Buster Keaton Steals the (Donna Reed) Show

Spring is at our doors and is about to begin in about a week (depending on when you read that). And who says “spring!” says… Well certainly doesn’t say “Christmas”. Yet, we’re going to talk about Christmas, at least a little bit. You see, Lea at the excellent blog dedicated to the art of silent films, Silent-Ology, is hosting her Buster Keaton Blogathon for an 8th edition! Of course, I couldn’t skip it as I love Keaton and that blogging event. Moreover, I missed it last year (actually, I participated in absolutely zero blogathons in 2021). This year, I’m doing things differently as I’ve decided to discuss one of his talking roles, the underappreciated part of his career. Actually, I did that when I wrote about Free & Easy for the FIRST (*scandalized emoji*) edition of the blogathon. But, this time, it won’t only be about one of his talking roles, but also about one of his roles on television. I’ve already spoiled you with the title of this blog as I’m obviously talking about his appearance on the 14th episode of The Donna Reed Show, entitled “A Very Merry Christmas”. And yeah, that’s the origin of the Christmas element. But don’t worry, I won’t try to get you in the Christmas spirit as Donna Stone (Reed) so desperately tries to do with her children in the episode. Instead, I’d rather focus on what, or rather who we are here for, Buster Keaton.

I like to write about classic TV episodes instead of films once in a while, so here’s the perfect occasion. I had already expressed my thoughts on a Donna Reed Show episode in the past, “The Caravan“, which feels much more appropriate for the upcoming season. Unfortunately, Buster Keaton isn’t in it.

Directed by Oscar Rudolph, “A Very Merry Christmas” was released in 1958. Donna Stone (Donna Reed) realises her children, Mary (Shelley Fabares) and Jeff (Paul Peterson), aren’t at all in the Christmas spirit and only think about the prize and the side of their gifts. Discouraged, she goes on a last-minute Christmas shopping spree to find a gift for the head nurse at the hospital where her husband, Alex (Carl Betz), works as a doctor (that’s so weird). When she finally gets to the hospital, she visits the poor sick children who have to spend Christmas there, not being well enough to return home. A little girl who just got an operation doesn’t seem to have any family (according to another child). To add even more sadness to the situation, Donna realises that there’s no Christmas tree in their room and that nobody seems to have planned a Christmas party for them. So, she goes on a quest to find who is in charge. She finally understands that Charlie (Keaton), the hospital handyman, has been the man of the situation for the last 30-something years. And just like the little girl, although devoted to making sure the children have a great time and presents, he also doesn’t have a family. Donna decides to help and is convinced he will make a perfect Santa.

Yeah, Donna Stone is a saint.

I’ve been a fan of The Donna Reed Show since I first discovered it. However, it had been a while since I watched an episode, and I believe I know did so with a more critical eye now. You know, the wife has to buy the Christmas present and run everywhere while her husband is at work and is very lovely. That was very much a product of its time and certainly felt dated at times. I mean, SHE BUYS A PRESENT FOR HER HUSBAND’S COLLEAGUE. That’s so weird, but I guess, at the time, it was the norm. But, despite that, there’s a lot to enjoy about that TV show. Of course, Donna Stone is a role model and inspires you to be a good person (although she has the right to be angry because everyone is human). There’s also that humour you expect to find in a sitcom (Paul Petersen is the clown of the series). Finally, the stories are short but efficient and capture essential life lessons. Well, you’ve guessed it, in this case, it’s that the important thing about Christmas isn’t the presents, but rather to be with by people you love and who love you and care about you. And that is something I realise more and more with time. I often think of that very unusual Christmas I spent with my cousin and two friends in Bad Aussee, a small Austrian village surrounded by mountains. It was very simple but magical.

But back to our subject. Although Buster Keaton doesn’t have an enormous amount of screentime in that 25 minutes episode, he, unsurprisingly, steals the show. Of course, it’s hard to steal Donna Reed’s show. Consequently, both actors share a strongly felt chemistry and work together like colleagues who perfectly know each other’s habits. By 1958, Keaton had appeared in tv episodes for about ten years. Aside from The Donna Reed Show episode that I’m discussing in that article, I never really took the time to explore his career on the small screen. I have the feeling that it was less impressive than the one on films, considering that his career was declining (sadly). However, Buster Keaton being Buster Keaton, he always had something in reserve for us to have a good time.

Buster showed his creativity to the fullest in the films he directed and played in (One Week being my favourite). Although the part of Charlie was small, he tried to make the most of it. I’m sure that even someone who doesn’t know who Buster Keaton won’t have the choice to notice him (while indeed ignoring his past prolific career). However, for us, familiar with his acting, it’s different. Watching that episode is like meeting with an old friend again. I’ve noticed how, while having a talking part, Buster uses some mimics he does in his silent films, sort of like his signature moves. You know, that kind of way he stands and moves a bit with hesitation (hesitation was often part of his acting game). It’s kind of hard to describe, but I’m sure some of you know exactly what I mean. Buster Keaton was a silent film star, first and foremost, and it shows. And I mean that in the best possible way. The thing is, he was that actor from the silent era who wasn’t too theatrical in his acting game. He acted naturally like, well, we would do in real life. And, in my opinion, that played in his favour. You see, that movement of hesitation I’m talking about works both for silent and talking pictures. Then, although Buster Keaton wasn’t the kind of actor who gesticulated a lot to express his emotions, he used his eyes a lot to deliver his thoughts. Once again, he used that subtle but great asset in his performance in the Donna Reed Show[SPOILER] At the end of the episode, Charlie, dressed as Santa Claus, distributes gifts to the hospital’s children. Donna has volunteered to help, and knowing that he is pretty lonely at Christmas and doesn’t have anybody, gives him a gift. Although he is dressed as Santa and has a white beard that hides a good part of his face, the emotion and tears in his eyes, showing how touched he is by this gesture, are hard to miss. He stands tall as Santa and concentrates all his emotion in his gaze, and doesn’t even need to say thank you. An image worths a thousand words. [ END OF SPOILER]

Talking of Donna Reed, she is the one Keaton mainly interacts with in the episode. That was an exciting encounter between an actor who used to be big on films and an actress who had her golden years of acting on television thanks to The Donna Reed Show. There were a lot of “Someone” Shows (even a Buster Keaton Show), but none of them was as prolific as The Donna Reed Show, except maybe The Mary Tyler-More Show and The Dick Van Dyke Show. Anyway, even if they share the screen for a few minutes, the chemistry between them is palpable and works. Yes, they were from two different acting schools (by “school”, I mean different eras). Still, that limit isn’t felt, probably because Keaton could adapt himself to the role perfectly. Their character themselves also have a lot to do with the effectiveness of their teamwork as they have similar values. Overall, it’s that everybody should be happy at Christmas. For Keaton, it’s more that children should be happy (he shows that by being devoted to ensuring that each kid in the hospital gets a present). For Donna, the time you spend with your loved ones is more important than gifts. As a result, they complete each other and create the perfect balance of what Christmas should be.

Buster Keaton was a national treasure. It’s known that many silent film actors, Buster included, saw their acting career decline because of their inability to adapt themselves to the world of talking films. For some, it was because of their voice. I always thought that voice argument was kind of stupid. I mean, I can think of many contemporary actors and actresses who don’t have a particularly flattering voice but who have prolific careers. I mean, it’s just natural to have the voice you have. Not everybody can be well-articulated British stars like Margaret Lockwood and Jean Simmons or have the perfect voice that matches the ideal look like Cary Grant. However, it doesn’t make one a bad actor. Moreover, I always thought Buster Keaton’s talking voice was alright. There was something kind of endearing and comforting about it. It is as if silent film actors were doomed to be has-been as soon as The Jazz Singer was released… And I know there were some exceptions to the rule.

As usual, it’s been an absolute pleasure to write about one of my favourite actors, and I can’t wait to see what other participants have in stock for us. No, “A Very Merry Christmas” isn’t necessarily the best episode of The Donna Reed Show. Still, for Buster Keaton alone, it’s definitely worthy of your time. However, I’ll completely understand if you prefer to wait for the Holiday season to watch it.

A huge thanks to Lea for, once again, hosting that always amazing blogging event. You are invited to read the rest of the entries here.

See you!