In 1954, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr had the opportunity to work with a legend from the silent screen: Buster Keaton. Despite having known many of the great silent stars through his father, Fairbanks had met Keaton only a handful of times. He briefly met Keaton in the 1920s and again in the 1930s to make the French version of Keaton’s 1932 film, The Passionate Plumber, or Le Plombier Amoureaux.
It wasn’t until 1954 that Fairbanks got the opportunity to work with Keaton more extensively. Fairbanks chose Keaton to play the leading role on an episode of his television series Douglas Fairbanks Jr. Presents: The Rheingold Theatre. The episode was entitled “The Awakening” and was Keaton’s first dramatic role. It should also be mentioned that the episode took on a highly political issue during the Red Scare in the United States and was a particularly daring story and role to take on for both Fairbanks and Keaton.
Based on the short story The Overcoat by Nikolai Vasilyevich Gogol, “The Awakening” tells the story of a hard-working, forgotten man living under a bureaucratic dictatorship. He wears an overcoat that is so worn out that even a tailor refuses to fix it. Instead, he takes the tailor’s advice to save up his money, even if it means freezing and starving, to purchase a brand new coat. Once the man obtains the coat, he is suddenly noticed by all those around him. People begin to treat him with kindness and to regard him as being above them in status. This special treatment comes to an abrupt end when the man’s coat is stolen. His downward spiral continues when he finds himself in prison for disrupting the system by filing a complaint over his coat. Desperate to find his coat, the man writes a letter to the dictator, or The Chief, of the bureaucratic government. The Chief responds by dismissing the department heads who handled the man’s stolen coat case but never actually tries to find the man’s coat. This leads to the climatic end in which the man turns against the government and kills The Chief. Next thing he knows, the man is waking up from a nightmare while still inside the tailor’s store. The tailor attempts to convince the man to purchase a new, lavish coat, just as he had in the man’s dream. The man refuses at first but then turns back around, looking at a portrait of The Chief on the wall, and decides to have the coat made as a rebellious gesture.
The story, written as a teleplay by Lawrence B. Marcus, was an obvious commentary on the dangers of the Red Scare and the choice to air the episode was nothing less than brave. Many television series faced being blacklisted for displaying political views that either leaned toward Communism or seemed unpatriotic. Fortunately, neither Fairbanks, Keaton, or the sponsors took issue with the story. In fact, the sponsors were even excited for this particular episode. Fairbanks states, “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.”1 Keaton played the serious and heavy role of the lead character beautifully.
Despite having never been a dramatic actor, Keaton was Fairbanks’ first and only choice for the lead role. He later said, “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.”2 Fairbanks made the right choice. Keaton proved himself to be a great dramatic actor and makes viewers crave for more. The episode features none of the pratfalls or slapstick comedy that Keaton was known for but it makes no difference. He has the same dominating presence that he did on the silent screen and many of the skills he gained during that time are evident. As Fairbanks describes of pantomime actors such as Keaton, “They could convey so much with so little.”3
Keaton took the dramatic role seriously and worked hard to ensure that he played the role just right. Fairbanks remembered, “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.”4
The mixture of a serious story, heavy with political undertones, and one of the screen’s greatest comedians was genius. It proved to audiences that Keaton was truly an artist capable of more than just comedy. As Fairbanks remarked, “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.”5
As a great fan of both Keaton and Fairbanks, I am so thankful these two came together in 1954 to make a little history. “The Awakening” continues to be the most watched and well-known of the entire Douglas Fairbanks Jr. Presents: The Rheingold Theatre series from 1952-57.
I hope that you will enjoy “The Awakening” below:
This blog post is part of The Second Annual Buster Keaton Blogathon hosted by Silent-ology (click below).
- Dan Lybarger, “A Beautiful Actor: Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. on Working with Buster Keaton,” The Keaton Chronicle, Spring 1996.<http://www.tipjar.com/dan/fairbanksonkeaton.htm>