How can anyone describe the beauty, grace, and breathtaking hilarity of Buster Keaton in his silent film prime? An actor, an acrobat, and a brilliant filmmaker, he spent the 1920s making some of the funniest and technically sophisticated comedies ever preserved on film.
Since I can’t describe him, here’s a highlight reel of some of his best gags. But remember, they’re funnier in context—and with better music and clearer image quality.
On Tuesday, Kino released the new Buster Keaton Shorts Collection Blu-ray set, put together by Lobster Films’ Serge Bromberg–one of the world’s heroes in silent film restoration and preservation. It contains new restorations and 13 shorts that have never before been available on Blu-ray.
I reviewed a previous Buster Keaton Shorts collection back in 2011.
The 13 newly-added shorts are not, strictly speaking, Buster Keaton movies. Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle directed and starred in these two-reel comedies. Keaton was just part of the team. While not in Keaton’s league, Arbuckle was an astonishingly agile performer for a man of his girth. He took graceful pratfalls, jumped over fences with ease, and could juggle like a demon. Put him behind a kitchen counter with cups and knives, and he’s brilliant.
But he’s not reliably brilliant. His early shorts, such as His Wedding Night, get dull. And Keaton rarely takes the center of the screen. But he got better as he made these shorts–or perhaps he just learned to depend on Keaton. As the shorts progress, they get funnier, and Keaton becomes more prevalent.
One strange thing about the Arbuckle-Keaton films: Keaton smiles in them. That always strikes me as wrong.
The 19 shorts that Keaton made as auteur and star don’t show that sort of slow growth. By his second short, One Week (actually the first released), he’s brilliant—way above Arbuckle at his best. Even the lesser works, such as The High Sign, The Scarecrow, and The Paleface, provide amazing stunts, imaginative filmmaking, and plenty of laughs. The greats, which include Cops, The Boat, and my personal favorite, The Goat, can reasonably be called masterpieces.
One warning: Like a lot of silent comedies, these movies occasionally use racist gags that are shocking by today’s standards. Consider them troubling artifacts of their time.
This set contains five discs—two of Arbuckle films and three of Keaton’s. The five discs fit into one slim package.
Reconstructions & Rediscoveries
Lobster Films spent considerable time and money reconstructing these films. Many a problematic jump cut has been filled in with found footage.
Disc Five contains French and American versions of Keaton’s The Blacksmith. The American version starts with a parody of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s The Village Blacksmith—gags that would be lost on non-English speakers. The French version has a risqué silhouette scene.
My Wife’s Relations, also a Keaton short, has an alternative ending, shown on a split screen side-by-side with the one shown for decades. I prefer the newly-discovered one.
And then there’s the original ending of Coney Island, separated from the rest of the movie because of an extremely racist gag. A new title card tells us that “The original ending of Coney Island was removed from the film by the 1920s, probably because it was considered racially offensive,” and goes on to say that “it should not be included in contemporary presentations of the film.”
That’s an odd statement. Very few people with influence objected to racist humor in those days. And there are many equally racist gags throughout the collection and elsewhere. In fact, the same gag turns up in Keaton’s Seven Chances.
How It Looks
Before opening the box, I imagined digitally-repaired, pristine images. I was disappointed. Most of these films are damaged beyond help…or beyond Lobster’s budget.
I compared a few scenes in this new release to their counterparts in the previous Keaton Shorts collection. I saw only a few significant improvements. My Wife’s Relations looks particularly good, with at least one big scratch in the old version that wasn’t in the new one.
How It Sounds
For this collection, Kino and Lobster used the talents of some of today’s major silent film accompaniment stars. These include Robert Israel, Donald Sosin, Stephen Horne, Timothy Brock, and the Monte Alto Motion Picture Orchestra.
The music is presented in two-track stereo uncompressed PCM. So far (I haven’t watched all of the Keaton’s yet), I haven’t heard anything I didn’t like.
The musical credits come at the end of each film. Some movies have an alternative piano score. This pianist isn’t credited.
And the Extras
In addition to the five discs, the package contains a 28-page booklet. Here you’ll find essays on the Arbuckle-Keaton collaboration and on Keaton’s solo work. Also included: a description and credits of each movie, and an article by Serge Bromberg’s article on the various versions of The Blacksmith.
About the Restoration: 7 minutes. Serge Bromberg talks very fast in French, making it difficult to follow the subtitles while looking at what he’s describing. By the second or third time you watch it, you’ll be able to learn something.
Life with Buster Keaton: 3 minutes. This short film of Keaton’s Cleopatra dance routine (also performed in the Arbuckle film, The Cook) was made in 1951 for international markets. Yes, it’s very funny.
What’s missing? The previous release contained 15 video essays—almost one for every short in the package. Most of them were entertaining and informative. But they’re not included in this version–a real shame.