BluRay/DVD Reviews

BUSTER KEATON:
THE SHORT FILMS COLLECTION, 1920-1923
(Kino)

By • Aug 16th, 2013 •

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Although Buster Keaton had a film career that went all the way into the mid-1960s, his silent filmography is what most people associate him with. His silent short films, made from 1917 to 1923, are among the most influential pieces of film comedy ever made. This set from Kino contains all nineteen of Keaton’s solo short films from the silent era.

Keaton’s film career began as an assistant to Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle in 1917. In 1920, Arbuckle’s producer, Joseph M. Schenck, gave Buster Keaton his own production unit. Like Charlie Chaplin, Keaton had an incredible degree of creative freedom, and with the release of ONE WEEK as his first solo two-reel short, he became extremely popular with audiences.

Unlike Chaplin, much of Keaton’s humor comes from a more sardonic and cynical place. His demeanor is much more deadpan than his other contemporaries, and although his characters are relatable, they’re not shy about having to swindle their way to a happy ending. Keaton’s dark sense of humor becomes most evident in THE FROZEN NORTH, which opens with two rather startling set pieces. Keaton attempts to rob a saloon full of customers, then, in a parody of silent western melodramas, murders a woman and her lover who are in his cabin.

Further pushing Keaton into the company of Lloyd and Chaplin was his incredible stuntwork and inventive visual effects. Even at just two reels, the shorts manage to pack in a lot of spectacle. COPS has a legendary finale wherein an ever-increasing number of police officers chase Keaton through city streets. By the end, dozens of police officers are streaming into the streets chasing after our hero. THE PLAYHOUSE opens with Keaton playing every actor and attendee at a variety show, achieved via multiple camera exposures, with sometimes as many as nine Busters on screen at once.

Watching through the films again, it’s rather staggering how much influence they’ve had. ONE WEEK in particular contains scenes that have been copied and homaged countless times since its debut over ninety years ago. Even ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT has duplicated the famous scene of the house frame falling on Keaton. The black sheep of the set, THE HIGH SIGN (Keaton’s first completed short, which was actually the seventh one released), still has a plethora of inspired surrealism and crazy set design, even if it does suffer from pacing problems and gets just a tad too cartoonish at points.

The conditions of the films themselves vary greatly from short to short. Some look impressively pristine, while others exhibit heavy damage and are clearly culled from compromised elements. Unlike Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton didn’t keep an archive of his works. For decades, Keaton’s silent work existed in extremely debilitated states, and many of them were unaccounted for. It wasn’t until the late 1960s that film historian Kevin Brownlow launched an international effort to find all of Keaton’s silent shorts and features.

Several of the short films are missing footage (most notably DAYDREAMS, more on that later), and an entire short, HARD LUCK, was thought to be missing until 1987. That particular short isn’t known to exist anywhere with its ending intact (which reportedly got Keaton the biggest laugh of his career). Likewise, THE ELECTRIC HOUSE is missing part of its opening. The worst damage on the set occurs in THE BLACKSMITH, where water damage obscures almost the entire frame during a key plot point. Although the incomplete nature and radical shifts in picture quality on some of the shorts can get distracting, there’s really no way around it.

The single most problematic short of the set is DAYDREAMS, which was co-written and co-directed by Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle shortly after his infamous arrest. DAYDREAMS was apparently a three-reeler in its original release, which was then cut to two reels at an unknown later date. The three-reel version is presumed to be lost, and it’s abundantly clear when watching the short in its surviving two-reel form that a great deal of the story is simply gone. There’s little sense of continuity, plot points abruptly appear and disappear, and it really isn’t terribly coherent. In spite of its story hiccups, it contains some eye-popping stuntwork, including a finale on San Francisco’s cable cars, which plays like a sequel to the short COPS.

A handful of the more damaged shorts are given optional ‘digitally enhanced’ versions. What this means is that a heavy amount of digital noise reduction has been added to reduce damage to the picture. Of course, this also means the grain structure of the film is gone and the ‘enhanced’ shorts give off a waxy appearance. Thankfully, this is an optional feature.

The greater picture quality Blu-Ray offers shows off impressive detail at times, and even the most visually compromised shorts look much better here than they did on DVD or laserdisc. Apart from the optional ‘digitally enhanced’ versions I mentioned in the paragraph above, there’s no evidence of noise reduction or tampering. It’s as close to seeing the shorts in a theater as you could get.

Kino has put together an outstanding supplemental package, which gives a great deal of historical context to the shorts. Fifteen of the shorts have visual essays, which provide behind-the-scenes anecdotes and trivia. The best feature is a guide to the locations Buster Keaton used in California. Over the course of the feature, you’re shown side-by-side photographs and videos of how the locations appeared in the films, and how they look today.

If you’re a fan of Buster Keaton, this set is a no-brainer. Even with the unavoidable inconsistencies in picture quality, Kino’s set is the definitive presentation of these shorts on home video.

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