More Keaton on Blu-ray: Steamboat Bill Jr. & College

Earlier this month, I told you about a two-disc Blu-ray set containing Buster Keaton’s best and worst independent features, The General and Three Ages. Now I’ll tell you about the other Keaton package that Kino Lorber will release February 21.

Once again, it’s a two-disc set containing one of Keaton’s best movies (Steamboat Bill, Jr.) and one of his worst (College). And as with the previous set, both films have been newly restored by Lobster Film’s Serge Bromberg.

Steamboat Bill, Jr.

Buster Keaton’s last independent movie examines and parodies the very nature of machismo. Steamboat Bill Sr. (Ernest Torrence) puts his masculinity above all other virtues. He tends to settle disagreements with his fists. He’s horrified to discover that his long-lost son is a short, skinny kid who wears a beret and plays the ukulele.

And yet, we can’t help rooting for Bill Senior. A far richer competitor, who already owns the whole town, is driving his river boat out of business. Besides, as much as Bill disapproves of his son, he clearly loves him.

Junior, of course, is played by Buster Keaton. He didn’t take director credit on this movie, but it sure looks like something he directed. By the end he will prove himself more courageous and resourceful – mentally and physically – than his father.

Along the way, we get to enjoy a lot of laughs. There’s a romance, of course – with the daughter of his father’s rival. Keaton was often at his funniest with big machines, and a steamboat provides major laughs. There’s a brilliant jailbreak scene and a spectacular hurricane. And Keaton does what is almost certainly the most dangerous stunt captured on film.

College

In between The General and Steamboat Bill, Jr., both expensive and ambitious films, Keaton made a safe, conventional, relatively inexpensive comedy. I consider College to be his second worst feature. Others consider it his worst. But it has its fans.

The story of an academically-minded freshman turning to sports to impress a girl doesn’t really jell. What’s worse, many of the gag sequences don’t come up to Keaton’s standard. There’s nothing funny about Buster, in a shrinking suit, giving a very bad high school graduation speech about the evils of athletics.

The movie contains Keaton’s single most racist sequence. He puts on blackface to get a job as a “colored waiter.” He even shuffles. The scene has some great gags, and an amazing stunt where he falls into a summersault and stands up again without spilling the dish he’s carrying. The sad part is that those gags didn’t need blackface to be funny.

College contains one great 12-minute sequence. Trying to become an athlete, Buster goes to the track in hopes of finding a sport in which he can excel. His disasters, near misses, and occasional semi-triumphs generate sidesplitting laughs. In one long traveling shot, he tries hurdles, and just barely knocks over each one.

The sequence does have one problem: Buster is supposed to be a non-athletic, skinny weakling, and with long sleeves and long pants, Buster Keaton could pass as one. But when he bares his arms and legs, the illusion is shattered; Keaton was in excellent physical shape.

How It Looks

Both movies are presented in 1080p, from Lobster Films’ 2K digital restorations. And they both look great.

I compared Steamboat Bill Jr. to the original Blu-ray, and found both very good. But the new transfer looks a little better overall and removes some scratches from the film source.

I can’t compare College with the earlier Blu-ray because I don’t have it. But this version, for the most part, looks very good. Unfortunately, that wonderful track sequence came from an inferior film source and looks awful. As Bromberg said it, “you cannot turn back a hamburger into a cow.”

How It Sounds

Each movie comes with two musical scores. All four scores are presented in uncompressed two-track PCM.

For Steamboat Bill Jr., Kino gives us an orchestral score by Timothy Brock and an organ score by Lee Erwin. They’re both very good, but I prefer Brock’s score.

You can listen to College with the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra or with an organ score by John Muri. Again, both work, but I’d vote for Mont Alto.

And the Extras

The Steamboat Bill Jr. disc comes with several new suppliments:

  • Commentary by Michael Schlesinger and Stan Taffel: In addition to discussing the movie, these two enthusiasts talk about the changes at that time in Hollywood and in Keaton’s career, and the likelihood that he was suffering from depression when he made the film.
  • Serge Brombert presents Steamboat Bill, Jr.: Four minutes. This brief talk, in French with English subtitles, is at its best when he discusses how the film survived and how it was restored.
  • Alka-Seltzer commercial: 1 minute. Buster Keaton doing a TV commercial. Appropriately, he’s the captain of a ship.

The older Blu-ay had a lot of interesting extras that I was sorry to find missing here. It even had an alternative version of the film; like most silents, multiple negatives were shot for foreign and domestic release. What I’ll really miss is the 13-minute documentary on the two versions and how they differ.

For a minor work, College has a surprising selection of supplements:

  • Commentary by Rob Farr: Some interesting stuff, but he spends too much time on trivia about every actor and athlete on screen. Near the end, he wastes too much time reading reviews.
  • Serge Bromberg Presents College: Four minutes. He talks, in French with English subtitles, about the movie’s limitations, calls it a classic anyway, and explains how he restored it. A framing problem in the only existing print has marred the film for decades, but now, thanks to digital technology, the problem is fixed.
  • Lillian Gish Introduces College: Four minutes. Her “apology” for the film’s racism is almost as offensive as Keaton’s blackface.
  • Tour of Filming Locations: 10 minutes. John Bengtson, the expert on silent film locations, tells us where various scenes were shot. Fascinating; especially if you lived in Los Angeles.
  • The Scribe: 30 minutes. This 1966 Canadian industrial safety movie was Keaton’s last film. It makes a very sad goodbye. The gags all fall flat, and it’s depressing to see Keaton barely able to do anything remotely funny.
  • Run, Girl, Run: 18 minutes. Another late silent college comedy, this one a Mack Sennett two-reeler from 1928. It shows us a very young Carole Lombard. Mildly amusing at times.

This package is worth it just for Steamboat Bill, Jr. and for one great scene in College. Enjoy it with friends.

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