The argument over who was/is better - Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton - is really rather pointless. It's like debating genius when equally important and creative entities are in the discussion. Was Lennon or McCartney more important to the Beatles? How about Picasso and Monet, or Parker vs. Coltrane? There will never be a definitive answer, no real consensus beyond their mutual status as masters. So as long as we have their work to wonder over and consider, it doesn't really matter who's the greatest, right? Thankfully, the preservationist nature of DVD (and its upgrade companion, Blu-ray) has brought the efforts of both Chaplin and Keaton to the fore. Kino, specifically, has been championing the latter, released many of old Stoneface's considered classics. This time around, we get the delightful double feature Go West and Battling Butler. While not quite up there with masterpieces such as The General, Our Hospitality, and Sherlock, Jr. , they both represent brilliant illustrations of why this man is part of the conversation in the first place.
Go West (1925)
Friendless can't find work in his small Midwestern town, so he sells everything he owns and heads to New York City. Unfortunately, the hustle and bustle of the metropolis is just too much. Instead, he hops a freighter and heads west. He eventually lands as a cowboy on a cattle ranch, helping the owner and his lovely daughter car for their prize herd. When a shipment to a stockyard in LA in threatened, Friendless takes it upon himself to make sure the steers get to slaughter.
Battling Butler (1926)
As a lazy rich kid, Alfred Butler enjoys a slovenly life. When his father believes he's become soft, he is sent out into the wilderness to camp and fend for himself. Taking his man servant with him, Butler soon runs into a lovely young lady - and her hulking he-man family. They think he's a weakling and not worthy of their own. When the valet convinces them that he is actually noted boxer "The Battling Butler," they change their mind. Now all Alfred and his Man Friday have to do is convinced everyone else of that fact.
Here's the thing you have to remember about Buster Keaton. All accolades aside, all notes on his importance to the artform of film and imagination as both a funny man and director, he makes quality entertainment. His movies are amazingly contemporary, from a comedy standpoint. Yes, it's slapstick and physical based, but unlike the pretenders of today who know nothing of context and timing, Keaton is King! His premises and punchlines are superb, intermingled with a kind of expert level of professional skill to really amplify the laughs. All throughout the two efforts in this set, we see a man so capable behind and in front of the camera that nary a gag flops. Even the simplest joke - man falls off horse, or man takes accidental punch from boxer - rings with real wit. This is why Keaton and Chaplin (and to some extent, Harold Lloyd) are so revered. The mastered an original form of pantomime that would come to define the earliest days of motion picture making. Don't let anyone tell you their vision was or is dated. You will enjoy the pair of titles here more than any modern laughfest of the last few years...guaranteed.
Go West (Score: ****)
Of the two, this is the most consistently funny and visually inventive. Watching Keaton's Friendless character wander from small Indiana town to NYC and then back to the wilds of the West is worth the price of admission alone, the introduction to each lending itself to endless comic and creative possibilities. Just the two minutes or so we spend in the 1920s Big Apple is flawless, a shorthand way of working old world charms with massive modern anxiety. Once he's our on the prairie, however, Go West really shines. The various ranch set pieces involving cows and cattle are brilliant, with Keaton keep us smiling with several running gags. But the biggest belly laughs come at the end, when Friendless has to drive the herd to a slaughterhouse in Los Angeles. Experiencing the excitement of performing around these real live steers, moving them through the city with comically chaotic results, is a true joy. It's verification of everything we've heard about the comedian and then some. As a way to understand why artists like Keaton are still revered today, Go West is a great example. It's fun and fresh while fulfilling all the promise inherent in its premise.
Battling Butler (Score: ****)
Since it's based on a play (and freely adapted for Keaton), there are aspects of Battling Butler that come across as very dated and of their time. The whole lazy social class dynamic may still be around, but the notion of sending a boy off to hunt and fish (in essence to find his "manhood") is about as old fashioned as spats on shoes. But Keaton makes the most of it, using the pre-boxing material to play on his love of all things ridiculous and satiric. Our hero is indeed a bit of a priss, struggling to do even the most menial things. Indeed, his entire story arc revolves around finally standing up to his girl's bullying family and ever-suspicious pugilist, the true Battling Butler. While the ultimate bout with the Alabama Murderer (what a great name) never truly materializes, what we do get is a last act beatdown in which our hero makes mincemeat out of his nemesis. Along the way, Keaton continues to define the comic possibilities of slapstick, making even the most minor of gags work effortlessly. The only downside? The material seems particularly geared toward the stage, meaning that Keaton has to try and open up the piece, sometimes to limited success.
In a word - astonishing! These are amazing transfers. Meticulously remastered with minimal dust or age spots, both Go West and Battling Butler offer up sensational images. The 1.33:1 full screen presentation is not flawless, but it does resonate with a wholly contemporary feel. These are not the badly contrasted sped-up silent movies of your syndicated TV days. No, these are legitimate works of preservation offered in a must own DVD package.
With new scores offered by Eric Beheim (for West) and Robert Israel (for Butler), the PCM Stereo mix of each film is excellent. The lack of a legitimate soundtrack for the film itself (these are silents, remember) allows the artists to flourish. They find good ways to accentuate the humor as well as play within the melodramatic standards that situations sometimes offer.
Since the films are found on separate DVDs, each offers its own selections of added content. For West, we are treated to a weird (and sometimes scary) comedy short with the same title. In this case, however, the cast is made up of trained monkeys and follows a narrative path similar to the start of Butler. There's also a 60 minute audio recording of Keaton trying to structure a script for Wagon Trail. Odd. Butler offers up part of a 1947 scripted remake, with a collection of still galleries making up the rest of the bonus features. While a scholastic commentary would have been nice, the supplements supplied here are pretty good.
If you think that someone like Buster Keaton is too old and antiquated for your sophisticated modern tastes - think again. The man remains a certifiable genius, a filmmaker of rare gifts whose humor still manages to transcend decades to speak to a new generation each and every time. Go West and Battling Butler are incredibly funny films that have barely aged in the near 90 years since they were made. Easily earning a Highly Recommended rating, they belong in any true cinephile's collection. In fact, instead of arguing between the two men, fans should simply go out and buy their individual output. No one is questioning Chaplin or Keaton when it comes to lasting impact and legitimacy of legacy. Both men are amazing. Proof for the latter is alive and well within this digital presentation.
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