At the end of his autobiography, Buster Keaton tells an anecdote that has to be one of the great what-ifs in movie history.
He was near the end of his tenure at MGM. The movie company was in pre-production on GRAND HOTEL, the now famous drama set in a Berlin hotel starring Greta Garbo, John Barrymore and Joan Crawford. According to Keaton, the film’s director, Edmund Goulding, approached him about playing the serious role of Otto Kringelein. Keaton was flattered and interested, but nothing came of it and the part ended up going to Lionel Barrymore.
After GRAND HOTEL was released, Keaton, who had parodied others’ work since his days in vaudeville, got an idea for a take-off. His would be set in a well-known fleabag hotel in New York, the Mills Hotel. Jimmy Durante would take John Barrymore’s part, Marie Dressler would stand in for Garbo, Oliver Hardy would play Wallace Beery’s role, Polly Moran would replace Crawford and Keaton would finally play the part that went to Lionel Barrymore.
“In our version, Hardy would be a manufacturer of front collar buttons who is trying to arrange a merger with Stan Laurel, a manufacturer of back collar buttons,” Keaton writes in “My Wonderful World of Slapstick.”
Keaton took the parody idea to Eddie Sedgwick, a director, but soon after Buster had a run-in with Louis B. Mayer and was fired. The run-in may have been a convenient excuse or the last straw because Keaton had been drinking heavily for a while, making a shambles of both his professional and personal life.
Still, Sedgwick took the idea to Irving Thalberg, the powerful MGM producer, who liked it enough to suggest Keaton come back to MGM to talk. In his book, Keaton says he refused after swearing he’d only return to the studio at Mayer’s invitation. But Keaton is self-aware and candid enough to admit that the real reason he snubbed Thalberg may have been because he was too much of a wreck to take on the project.
Whatever the reason, Keaton said it was a huge mistake to pass up the chance. As a movie lover, I gotta agree.