A Simple Rule Made Sure Buster Keaton Could Always Throw In Some Improv

Keaton favored extreme gags over narratives, which is why he chose to make “Sherlock Jr.” “I laid out a few of these tricks, some of the tricks I knew from the stage,” he recalled (via A Hard Act to Follow). But he realized he couldn’t “do it and tell a legitimate story because they’re illusions … it’s got to come in a dream.” He chose the premise of a projectionist that falls asleep on the job so he could totally suspend reality. Keaton was all about maximizing his creative freedom.

Through creative storytelling, Keaton was able to improvise heavily for many years. Silent cinema left things so open-ended that the Hollywood legend would not even begin to work with a script until “The Cameraman” in 1929. However, when MGM and other studios moved exclusively into talking pictures, cinema changed forever. “New York stage directors, New York writers, dialogue writers, and the musicians union all moved to Hollywood,” Keaton recounted to CBC. The new writers brought with them a new style of writing, one that Stone Face described as “joke-happy.” “They don’t look for the action, they’re looking for funny things to say,” he lamented. 

Keaton and the other kings of physical comedy struggled when silent films fell out of fashion — the film industry had new priorities. Keaton would go on to make several sound films, including the 1931 hit “Sidewalks of New York” (which was actually the actor’s most commercially successful film). Still, the actor lost the creative freedom he had enjoyed as a silent film director, including the freedom to improvise. 

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