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Buster Keaton - Short Films Collection: 1920 - 1923

Kino // Unrated // July 12, 2011
List Price: $49.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by John Sinnott | posted July 2, 2011 | E-mail the Author
The Shorts:



 


In 1920 producer Joe Schenck bought Charlie Chaplin's old
movie studio, renamed it Keaton Studios, and turned it over to Buster
Keaton.  His instructions were
simple:  make eight two-reel comedies a
year, and for the next couple of years that's exactly what Keaton did.style=""> 
He made 19 shorts before graduating to
features and those films are masterpieces of silent comedy.style="">  Kino has, for the first time (in R1 at least)
released all of Keaton's solo silent shorts in one incredible Blu-ray
set.  With newly remastered prints and some
nice
bonus features, this is an must-buy collection. 


 


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Background: 
Buster Keaton had been performing on vaudeville stages from
the time he was three years old. His parents, Joe and Myra Keaton
incorporated
him into their act since they had no one to watch him while they were
on
stage. Their act, comedy act, The Three Keaton's, was quite successful,
and
they toured America
and
played in England.
It was a very physical act, with Joe throwing Buster around the stage
and into
backdrops.


 


But by 1917, things were not looking so good for the act.
Joe Keaton was drinking, and was prone to violent fits. When he was
drunk, his
timing was off, which was hurting the act. Also, Buster, at age 21, was
just
too old to play the upstart son, the role he had played in the act
since he was
three years old. Added to that was the fact that vaudeville was dying.
Movies
had arrived, and stolen much of its audience. Bookings in good
vaudeville
houses were getting harder and harder to get.


 


So Buster decided to try to make it on his own. He went to w:st="on">New York, were
his agent
immediately found him work on a new revue show, The
Passing Show
, at $250 a week. 
While Keaton was waiting for rehearsals to start he ran into
fellow
comedian Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle. 
Arbuckle had just signed a deal with promoter Joe Schenck to
form his
own production company and was working on his first short. 
Arbuckle asked Keaton if he'd like to be in a
scene in his new film. Keaton, who had never been in a movie studio
before,
agreed. The next day Keaton showed up at the studio, and did a short
bit where
he bought some molasses from Fatty and was hit by a flying bag of
flour.


 


The next morning, Keaton went to his agent and asked if he
could get out of his contract for The Passing
Show
. His agent said, "Sure, we'll just tear up the contract,"
and proceeded to do just that. Buster then went back to where Fatty was
shooting, and joined his group at $40 a week.


 


Altogether, Fatty and Buster made 15 two-reel shorts (of
which thirteen still survive).  After
that run, Arbuckle signed on with w:st="on">Paramount
to make features (his contract would give him $3 million over three
years which
isn't bad for 1920), and Schenck's signed Keaton to make two-reelers.style="">  He bought Charlie Chaplin's old studio for
the comic and left him alone.  As long as
he made eight shorts a year, Schenck was content to let the artist
create what
he wanted, however he wanted to do it.


 


The Keaton Two-reelers: 
I'm not going to describe each short and comment on each
film in this set.  You don't need to know
the plot to The Blacksmith, it's
secondary to the gags, and mere words can't accurately describe
Keaton's
physical gags.  (When he does a pratfall
he doesn't just fall on his rear, he falls on his head, spins around
and then
his body hits the ground.  You really
have to see it to get the full effect.)  Suffice
to say that these are all excellent, classic films that are hilarious,
creative, and awe-inspiring.


 


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Instead I want to talk about these films as a whole, and
what sets them apart from other two-reel comedies that were being made
at the
same time.  The first thing to strike
viewers about Keaton's films is that they all have an internal
logic and
thought out completely.  They are not a
series of random gags that are strung together. 
If something happens, Buster ending up in the middle of a police
parade
as he does in Cops, there's a reason
that he's there and the film explains how he gets from there to the
next
scene.  That may seem like feint praise,
but a lot of silent comedy shorts didn't go to this trouble and are not
thought
out.


 


There's also an acrobatic precision in Keaton's shorts,
especially the physical gags.  It's
almost like a ballet watching Keaton performing his stunts.style="">  The moving staircase in The Electric House is
a great example of this, where the comedian falls up and down the
device time
and again, and every time it is slightly different and hilarious.

 


No review of Keaton's work would be complete without mention
of his facial expressions, or lack thereof. 
Known as "Stoneface", Keaton's character doesn't laugh or smile,
or
really show much emotion.  This is a
wonderful aspect of his persona.  He's
like an 'everyman' caught in extraordinary circumstances and what he
sees
sometimes just doesn't compute.  An
excellent example of this is when he finishes building his house in One
Week.  A rival has changed the numbers on
the boxes of his build-it-yourself house and the result is a terribly
awkward
looking domicile.  Instead of crying or
wailing, Keaton just looks at it with a blank expression as if he's
thinking
'are my eyes telling the truth?"  It adds
a lot to the comedy in these shorts.   style=""> 


 


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The films in this set are all classics, and they're all
extremely funny.  It's hard to pick which
one is best.  How do you compare the
creativity of The Play House, where
Keaton plays all of the members of a band and everyone in the audience
with the
manic energy of Cops where he ends up
being chased by the entire police force? 
They're all great and worth watching.


 


The shorts included in this collection include:


 


The High Sign (1920/21, 19 Min.)


One Week (1920, 24 Min.)


Convict 13 (1920, 19 Min.)


The Scarecrow (1920, 18 Min.)


Neighbors (1921, 19 Min.)


The Haunted House (1921, 20 Min.)


Hard Luck (1921, 21 Min.)


The Goat (1921, 23 Min.)


The Play House (1921, 23 Min.)


The Boat (1921, 23 Min.)


The Paleface (1922, 20 Min.)


Cops (1922, 18 Min.)


My Wife's Relations (1922, 17 Min.)


The Blacksmith (1922, 21 Min.)


The Frozen North (1922, 17 Min.)


Day Dreams (1922, 19 Min.)


The Electric House (1922, 23 Min.)


The Balloonatic (1923, 22 Min.)


The Love Nest (1923, 20 Min.) 


 


The Blu-ray Set:



 


The 19 shorts in this collection are presented on three
Blu-ray discs, each in its own case.  The
three cases are housed in a slipcase.


 


Audio:


 


Kino used several musicians to accompany these films, but
didn't see fit to credit them on anywhere in the packaging or press
release.  The only place you'll find them
listed is at the end credits of each film. 
Because of that I can't give you a complete list of people who
worked on
these shorts (Ben Model is the only one that springs to mind).style="">  As I recall, they were all single-performer
works, using piano, organ, or synthesizer. 
Some of the top names in silent film accompaniment such as the
Mont Alto
Motion Picture Orchestra or Steven Horne are unfortunately, not present.


 


As for the scores, they ranged from acceptable to good. 
All of them were scene specific and well
thought out, though I disagreed with some of the choices that were made.style="">  In The Convict, for example, a slide whistle
was used during some of the pratfalls. 
This was analogous to a dubbed soundtrack on a sitcom, it was
pointing
out the joke, just in case you're too dense to figure it out for
yourself.  Aside from a few instances like
that, the
music was generally pleasant.

 


Video:


 


The black and white full frame image has been newly mastered
in HD from generally nice prints, but it hasn't been restored.style="">  There are the same specks and dirt on the
prints that appear on other versions. 
That's too bad, because these films could certainly be enhanced
by some
restoration.  That said, they do look
better than their SD DVD counterparts.  I
popped in a couple of the shorts that Kino released earlier for
side-by-side
comparisons and in all cases I preferred the Blu-ray release.style="">  This new set has a lot more detail.style="">  In Cops for example, in the scene where
Buster lights a cigarette with a bomb he's sitting next to a partially
covered
rug.  On the DVD (a screen cap is above)
the rug (on the right side) looks like a gray mass. 
On the Blu-ray disc the pattern can clearly
be discerned.  (Unfortunately I couldn't
get a capture of that.)  The blacks are
darker too, and the contrast is very nice. 
Overall it's a nice looking set.

 


Extras:


 


This set comes with some nice bonus features.  Fourteen
of the films come with 'visual
essays,' short documentaries on the films where a historian or other
expert
discusses some aspect of the movie while promotional images and
excerpts appear
on the screen.  These are informative and
fun.

 


Several of the films come with alternate "digitally enhanced
versions."  These are where they've let
the digital techs do their thing and improve the visuals of the movie
as much
as they could.  Some people will enjoy
these more... they certainly look more polished. 
I preferred the other versions however since the enhanced movies
did
'feel' like a silent film from the 20's. 
I know that's vague, but the lack of grain and other slight
imperfections made the movies feel a little sterile. 
I'm very happy that these were included as
alternates rather than being the only version available.


 


There are also some rare short outtakes from The Goat,
Cops, The Blacksmith, The
Balloonatic,
and Day Dreams.


 


Kino has included some other silent films as bonus material.style="">  Disc two features The Men Who
Would Be Buster
, four films (three are only excepts)
that borrow heavily from Buster's comedies. 
The first entry is Lupino
Lane
's Only
Me
(presented in its entirety) takes its idea from The Play House.style="">  This is a great illustration of why Keaton is
such a great talent.  While Keaton's film
does borrow from a film he made with Roscoe Arbuckle, Backstage
and includes some of the same gags Keaton improves on the
original.  He expands on the concept and
comes
up with the concept of being every member of the orchestra as well as
many
audience members and the performers on stage. 
He does this through trick photography, exposing the same piece
of film
multiple times with sections blacked out. 
The effect is pretty amazing. 
Lane's film, on the other hand, takes the concept and instead of
making
it better makes it cheaper.  Lane plays
the band, conductor, audience and performers, but instead of appearing
in the
picture at the same time there's never more than one Lupino on the
screen at a
time.  He just uses close-ups and
one-shots to create the illusion that he's filling the orchestra pit
and none
too convincingly.  The other films (all
excerpts) include a cop chase scene similar to the one in The
Goat from
Billy Bevans Be
Reasonable
, Charley Chase lifting a scene from Hard
Luck
in Hello Baby, and
Stan Laurel using another gag from Hard
Luck
in White Wings.

 


Disc three includes 1922's Character Studies, a gag film
with appearances by several silent stars, and an except from Seeing
Stars a
First National promotional film, also from 1922, that features Keaton
as well
as Charlie Chaplin and others.


 


Final Thoughts:


 


This is a collection of some of the finest silent comedies
ever made.  They are true masterpieces,
and they look better than I've ever seen them on these Blu-ray discs.style="">  This is a DVDTalk
Collector's Series
title.


 


Note:  The images in this
review are from SD DVDs and do not represent the image quality of the
Blu-ray set.
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