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THE BUSTER KEATON COLLECTION

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Buster Keaton, Dorothy Appleby, Elsie Ames
Directors:  Jules White et al
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  Sony
Features:  Commentaries, Featurette, Script Reproduction
Length:  176 Minutes
Release Date:  March 7, 2006

“I know you…Mary Christman!”

“AND HAPPY NEW YEAR!!”

Films ***

Buster Keaton was simply the greatest.

An intuitive, imaginative and fearless artist, he rose to prominence in the silent era…first as sidekick to legendary comic Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, then as the auteur of his own amazing and crowd-pleasing short films, and eventually a full-fledged feature star.  His works from those days are filled with laughter, stunts, and spectacle.  Many top ten movie lists from around the world still cite The General.  He was one of the ‘big three’ silent comedians along with Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd.  Though Chaplin’s name remains the most synonymous with silent comedy, there are plenty of admirers, myself amongst them, who actually consider Keaton head and shoulders above all of his contemporaries.

Then came the arrival of sound…it derailed many a movie star’s career, but not Buster’s.  Not really.  There are those who incorrectly claimed he couldn’t quite make the transition from silent to talkie.  Not true.  Buster was born and raised a stage performer.  He had a good voice and had no reservations about adding spoken words to the mixture.

The fact is, it wasn’t sound that diluted Buster’s innovative abilities.  Rather, it was the studio system.  When his contract was first turned over to MGM, the likes of Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg were less interested in what he naturally brought to the table and more in molding him into their idea of a sound comedian. 

It was like fitting a square peg in a round hole.  Buster’s creativity was brushed aside in favor of what the studio people thought was funny and appropriate for sound.  His first talkie, Free and Easy, was an embarrassment.  And it was probably the best sound film he made for MGM.

Buster left MGM on less than amiable terms.  In the following years, he returned to short subjects, making a series of less-than-stellar films for Educational, as well as the occasional feature abroad, where Europe still recognized him as the great star that he was.  But as the 1930s drew to a close, a new opportunity came Buster’s way:  Columbia signed him to make a series of ten short films.

Those films are all included in The Buster Keaton Collection.  Eight of them were directed by comedy veteran Jules White, who would later earn more prominence with The Three Stooges.  He and Buster weren’t completely compatible…White really only understood the broadest and crudest of slapstick, whereas Buster’s physical comedy was more elegant, stylized and imaginative.  Truth be told, these ten Columbia shorts showcase more of White’s style and less of Keaton’s.  But there’s still some gold to be panned for in them.  Mediocre Buster is still better than most comics at their very best.

The best of the bunch was his first, “Pest From the West”, which for some reason, is presented sixth in sequence here.  It’s a short film remake of Buster’s British feature The Invader, and it actually works much better in truncated form.  Buster plays a millionaire who lands his yacht in Mexico and falls for a lovely Spanish cigarette girl, who actually wants to use Buster to untangle a romantic plot of her own.  The comedy is lively and rampant, and Buster even gets to show off a little of his ukulele skills in arguably the most hysterical sequence in the whole set!

“Pardon My Berth Marks” is another gem…Buster plays a copy boy who gets a chance at becoming a reporter when assigned to follow the wife of a socialite as she boards a train for Vegas to get a quick secret divorce.  Buster’s misadventures on the train lead him into unraveling a bigger plot of crime and deception.

Mistaken identities were frequently key in Buster’s films, and in “So You Won’t Squawk”, an unscrupulous restaurant owner gets Buster to stand in for him when some business-meaning gangsters come after him.  They try and dispatch of Buster in multiple ways, but our hapless hero always manages to come back smiling!

“The Spook Speaks” features Buster and wife (Ames) serving as caretakers for a magician’s house, which has more than a few tricks up its sleeves.  “Nothing But Pleasure” turns a simple trip to Detroit to buy a car into a hilarious nightmare for Buster and his wife (Appleby), particularly when Buster thinks the cops are after him!  And “Mooching Through Georgia” returns Buster to the Civil War in a story of hijinks and mayhem, but fans of The General might feel a bit of something missing in the mix.

As mentioned, the physical comedy is broad, but even in his 40s, Buster was always game to take a fall for the camera.  Though “Pest From the West” was reportedly the only Columbia short he liked, he still never failed to give it his all when the director called ‘action’.  Some pratfalls were clumsily arranged and executed, but if you watch, every so often there is a touch of classic Buster.  In “She’s Oil Mine”, watch as he gets his finger stuck in a pipe.  His partner puts the pipe in a vise, then picks Buster up and rotates him like a screwdriver to set him free.  Priceless!

Though Buster’s career seemed stalled at the end of his Columbia contract, the 50s would usher in a new nostalgia for silent films.  His great works would be rediscovered and re-shown for younger and enthusiastic crowds all over the world, and he would even find new and different kinds of work for artists like Samuel Beckett and Richard Lester.  But that’s a story for another time...

Video ***

I was pretty impressed with these offerings…for 60 plus year old black and white films, they’ve held up well.  Compare the Columbia shorts to the not-much-older Educational ones, and the difference is astounding.  Images are generally crisp and clear throughout…sure, there’s a bit of telltale aging present in the form of occasional spots and scratches, but nothing more than you’d expect.  High marks.

Audio **

The mono soundtracks are serviceable…spoken words are clean, as are music and effects, but some noticeable hiss is present in the quieter moments.  I can’t figure out why “Mary Had a Little Lamb” was the theme music for so many of the films, but so be it…

Features ***

Each short contains a commentary track by a Keaton author or other historian, and they range from detailed and informative to just stating the obvious (i.e., what’s on the screen).  There is a decent but not particularly introspective on Buster called “From Silents to Shorts”.  Most interesting is a booklet that reproduces Buster’s shooting script for “She’s Oil Mine”, complete with his handwritten notations!

Summary:

The Buster Keaton Collection for some fans may be a chronicling of Buster’s treadmill years, but though they may pale in comparison to his early independent works, there’s still much joy, laughter and delight to be had in them.  This isn’t a starting point for those new to Keaton, to be sure, but for fans who have settled in a bit, this collection is highly enjoyable.

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