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Buster Keaton looking sad and confused during the grand finale performance of “Singing in the Rain”. There should have been a Buster Keaton in every film musical ever made.

September 2, 2017

It’s 1929 and the talkies have triumphed.  Buster Keaton had of course, moved to MGM relatively recently and had begun to learn the crippling effects of studio control on an independent imagination.

Hollywood Revue of 1929 was an ambitious attempt to cram as many stars as possible into a single movie to create a sort of extended cabaret performance.  Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer, Laurel and Hardy, Anita Page, Jack Benny, Marion Davies and John Gilbert are all paraded.

In a sense the most dominant presence in the film is Louis B. Mayer himself.  This is a film in which Mayer tells the world “Look what I own… look at the  talent that I can parade at will.  Gaze upon my toys, ye world, and tremble.  You think these people are big stars?  You think their life is so great?  You want to be them? Well, sat behind my enormous desk, I can ring a little bell and make all these stars dance for me.  I can make them do anything I want. ANYTHING!”

“Singing in the Rain” is sung twice in the film, once by Cliff Edwards on his own, with only his own ukulele for company.  (This performance is rather pleasant.) It’s then sung again at the end by the entire massed ranks of Mayer’s stars, all wearing sou-westers and cowering in the shadow of a gigantic ark.

They all grin and the grimace and belt out this bombastic version of the song with the exception of Buster Keaton.  He just looks unhappy and bewildered and stares either side of him which extending his hand to determine whether the rain is real.  He is the only sane man in a world of loud and grinning maniacs.

I just wish every film musical had a Buster Keaton.  How about just one sailor who keeps his feelings about dames to himself?  How about a West Side hoodlum with no sense of rhythm?  Or a London trader who doesn’t feel the need to skip and dance every time a new street urchin arrives in town?

Just one – one is all I need – to be Buster Keaton in a world of capering fools?  Someone who offers a simple dignified gesture of refusal – a “non serviam” amid the spiraling choreography.

I miss old stone face.  I miss all stone faces.

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