BluRay/DVD Reviews


By • Mar 7th, 2006 •

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(Columbia Pictures) 1939/40/41.
176 mins approx / B&W / 1.33:1 AR / 2 Discs
Commentaries for Each short, 25 min. documentary:

Here’s a wonderful piece of work, and I don’t just mean by Buster Keaton. The package is beautifully bundled inside an attractive matte finish cover, and is comprised of two separate items: a two disc compendium of Keaton’s ten Columbia shorts, and a heavily annotated screenplay for one of them, SHE’S OIL MINE, a gem of an inclusion. The disc release is so lovingly produced that it would certainly be well received as a thoughtful birthday gift for the DVD collector in your circle, no matter what they might think of Keaton’s level of success in the films.

Keaton was breaking out of a black hole of alcoholism in the mid-30’s, and these shorts represent the beginnings of a comeback. Not that he could create superlative work on 3-day schedules, but he could rework older, successful routines, and surround himself with good writers and physically durable cast members. Director Jules White was perhaps the exception to this reasonably good fortune. Hungarian born White, who directed 300+ films (including the final 3 Stooges short, SAPPY BULLFIGHTERS in 1959, featuring the sexy Greta Thyssen), is generally acknowledged to have had a markedly different style than Keaton’s. And Keaton reputedly was not one to complain. But subtlety was not in White’s vocabulary, and subtlety was what Keaton was all about.

Presented in no discernable order, the first up is GENERAL NUISANCE, a military farrago, which co-stars Dorothy Appleby and Elsie Ames, two ladies who crop up again and again in this collection. The commentary is by Edward Watz, author of ‘The Columbia Comedy Shorts.’ Keaton plays a wealthy innocent who joins the armed forces to woo a nurse. The remarkable highlight of this uneven opening short is a duet between Keaton and the boisterous Elsie Ames, featuring terrific lyrics. Ames (1902-83) much later played the principal in A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE.

In HIS EX MARKS THE SPOT (’41), the script is by Felix Adler, a Ringling Bros. clown. The narrative finds Keaton and wife Appleby fallen on hard times (close to home, no?). The highlight is a cat-fight between Appleby and Ames in which Appleby jabs Ames in the backside with a fork, and has to retrieve a rolling egg (I’m sure this was an accident) to complete a gag. David Weddle (of Sam Peckinpah historian fame) puts Ames down, but I find her energizing, with a raucous abandonment of all dignity to pure physical comedy. She falls about midway in a grand tradition of flailing grand dames, including Mabel Normand and Marie Dressler in the 20s, Margaret Dumont (more reserved when compared with the others, but nonetheless) in the 30’s, Martha Raye in the 40s, the utterly smashing Lucille Ball in the 50’s, and Carol Burnett in the 60’s. Sadly, such enjoyably raucous female knockabout comedy seems to have been in eclipse for the past few decades, though it’s encouraging to see the gifted Daniele Ferraro crop up recently. She might just be responsible for a resurrection of the form in the new millennium.

PARDON MY BERTH MARKS is best in its first act, unlike most of the others, because of the presence of Vernon Dent, a Columbia comedy actor who could ground his shenanigans in reality, the better for Keaton to play off of, and they work well together. Later in the film there’s a scene in a train, and as Keaton appears in the distance, peering down the aisle of darkly lit berths, one gets hit with the thrill of realization that he’s going to be playing the scene silent, as he did in the old days.

Keaton’s daughter provides a brief intro to the reproduction of the script for SHE’S OIL MINE. Commentator Watz feels this is one of the best of the series, whereas I feel the first half just sits there, and the 2nd half (11 mins+) succeeds. Elsie Ames’ prat-gags are too calculated until the halfway mark. Watz thinks it’s like the Arbuckle/Keaton shorts. I felt the presence of The Three Stooges, and later, Langdon, Laurel & Hardy, Chaplin (a ‘shaking hands’ fiasco comes right out of THE GREAT DICTATOR, which Keaton would have just seen) and, in the final ‘duel’ sequence, the Marx Brothers (though the accompanying doc says that Keaton wrote gags, uncredited, for the Marx Bros, so the genesis may be up for grabs). I liked the duel sequence a lot: it’s another series of gags that he gets to play silent, harkening back to his golden period, and in fact he reprised it, live, when he toured Europe in the late 40s. Watz points out that Keaton borrows heavily from an earlier film, PASSIONATE PLUMBER, which was made at MGM. There is also topical material: an Orson Welles joke (3 years after the ‘War of the Worlds’ broadcast) and a GONE WITH THE WIND joke (2 years after that film’s release).

The documentary on disc two, BUSTER KEATON – FROM SILENTS TO SHORTS, is quite good. Hard not to be evocative when recounting how seriously he fell from comic grace. In addition we actually get to see what Watz, Weddle, and Pat & Ed look like, which is a lot of fun – putting faces to the commentary voices. Weddle’s an interesting-looking character; he could have played a cowhand in one of Sam’s films.

DOUBLE BILL: Well, you know it’s a natural to lead with one of these shorts – say GENERAL NUISANCE – and then show THE GENERAL as the main feature. Or even, perhaps better for the flow of the evening, to follow the feature with the short.

BUSTER KEATON – FROM SILENTS TO SHORTS. Reproduction of annotated script from SHE’S OIL MINE.

GENERAL NUISANCE – 1941 – With Dorothy Appleby, Elsie Ames. Commentary by Edward Watz. Producer/director Jules White. Story/screenplay by Felix Adler & Clyde Bruckman.

HIS EX MARKS THE SPOT – 1941 – With Dot Appleby, Ames, Matt McHugh. Commentary by David Weddle. Directed/produced by White. Story/Screenplay by Adler.

MOOCHING THROUGH GEORGIA – 1939 – With Monte Collins, Bud Jamison. Commentary by Patricia Tobias and hubby Joe Adamson. P/D White. Scr. Bruckman.

NOTHING BUT PLEASURE – 1939 – With D. Appleby, Beatrice Blinn. P/D White. St/Scr. Bruckman.
PARDON MY BERTH MARKS – 1940 With Appleby, Vernon Dent. Commentary by Watz. P/D White. St/Scr. Bruckman.

PEST FROM THE WEST – 1939 – With Lorna Gray, Gino Corrado, Richard Fishe. Commentary by Weddle. D: Del Lord. Scr. Bruckman.

SHE’S OIL MINE – 1941 – With Elsie, Monte Collins. Dir. White. Scr. Adler & Bruckman.

SO YOU WON’T SQUAWK – 1941 – With Matt McHugh, Eddie Fetherston. Commentary by Pat & Joe. Dir. Del Lord. Scr. Elwood Ullman.

THE SPOOK SPEAKS – 1940 – With Lyton Brent, Elsie, Dorothy, Don Beddoe. Commentary by Ed. Dir. White. Scr Bruckman & Ewart Adamson.

THE TAMING OF THE SNOOD – 1940 – With Dorothy, Elsie. Commentary by Pat & Ed. Dir. Jules. Scr. Ewart & Clyde.

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