Buster Keaton is the real star of this collection of films directed by and staring silent comedian Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle. Seeing them is like watching Woody Allen's Bananas for that brief flash of Sylvester Stallone. However, Keaton played a more significant role in Arbuckle's shorts. They rant into each other on the streets of Manhattan one day and Arbuckle invited Keaton, who was between stage appearances, down to his set, thus changing the course of Keaton's life (later films were shot in Hollywood).
Image Entertainment gathers 12 of the 15 films they made together in The Best Arbuckle/Keaton Collection. The discs are a good addition to anyone's Keaton collection, but the films themselves leave something to be desired, and certain packaging decisions will irritate connoisseurs. Also, one has to have an appetite for physical comedy. Arbuckle, a former Keystone Kop, had a certain physical grace, but also had a fondness for crude humor. The films in this set were released between 1917 until 1919. Blackhawk's film preservationist David Shepard and his associates supervised this set.
The Butcher Boy (1917; 23:59) Keaton, who was 21 at the time, made his screen debut appearance in this set's initial short. Arbuckle is a butcher working in a general store. Keaton is one of his customers and is also involved in a plot to kidnap the boss's daughter (Josephine Stevens). Arbuckle is clever in wielding a butcher knife and some slabs of meat, but the film isn't really all that funny, despite the presence of some well-practiced Keaton bits that he did in vaudeville. Still, the film is of historical interest if only for the introduction of both Keaton and his signature porkpie hat.
The Rough House (1917; 18:54) Keaton plays three roles in this film, which also contains a moment that is a precursor to a similar bit in Chaplin's The Gold Rush. One actually funny gag has Arbuckle using an electric fan used to chop vegetables
His Wedding Night (1917; 19:04) Among other things, Arbuckle liked to do drag, and here Keaton is adorned in a wedding gown.
Oh, Doctor! (1917; 22:49) Recently rediscovered, this once lost film stars Keaton as Arbuckle's son, and is set at the race track.
Coney Island (1917; 25:21) Arbuckle wrings as much wit and pratfalling as he can out of the amusement park but it still isn't really all that funny. Keaton plays three parts and stunt doubling. This was also the last film Arbuckle shot in New York.
Out West (1918; 20:45) This parody of silent westerns is a step up for the series, if only because it was clear that Keaton was taking more control of the films (he even puts his dad Joe Keaton in the film).
The Bell Boy (1918; 25:56) Not to be confused with Jerry Lewis's later film, this short also indicates the increased role Keaton was taking in the making of these comedies.
Moonshine (1918; 6:28) Long lost, this film is offered on the disc in fragments, which according to an introductory card, were found at the Cineteca Nazionale in Rome.
Good Night, Nurse! (1918; 20:20) In another precursor nod to Chaplin, Arbuckle plays a rich alcoholic whose wife takes him to the ominous No Hope clinic for the cure. It's an odd "comedy," with Keaton as a doctor clad in bloody togs. Joe Keaton also has a role.
Back Stage (1919; 12:14) Bits of this comedy set in a small town theater end up in later Keaton feature films. Jack Coogan, father of Jackie, has a part.
The Hayseed (1919; 21:30) — Keaton is the title bumpkin in this uninspired string of sketches set in a general store. Jack Coogan appears again.
The Garage (1919; 21:58) Distinctly calmer and more methodical, like Keaton's later features, than the other shorts, this is Keaton and Arbuckle's final film together. It concerns an auto repair shop that doubles as a fire station, and shows the same interest in mechanical failure that was to inform Keaton's shorts and features.
VIDEO: Image has not attempted to restore the Arbuckle-Keaton films on offer here, but has worked hard at gathering the films from around the world. These transfers have been digitally mastered from 35mm print sources, in some cases from nitrate print originals. Quality is uneven among all the shorts, transferred from scratchy prints, and with small bits of footage missing, but the films are more complete here than elsewhere. The black and white films come with some tinting, and are full frame (1.33:1) rather than window boxed. This set competes with a similar collection from Kino (2001's Arbuckle and Keaton: The Original Comique/Paramount Shorts, 1917-1920), but The Best Arbuckle/Keaton Collection is a better package. Fortunately, the films are presented in their original projection speed of 18-20 frames per second rather than the "sound speed" of 24 frames per second.
SOUND: Nine of the 12 films bear new musical accompaniment by Neil Brand, London's National Film Theater pianist. It's awful. For the most part, the piano music is not at all keyed to what is happening on the screen. Other musicians also provided music for the remaining films: Eric Beheim does Coney Island, and Robert Israel does Oh, Doctor!, and Out West's music is assembled from Columbia Photoplay Series 78 rpm records. The music comes in Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo, but my recommendation is to mute the TV while watching these films. Image has provided new intertitles, which also violates the spirit of restoration, if for no other reason than that the clean and crisp titles are such a marked contrast to the scratchy images.
MENUS: The musical, animated menus offer eight films on the first disc and four on the second—which means that Image could have offered all 15 Arbuckle-Keaton shorts—except that at his point in time the films are considered lost.
PACKAGING:The dual disc keep case houses the two single-sided, single-layered discs (SS-SL), and also comes with an eight page pamphlet that contains an essay on the films by Jeffrey Vance, adapted from the book Buster Keaton Remembered by Vance and Eleanor Keaton, plus a menu guide to the two discs.