Buster Keaton: Complete Short Films – 1917-1923
The history of cinema is fascinating when journeying back to the origins of genre, illustrating how much they have changed over the course of time. Take science fiction and horror as the prime examples, both are worlds away from their respective zeitgeists – almost as if comparing night with day. Comedy is different in that it has so many different types and distinctions that the very early stuff is just as valid as the modern. Going back a few years shy of a century, slapstick was king and its serving monarch – Buster Keaton. With his centenary looming, Eureka have re-issued their previous complete short films box-set on Blu-Ray; including his early collaborations with Fatty Arbuckle and ending with a run of commercially and critically successful shorts that saw him become of the greatest of all film icons.
In recent years Eureka’s lionized Masters of Cinema imprint has released countless classic, lost and forgotten silent films with masters as fresh as the day they left the printing press thanks to outfits like the F.W. Murnau foundation. Even with its fair share of lost films, Germany is a world away from the safe keeping and restoration of American silent cinema; an apathy and negligence that has gone down in notoriety and legend thanks to the Martin Scorsese’s of the world. Unfortunately this means the presentation of the 32 short films are deeply inconsistent. Some are besieged by merciless grain, others by the discolouration associated with neglectful safe keeping and the need to re-edit from various cuts, while others are perfect – it is a lottery from film to film. Contrarily that lottery is also home to some treats with new inter-titles, musical accompaniments and alternate endings, cleaning up the films however possible.
The earliest films date back to 1917 and see Keaton as a supporting player to Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle. While these films are often funny in their own right, they lack a certain something – like Laurel without Hardy or Abbott without Costello; they are half of a complete picture. If history was somehow different, Arbuckle and Keaton may have become a great double act. This is evidenced in the short film ‘Good Night, Nurse’ in which Arbuckle is taken to a revolutionary sanatorium that claims to be able to cure alcoholism, that film ends with Arbuckle cross dressing to escape. There are glimmers of a chemistry in the earliest films, a connection that never really had the chance to flourish as these where Arbuckle films in which Keaton featured, an apprenticeship of sorts.
Keaton is regarded as one of the finest comedy performers of all time and with good reason, at his best his physicality and timing defied logic, however given the amount of films he did during 1917-23 it’s only natural that every short doesn’t live up to the reputation of history – he’s only human, after all. Some were a procession of fragmented gags, others were endlessly derivative in that Keaton played an unconventionally attractive, unlucky romantic lead in the exact same situation in a variety of places and others where sadly forgettable. It happens with any director or actor with such a prolific productivity.
There are some interesting shorts to be found outside of the classics. Slapstick and cartoons have a great deal in common and the Balloonatic is the perfect capsule of this. Its story sees Keaton compete with a young outdoorswoman after being swept away by a runaway hot air balloon. Like only Keaton could. The little moments of competition lack connective tissue from one to the next, but the audacity of the man makes you question how much is real and how much is done through clever staging. Hindsight doesn’t help either with the very DNA of this short being found in countless cartoons the world over. There’s a thought that needs to be sat on – Buster Keaton was doing things that only cartoons could recreate.
Another such short is the Scarecrow in which the set is just as much of a character as either Keaton or Joe Roberts building up to a centerpiece chase with a persistent dog. With its series of ropes and pulley’s hanging over the dinner table, the Scarecrow features one of the most inventively funny dinner table sequences. A scene whose influence can be found throughout comedy history but as is often the case with such landmarks the magic of the original has never been recaptured. Both the Scarecrow and The Balloonatic are indicative of the varying quality of this window of output. Every single one of the 32 will have its moments whether the crossed wires of Daydreams or the practical effects of the Goat, whether funny or not at the very least an appreciation for the staging and spectacle can be enjoyed.
Leaving the best till last is the classics, the very same films that make it wonderfully clear where everyone’s favourite stuntman, Jackie Chan, got all his best tricks – an influence and adulation that he openly confesses to. 4 films stand out above all others: The High Sign, Convict 13, The Haunted House and Cops.
Convict 13 and Cops elaborate upon one trope reoccurring throughout a great deal of these films with the chase. Where Keaton did it differently, however, is that his films would have scenes in which 10, 20, 30 maybe more would be running after him, add to that the slightly off rhythm of this era of silent film and there’s something unusually satisfying. Convict 13 starts with him making a mess out of golf before being tricked by an escaping prisoner and ending with him working with that prison as a guard preventing a breakout. His elastic acrobatics are at there finest and unlike the other films this had fights, not too dissimilar to that found in a Jackie Chan film. In the manic finale he beats up the prisoners with a punching bag on a long rope, the accidental swagger of Keaton wielding this makeshift weapon is hypnotic. Cops brilliance is at its finest in a sequence with a ladder resting on top of a fence, he is sat in the middle balancing as police on either side try their hardest to catch the lovable rogue. This elaborate balanced see-saw and the failed hanging of Convict 13 are the best examples of a cartoon like magic that Keaton possessed.
Slapstick like any form of comedy is in the eye of the beholder, some will find it funny while others won’t. The beauty in Buster Keaton’s work all but takes the need to find something funny out of the mix. Instead of finding his antics humorous, the absolute control and insanity of some of the things he did make wide eyed wonder and amazement just as much of a legitimate response.
Then there’s the installation of surrealism into the mix with the best 2 films of the set. The High Sign starts with a gun that never hits where it is aimed and ends with a house of doors and traps that is about the most perfect example of physical comedy, one shot of one Keaton assailants getting his head trapped between door and door frame is awe inspiringly funny. This may well rank among the greatest comedy shorts of all time. And while the haunted house may not be as good, the invention and surreal physicality is every bit the high sign’s equal. The scene in which a group of thieves try to scare Keaton away from their hide out, both dress as skeleton and build a man who then comes to life incorporates a George Méliès like oddity into a short of physicality where the Jackie Chan influence is as loud as could be.
Its not often that a boxset of 32 films comes along, especially with such a great mass of extras -the value for money in this set both beggars belief and is self evident. Equal parts funny and inventive, this is about the most perfect comedy education one can get from one of the greatest comedy masters of all time. While the wild variation of quality is apparent and perhaps best served for all you Buster Keaton completists, at the same time there has never been a better excuse or reason to join those completists, hand-in-hand. Even with the inconsistencies, Eureka’s boxset is one of the best home video releases in years.
- 1080p presentations from new restorations
- Multiple scores on selected shorts
- Audio commentaries by Joseph McBride on The ‘High Sign’, One Week, Convict 13, The Playhouse, The Boat, and Cops
- Newly discovered version of The Blacksmith containing four minutes of previously unseen footage
- Alternate ending for Coney Island
- Alternate ending for My Wife’s Relations
- That’s Some Buster, a new exclusive video essay by critic and filmmaker David Cairns
- An introduction by preservationist Serge Bromberg
- The Art of Buster Keaton, actor Pierre Étaix discusses Keaton’s style
- Audio recording of Keaton at a party in 1962
- Life with Buster Keaton (1951, excerpt) – Keaton re-enacts Roscoe Arbuckle’s “Salomé dance”, first performed in The Cook
- PLUS: A 184-PAGE BOOK containing:
- A roundtable discussion on Keaton by critics Brad Stevens, Jean-Pierre Coursodon and Dan Sallitt
- A new essay and detailed notes on each film by Jeffrey Vance, author of Buster Keaton Remembered
- A new essay by Serge Bromberg on the two versions of The Blacksmith and other discoveries
- The words of Keaton
- Archival imagery