Rheingold Theatre ran from 1953-57, it was filmed at the Elstree studios in Hertfordshire and consisted of a half hour drama or comedy introduced by noted anglophile Douglas Fairbanks Jr. (thanks Doug, love you too) who also weighed in with narration and the odd bit of acting. In the U.S., it aired on NBC and was sponsored by the Rheingold Beer Company (New York City’s largest selling beer, I’ll have you know). Back in Blighty it seems to have aired without sponsorship (possibly due to a combination of our rather more squeamish attitude to advertising and the relative futility of promoting your product in a country where, as far as I can tell, it was never sold).
If you're going to play that accordion, please keep an eye on the lantern
Rheingold Theatre with Douglas Fairbanks Jr. presents (or RTWDFJP as I’d like to think it was known for short) ran for 155 episodes, but for our purposes only one matters – ‘The Awakening’, which provided Buster Keaton with his first (only?) straight dramatic role.
Based on a short story by Nikolai Gogal whose title translates as either ‘The Overcoat’ or ‘The Cloak’ depending on, I’d imagine, current fashions (I await impatiently the day when The Cloak makes its comeback), it’s a slice of dystopia depicting a society led by the supposedly benevolent Chief (“He Cares”) but which seems to be choked by bureaucracy to the extent that nothing works at all. Buster plays a low level drone who’s an expert in the regime’s arcane system of classifying problems that never get addressed.
As we meet him, he’s poor but seems contented enough until a girl laughs at his ratty old coat – we’ve all been there. He then scrimps and saves to buy a new one which is a big hit, so much so that it’s promptly stolen. In trying to retrieve it, our man realises how dysfunctional the system really is.
As a loyal subject of Her Maj, the first thing that struck me was how British it feels – at least in terms of the setting. I really got that austerity era (as in the 1950s, not the current variety) sense of everything being a bit worn out and a bit broken, but people dutifully carrying on with doing things properly. Maybe helped by that resonance, I found it to be a pretty effective little piece – sure, its running time means it moves a bit rapidly from set up to conclusion but within those limitations it works well.Of course, this is all really just context for the main question – is Buster any good? To that, I would say a resounding yes. He really gets across the sense of a man who’s ended up being defined solely by his job – particularly in an early scene where he explains in detail how he determined the correct classification for ‘children have typhoid and need medicine’. When asked whether they ever got any medicine, he doesn’t know and you feel that it’s not so much that he doesn’t care but that it would never occur to him that it’s a relevant question to ask. Later on, we see the determination that’s familiar from Buster’s comedies but also a convincing anger that isn’t.
Given he’s on screen for pretty much the entire running time, this is really Buster’s show to carry and he very much does that. It’s only a short TV play, but enough for me to conclude that he could sell tragedy as well as comedy.
For this viewer the real tragedy, though, is that this feels like a fragment; a fragment of a career that Buster never got to have and we never got to see. Jim Carrey’s first foray into drama was more successful than his subsequent efforts and theories abound about what went wrong at MGM and who was to blame (for what it’s worth, my take is that some people just don’t function well in a corporate environment and, for better or worse, that’s what movie making has been for the last 80 odd years. Sure, a few directors work ‘outside the system’ but doesn’t that also mean that they don’t have a back office to deal with the trials of getting financiers, and then keeping them happy?), but ‘The Awakening’ is, to me, proof positive that we missed out on some fascinating work.
A comparison with Fred MacMurray, happily being affable in comedies and musicals before his memorable turn as an utter rotter in ‘Double Indemnity’, makes those couple of seconds in ‘Sunset Boulevard’ even more tantalising. What more could Billy Wilder have done with Buster?
Of course murder can smell like honeysuckle, you hapless boob
Rheingold Theatre with Douglas Fairbanks Jr. presents ‘The Awakening
- First broadcast 14 July 1954 NBC
- Screenplay by Larry Marcus
- Directed by Michael McCarthy
- 23 minutes
- Buster Keaton – The Man (not arguing with that assessment)
- James Hayter – The Chief (He Cares)
- Carl Joffe – The Tailor
- Lynne Cole – The Girl
- Geoffrey Keen – The Supervisor
‘The Awakening’ is part of the Keaton Plus collection available from Kino Lorber.