There recently appeared Lost Keaton, a set of two-reelers he made in the 1930s—after he had been sacked by Louis B. Mayer (as well as divorced from his wife, Natalie Talmadge, and denied the right to see his two sons). These B-comedies made on shoestring budgets occasionally show flashes of his old self, with his wary optimism tilting at the world, but mostly they induce exactly what he tried to avoid in his silent work: pity. These and his other sound films are described in James Neibaur’s recent book, The Fall of Buster Keaton, which marches in chronological order through Keaton’s MGM and post-MGM performances, dutifully trying to find a trace of his old spark. In fact they form a kind of negative image of what made his silent movies so strange and delightful. If it’s hard to reconcile the inventiveness of his silent work with the second half of his life, when he repeated his old gags and performed as a sort of mascot of his former self, his own consummate stoicism is probably to blame. He lacked the stomach to maneuver through Hollywood’s big studios after they solidified in the 1920s, and his style was alien to the new screwball comedies that called for urbane, fast-talking wise guys.
Keaton wanted stories of a certain kind of innocence, and aspiration, and even mulish indifference to what might make people laugh (a hilarious film about the Civil War, for instance). His humor wasn’t a blank face that could be transferred willy-nilly to any kind of satire that might prove timely. This meant temporarily ignoring what the audience expected, and having the freedom to keep on inventing. “Anesthesia of the heart,” as Henri Bergson called it. That, after all, is the real soul of deadpan: such deep absorption in a task, or a way of being, that the audience thinks it alone can see that the whole thing’s going to hell.