A Beautiful Actor:
Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. on Working with Buster Keaton
Originally appeared in The Keaton Chronicle, Spring 1996
By Dan Lybarger
May 10, 1996
Buster Keaton is not known for dark, political dramas.
Nevertheless, one of Buster's finest television appearances happened in 1954's The Awakening, a chilling social allegory that features no pratfalls at all. In fact, with the possible exceptions of Sunset Boulevard and Samuel Beckett's Film, The Awakening was Buster's only dramatic filmed role, certainly the only one in which he had the major speaking part.
The Awakening was an episode of the syndicated anthology series Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Presents: The Rheingold Theatre, which aired from 1952 to 1957. The black-and-white Keaton episode aired in different American cities on different dates in July of 1954. According to Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., who hosted and produced each episode and starred in 25 percent of them, the eclecticism that led to Buster being cast in The Awakening was typical of the series.
Speaking recently from his office in New York City, Fairbanks recalled, "Every week we had a different story and setting. Some were costume and period; some were modern. Some were comedy; some were tragedy. Some were melodrama. They were all different."
The Awakening doesn't fit easily into any particular genre. While the episode has a solid dose of humor, its dark, verbal wit seems more fitting for Stanley Kubrick (Dr. Strangelove) than Keaton. Writer Lawrence B. (Larry) Marcus loosely adapted the screenplay from a famous short story, "The Overcoat," by Russia's first major prose writer, Nikolay Vasilyevich Gogol (1809-52). The story was originally published in Russia in 1842, but was not translated into English until 1949, five years before this teleplay.
Gogol's short stories, novels and plays, including Taras Bulba (which was made into a British film in 1939 and an American film starring Tony Curtis in 1965), and The Government Inspector (which was made into the musical The Inspector General with Danny Kaye in 1949), often dealt with the dehumanizing effects of oppressive governments on the common people. A Russian theatrical film version of "The Overcoat" was released in 1965.
While both the original story and the television version begin the same way, The Awakening trades Gogol's 19th-century Russia for an intentionally vague locale and time ruled by a bureaucratic dictatorship.
Buster plays a fastidious pencil-pusher who worries more about how his files are sorted than about the cases contained in them. He considers himself superior to his coworkers because he knows the system. At the beginning of the program, he proudly describes how he has handled a case that particularly fascinated him: "Nine out 10 men in my department would have filed that 7935-N, which would have been completely wrong." When his landlady asks him if the people documented in that file were helped by his efforts, he flatly replies, "I haven't the slightest idea—but it was numbered correctly."
Buster's attitude changes radically when he finds himself undergoing the same hassles as the people in his files. He visits a tailor, who tells him that his old overcoat is too worn to be repaired. The tailor convinces him to save his money and get an extravagance: a brand-new coat with a fur collar and corded frogs. Buster saves diligently for the new overcoat by eating less and turning off the electricity in his barren flat.
After the overcoat is completed, Buster, who, until now, has been seen by others as a pathetically insignificant person, is suddenly regarded with deference. When his new overcoat is stolen, Buster is shuffled from department to department without any progress toward recovering the coat. He files a complaint and is sent to prison for a time for creating problems in the system.
Buster's experiences lead him to care about the people in his files, and, as a result, he loses his instincts for bureaucratic organization. In desperation to regain the coat that had brought him respect, he writes an urgent letter to the Big Brother-like dictator who calls himself "The Chief."
At this point, Gogol and Marcus take their stories on wildly different paths. In "The Overcoat," Buster's bureaucratic character dies from the cold. The Awakening climaxes when The Chief responds to Buster's continued pleas for help by making a grand public radio speech dismissing the department heads who handled the overcoat case. But The Chief never makes finding Buster's missing overcoat a priority.
Angered by the unfairness of the system he so recently endorsed, Buster openly refutes The Chief, which leads to a surprise ending that diverges greatly from Gogol's, but is equally disturbing. Keaton's character is finally pushed beyond endurance, and he kills The Chief.
In the final scene, we see Buster waking from a nightmare, still sitting in the tailor's shop. History begins to repeat itself as the tailor tries to convince Buster to get a new coat. But Buster is now frightened of his prescient vision and refuses the coat. He leaves the shop. Abruptly, he returns and, after looking for a moment at the ubiquitous photo of The Chief on the wall, turns to the tailor and, very quietly and with determination, says, "Make me the coat." Fadeout.
Although it is difficult at first to imagine Buster Keaton in a dramatic project like this, he was in fact Fairbanks' first and only choice for the lead. Fairbanks says, "It struck me as a beautiful idea—a novel idea—to put him in a straight part, because he was such a beautiful actor and a great talent. It worked out very well; he gave a marvelous performance. I think that he and Chaplin were the supreme pantomimists that the screen has produced. They could convey so much with so little."
Fairbanks had met Buster several times before The Awakening, but they were not closely acquainted. Fairbanks says, "I had known Mr. Keaton only slightly before that. It was at the time of his marriage to one of the Talmadge sisters [Natalie, who was married to Buster from 1921 to 1932]. Later, when he agreed to act in The Awakening, I got to know him a little better. I never had the good fortune to know him well."
Of course, Fairbanks had been around Hollywood stars since his youth—his father, Doug, Sr., and stepmother, Mary Pickford, were considered Hollywood's royalty, and young Doug had appeared in films himself beginning in 1923's Stephen Steps Out. In fact, Keaton and Fairbanks, Jr., had even acted together briefly in the Hollywood-shot French version of Buster's 1932 film The Passionate Plumber (Le Plombier Amoureaux). "I don't remember too many details—I just remember doing it. I'm bilingual. As a company gesture, [Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer] asked if I could do a picture in French."
Of The Awakening, Fairbanks says he was concerned that Buster might be nervous about taking on the serious and political role. "I don't remember specifically that he was hesitant], but I would imagine—being an intelligent and sensitive artist—that he would be concerned, because he was doing something that would be quite unusual and that people wouldn't expect to see him do. He was very conscientious about his career and his public appearance."
Although he was giving an atypical performance, his widow, Eleanor Keaton, recalls that Buster didn't see the part as much of a challenge. Of this role, she says, "He'd done a lot of TV. It was easy. In comedy, he had to create everything. In drama, you just learn your lines and let someone else do the worrying." She adds, "Buster always had a dramatic quality about his work. He was always very serious."
Watching the episode demonstrates why Buster was a fine choice. His stoic but expressive face projects a resignation that fits the part well. His low, gruff baritone voice is also remarkable. When he speaks, his voice is surprisingly forceful, which allows him to transform himself from a meek bureaucrat to an angry rebel with surprising skill.
While Buster may not have needed to prepare his usual elaborate stunts, as he would have in a comedy, Fairbanks indicates that he did not take his new role lightly. "He was thoroughly professional and worked on every detail. Like any good artist, he would experiment with different ways of reading a line, looking, moving, or interpreting a particular scene. He would try it out and, with the aid of the director [Michael McCarthy], the writers work[ed] out different ideas. He was very creative. He was quite an inspiration on all the young people on the set." He adds, "Most great artists are very conscientious. Very few act impulsively or do things off the top of their heads. For instance, Chaplin would take months and months to make his movies."
The episode was filmed in the United Kingdom in March of 1954. Buster had just completed performing on stage in Paris. Eleanor recalls, "It was nippy and cold, but absolutely gorgeous." Each episode of Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Presents ran for half an hour and took several weeks to prepare; all were shot on film in England. According to Fairbanks, the episodes could take anywhere from two to four days to shoot.
Because Fairbanks produced the series himself, he and his collaborators had a remarkable amount of freedom to pursue unusual projects like The Awakening. "We had the whole studio to ourselves." Nonetheless, he found putting on the series a challenge. "I did work a lot on everything, really. I had so much to do, I was trying to split myself into about four different pieces," he says.
The social commentary contained in The Awakening was especially daring, in part because the program was made during the Red scare of the 1950s, during which many in film and television were blacklisted for holding unpopular political viewpoints. It was rare for a producer to tackle such a political topic in those uncertain times, when blacklisting had become a common occurrence.
Surprisingly, Fairbanks recalls that "[the sponsors] were all delighted with the idea. There was quite a lot of discussion and interest in it, and I don't think there was one negative reaction that I could remember for it. I remember everybody praising what [Buster] did and how he did it."
Although the House Committee on Un-American Activities had held hearings about communism in Hollywood as early as 1947, Fairbanks recalls that most of Joseph McCarthy's attacks on Hollywood didn't come till later. He says, "I know that when McCarthy started doing a lot of his questioning, I dared him to do any questioning of me or any of my activities, because I had been prominent in political activities and active in the war. I dared him to challenge me, and he never replied."
The hard work and the challenges paid off. The episode is a personal favorite for Fairbanks. He has fond recollections: "There was the uniqueness of the story itself, plus the artistry of this great talent which was Keaton. I was one of the many who regarded Keaton as a great artist, and I was so pleased when I was able to convince him to play a serious part in one of my TV movies."
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