A lot of people get turned off by black & white movies prior to the year 1980. And if it’s a silent movie, pretty much forget about it. However, not only are there hundreds of old silent movies worth watching (duh!), but some of the era’s comedies can give you laughs like nothing today can. In the pantheon of silent comedians, the one I think is still the most relevant today—or the one who seems the most attuned to our modern sensibilities, perhaps—is Buster Keaton. The former vaudeville performer started out in film as a perennial sidekick, eventually going on to write, directed, and star in his own.
Though he directed 12 feature films in his career, some of which are undisputed comedy classics, his most fertile period of time as a performer and director was in short films, appearing first in a series of 14 films directed by and starring Keaton’s mentor Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle between 1917 and 1920, and then a further 19 films that starred and were directed by Keaton himself between 1920 and 1923. Now, all of these films (minus the one Arbuckle that’s been lost to time) have been restored and put together in Buster Keaton: The Shorts Collection.
What’s immediately apparent in watching the set is just how different Keaton’s persona was under Arbuckle than what it would be when he struck out on his own. Keaton became known as the Great Stoneface for his deadpan expression through most of his misadventures, but with Arbuckle, we get to see his range. In these movies, Keaton played at times a hapless loser, a whiny kid, a heroic sheriff, or a romantic rival opposite Arbuckle’s usual character of the lecherous party animal with the too-small hat and coat. Keaton’s physical prowess takes center stage in several of these shorts, which also featured Arbuckle staple and future cowboy movie sidekick Al St. John, who’d usually play the villain or the trickster.
The other thing that’s quite evident about the Arbuckle shorts is that they’re not paced nearly as well as Keaton’s solo work. While there’s lots of funny to be had, the Arbuckle shorts often drag, or rely on entire segments based around early gross-out gags (usually involving food or some other kind of viscous substance getting all over everybody). The humor doesn’t always translate super well to today’s comic sensibility, but then I remind myself that some of them came out 99 years ago, and it makes it better.
My favorite of the Arbuckle-Keaton shorts are The Butcher Boy, Coney Island (pictured below), Out West, The Cook, and Backstage.
The rest of the set comprises a brand new restoration on Keaton’s 19 directorial and starring efforts. Not a single frame of this package has been seen on a release before this, with newly found elements reconstructing some of the scratchier, jump-cuttier films. All of the shorts are as good as they can possibly look and have brand new musical accompaniment, so even if you’ve seen or own Keaton’s shorts before, there’s something new here.
In watching Keaton’s solo shorts, you can see his virtuosity with the physical gag, the massive stunt sequence, and the ability to put himself in actual danger for the purposes of the laugh. You can also see his attention to visual detail, setting up jokes that only work in the medium of cinema, like trains coming at him but that turn out to be on the track next to him. Perspective is something that Keaton all but revolutionized in the early 1920s.
His first film shot, The High Sign, was shelved for about a year due to Keaton not being satisfied with it. His first film released, One Week, remains one of his funniest and most acclaimed. It concerns Keaton and his new bride ordering a build-it-yourself house (the Ikea furniture of the day) which leads to all kinds of hilarity, including walls falling over and the building looking like a crappy birdhouse in shop class. It ends with a masterful cyclone sequence where the house spins around on its base and Keaton himself runs on the rotating house. It’s still impressive today.
Other hands-down winners on the set are The Goat, The Play House, The Boat, Day Dreams, and The Love Nest.
As for extras, we get an introduction from Serge Bromberg, the French film historian who owns and operates Lobster Films, which had the task of restoring all the films; an excerpt from the 1951 television series Life with Keaton where Buster reenacts Fatty Arbuckle’s Salome dance from The Cook; Alternate version of The Blacksmith, alternate ending for My Wife’s Relations, and a newly found, very politically incorrect ending for Coney Island; as well as a 24-page booklet with an essay by Jeffrey Vance, author of Buster Keaton Remembered.
If you’re a fan of comedy or classic cinema, this set is a must-buy. You can see a lot of Keaton’s influence on comedy through the decades, from Looney Tunes to The Office. It’s 738 minutes of near nonstop laughter.
Images: Kino Lorber