I love those mysterious stills that turn up from the silent era, asking more questions than they answer. Here’s an interesting one with Buster Keaton, that tells a great story.
First, a bit of background to the picture: you might recognize the other chap in the picture as Karl Dane. Dane was (appropriately) a Danish actor working at MGM. Originally a carpenter, and then a farmer, his lumbering size had him handpicked for a role s a blustering sergeant in ’THE BIG PARADE’. Subsequently, MGM kept him on playing comedic variations on this role. In 1927 they decided to team Dane with moon-faced English actor George K Arthur. Their initial teaming vehicle, ‘ROOKIES’, was a smash success. In the wake of this, and of Laurel & Hardy’s success, comedy teams were the in-thing and the partnership was assured of continuing . Several other films followed, including ‘ALL AT SEA’, ‘DETECTIVES’ and ‘BROTHERLY LOVE’ (1928) which is where this photograph is believed to originate.
The mystery Keaton -Dane still has caused a bit of consternation. Does it merely show MGM’s newest comic dropping in to visit the set of another comedy? Is it an off-the-cuff gag shot? Or, does it show an unknown scene from this missing film? It certainly seems to show the middle of a scene. Certainly, reviews of the film mention a barbershop scene. However, there is no mention of Keaton. Of course, there is the possibility that such a scene was filmed but deleted from the release print. Certainly, Keaton made several other cameos in MGM films in this period; he craved performing and was frustrated with the lengthy process of getting films started at the studios. In the period between 1928 and 1930 he performed a stunt in the Lew Cody vehicle ‘THE BABY CYCLONE’ (1928), a routine in ‘HOLLYWOOD REVUE OF 1929’ and a small part in an unfinished film ‘TIDE OF EMPIRE’ . It is distinctly likely that the po-faced studio heads of MGM frowned on ad-hoc scenes being added to their prestigious and rigorously plotted films (a difficulty that Keaton would come to know all too well). If this were true, a Buster scene in ’BROTHERLY LOVE’ could well have been removed. They may also have been concerned that Keaton could devalue his box office appeal if he appeared too frequently in small parts. Of course, this is just speculation on my part and it is just as likely that no such scene was ever filmed.
Supporting the still-only hypothesis is a theory dating the photograph to 1930. Keaton’s costume seems to match the suit he wears in that year’s ‘FREE AND EASY’. In the scenes in which Keaton’s hapless ‘Elmer’ crashes MGM’s studios, an array of personalities make cameos: Fred Niblo, Dorothy Sebastian, Cecil B DeMille and… Karl Dane. Dane is filming a scene involving an explosion. In walks Buster and accidentally steps on the plunger… Could the still have been taken as a gag while Keaton and Dane were on the set together?
One thing that is certain, however, is that this photograph is a potent reminder of the power of MGM. Here, the two comedians were at the height of their fame and success. Neither could have known that the studio would leave him on the scrapheap within a few short years. Keaton’s difficulties at the studios and in his personal life are well-known and by 1933 he was unemployed, divorced and an alcoholic. As we know, Keaton had the resilience to bounce back, but Karl Dane’s fate was more tragic. His Danish accent hampered his success in talkies, and despite some early attempts by MGM to use him, he was quickly dropped.
It’s a real shame that this had to be the case. Karl Dane was a talented comic actor with real charisma. His accent, while undeniably thick, is hardly impenetrable; Greta Garbo did alright for herself in talkies, after all! In fact, it’s a good match for his lumbering but good-natured burliness. But, of course, elocution was everything in early Hollywood, and although one of the most tragic cases, Karl Dane was one of many to be brushed aside by the talking craze.
The Dane-Arthur partnership initially continued, reduced to appearing in shorts, which mostly remain obscure. By 1932, even this had fizzled out. In a final connection with Keaton, one of Dane’s last (if not the last) appearances was a tinybit part in Keaton’s ‘SPEAK EASILY’. It’s a shame MGM didn’t actually team Dane with Keaton; he certainly would have been a better match than Jimmy Durante and his limited English wouldn’t have been a problem in Keaton’s dialogue-free idiom.
Such a venture was not to be, and Karl embarked on a doomed mining venture. When that failed he wound up, incredibly, operating a hot dog stand outside the studio gates where once he was a star. Such an enterprise was an unpleasant reminder of the perilous nature of celebrity, and MGM’s stars stayed away in droves. Depression and self-loathing engulfed poor Karl, and he put a pistol to his head in April 1934.
Forget whether Keaton appeared in ‘BROTHERLY LOVE’ or not, the photograph of Keaton and Dane together is more important as a chilling reminder of the studio system’s dark side. MGM could destroy not just careers, but lives as well.
On a more positive note, Karl Dane has been achieving some belated love lately. Laura Belogh has produced a biography of him, along with a superb website remembering this forgotten comic who brought laughter to millions before suddenly finding himself out in the cold.