Buster Keaton is not known for dark, political dramas. Nevertheless, one of Buster’s finest television appearances happened in 1954’s The Awakening, a chilling social allegory that features no pratfalls at all. In fact, with the possible exceptions of Sunset Boulevard and Samuel Beckett’s Film, The Awakening was Buster’s only dramatic filmed role, certainly the only one in which he had the major speaking part.The Awakening was an episode of the syndicated anthology series Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Presents: The Rheingold Theatre, which aired from 1952 to 1957. The black-and-white Keaton episode aired in different American cities on different dates in July of 1954.
Writer Lawrence B. Marcus loosely adapted the screenplay from a famous short story, “The Overcoat,” by Russia’s first major prose writer, Nikolay Vasilyevich Gogol (1809-52). The story was originally published in Russia in 1842, but was not translated into English until 1949, five years before this teleplay.
While both the original story and the television version begin the same way, The Awakening trades Gogol’s 19th-century Russia for an intentionally vague locale and time ruled by a bureaucratic dictatorship.
Buster plays a fastidious pencil-pusher who worries more about how his files are sorted than about the cases contained in them. He considers himself superior to his coworkers because he knows the system. At the beginning of the program, he proudly describes how he has handled a case that particularly fascinated him: “Nine out 10 men in my department would have filed that 7935-N, which would have been completely wrong.” When his landlady asks him if the people documented in that file were helped by his efforts, he flatly replies, “I haven’t the slightest idea—but it was numbered correctly.”
Buster’s attitude changes radically when he finds himself undergoing the same hassles as the people in his files. He visits a tailor, who tells him that his old overcoat is too worn to be repaired.
The tailor convinces him to save his money and get an extravagance: a brand-new coat with a fur collar and corded frogs. Buster saves diligently for the new overcoat by eating less and turning off the electricity in his barren flat.
After the overcoat is completed, Buster, who, until now, has been seen by others as a pathetically insignificant person, is suddenly regarded with deference.
When his new overcoat is stolen, Buster is shuffled from department to department without any progress toward recovering the coat.
At this point, Gogol and Marcus take their stories on wildly different paths. In “The Overcoat,” Buster’s bureaucratic character dies from the cold. The Awakening climaxes when The Chief responds to Buster’s continued pleas for help by making a grand public radio speech dismissing the department heads who handled the overcoat case. But The Chief never makes finding Buster’s missing overcoat a priority.
Angered by the unfairness of the system he so recently endorsed, Buster openly refutes The Chief, which leads to a surprise ending that diverges greatly from Gogol’s, but is equally disturbing.
In the final scene, we see Buster waking from a nightmare, still sitting in the tailor’s shop. History begins to repeat itself as the tailor tries to convince Buster to get a new coat. But Buster is now frightened of his prescient vision and refuses the coat. He leaves the shop. Abruptly, he returns and, after looking for a moment at the ubiquitous photo of The Chief on the wall, turns to the tailor and, very quietly and with determination, says, “Make me the coat.”
Although it is difficult at first to imagine Buster Keaton in a dramatic project like this, he was in fact Fairbanks’ first and only choice for the lead. Fairbanks says, “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. It worked out very well; he gave a marvelous performance…”
(Dan Lybarger: A Beautiful Actor: Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. on working with Buster Keaton)
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