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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Buster Keaton - 65th Anniversary Collection
Buster Keaton - 65th Anniversary Collection
Sony Pictures // Unrated // March 7, 2006
List Price: $24.96 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by John Sinnott | posted February 27, 2006 | E-mail the Author
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Background:

Buster Keaton was one of the three great silent comedians. Along with Harold Lloyd and Charlie Chaplin, he created some of the funniest films of the silent era, movies that are still enjoyed today. Unlike Chaplin and Lloyd however, Keaton never achieved financial freedom. He always had someone else produce his films. For a long time it was Joseph M. Schenck. Schenck pretty much left Keaton on his own to work out the films as he best saw fit, and under this arrangement Keaton created his best films including The General, Cops, and Steamboat Bill Jr.

In 1928 Schenck sold Keaton's contract to MGM. Unfortunately, the powers that be at MGM didn't really know what to do with Keaton. They gave him scripts unsuited to his style and didn't allow him to improvise. As time went by, Keaton found himself under more and more studio control, and started drinking heavily. In one of the most mis-matched comedy duos of all time, MGM even teamed Keaton up with Jimmy Durante, a comedian who was ill suited to Keaton's subtle thought-out style. These films were pretty poor in quality, and the company let his contract lapse in 1933.

For the next few years Keaton bounced around taking work where he could find it. The fact that he was a heavy drinker and hadn't had a hit movie since the silent era made this rather difficult. Eventually he landed a job as a gag man at MGM, and also worked at Educational, a poverty row studio, churning out two reelers in which he recycled a lot of the gags he originally developed for his silent films.

The Buster Keaton Collection:

In 1939 a sober Buster Keaton got a break, or so it seemed: Columbia hired Keaton to star in a series of two reel comedies. Columbia has now released all ten of these films that Keaton made between 1939-1941 in a nicely remastered two disc set: The Buster Keaton Collection. Unfortunately these are among the very worst films Keaton ever appeared in, and the set will do nothing to win him new fans.

While Keaton jumped at the chance to work in front of the camera again, there were some problems with the contract. First, the pay wasn't very good, only $2,500 a picture, half of what he was being paid at Educational. The other bad thing was the director he would be working with. In all but one short, Jules White was at the helm. White was known for broad and low-brow comedies, he had directed the Three Stooges on several occasions, and was about as subtle as a flying mallet. This was the exact opposite of Keaton's style and these films show how uncomfortable he was doing this type of comedy.

Viewing these films today is painful. They are embarrassingly bad. Everything is done in the wrong way, and nothing goes right. The first thing that you notice about these shorts is that they aren't subtle in the least. Keaton would often work for a month or more on a short, but these shorts were thrown together in three or four days. The action is fast and frantic, with no time for set-ups or to try to build a gag. The plots, which are pretty interchangeable and didn't really matter, were often given in a sentence or two at the very beginning of the film and then forgotten. Keaton would see an army nurse, declare that he's in love, and run off to join the army. That's about it. Unlike Keaton's silent shorts where he'd spend a lot of time and energy making the events in the film seen natural, at Columbia they didn't even try. There isn't any reason for the actions that take place to occur, aside from the need to get to the next gag.

If that wasn't bad enough, Columbia didn't trust Keaton to carry a two-reeler by himself. They gave many of the gags and jokes to the supporting actors (often comediennes Dorothy Appleby and Elsie Ames), minimizing Keaton's role even further. These co-stars almost universally overacted and hammed it up, trying to get some comedy out of the unfunny set-ups.

The comedy in these films might have entertained audiences during the depression, but seen today they are simply horrible. Not only is there no subtlety, but the gags are incredibly lame. In one short Keaton asks a pair of men riding in a car if they can give him "a lift." So the men get out of the car and lift Keaton up in the air. Woo-hoo. That's a knee slapper there. These shorts are filled with that sort of comedy.

In addition to the lame scripts, Keaton basically phoned his performances in. White didn't want any input or ad-libs from Keaton, and Keaton seemed to know how bad the films he was making were. There isn't that Keaton spark that livened up his silent films, he doesn't seem to put forth much effort at all. Every once in a while he'll skip out of the way in a fashion that seems to harken back to the old Keaton films, but these moments are rare.

The films included in this set are not arranged in chronological order for some odd reason. The movies on these discs, in the order that these films were released, is:

Pest from the West
Mooching Through Georgia
Nothing But Pleasure
Pardon My Birthmarks
The Taming of the Snood
The Spook Speaks
His Ex Marks the Spot
So You Won't Squawk
General Nuisance
She's Oil Mine

The DVD:


The two discs in this set come in a single fold out cardboard case that is housed in a slipcase with a reproduction of the screenplay to one of the shorts included in the set.

These films have a reputation for being among Keaton's worst work, and apparently the executives at Columbia, who released this set, realized that. No mention is made on the cover that these are the Columbia shorts or that they are even talkies. They do mention, at the end of the cover blurb, that these are "unforgettable 40's comedies" but it really seems that they are trying to trick people into thinking that this set is something that it's not. Even the cover of the set has a picture of a youthful Keaton that was taken years before these films were made. Columbia has done an all around rotten job of informing consumers what they are buying.

Audio:

These films are presented with a their original mono soundtrack, split across two channels. The audio has been cleaned up and sounds very good for something of this age. There isn't any tape hiss or background noise, something that's very common with films from the late 30's, and the dialog is clear. There isn't a lot of range of course, but that's to be expected. A very nice sounding set of discs.

Video:

The full frame black and white image looks very good. These films have been restored and have excellent detail and contrast. There is a little bit of grain in the image, but this isn't a big problem. It's too bad the quality of the content of these films doesn't match the quality of their presentation.

Extras:

One of the nice things about this set is that each short has a commentary track by a different film historian. While there is some repetition in these tracks, they are informative and fun to listen to. They give the history of Keaton and the other actors in the films, talk about the director and writers and generally present everything you need to know about this period in Keaton's life. I actually enjoyed watching these shorts with the commentaries more than with their original soundtrack.

There is also a 25-minute featurette Buster Keaton: From Silents to Shorts. This has many of the people who appear on the commentary tracks talking about Keaton's life. They show a lot of clips from his earlier films so that viewers go away from this set realizing that Keaton was a very talented comedian, something that they wouldn't have gotten if they only watched these shorts.

There is also a 32-page book which reproduces the shooting script for "She's Oil Mine" that included handwritten notes and comments.

Final Thoughts:

These are just bad films. They aren't funny, and Keaton doesn't even try. It is often painful to watch these short, knowing how funny Keaton can be, and see the lame material that he was forced to work with. I'm a die hard Keaton fan, but I really can't say I enjoyed any of these shorts. Add to that the fact that Columbia is trying to trick people into thinking that these are Keaton's earlier silent shorts by putting a picture of him on the cover that was taken 15-20 years before these films were made, and it's easy to recommend skipping this collection.

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