Blu-ray Review: Buster Keaton, The Short Films Collection

Full disclosure: I’m reviewing a Blu-ray set that I don’t even have. Kino accidentally sent me the DVD set rather than the Blu-ray. In fairness, this may be my fault. When I emailed a request for a review copy, I neglected to specify what format.

Luckily, the content of the two sets are identical, so I think I can pull this off. I just won’t write about the transfers.

In the early 1920’s, Buster Keaton made 19 two-reel short comedies. These were his first films as a director (co-director, actually), and the first in which he had creative control. You can consider these a prelude to the great features to come (The General, Steamboat Bill, Jr., and so on). You can also approach them as 19 very funny short comedies, each running about 20 minutes.

The movies in this three-disc set are presented in the order they were made, which, with one exception (“The High Sign”), was the order they were released.

Quality invariably varies with shorts, but none of the ones I’ve seen (I admit that I have not yet finished the entire set; I’m savoring them) are absolute stinkers. Some of these films—“One Week,” “The Goat,” “Cops”–are unquestionably masterpieces. Others (such as “Neighbors” and “Convict 13”) have slow spots but reward you with occasional big laughs.

As I go through the collection, I’m surprised how many I haven’t seen in decades. Or not at all. I vaguely recall having seen “The Haunted House” in a theater, probably in the late 1970s. Returning to it now, it became one of my favorites (although the gag where he plays traffic cop in a hallway crowded with ghosts wasn’t as funny as I remembered it to be). The first half, set in a bank, has the funniest mess-with-a-glue-pot routine I’ve ever seen. Somehow, getting glue all over everything is funnier that everything includes large wads of paper money. The haunted house of the title has a staircase that turns instantly into a slide at the worst possible times. Keaton falls down it many times, but never the same way twice.

Some, like “The Paleface,” I had never seen before.

How It Looks

Yes, I promised that I wouldn’t discuss the transfer, but I can still discuss the quality of the film prints from which those transfers were made. And for films this old, that’s a very important part of the equation. You can make a lousy transfer from a great print, but you can’t even made a mediocre transfer from a lousy one.

The print quality varies considerably more than the quality of Keaton’s work. At their best, the prints are acceptable, although nowhere near as good as what’s available for the later features. At their worst, they’re almost unwatchable. This is especially the case with “Hard Luck,” which was thought lost when Keaton died. The gray scale on this print is so bad that it looks more like a bad xerox copy of a bad xerox copy than a piece of celluloid. It’s also missing pieces of film, including the ending.

Kino includes two versions of some shorts—standard and digitally enhanced.

How It Sounds

Neither the box, the included booklet, nor the press release mention anything about musical accompaniment. Each film has accompaniment, of course, but you have to wait until the end to see who did it.

The scores I’ve listened to have been serviceable, but not exceptional.

And the Extras

The three-disc set comes with 15 four-to-eight-minute video essays—almost one for every film. I’ve yet to find one that wasn’t very much worth listening to. Each essay consists of a narrator talking over film clips about a specific film. Some use that particular movie as a jumping off point for another issue, such as a leading lady or intertitle restoration. Each essay was written by a noted scholar, but some are read by someone other than the author.

Other features include outtakes, excerpts from comedies influenced by Keaton, and two shorts with Keaton cameos.

I can assure you that if you love Keaton, the DVD set is worth considering. I suspect the Blu-ray set is even better.