On his Classic Images website, Charles Mitchell offers this fascinating little morsel of information: during the late 1930s, Mitchell claims, the great silent comic Buster Keaton was being "considered for a series of light comedy/mysteries about a low key Midwestern sheriff who always wound up solving the crime." Mitchell does not tell us which studio was considering this, nor how far the idea ever got, but it is an extremely interesting notion—and sounds like a tragically lost opportunity.
As it happens, Keaton had made a silent comedy-mystery in 1924, Sherlock, Jr., and it is not only one of Keaton’s best films, it is one of the greatest silent comedies ever made. Set in small-town America (as the proposed 1930s mystery-comedy series was planned to be), the story features Buster as an ambitious young movie-theater projectionist who is studying to be a detective. After being falsely accused of theft, Buster, back at his job as projectionist and watching an adventure film, falls asleep and dreams that he walks into the screen (an impressive visual effect) and becomes the brilliant and invincible detective Sherlock, Jr. as the adventure story of the film actually being shown in the theater takes on, in his dream, aspects of the case he is involved in in reality.
Buster solves the mystery in the film-within-the-film, of course, after continually displaying his indomitable spirit and much of the impressive stunt comedy for which Keaton was so justly celebrated. Some of the stunts in this film are simply jaw-droppingly astounding—such as when Buster jumps through a hoop and emerges on the other side dressed as a girl. This stunt is done is one shot, with no camera trickery, and is simply amazing. And there are numerous other such impressive moments, including much good physical comedy with Buster’s clockwork intricacy. And Buster does it all in just 44 minutes.
Obvously no low-budget comedy mysteries of the 1930s would have that kind of brilliance, but the concept of Keaton as a bumbling small-town detective who always manages to get the job done sounds very appealing.
One thing that surely stood in the way of any plan to star Keaton in a series of films in the late 1930s was the actor’s alcoholism, which was very bad at the time and precluded him doing anything approaching his best work. He did largely conquer the problem a decade or two later, and he enjoyed a brief career revival as a result, in the years just before his death in 1966.
Steady work, however, might have helped Keaton beat his problem much more quickly. Keaton’s alcohol problems certainly seemed to have been agggravated tremendously by his career disappointment after 1928 when his film production contract was sold to the MGM studio against his will. MGM, to which he was contracted during the late 1920s and early ’30s, utterly failed to find the right way to use his great and unique talent. Instead, they paired him with mouthy Jimmy Durante and made Keaton the latter’s straight man, an entirely asinine misuse of the great comedian.
It was ultimately Keaton’s fault, however, that his response to the career disappointment and failed marriage to his beautiful costar from the Keaton classic Our Hospitality, Natalie Talmadge, was to crawl into a bottle of alcohol. His characters were made of much sterner stuff than that, and it would have been better if his life had imitated his art.
If it had, a series of sound films with Buster as a low-key Midwestern sheriff who always wound up solving the crime would surely have been a delight. Today there would be plenty of opportunities for a man of Keaton’s talents to work his way back from even so steep a career decline at that which Keaton suffered during the 1930s. During Keaton’s time, production costs for sound comedies were simply too high, and the risks that a producer would be taking in relying on an alcoholic star were simply too great. It was not to be.