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Friday, September 2, 2011

Buster Keaton – The Short Films Collection 1920-1923 Blu-ray Review

Authorized by the Buster Keaton estate and mastered in HD from 35mm archival film elements, The Short Films Collection gathers all of Keaton’s solo silent comedies in one monumental three-disc set.  Widely considered to be among Keaton’s finest work, the nineteen two-reel shorts are loaded with laughs, punctuated by breath-taking stunts, and bursting with raw creativity.  Over the course of this three-year period, Keaton evolved from a successful slapstick comedian into one of cinema’s most inventive visual stylists, and became an enduring icon of American popular culture.

Film (5 out of 5 stars)

The first time I saw Buster Keaton is was for a Film Appreciation class and the move was The General.  Keaton’s work in that film was phenomenal and it altered my interest in movies of that era.  I started watching other films from Keaton and his contemporaries like Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd and my film knowledge and appreciation benefited from it.  My biggest obstacle was always finding a copy of the films to start with but even if you did find it, the odds were high that the quality would be terrible.  Between companies like The Criterion Collection and Kino International, those days are becoming a thing of the past themselves.  Kino, has been putting out a lot of quality releases from the past and I was overjoyed when they allowed me the chance to review this and more!  The other reviews will be coming but in the meantime, let’s take a look at one of their flagship titles and possibly the one that I was the most excited about: Buster Keaton – The Short Films Collection 1920-1923.

DISC 1:
THE “HIGH SIGN”
1920/21 B&W 19 Min.

Directed by Buster Keaton

and Eddie Cline

Also presented in a digitally enhanced version.

Visual essay by R. Emmet Sweeney

After his apprenticeship under Roscoe (Fatty) Arbuckle ended, Keaton was allowed to start making his own shorts and this was the first one he did.  He wasn’t entirely happy with how it turned out and he shelved it until he was forced to release it when he couldn’t meet his contract schedule due to a broken ankle.  I have no idea why he wasn’t happy with it because it’s very funny and it contains the acrobatics and physical comedy that he would later be famous for.  This short not only shows off his considerable skills as a performer but also as a director too.  Keaton plays a drifter who is recruited to kill a man for not paying his debts on time.  Things get even more complicated when he is also hired to protect the very target he is supposed to kill.

ONE WEEK
1920 B&W 24 Min.

Directed by Buster Keaton and Eddie Cline

Visual essay by David B. Pearson

After watching a documentary about newlyweds building a a pre-fabricated home, Keaton hit upon a brilliant idea for a short.  In the short, him and his bride (played by Sybil Seely) are newlyweds who have received a “build-your-own house in a week”  and a parcel of land to build it on as a wedding gift.  When a rival suitor changes the order of the construction plans, things go very badly for Buster.  This short is considered one of his best, and it’s hard to argue with that since there’s a ton of hilarious sight gags, visual illusions and the start of Keaton’s use of large mechanical props to add outlandish humor and scale to his situation.

CONVICT 13
1920 B&W 19 Min.

Directed by Buster Keaton and Eddie Cline

While playing golf, Buster knocks himself out with his own golf ball and an escaped convict takes advantage of that to switch clothes with Buster.  When the police arrive they believe Buster is the escaped convict who is scheduled to be executed.  This is a plot device that is common in Keaton’s films where he is mistakenly identified and has to evade the law which was done even better and on a larger scale in “Cops.”


THE SCARECROW
1920 B&W 18 Min.

Directed by Buster Keaton and Eddie Cline

Visual essay by Ken Gordon

Between this and two other shorts, they could have easily been a trilogy as the story-lines all mesh and because all of the same actors are present. If you start with “The Scarecrow” where Buster tries to win the hand of a neighbor’s daughter despite competition from series regular Joe Roberts, and then move on to “One Week,” where he is building a house with his new wife, and lastly in “The Boat,” where Buster takes his family on an ill-advised boat trip.  I highly recommend watching them in that order which is a lot of fun.  “The Scarecrow” has a lot of cool visual treats that required quite a bit of coordination between Keaton and Roberts and of course they do it all flawlessly.

NEIGHBORS
1921 B&W 19 Min.

Directed by Buster Keaton and Eddie Cline

This is a sly update on Romeo and Juliet where two low income families live side by side and the children fall in love despite the girl’s father’s wishes.  Buster does all he can to be with her which includes sneaking across clotheslines, jumping fences, and avoiding the father at all costs.  This was another great short with some clever stunts including walking from one side to another with three men in a vertical line running back and forth as they balance on each others shoulders.

THE HAUNTED HOUSE
1921 Color Tinted 20 Min.

Directed by Buster Keaton and Eddie Cline

Visual essay by Jack Dragga

Buster is accused of robbing a bank and eventually hides out in what may be a haunted house.  This was one of the weakest shorts in the set as the plot is uninspired and disjointed with a couple of story-lines that didn’t really gel together.  There may be some missing footage that might have helped the transitions between the story-lines.

HARD LUCK
1921 B&W 21 Min.

Directed by Buster Keaton and Eddie Cline

Visual essay by Bruce Lawton

Long thought lost, this short which had been missing for over 60-years, was partially reconstructed in 1987 from several different elements.  Unfortunately, the final scene is missing which is unfortunate since Keaton had once said that the final scene had received the loudest laugh of all of his work.  There’s a lot of other missing footage other than the final scene, including the beginning which  explained why Buster was so despondent.  There’s some inventive stuff in this but it suffers from the lack of footage.

DISC 2:

Spanning the central phase of Keaton’s solo silent shorts, this collection observes the young actor/director as he began to refine his craft which led to his films becoming even more ambitious.  In some ways, these shorts were a warm up to features yet to come.  The massive police chase of “Cops” would evolve into the bridal stampede of “Seven Chances”, the Western-themed “The Paleface” is an obvious precedent to “Go West, “the camera trickery of “The Playhouse” foreshadows “Sherlock Jr.,” and “The Boat” might be viewed as a smaller-scale version of “The Navigator.”

THE GOAT
1921 B&W 23 Min.

Directed by Buster Keaton and Mal St. Clair

Visual essay by David Kalat

This is another mistaken identity short where Buster is mistaken for “Dead Shot Dan.”  Once again we see a lot of cops chasing him but there’s a lot of good imaginative gags in here, some of which were later stolen by others.

THE PLAY HOUSE
1921 B&W 23 Min.

Directed by Buster Keaton and Eddie Cline

Visual essay by Patricia Eliot Tobias

After breaking his ankle during the shooting of “The Electric House,” Keaton needed to do something that involved less acrobatics than his usual shorts.  This short worked out great since a lot of the time he was able to sit while he played multiple versions of himself playing instruments.  Of course, Keaton being Keaton, he couldn’t resist a dance number with himself that he did in perfect time despite a broken ankle.  This short is about forty years ahead of it’s time and shows how inventive he was and how skillful he and his crew were to pull off the multiple exposures used to create the multiple versions of himself.  You can also see his masterful impression of a monkey where “Ole Stoneface,” shows off just how much expression he was capable of.

THE BOAT
1921 B&W 23 Min.

Directed by Buster Keaton and Eddie Cline

Also presented in a digitally enhanced version.

As I mentioned earlier, this could be the end chapter of a trilogy of short that Keaton starred in along with Sybil Seely which also proved to be the last time they worked together as he felt she was too fragile for his kind of shorts.  In this one, Buster and his wife and two kids have built a boat and predictably everything goes wrong from the beginning!  The boat is too big to leave the garage, the boat isn’t that seaworthy, and a massive storm all combine to make this a miserable experience for Buster and his family and a lot of laughs for us.

THE PALEFACE
1922 B&W 20 Min.

Directed by Buster Keaton and Eddie Cline

Visual essay by Bret Wood

After being cheated out of their land by some greedy oil barons, a tribe of Indians resolve to kill the first white man who walks through their gate which is of course Buster who is chasing butterflies.  Buster is soon on the run from the bloodthirsty Indians who want to burn him at the stake.  There’s a plot reversal which is very funny where Buster becomes Little Big Chief and takes the fight to the white man!

COPS
1922 B&W 18 Min.

Directed by Buster Keaton and Eddie Cline

Also presented in a

digitally enhanced version.

Visual essay by Ben Model

When Buster accidentally throws a bomb at some policemen, he is on the run from the entire police force! There’s something to be said about seeing Buster run from hundreds of cops and the inventive ways he tries to escape them.  This is a visually fantastic short that is one of his classics!

MY WIFE’S RELATIONS
1922 B&W 17 Min.

Directed by Buster Keaton and Eddie Cline

Visual essay by Steve Massa

When Buster is falsely accused of breaking a window, he is dragged to a courtroom where he thinks he is being charged with the crime, but due to a language barrier between  the judge and them, he is actually being married to the woman.  It true Buster-like fashion, instead of fighting the marriage, he accepts his fate and goes home with her to see her unfriendly family who want nothing to do with him until they believe he is the heir to a fortune.

DISC 3:
In the last of Keaton’s solo silent shorts, the actor/writer/director seemed to be straining at the limits of the two-reel comedy, both in terms of length (“Day Dreams”, which exists in fragmentary condition, was originally released as a three-reeler) as well as content.   By this point, with competition from other visual comedians like Chaplin and Lloyd, Keaton devoted more attention to the visual set-pieces that had become his hallmark such as being stuck within a steamboat’s paddle-wheel in “Day Dreams”, or being abused by his own mechanical inventions in “The Electric House,” or being caught in an amusement park house of horrors in “The Balloonatic.”  After making nineteen shorts (of a contractually-obligated twenty), Keaton and his partners agreed their money and time could be better used by feature films which would recoup their investment dollars far better than the shorts could.  For Keaton, he was ready for greater challenges that the extra time and money that the features would offer him.  His career as a feature filmmaker was ready to begin.

THE BLACKSMITH
1922 B&W 21 Min.

Directed by Buster Keaton and Mal St. Clair

Visual essay by Bruce Lawton

When Buster and his boss get in a fight which results in the boss being taken to jail, Buster the apprentice is left alone to take care of all of the work left and any clients that may come.  I didn’t like this short as much as I did the others since Buster comes off as a moron who absent-mindedly destroys the client’s cars and the shop which was too much to believe.  His usual humor is based on accidental situations, but this time his actions were just plain stupid and not accidental in the least, which really killed the humor of it for me.

THE FROZEN NORTH
1922 B&W 17 Min.

Directed by Buster Keaton and Eddie Cline

Visual essay by Patricia Eliot Tobias

This is my least favorite short in this set, much for the same reasons why I disliked a lot of “The Blacksmith.”  In “The Frozen North,” Keaton plays a cold-blooded killer who kills several people in this short.  Not only is was this a sudden departure for him as an actor, but it’s made even worse when he pushes the black humor of the piece too far which I believe made this dark comedy cross the line that he had previously been careful not to cross in the past.  When I listened to the visual essay, Ms. Tobias suggested that the darkness of the short was due to Keaton’s anger over his friend “Fatty” Arbuckle’s multiple trials for a crime he didn’t commit.  Whatever the reason he had, this short is my least favorite short Keaton ever did.

DAY DREAMS
1922 B&W 21 Min.

Directed by Buster Keaton and Eddie Cline

Visual essay by David B. Pearson

Another short that was almost lost to history but was saved by some dedicated fans and benefactors.  Even now, the short is missing quite a bit of footage including the day-dreams alluded to in the title.  In this short, Buster wants to win the hand of a young girl but her father is against it.  Buster states that he will become successful and if he fails he will return to shoot himself.  We see Buster attempt several careers with disastrous results while his girlfriend daydreams of him being successful in each one of them.  There’s some great gags in this one especially the scene of of him trying to keep up with a paddle-wheel while he’s trapped inside in it.

THE ELECTRIC HOUSE
1922 Color Tinted 23 Min.

Directed by Buster Keaton and Eddie Cline

When a millionaire (Joe Roberts) visits some graduating students, he asks for someone to build him an electric house with all of the amenities that modern technology can offer.  After a squabble with friends, Buster ends up with an Electrical Engineering diploma by mistake and gets hired to do the work.  After reading a how-to book, Buster adds a lot of cool technology to the millionaire’s house which excites the man so much that he gathers a group of investors to his house to see the inventions.  When Buster’s rival from school sneaks into the house and begins to sabotage Buster’s inventions, the result is a funny reel of Buster being abused by his own gadgets.  The short really shows off Keaton’s interest and aptitude to creating and filming mechanical devices to play a big part of his comedy routines.

THE BALLOONATIC
1923 B&W 22 Min.

Directed by Buster Keaton and Eddie Cline

Also presented in a digitally enhanced version.

Buster goes to an amusement park and meets a group preparing for a hot air balloon launch.  Of course, the balloon accidentally launches with Buster inside it.

THE LOVE NEST
1923 Color Tinted 20 Min.

Directed by Buster Keaton

Visual essay by David Kalat

After being dumped, Buster leaves on his small boat only to run into a larger whaling vessel that is run by a tyrant who kills any crew member that fails him.  This was a very funny short with a lot of dark humor as Buster is continually throwing out wreathes for the crew and even one for himself later!  I thought this one was really funny and well done!

Video (4 1/2 out of 5 stars)

All of these have been remastered in high definition but it’s very difficult to rate them as a whole since the video quality varies so much between all of the shorts.  There’s a lot of print damage such as scratches, discolorations, specks, and more but that’s to be expected for shorts from the 1920s.  It’s actually amazing that these have survived at all since 85% of all silent movies have already been lost.  Thanks to the efforts of a few, these have been saved and restored to the best possible quality available.  Some shorts look amazing for their age while others don’t.  For a couple of the shorts, two versions have been included: the standard version and a digitally enhanced version.  

For the enhanced versions, Kino International states: “Generally, Kino International does not apply digital noise-reduction processes to films that show wear, as it subtly undermines the integrity of the image.   For the sake of comparison—and for those who prefer a more “polished” look—we are pleased to present this film in an alternate, digitally- enhanced version.”  I know a lot of purists won’t want anything to do with the enhanced version for fear that it’s been overly scrubbed by DNR but that’s not the case and I actually preferred the enhanced versions.  They looked cleaner, smoother, and a lot better than the original standard version.  I think it all depends on the person.  Kino International has done an amazing job with this restoration and I think the clarity of the shorts as a whole will speak for themselves.  For myself, I am ecstatic about this set and I’ve never seen these shorts look better than they do here.

Audio (4 1/2 out of 5 stars)

The new scores that have been created for the shorts by Robert Israel and Ben Model sound fantastic and it seems like they’ve always been a part of the shorts and not commissioned decades later.  The music works well with the shorts and doesn’t overpower it or feel false.  While the music sounds new and clear, it was made to sound like it would’ve back in the 20s with virtual organs and more.  While I would have loved to hear the original music that accompanied the shorts, this is next best thing.  You can also hear Ben Model talk about his approach to scoring the shorts during the “Cops” visual essay.  This uncompressed LPCM 2.0 stereo track is very good and it beautifully blends with the visuals.

Special Features (5 out of 5 stars)

This set has a ton of interesting extras that I loved going through.  The visual essays are essentially short commentary tracks and they offer a lot of good background info on the filming process, the cast, the mechanical devices, and the intentions and motivations of Buster Keaton.   There’s also some alternate takes and deleted scenes which are mostly interesting to see why Keaton picked one shot over another.  There’s also a collection of clips that show other comedians “borrowing” Keaton’s ideas into their own shorts that shows you how influential he was within his profession.  One of my favorite extras was a look at the filming locations then and how they look now which has always fascinated me.  Most of the locations have changed completely, but it’s very cool to know that a few survive and that I can go see them still.  I also liked the humorous short where Carter DeHaven supposedly transforms himself into a ton of different stars.  There’s also an advertisement with a bunch of stars which is notable just to see them all together in one place.  The eight page booklet was also a nice addition.
  • Newly mastered in HD from archival elements
  • Digitally enhanced version of The “High Sign,”” The Boat,” “Cops,” and “The Balloonatic.”
  • Fifteen visual essays, illustrated with clips and stills, written by various Keaton experts Jack Dragga, Ken Gordon, David Kalat, Bruce Lawton, Steve Massa, Ben Model, David B. Pearson, R. Emmet Sweeney, and Patricia Eliot Tabias.
  • Brief alternate/deleted shots from The Balloonatic, The Blacksmith, Cops, Day Dreams, and The Goat.
  • “The Men Who Would Be Buster,” a collection of clips from slapstick films influenced by Keaton’s work: Only Me (1929, with Lupino Lane), Be Reasonable (1921, excerpt, with Billy Bevan), Hello Baby! (1925, excerpt, with Charley Chase), White Wings (1923, excerpt, with Stan Laurel).
  • Four visual essays on the films’ locations by Silent Echoes author John Bengtson.
  • “Character Studies” (ca. 1922), a gag film starring Carter DeHaven, with cameos by Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, and others.
  • “Seeing Stars” (excerpts), a 1922 promotional film for First National, featuring cameos by Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, and others.
  • Eight Page Booklet with an essay by Jeffrey Vance, author of “Buster Keaton Remembered.”

Final Thoughts (4 1/2 out of 5 stars)

I’ve always been a huge fan of Buster Keaton’s films but I hadn’t seen most of his short films until this incredible set.  I have to say that Kino International has done a stupendous job not only restoring these shorts but also stuffing it with a ton of really good extras.  I highly recommend everyone to purchase this!

Order yours today!

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