Passport has released a five disc set of Buster Keaton films under the title Comedy Legend: Buster Keaton. I'm a huge Keaton fan, and I always greet the prospect of a set of his work with eager excitement. Unfortunately this isn't a set to get excited about. Most of these have been released before in much better versions, and the two sound features are not very good.
The Garage (1919): This was the last film that Fatty made for Comique. Buster and Fatty work in a garage that doubles as the local police station and fire house. Mayhem reigns.
Neighbors (1920): A lot of slapstick is included in this modern-age Romeo and Juliet story. Buster and his girlfriend live in adjacent buildings in New York, separated by a fence. Unfortunately their two families are feuding, and refuse to let the lovers meet. Some great stunts as Keaton climbs and jumps around the set.
One Week (1920): Outrageously funny short. This is Buster's first solo film and he does a wonderful job with it. Keaton and his new bride receive a build-it-yourself house as a wedding present. Unfortunately a rival for the girl's hand switches the numbers on the crates, making the construction even more difficult.
The Balloonatic (1923): More of a group of skits strung together than anything else, this film still is hilarious.
The Paleface (1922): After being cheated, a tribe of Indians vows to kill the next white man who enters their village. Who should walk in then, but a simple butterfly collector played by Keaton. A great chase scene makes up a good portion of the film followed by Keaton being burned at the stake.
The Blacksmith (1920): Keaton fills this short with mayhem. As an assistant blacksmith, he can't seem to get anything right, everything from shoeing horses to fixing cars goes wrong. The highlight is the destruction of a Rolls Royce that was rumored to have been a wedding present from his in-laws. Needless to say, relations had soured in the mean time.
The Love Nest (1923): The last short that Keaton made before graduating to features. Buster swears off women when he's dumped by his girl. He sails off in his small boat, only to meet with disaster. He's soon a mate on a ship with a sadistic captain who throws the hands overboard for the smallest infraction. A funny film, but not Keaton's best.
The General (1927): One of the funniest comedies ever made. Buster Keaton plays a Southern railroad engineer during the civil war. When a group of Northern spies steal his train he chases them, never stopping to think how badly he's out numbered. Keaton's stone faced expressions are a riot. This version seems to be complete and projected at the correct speed, but the faded and dull print is significantly worse than the Kino version.
The plot is a very loose retelling of The Taming of the Shrew. Virginia (Sally Eilers) wants to marry her boyfriend Jeff (Reginald Denny) but refuses to until her older sister Angelica (Dorothy Christy) is wed. Jeff hits Reggie (Buster Keaton) with his car and takes him to Virginia's house to recuperate when he comes up with an idea: He'll get Reggie to marry Angelica. The only problem is that Reggie is a shy sap, and Reggie needs to convince everyone he's a great lover.
This film starts off dreadfully slow. The first 45 minutes are very bland and dull. Things start to move in the last act though, when Polly (Charlotte Greenwood who steals every scene that she's in) teaches Reggie how to woo a woman. The last section is worth watching, it's just not worth sitting through the first acts to get to it.
One interesting thing about this movie is that it the exterior shots were filmed at Keaton's Beverly Hills Mansion. It is a nice chance to see his "Italian Villa" in it's prime. Keaton would sell the house in 1933.
Speak Easily (1932): A rather painful Keaton talkie. He sleepwalks his way through this one. This was his second film with Jimmy Durante, and the two comics had styles that just didn't mix.
Buster plays Timoleon Zandeas Post, a university professor who is quiet and bookish. For some odd reason, his butler mails him a letter informing Post that he's inherited $750,000. There is no money of course, but for some reason the butler seems to think that this will build character. In any case Post withdraws all of his money from the bank and heads to New York City. On the way he meets and befriends a traveling troupe of rather incompetent actors including the loud and obnoxious Jimmy Dodge (Jimmy Durante) and the lovely Pansy (Ruth Selwyn.) When he discovers they owe a lot of money, he pays their bills and brings them along to New York where he promises to star them in a Broadway show using his inheritance to back the production. This presents some problems since there is no inheritance.
This just wasn't very funny. Durante's jokes were lame (that's being kind) and Keaton looked like he didn't care (which he probably didn't.) The one person who did give a good performance was Thelma Todd who played a scheming young starlet out for Post's money.
One of the big problems with this film and Parlor, Bedroom and Bath was that they changed the character that Keaton had developed and refined over the years. In his silent pictures he often played a naive but intelligent and resourceful character who uses his ingenuity to get out of trouble. In these talkies he plays a bumbling buffoon who is just incompetent. There is nothing likable about Keaton's characters in these last two films, he's just an idiot that people use to their own advantage. The is really sad seeing him in these.
These films come on five DVDs each in a single width keepcase enclosed in a slipcase. There are no inserts.
The audio was mediocre at best. These films come with a two-channel mono mix. The shorts have generic ragtime-like piano music for a sound track with no attempt to match the audio to the action on screen. It doesn't enhance the viewing experience at all.
The General was worse. It has a classical music soundtrack which doesn't fit the mood of the piece and detracts from the comedy. It was a poor choice.
The two sound features are flat, which is to be expected, but they also have an annoying hum in the background. The dialog is easy enough to discern, but there isn't much range. There are some pops and crackles, but nothing too distracting. Overall a rather disappointing.
The video is pretty poor overall. The silent shorts on the first disc are nearly unwatchable. Granted they are 80 years old, but these blurry films have little contrast and even less detail. It looks like someone with a heavy hand attempted to digitally restore them, but they only succeeded in introducing a lot of digital defects, blocking and such. These look really bad.
The second disc and The General were much better, with the films looking pretty good overall. There were some print defects and the image was on the soft side, but a great improvement over the first disc. Even though these looked better, they are significantly worse than the versions Kino put out. I did a direct comparison, and the Kino copies won hands down being much sharper and clearer, with much more contrast.
The sound films didn't fare too well either. Parlor, Bedroom and Bath looked like you were watching the movie through a fog. There was a haze over film which washed out the picture. There wasn't a lot of contrast either.
Speak Easily look a little better, but not much. This print was faded and dark. The exterior scenes look like they are shooting day for night, but they aren't. It is supposed to be daytime. This film was also framed badly. They cut off the top and sides of the picture which was too bad.
As if that wasn't bad enough, there is a "Comedy Legend Buster Keaton" bug in the lower left corner of the frame through all of the movies.
There are no extras.
There are some great movies on this set, (along with a couple of not-so-great ones) but I find it hard to recommend this to anyone. The first disc is really horrible picture wise, and though the next two are better, they are significantly worse than the Kino DVDs. Why settle for something that looks okay when an excellent version is available? The two talkies haven't been released by anything other than public domain producers, (though Laughingsmith, the company that produced the wonderful Forgotten Films of Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle set, is said to be preparing a version of Parlor, Bedroom and Bath which I'm looking forward to) but then again they aren't very good either. When you take all this into account, I think it's best to skip it.