress shooting nearby for actual cries of distress. Dutton races to the filming location to save the woman from a second floor fire, pratfalling and wreaking havoc on the shoot along the way. Character actor Jack Elam appears in the sequence as a pompous theater actor, Shanks, who finds film roles beneath him. Shanks is quickly one-upped by the game, and the naturally funny Dutton. What looks like a disaster turns out to be comic gold as director Vail discovers his latest movie comedy sensation: Dutton, the silent comedian extraordinaire.

Prolific film director George Marshall (Destry Rides Again, 1939, The Blue Dahlia, 1946) made this episode of the Screen Directors Playhouse into a kind of self-referential tribute to stars like Keaton, whose careers were jeopardized with the end of silent pictures.

In 1959 Buster Keaton actually received his own honorary Oscar® at the Academy Awards. Born into a vaudeville family and known as "The Great Stone Face" for his comically impassive expression, Keaton was one of the directors and stars of American silent comedy whose Civil War film The General (1926) is consistently named one of the top motion pictures of all time. Though like many others, Keaton was a casualty of the coming of sound, television gave him an opportunity to test out his talents in a new medium. He even appeared in his own TV show The Buster Keaton Show (1950).

Ever resilient and despite battling alcoholism and several failed marriages, Keaton managed to reinvent himself even when the silent era ended. In 1957 Keaton's fame was also celebrated on the NBC program This Is Your Life. Though his days as a silent comic were over, Keaton continued to find work on television, in traveling theatrical productions like Once Upon a Mattress (1960), in film parts, in television commercials and finally, for his last show business turn, in Richard Lester's A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966). He died that same year of lung cancer.

The Silent Partner was shot at Hal Roach Studios, ironically enough, the stomping ground of such movie icons as Laurel and Hardy and the Our Gang kids. Along with John Ford's Rookie of the Year (1955), The Silent Partner was one of the best known of the Screen Directors Playhouse episodes.

Director: George Marshall
Producer: Hal Roach, Jr.
Screenplay: Barbara Avedon, George Marshall
Cinematography: Edwin B. DuPar
Production Design: Charles F. Pyke
Cast: Buster Keaton (Kelsey Dutton), Zasu Pitts (Selma), Joe E. Brown (Arthur Vail), Evelyn Ankers (Miss Loving), Jack Kruschen (Ernie), Jack Elam (Shanks), Percy Helton (Barney the Bartender), Joseph Corey (Arnold), Lyle Latell (Ernie's friend), Charles Horvath (Barber).
BW-27m. Closed Captioning.

by Felicia Feaster
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