The Films (5/5)
Buster Keaton is one of the masters of comedy. He is right up there with the likes of Charles Chaplin and Harold Lloyd. Known as “The Great Stone Face”, Keaton was the man with the deadpan expressions and the insane stunts, who seemed to run away from more objects of danger than any other comedian. It almost gives you a heart attack watching him. Keaton, like most comedians from the silent era, got his start when he left vaudeville to appear in short films. These short films aren’t as well-known as Keaton’s later feature length films like THE GENERAL (1926), but they served as a perfect testing ground for Keaton to test his ideas and develop his famous persona. For people who are ready to explore these early shorts, Eureka’s Masters of Cinema Blu-ray boxset is just what the Funny Doctor ordered.
The boxset includes 32 of Buster Keaton’s earliest short films spread out over four Blu-ray discs. Discs 1 includes: THE BUTCHER BOY, ROUGH HOUSE, HIS WEDDING NIGHT, OH, DOCTOR!, CONEY ISLAND (all 1917), OUT WEST, THE BELL BOY, and MOONSHINE (1918). Disc 2 includes: GOOD NIGHT NURSE, THE COOK (Both 1918), BACKSTAGE, THE HAYSEED, THE GARAGE (all 1919), THE “HIGH SIGN”, ONE WEEK, and CONVICT 13 (all 1920). Disc 3 includes: THE SCARECROW, NEIGHBORS (both 1920), THE HAUNTED HOUSE, HARD LUCK, THE GOAT, THE PLAY HOUSE, THE BOAT, and THE PALEFACE (all 1921). And lastly Disc 4 includes: COPS, MY WIFE’S RELATIONS, THE BLACKSMITH (and its Pre-release version), FROZEN NORTH, DAYDREAMS, THE ELECTRIC HOUSE, THE BALLOONATIC (All 1922), and THE LOVE NEST (1923).
What’s interesting about this set is slowly watching Keaton form his persona and image, starting out as a support player for Fatty Arbuckle to His first starring short with THE HIGH SIGN. This was the first time I had the pleasure of watching Fatty Arbuckle. His style is more flamboyant and wacky then Keaton, but you can see some deadpan humor that influenced Keaton. ROUGH HOUSE starts out with a hilarious burning bed gag, where Arbuckle slowly gets dressed and finally decides to put out the fire. The catch is, he is doing so by slowly pouring single cups of water on the fire as the house nearly burns down. This slow delivery will pop up more with Keaton’s own gags. He first shows up as a minor henchman in THE BUTCHER BOY, His cold stare is there, but he shows a lot of expressions with Arbuckle including lots of laughing and at times crying.
All the shorts themselves fluctuate in quality. The plots can be unfocused in some, but usually the slight gags and humor work no matter disjointed the film gets. Starting with THE HIGH SIGN, Keaton became the start of his own films. THE HIGH SIGN is a pretty unusual movie for Keaton as he plays a jobless man who becomes an assassin and a bodyguard. The story is all over the place, but it does set a standard for stunt work and crazy sight gags Keaton will continue to use. ONE WEEK is a huge improvement in all departments and even has a test run for the frame of the house falling on him like in STEAMBOAT BILL JR (1928). The rest of the film is packed with insane visuals including the house spinning during a violent rain storm. As for other favorites, there’s simply too many to choose. But the ones to check out first are ONE WEEK, HAUNTED HOUSE, COPS, THE PLAY HOUSE, and THE ELECTRIC HOUSE. HAUNTED HOUSE includes some fun pre-Scooby Doo shenanigans and makes perfect October viewing. COPS has some of the funniest foot chases I’ve ever seen. THE ELECTRIC HOUSE is one of the most visually impressive with all the wacky inventions on display. Finally, THE PLAY HOUSE is 20 minutes of theatrical madness, with the first 10 minutes having some clever meta humor and Keaton playing all of the roles in an opera, as well as a monkey.
Eureka has gone all out with some great sound mixes and transfers of The Lobster Films Restorations. The shorts have clear and well balanced LPCM 2.0 Channel sound mixes. The soundtracks sound gorgeous on my speakers and the sound levels stay on point throughout the shorts. No sudden pikes in sound or hiss.
With Shorts of this vintage there’s going to be some film damage. But these new Restorations have been marvelous handled on these Eureka discs. The 1080p HD transfers are outstanding. The shorts themselves vary in quality, but most of the heavy damage is only for a few frames. What’s really impressive is the early 1917’s Short Starring Fatty Arbuckle. The minor film damage and sharp focus make some of the early shorts look almost brand new. All the shorts have some film burns, vary levels of natural grain, blurry frames where the film softens focus, and a few jump cuts. For nearly 100-year-old films, it’s amazing how they still look. A crowding achievement for Lobster films and Eureka.
This Blu-ray boxset is also handsomely packaged and loaded with extra features. Film historian Joseph McBride provides commentaries for THE HIGH SIGN, ONE WEEK, CONVICT 13, THE PLAY HOUSE, THE BOAT, and COPS. Each Commentary is filled with trivia and information on Keaton’s life, the production of the shorts, and behind the scenes difficulties. McBride keeps the pace with the shorts and there’s almost zero dead air. The only downside to these commentaries, are they were recorded for an older DVD so they play over some older restoration prints of the films. On disc 1 there’s an alternate ending for CONEY ISLAND and a featurette on the Restoration Process with Serge Bromberg of Lobster films detailing the ins and outs of the process.
Disc 2 includes That’s Some Buster, a video essay on Buster Keaton and Life with Buster Keaton, where Keaton reenacts Fatty Arbuckle’s dance from THE COOK. Disc 3 includes an interview with Pierre Etaix, and disc 4 has an alternate ending to MY WIFE’S RELATIONS and audio recording from one of Buster Keaton’s Parties in 1962 where he discusses some of his career. Rounding out the boxset is a 184- Page booklet of essays and productions stills. Included are a roundtable discuss on Keaton with critics Jean-Pierre Coursodon, Dan Sallitt, and Brad Stevens, Notes on each film by Jeffery Vance, Serge Bromberg detailing both Versions of THE BLACK SMITH, and some interview bits from Keaton himself.
If you’re a fan of Buster Keaton, this set is a no brainer. And for new comers to silent comedy, this is a wonderful introduction to some ground breaking shorts with not only some of Keaton’s more fascinating work, but some great examples of Fatty Arbuckle. Eureka’s Masters of Cinema series continues to impress. Highly Recommended.