Buster Keaton at the Criterion Channel

If you haven’t experienced Buster Keaton, this is the time to discover the greatest physical comedian since the invention of cinema. He could take a fall like nobody else, But he was more than that. He was a complete auteur, with a sense of what made a good story, and the feel of where to put the camera.

From 1920 through 1923, he created 19 hysterical shorts. He followed those with ten features. Not all of them were masterpieces, but even the bad features had excellent scenes.

On March 1, The Criterion Channel opened a new collection called Starring Buster Keaton, containing five of his features and almost all of his shorts. If you enjoy laughing, along with exceptional physical prowess, go to the Criterion Channel and get hours of joy.

But it could have been better. Out of the ten features Keaton made, only five are available on Criterion…and they’re not necessarily the best films. Yes, the selection contains such gems as The General, Our Hospitality, and Steamboat Bill, Jr.three of his best. But it also includes two of his two worst.

Here are my opinions of the five features – from best to worst.

A+ The General (1926)

Buster Keaton’s Civil War epic just might be the most beautiful and spectacular comedy ever filmed – a perfect blending of comedy and epic adventure (even though the good guys are the Confederates). Loosely based on an actual Civil War event, Keaton mixed slapstick comedy with battlefield death. Keaton hired thousands of extras and filmed what may be the single most expensive shot of the whole silent era – then used that shot as the setup for a gag in close-up. Read my full article.

A Our Hospitality (1923)

Three years before he made The General, Buster Keaton mined the antebellum South for comic gold in this almost gentle comedy about a Hatfield/McCoy–type feud. The New York-raised Buster goes down south to inherit his estate, but when he arrives at his destination, he finds himself a guest in the home of men sworn to kill him. Luckily, the code of southern hospitality forbids killing a guest…at least in your own house. Read my Blu-ray review.

A Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)

One of Buster Keaton’s best, both as a performer and an auteur (even if he didn’t get the director credit). Keaton plays the urbane and somewhat effete son of the very macho Steamboat Bill (Ernest Torrence). That brings us a shipload of laughs and amazing stunts, seamlessly integrated into a very good story. I should warn you that there’s one racist joke you’ll have to discuss with your children.

C- Three Ages (1923)

Keaton’s first feature tells the same basic love story three times: in caveman days, ancient Rome, and what was then modern times (the early 1920s). It cuts between the stories in a very formal way which undercuts the pacing. At least the gags are different in each age. Very clumsy.

D- College (1927)

In between The General and Steamboat Bill, Jr., both expensive and ambitious films, Keaton made a safe, conventional, relatively inexpensive comedy. It’s the story of an academically-minded freshman turning to sports to impress a girl. What’s worse, many of the gag sequences don’t come up to Keaton’s standard. The plot is based on Buster being a weakling, but his bare, muscled limbs belie this premise. Finally, College contains Keaton’s single most racist sequence. He puts on blackface to get a job as a “colored waiter.” He even shuffles.

Aside from these five features, Criterion is streaming 18 of the 19 shorts that Keaton made. I don’t know why The Paleface is not in the selection. They’re all good, but here are my favorites:

While Keaton was shooting Steamboat Bill, Jr., his producer (an in-law by two marriages) took away Buster’s control of his work. He kept people laughing for four decades, but he rarely had control of his work again.

By the way, The Buster Keaton Follies screens Tuesday at the Roxie, 7:00pm. I haven’t seen this selection of Keaton’s later works. I haven’t seen it, but I plan to fix that soon.

One thought on “Buster Keaton at the Criterion Channel

  1. What a far left woke jack-ass. You give a classic, very funny Keaton film a D minus because of a blackface scene? Oh Boo Hoo. You sir, are without a doubt a jackass.
    Too all reading-Watch “College” and you will have many many laughs (along with the shuffle). I wish the made comedies today with the excellence of “College”.

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