At long last fans of silent comedy get an official release
of the shorts Buster Keaton made at Educational. Kino
has collected all 16 of these films and
bundled them together in a very nice two-disc set entitled Lost Keaton. Not
that these films were ever considered
'lost', it's just that none of the Keaton scholars spend much time on
them. I've read a few biographies of the
man, and while they all mention his time at Educational, the films
never get more
than that and authors generally sharpen their knives and move on to the
shorts. Maybe Ignored Keaton would be a
appropriate name. Expecting the worst
when I popped the first disc in, I was pleasantly surprised to discover
these depression era talkies were quite good.
While they don't live up to Keaton's silent masterpieces there
glimpses of brilliance in these fun movies.
By the mid-30's Buster Keaton had fallen on hard times.
One of the three great comics of the silent
era (the other two were Harold Lloyd and Charlie Chaplin) Keaton had
had a hard
time adapting to the changing business environment in Hollywood.
He had his own studio for many years where he was able to craft
type of comedy with almost no interference, but when sound movies
smaller independents, like Keaton, couldn't afford to upgrade to the
expensive technology and many either want out of business or were
by one of the big studios. The fact that
his last three independent features were box office disappointments
to his troubles. With few options,
Keaton signed a contract with MGM, in 1928. Working at a movie factory
different than running your own independent studio, and Keaton didn't
well with the power that be. After a
series of rather uninspired films, including a several where Keaton was
with Jimmy Durante, a mind bogglingly bad decision, Keaton was let go
He ended up at Educational, a poverty row company that had
started out making instructional movies, as the name implies, but
that short comedies were more profitable.
They were at the bottom of the Hollywood
food chain, employing actors who could no longer get jobs with the
majors. (Harry Langdon and Sennett
Clyde also ended up at Educational at various times.)
Here he would make two-reelers again, just
like when he was starting out, but with tighter budgets in both time
money. Gone were the days when Keaton
could spend a week working out a gag to get it just right.
At Educational a week was all he had to get a
short in the can.
Keaton worked at Educational from 1934-37 and made 16 shorts
in that time. He was paid $5000 each,
which was a far cry from the $3000/week he made at MGM, but was still a
deal of money at the height of the depression.
In 1937 Fox, which had been distributing Educational's shorts
their contract and the company went under soon after.
Watching these films today they're surprisingly
entertaining. Keaton, though he was
drinking heavily at the time, is still energetic during most of them. Yeah, there are a couple of places where he
looks like he's just phoning it in, but even that doesn't detract too
One of the reasons that these shorts work so well is because
a lot of the gags were recycled from Keaton's earlier work. There are familiar prat falls and shticks in
most of the films, and Love Nest on
Wheels is basically a remake of Bell
Boy. These also borrow some gags
from other comedians, including some Laurel and Hardy bits. That's not necessarily a bad thing. The jokes are still funny and make for a fun
One of the great things about these shorts is that they are
predominately silent. When sound arrived
the slapstick routines that had entertained audiences since film began
discarded overnight and verbal humor was inserted.
That's one of the problems Keaton had at
MGM. Educational had the common sense to
let Keaton do what he did best: physical
and prop comedy. In One Run
Elmer for example, the first half of the film shows two gas
stations that are across the street from each other competing with very
dialog. When the new station is erected
advertises a price one penny less than Elmer's (Buster Keaton), a price
starts which ends when Elmer cuts his price in half.
When a car pulls up the driver looks at both
signs he waves Elmer off and says "No, I don't want any of that cheap
me ten gallons of the good gas." This
causes Elmer to raise his prices back above his competitor's. The end of the film is a baseball game where
Keaton trots out some of the gags he used to perform at the celebrity
baseball games he used play in. It was
great to see some of the routins preserved on film.
It was also nice to see some of the people in Keaton's life
appearing in these movies. In The
from Paducah and Love Nest on Wheels
Keaton's siblings and parents (who were vaudeville performers) get a
it's great to see them all playing off each other.
Dorothy Sebastian, Keaton's lead in Spite Marriage,
appears in Allez Oop and Vernon Dent, most famous
for his roles in the Three Stooges shorts, has a role in Tars
The best part of these shorts however, is that there are
glimpses of the old Buster Keaton from the silent days.
In several shorts he'll perform a gag or take
a perfectly timed neck-breaking fall that will recall his old classics. There's a wonderful bit of comedy at the end
of The Gold Ghost where Keaton is in a fight with a bunch of thugs. One of them pulls a gun on him and he stomps
on the end of a see-saw, causing the gun to fly up in the air and land
his hand. Terrific. The
film that has the most of the old Keaton is
easily Grand Slam Opera. A
hilarious short by any measure, it
features Elmer (Keaton) travelling to the Big Apple to get a shot on a
radio show. The lead up where Elmer is
practicing is great but the actual performance is hilarious. This was the only Educational short where
Keaton was given a writing credit and it's also the best.
This two disc set includes all 16 Educational shorts.
The discs come in a single width double
The two channel mono
sound is alright, especially given the age of these shorts and their
row origins. There is some hiss in the
background and the dialog can be muddled at times but it's never
horrible. The range is very limited, this
notable during the song at the beginning of Grand
Slam Opera, but overall the disc sounds fine.
These films were all transferred from 35mm negatives and
fine grain masters and they look pretty good.
The full frame image is fairly sharp in general though there are
spots and scratches that appear along with a few missing frames. Even with these flaws they look much, much
better than I was expecting. Theses
films have been neglected for years and getting a clear picture with
contrast and a decent level of detail is nearly miraculous.
There are some nice notes on each film from historian David
Macleod, a still gallery, and a reel of Keaton taking falls entitled
Call Him Buster."
Buster Keaton didn't like these films, but they're actually
pretty funny and rank up there with the best early talkie shorts. There are a couple of good laughs in each one
and the best are hilarious. This set
comes Highly Recommended to
Keaton fans and aficionados of early short