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Finding more film of Buster Keaton is always a good thing. Buster's never bad in anything, even when he's misused in '60s Beach Party movies or all but cut out of Stanley Kramer's It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World. Read any biography of The Great Stone Face and much of Buster's story comes off as sad. He seems to have been tricked out of his cinematic independence by his wife, who preferred that he take a high MGM salary ... the Mayer/Thalberg way of cramming talent into homogenized ideas of entertainment dulled Keaton's unique talent. By the time the studio was shoehorning Buster into lame comedies as Jimmy Durante's stooge, he was an alcoholic mess.
That's pretty much where the timeless classic Buster Keaton legacy ended, or so said the film critics. It wasn't until almost 1950 that critic James Agee and promoter Raymond Rohauer helped return Buster to prominence and his films again became available to his legions of fans. Rohauer may have exploited some stars but he definitely preserved Keaton's film legacy.
But Keaton was constantly active in those intervening years. He made movies in Europe and short subjects for other studios. He eventually landed gag writing & consulting jobs at MGM, famously adapting some of his old routines for Red Skelton. Skelton's MGM slapstick bears strong marks of Keaton input, all the way into the early 1950s.
Buster Keaton becomes more interesting when one learns more about the ups and downs of his career. We naturally identify him as the self-effacing, always-deserving underdog from his shows. That and the technical-cinematic superiority of his greatest silent work make us instantly dislike the MGM sausage factory for spoiling his wonderful creative streak. When writers describe his descent into alcoholism at MGM, they make it sound as if Buster was just hanging around with the stagehands in his on-the-lot bungalow. But who is to say how he got himself into his personal trap, doing the bidding of both a wife and a studio eager to tap him for all he was worth?
Kino's Lost Keaton: Sixteen Comedy Shorts 1934-1937 collects three years' worth of Buster Keaton's work at what was probably the low point of his career. According to author David McLeod, Keaton returned from France to find himself still on the outs with the big studios. He took a humbling job starring in a series of comedies for Educational Films, an outfit that started out doing instructional pictures. The short subjects were distributed by Fox.
Even a cursory look at the pictures shows that Keaton is front and center and consistently funny. But the writing and direction are nothing like his inspired silent films, and only intermittently as good as 30s films from folks like, say, The Three Stooges. As McLeod is quick to point out, many of the gags in these shows are re-purposed from way back in Keaton's career, in series comedies for Fatty Arbuckle, etc. A couple of the shows, according to McLeod, are transposed Keaton remakes.
Keaton varies in appearance in the pictures, made over a period of three years. In some he looks a bit puffy and heavy, and in others he's gaunt and drawn out. Although his energy and agility don't seem to be impaired, he does look a bit worse for wear here and there. Of course, those who have seen his later work know that Buster could fake painful- looking pratfalls even in his seventies -- A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum has a couple of falls that --- well, if it were anybody else we'd think they'd crack their pelvis or something.
Here are the titles: The Cold Ghost and Allez Oop from 1934; Palooka from Paducah, One Run Elmer, Hayseed Romance, Tars and Stripes, The E-Flat Man, The Timid Young Man from 1935; Three on a Limb, Grand Slam Opera, Blue Blazes, The Chemist, Mixed Magic from 1936, and Jail Bait, Ditto and Love Nest on Wheels from 1937. Obviously none of these not-very-creative titles will be familiar to fans. But Buster's creative involvement is strong through the whole series.
What we do see is that the films are cheap. Some of the pictures have real locations, most frequently in the desert, but the majority use three-wall, no window sets that wouldn't look out of place in 30s exploitation features. It's actually possible that there was some overlap, as David McLeod points out a few actors present who were visible in roadhouse productions about drugs and sex. In The Cold Ghost Keaton plays with some superimpositions. It would seem likely that "Educational Pictures" couldn't afford such complexities, because later on he does a short (Ditto) about twins, and at one point the direction avoids having to deal with showing a set of quadruplet women.
Some shows are obvious. Tars and Stripes is a thin piece about a put-upon swabbie who keeps knocking an officer into the water. The rather good Mixed Magic sees Buster becoming a magician's assistant and ruining every part of the performer's act. It even manages an adroit ending, something a lot of the other pictures lack. Short subjects need to save a really good laugh for the end, and too many of these fizzle out. The Chemist relies more on cheap special effects than Buster's talents.
McLeod singles out two titles as Buster's personal favorites, and the only ones he mentioned later or saved personal copies of. One Run Elmer starts as a Popeye- like show about competing gas station proprietors and then moves on to some really good jokes on a baseball diamond. Buster was known around Hollywood for organizing live-performance comedy baseball entertainments with elaborate gags, some of which have survived on newsreels. One priceless joke has a fielder confuse a runner by yanking first base four feet to the left with a hidden cord. Grand Slam Opera is a bizarre spoof of radio talent shows, with Buster appearing as a contestant who juggles -- on the radio. One wonderfully self-indulgent segment has him dancing to a continually changing piece of music, from a Scots jig to a Russian dance.
Buster talks in these movies, and his voice is often redundant, or his lines less than inspired. He's most frequently called Elmer, so seems like the same guy throughout, especially when the same few leading ladies predominate. Our favorite is Lona Andre, a dark-haired beauty who isn't much of an actress but can usually manage the appropriate look of confusion.
Most of the shows are directed by Charles Lamont. Famous producer-gag man Mack Sennett just directs one, and it's pretty terrible. One funny fish gag aside, it has some of the worst continuity ever, especially in its driving scenes. My personal favorite short from the set is Three on a Limb, which has Buster competing for the hand of a girl (Lona Andre) against a much larger cop and a rough guy who has another girlfriend demanding that she marry him. The final third of the show is an extended comic marriage scene in an apartment, with the groom's identity constantly changing as each suitor gets the upper hand. The short really seems out of control, in the surreal sense.
Kino International's 2-DVD set of Lost Keaton: Sixteen Comedy Shorts 1934-1937 is an amusing, neatly packaged collection of rare Keaton comedy. The quality of the prints varies, as the shows were apparently scattered after Educational Pictures broke up in 1939. More than half are from original source materials and very sharp. Others are softer dupes. I noticed only one that had splice problems, losing a dialogue line here or there.
David Macleod provides credit lists and disc menu notes for each picture, pointing out important facts about each show as well as digging into the backgrounds of the supporting actors, some of which were once-famous has-beens in worse career trouble than Buster. One of the shows uses several Keaton family members as backwoods characters.
Kino also provides a stills gallery, and a musical montage of Buster Keaton pratfalls called Why They Call Him Buster.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Lost Keaton: Sixteen Comedy Shorts 1934-1937 Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.