Buster Keaton Blu-rays (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by James L. Neibaur
The Three Ages
Directed by Buster Keaton and Edward F. Cline; written by Jean Havez, Joe Mitchell, and Clyde Bruckman; produced by Buster Keaton and Joseph M. Schenck; cinematography by Elgin Lessley and William C. McGann; starring Buster Keaton, Margaret Leahy, and Wallace Beery. Blu-ray, B&W, silent, 63 min., 1923. A Kino International Release.
Directed by Buster Keaton and Jack Blystone; written by Jean Havez, Joe Mitchell, and Clyde Bruckman; produced by Joseph M. Schenck; cinematography by Gordon Jennings and Elgin Lessley; starring Buster Keaton and Natalie Talmadge. Blu-ray, tinted B&W, silent, 75 min., 1923. A Kino International Release.
Directed by Buster Keaton; written by Jean Havez, Joe Mitchell, and Clyde Bruckman; produced by Buster Keaton and Joseph M. Schenck; cinematography by Byron Houck and Elgin Lessley; starring Buster Keaton, Kathryn McGuire, Joe Keaton, Erwin Connelly, and Ward Crane. Blu-ray, B&W, silent, 45 min., 1924. A Kino International Release.
Written and directed by Buster Keaton and Clyde Bruckman; photography by J. Devereaux Jennings and Bert Haines; Adapted by Al Boasberg and Charles Smith, from William Pittenger's "The Great Locomotive Chase"; with Buster Keaton and Marion Mack. Blu-ray, tinted B&W, silent, 78 min., 1926. A Kino International Release.
Steamboat Bill, Jr.
Directed by Charles Reisner and Buster Keaton; based on a story by Carl Harbaugh; produced by Joseph M. Schenck; cinematography by Bert Haines and Devereaux Jennings; starring Buster Keaton, Tom McGuire, and Ernest Torrence. Blu-ray, B&W, silent, 70 min., 1928. A Kino International Release.
KINO on Video's release of several top Buster Keaton silent features in the Blu-ray format is a project that is likely to attract any serious film enthusiast. In an era when Blu-ray discs appear to be gradually replacing standard DVDs in the same manner that DVD effectively overtook VHS a few years ago, the niche market of classic cinema remains poorly represented in the new format, especially by the major distribution companies. Certainly mainstream favorites such as Gone with the Wind (1939, Victor Fleming) and The Wizard of Oz (1939, Fleming) have seen Blu-ray editions, as well as a tiny smattering of such diverse older films as The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951, Robert Wise), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938, Michael Curtiz), and Jailhouse Rock (1957, Richard Thorpe). Blu-ray is essentially considered most useful, however, for the more contemporary effects-driven blockbuster features coming out of Hollywood. High Definition would seem more relevant to The Dark Knight (2008, Christopher Nolan) or Transformers (2007, Michael Bay), for example, than something produced on a lesser budget or during a more primitive era of filmmaking.
KINO on Video, a company long noted for having many foreign and early silent films in their catalog, appears to be using the Buster Keaton films to tentatively investigate Blu-ray production. KINO is already applauded by comedy film buffs for a magnificent DVD box set that celebrates The Art of Buster Keaton by offering nearly all of the brilliant silent shorts and features he made during his heyday of the 1920s. Thus, the company's choice to delve into Blu-ray by releasing several of Keaton's restored silent features in this high-definition format is especially exciting.
While these Buster Keaton features are nearly ninety years old, they have at least a tangential similarity to current blockbusters. The Keaton silents from this especially significant period in his career are frequently as effects-driven in their own right as anything being made by modern-day Hollywood. They also were big budget productions, with Keaton notably spending astronomical sums to complete a gag effectively. KINO’s Blu-ray releases of the Keaton productions The Three Ages (1923, Buster Keaton and Eddie Cline), Our Hospitality (1923, Buster Keaton and Jack Blystone), Sherlock Jr. (1924, Buster Keaton), The General (1926, Buster Keaton and Clyde Bruckman), and Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928, Buster Keaton and Charles Reisner), allow us to more clearly savor the comedian/filmmaker’s mastery of cinema’s techniques.
Buster Keaton is one of the most important filmmakers in American cinema history. From the moment he first stepped onto a movie set, his fertile mind was exploding with innovative ways to use the new medium for the presentation of visual humor. While his final silent efforts and subsequent talking pictures do not deserve the negative reputation they have garnered over time, the silent films he made while his creativity was allowed greater freedom represent his best work. Everything Keaton appeared in from his debut in 1917 until he left independent production in 1928 demands to be seen. The films spotlighted by KINO's Blu-ray releases are some of the most significant highlights of Buster Keaton's career.
Except for an early acting role in the feature The Saphead (1920, Herbert Blaché, Winchell Smith), Keaton had been concentrating solely on short films before he made The Three Ages. As fascinated with the technological aspects of the cinematic process as he was with creating comedy, Keaton had been investigating cinema’s possibilities since he began an apprenticeship under the tutelage of Roscoe (Fatty) Arbuckle upon first entering films. Short comedies like Moonshine (1918, Roscoe Arbuckle), Backstage (1918, Arbuckle), andThe Garage (1919, Arbuckle), benefited as much from Keaton’s vision, as they did from the benevolent Arbuckle who, as director and star, indulged his costar’s penchant for creative improvisation.
Arbuckle made slapstick comedy for the masses, and although his films are brimming with wonderful comic ideas, his interest did not extend very far into the technical aspects of production. Keaton, however, was inspired by the fact that D.W. Griffith had already established cinema’s syntax with such landmark films as Birth of a Nation (1915) andIntolerance (1916). Intrigued by the way ideas could be conveyed through the cinematic process, Keaton enjoyed free reign on the Arbuckle set, bolstering their joint efforts. Arbuckle frequently allowed Keaton a turn behind the camera while the comical Fatty was performing in front of it, allowing his apprentice to experiment with the rudiments of filmmaking. According to Arbuckle, Keaton "lived inside the camera." Indeed, Keaton would later recall that he was allowed by Arbuckle to take a camera home and completely dismantle it so that he could fully understand its intricate mechanics.
When Arbuckle left his comedy unit to make more prestigious features for Paramount Pictures, Keaton took over, producing a series of his own two-reel short comedies. Films like One Week (1920), Cops (1922), and The Playhouse (1923), are filled with gags that are varied and intricate, as well as a continuously budding technical mastery. While the Arbuckle shorts allowed Keaton a great deal of creative freedom, they were still Arbuckle's films. Arbuckle was an early auteur who enjoyed full supervisory control over his work, so it is he who had final say. Unselfishly allowing Keaton to make a welcome contribution was one thing, but Buster's individual talent made him one who needed to explore his own supervisory powers.
Once the Arbuckle unit was turned over to Keaton, he was allowed the absolute control of his own work he so desperately needed. Taking what he’d learned through hands-on experience from Arbuckle, as well as the inspiration he'd garnered from Griffith, Keaton set out to delve more deeply into mechanical gags, movement within the frame via acrobatic stunts, and the way in which objects, especially large ones, can present comparison/contrast imagery. He uses this technique in One Week (1920), Keaton's first solo film upon taking over the Arbuckle unit. In this film, a house he has built according to sabotaged instructions looks like a giant, deformed face that looms angrily over Buster's diminutive presence in the foreground. This juxtaposition of images would be an element Keaton would spotlight in most of his subsequent films, from casting mammoth Joe Roberts as a frequent adversary, to a series of medium and long shots of an entire police force chasing his rapidly moving figure through the city streets in Cops (1922). The enormity of the large house is also something of a portent to the large locomotive that Buster must control in his masterpiece, The General, while the house's response to a rainstorm is a harbinger of the cyclone in Steamboat Bill, Jr.
After three years of engaging in a variety of different ideas, enjoying the freedom to create and the budgets necessary to put his ideas on film, graduating to feature film production seemed to be a natural progression for Keaton. By the time he made The Three Ages, however, his past work in short films initially appeared to be as much hindrance as help. It is understandable that Keaton would especially look to D.W. Griffith for inspiration when making his first independently produced feature-length picture. The Three Ages is very loosely connected to Griffith's structure for Intolerance in that it portrays the same story in three separate settings—the Stone Age, the Roman Empire, and modern times. The plot for each episode features Buster trying to win his girl from a stronger rival. Keaton presents the same conflicts, and the same actors, in each setting. While there is some interest in how he augments the situation for each era presented, The Three Ages still comes off as three two-reel comedies strung together, rather than three episodes with a consistent structure and discernible linear connection. This is not to say that The Three Ages is without interest. It is significant as the first feature-length picture over which Keaton had complete artistic control, and the comedy contained within its loosely episodic structure is quite good.
It was with his second feature, Our Hospitality, where Keaton realized that, unlike two-reel comedies, a longer film needs a stronger narrative component. Our Hospitality is a Civil War drama with comedy highlights, allowing Keaton to accent the film’s dramatic structure with subtler comic cleverness. Using a longstanding hillbilly feud as the narrative conflict, Keaton relaxes into an idyllic pacing and offers layered characters. He is an out-of-place city boy who travels into the hills to claim property owned by his late father, despite his relatives' continued feud with a rival family. The comedy is inherent and natural. A concentration on the subtler visuals is evident by Buster wearing a large top hat to accentuate his small frame, and making his first appearance in the film gliding along on a bulky hobby horse (an awkward bicycle without pedals). This initial image shows Keaton again using a larger object to accent his character's appearance, this time as a dainty city boy whose return to the rustic country area of his birth would cause expected conflict.
Keaton’s stunt work is often breathtaking, and in Our Hospitality he, quite literally, risked his life for the film's most spectacular stunt. He rescues his girl’s boat from going over a waterfall by swinging out to it on a rope tied to a tree, Tarzan-style. Without having access to such modern technical conveniences as blue screens or CGI effects, this particular sequence has been called perhaps the most incredible stunt of the comedian’s career.
Keaton shifts gears with Sherlock Jr., a film that probes cinema’s myriad of technical possibilities by allowing Buster, a movie theater projectionist who longs to be a detective, to leave his real life and enter a motion picture fantasy world by simply stepping into the screen. Within this alternative existence, he attempts to solve the crime contained in the film’s story.
Once entering the film within a film, Buster is suddenly at the mercy of cinema's technology, losing all control of time, space, and setting. Finding himself locked out of the house that contained the crime he's investigating, Buster steps away from the front porch, and the entire setting abruptly changes. Suddenly Buster finds himself on a bench in a garden. Upon resting on the bench, the scene again shifts, and suddenly he's in the middle of a busy street. He gets up to walk away, and the scene changes to him walking towards the edge of a cliff. He stops abruptly, and the scene shifts again to place him in a jungle setting with wild animals dangerously nearby. The scene continues to shift to a rock in the ocean, a frigid winter setting, and, finally, back to the original garden and bench. On the surface, this brief, minutes-long bit, is funny. But it also forces us to recognize the surrealism of the rapidly changing settings, and Keaton’s burrowing into cinema’s ability to control a character’s destiny at a purely technological level.
The chase sequence that draws Sherlock Jr. towards its conclusion is a good example of how Keaton reinvents one of screen comedy's most basic and fundamental ingredients. Chase sequences had been a mainstay of earlier movies, especially at Mack Sennett's Keystone Studio (where, despite popular folklore to the contrary, Keaton was never employed). Balancing on the handle bars of a fast-moving motorcycle with no operator, Keaton's tracking shots and careful editing makes each close call—from a barely missed moving train to a narrowly avoided cliff—that much more thrilling.
At this point in his career, after less than ten years in films, Keaton had achieved an expert status as to how cinema could alter time, space, and setting. His frequent dalliances with a deeper level of cinematic surrealism, the intricacies of his gags, the danger of his stunts, and the movement contained within the frame, were all heavily represented in his best work. This culminates effectively in the two films that sometimes jockey for position as his masterpiece.
The General was made three years, and four films, after Sherlock Jr., and was produced at a time when Keaton’s technical wizardry had been honed and his budgets seemed limitless. Keaton remained fascinated by the use of objects, especially large ones, and had already experimented with the use of a train in both Our Hospitality and Sherlock Jr. A gag in Sherlock Jr., for instance, has Buster locked into a train car. He escapes by climbing through a hatch at the roof of the car, and runs along the top of the moving vehicle. The visual comparison-contrast with the enormous, slow moving train, and Buster's small framed body scurrying across the top, was something of a portent to The General, in which a locomotive was central to the film. The Civil War setting of The General also owes some inspiration to the previous Our Hospitality, as does the similarly idyllic presentation.
There is something of a buildup to The General via the films that Keaton made between this and Sherlock Jr, including The Navigator (1924, Keaton and Donald Crisp), Seven Chances (1925, Keaton), Go West (1925, Keaton), and Battling Butler (1926, Keaton). In each of these films, Keaton continued to find different ways of combining creative physical comedy with a well-structured narrative. A common theme in each of these films was Keaton's screen character starting out as unassuming, but emerging as strong, resourceful, and, ultimately, triumphant. This is the basis for The General, which is considered by many to be Keaton's finest cinematic achievement, as well as one of the quintessential American movies.
Opening with about fifteen minutes of plot exposition involving Buster being rejected from serving in the Civil War, it is the locomotive chase that is the axis of The General, as a train is stolen with Buster's girl on board. The film then proceeds with a series of several tracking shots utilized to sustain the movie's pace and rhythm. Maintaining his usual theme of an unassuming character's ultimate achievement, Buster is presented here as being at his most resourceful, most heroic, and most triumphant. He remains undaunted despite being outnumbered and overpowered, as he maintains control of the mighty locomotive through any and all mishaps along the way.
Throughout The General, Keaton exhibits his natural expertise at mise-en-scène, with the locomotive always presented as enormous and majestic. When Buster is standing near the train, he appears to be only as big as one of its wheels. When passengers are shown disembarking, they remain in the background with the front of the train commanding the foreground. As the train is stolen and Buster initially chases after it on foot, the tracking shot of the train fading into the background remains large and imposing against the frantic movement of his small frame in the foreground. The most fantastic scene in the film, where a train crashes into a river from a burning bridge, cost $42,000 to shoot—an enormous amount of money in 1927. The General is a brilliant example of Keaton's ability to sustain a serious narrative with a continuous arc that is propelled by the action on screen.
KINO's Blu-ray releases properly conclude with Steamboat Bill, Jr., Keaton's final independently produced feature before his contract was sold to the mammoth Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios, a career move that Keaton rued to the end of his life. Within its story of forbidden love and filial anguish, Steamboat Bill, Jr. contains a series of clever, hilarious gags and a cyclone climax that is yet another Keaton-produced sequence that fits comfortably among the most extraordinary scenes in motion-picture history. While it caused the film to go way over budget, it also represents, along with The General, what Keaton was able to accomplish when his artistic vision was not hampered by budgetary restrictions.
The cyclone sequence in Steamboat Bill Jr. is the culmination of Keaton's consistent preoccupation with objects. All of the trucks, trains, and houses Keaton used as large, imposing structures against his small frame are suddenly forced to join him as victims of the cyclone. The wind is blowing large unmanned vehicles down the road and huge structures are falling around him. Buster perseveres, trying to run against the wind, but remains stationary until eventually being blown back by its force. The very atmosphere by which he is surrounded is now the object he must somehow survive and ultimately control.
In discussing the cyclone sequence, however, it is often the fault of any reviewer to overlook the many great scenes that lead up to this amazing conclusion. One particular highlight, where Buster's rugged father wants to alter the city-bred, college boy's appearance, takes place in a hat store. The father tries on a series of different hats, hoping the surface image will somehow camouflage the fact that his only son is not quite the milquetoast his appearance would otherwise suggest. Buster keeps reaching for a hat he likes, only to be rebuffed by the father with increasing anger. When a hat is finally chosen, it blows off as Buster leaves the store. Keaton is again using objects, this time much smaller, the imposing figure in the piece being his tall father, who stands over him disapprovingly. This sequence is quite relaxed, uses little movement, and is quite a contrast to the film's conclusion.
Interestingly enough, the trying-on-hats routine was used years later by The Three Stooges in their Columbia two-reel comedy Three Dumb Clucks (1937, Del Lord). The Stooges comedy was written by frequent Keaton collaborator Clyde Bruckman, who was noted for lifting gags from earlier films (causing Columbia to later be sued by the litigious Harold Lloyd, who was not as understanding of the practice as Keaton).
Most film enthusiasts are quite familiar with the Buster Keaton silent features as among the quintessential movies of the silent era, and have already invested in KINO's magnificent box set. There may be some concern as to whether it is quite necessary for a high-definition upgrade. In fact, purchasing these definitive Blu-ray editions is as necessary as when we replaced our VHS copies of these films with DVD. While the quality of each individual Blu-ray is dependent upon the preprint material available for each film, all of them are markedly superior to their DVD counterparts.
In the case of The General, for example, the availability of a 35mm archive print struck from the film's original camera negative makes the high-definition quality especially impressive. In high definition, we can more clearly see that the set design, costumes, and props are carefully integrated as important aspects of Keaton’s cinematic vision. In many scenes, the action in the background supports the action in the foreground, and the high-definition clarity allows us to absorb it much better. Night scenes, such as when Buster and his girl are caught in the dark woods as it rains, have a remarkable sharpness, even when compared to the legibility of the better DVD editions that had heretofore been available.
The Three Ages and Sherlock Jr. are paired on the same disc, and the quality of the preprint material on each is not from as pristine a source as The General, but is nevertheless culled from the best available materials. While the image is sharp and clear, the archival 35mm prints from which these films are drawn have some occasional and very minor issues with scratching and one or two brief sections that were obviously saved just in time from the throes of decomposition. For films that are nearly a century old, digital enhancement can sometimes more clearly bring out the occasional scratch or spot on the print's emulsion. This is terribly marginal when considering the deep-focus quality of the images, especially for those of us who remember dark, murky prints of The Three Ages from public- domain distributors on VHS, where some scenes had almost no discernible legibility. KINO's previous DVD release of these films went a long way in restoring the most important Keaton efforts from the depths of public domain distribution, and the Blu-ray releases are an even greater improvement.
Many were unhappy with the Clubfoot Orchestra's incorporating of 1960s-style themes into their musical accompaniment of Sherlock Jr. on KINO's previous DVD. The Blu-ray release allows one to choose between that score, and more appropriately vintage ones by the Mon Alto Motion Picture Orchestra (which is the default score on the Blu-ray), and another one by Jay Ward.
The extras for The Three Ages include each of the segments broken up into two-reel form. This further emphasizes the idea that Keaton's first feature length production was something of a transition between the later, better films and the preceding short subjects by which he'd honed his craft. While Intolerance is frequently cited as Keaton's tangential influence for The Three Ages, the extras on the Blu-ray disc include D.W. Griffith's earlier one-reeler Man's Genesis (1912), which is said to be an even more direct inspiration on the Stone Age sequences in The Three Ages.
Perhaps the most interesting extra on the Our Hospitality Blu-ray, is a recently discovered forty-nine-minute work print, simply entitled Hospitality, which is an alternate cut of the film. This alternate version is quite worn, especially in comparison to the quality of the actual seventy-five-minute release, but its very existence allows us to better understand Keaton's creative process. Another welcome extra is the two-reel comedy The Iron Mule (1925, Roscoe Arbuckle), which features a locomotive designed by Keaton in the same manner as the one in Our Hospitality. Keaton historians Patricia Eliot Tobias and David B. Pearson offer an original documentary on the making of the film, and Tobias introduces the aforementioned alternate cut. The default music score for Our Hospitality is a brilliant one by the Thames Orchestra, composed and conducted by Carl Davis, while the score for The Iron Mule is by Ben Model, with Lee Erwin accompanying the alternate cut.
The extras on the Steamboat Bill, Jr. Blu-ray are highlighted by a recently discovered alternate version of the complete film, comprised of different takes and camera angles. It is another way to more deeply appreciate Keaton's filmmaking prowess, offering cinematic evidence of his various ideas on how to best present scenes for what some people call the culmination of his greatest period. An insightful documentary on the making of this film is commendable, but some of the extras on this disc, including a collection of pratfalls and a couple of recordings of the song Steamboat Bill, are of less interest.
The Buster Keaton films, especially those made during the greatest creative point of his career, are more than merely entertainment vehicles. Their importance to the development of cinema, and of screen comedy, is steeped in Keaton's status as perhaps the greatest auteur of the silent era. These definitive Blu-ray editions should be an integral part of any library or collection that attempts to be at all comprehensive. Hopefully Keaton's remaining features, Seven Chances, Battling Butler, Go West, The Navigator, and College, as well as his brilliant silent short comedies*, will eventually be given the same Blu-ray treatment.
James L. Neibaur is a film historian and educator who has written eight books on film.
*As this article was posted, we received news from Kino of their release of a Blu-ray edition of the box set, Buster Keaton: The Short Films Collection (1920-1923).
To purchase the Kino Buster Keaton Blu-ray releases, click here.
Copyright © 2011 by Cineaste Magazine
Cineaste, Vol. XXXVI, No. 3