Buster Keaton: The Complete Short Films (1917, 1918, 1919, 1920, 1921, 1922, 1923)
Directed by: Buster Keaton, Edward F. Kline, Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle
Written by: Buster Keaton, Edward F. Kline
Starring: Al St. John, Buster Keaton, Joe Roberts, Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle
AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY: NOW, from EUREKA ENTERTAINMENT
RUNNING TIME: 740 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Though parts of One Week seemed vaguely similar to me when I watched it, I don’t think I’d ever seen any of Buster Keaton’s work until now. As a kid, myself, and indeed my classmates, would thrill to the exploits of Harold Lloyd and chuckle at the antics of Laurel and Hardy [what great days they were, days when really old black and white films were still shown often on TV and still appealed to youngsters, the Tarzan and the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes pictures also being favourites], but for some reason I never watched Keaton’s stuff. Perhaps it was shown as often? Why I’ve never bothered to check them out since then is something I can’t explain since I’ve been a huge fan of Jackie Chan for about 30 years and the man was heavily influenced by Keaton, even re-using some of his gags at times. In any case, I jumped at the chance to make my way through and review Eureka Entertainment’s box set containing every single one of his silent short films. Will the films, and Keaton, seem worthy to me of their great reputation?
The story goes that Keaton wasn’t even meant to be in The Butcher Boy. On the first day of shooting, he was about to start work in a theatrical show, but was invited to work on the film by Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle and basically improvised his very first scene with the props to hand, in this case a barrel of brushes, taking to the camera immediately. Set at first in a shop [which provides lots of great props] where Arbuckle [whose agility is amazing considering his heavy build] and Keaton work, this is simple, crude slapstick with a lot of silly stuff happening for no reason at all, but still provides some chuckles, even if the second half, set in a boarding school where Arbuckle dresses in drag to sneak in to his fiancée, doesn’t work so well. Keaton, whose best moment involves some molasses [great version of the foot-stuck-to-floor routine] interacts with Arbuckle like he’d been doing it all his life. Though beginning superbly with Arbuckle’s amusingly nonchalant way of putting out a fire in his bed, not to mention introducing a fork-in-sausage routine [thought up by Keaton] that was later refined by Charlie Chaplin and a certain Johnny Depp, The Rough House, set mostly in a boarding house ran by Fatty, his wife and his mother-in-law, isn’t as good, and Keaton, playing a gardener, then a delivery boy who is arrested for causing trouble and made into a cop[!], isn’t in it much.
The even more so-so His Wedding Night has drugstore worker Arbuckle and his usual co-star Al St. John both after the same girl. There’s some uneasy racial comedy near the beginning, and it’s hard to laugh at Arbuckle giving the girl chloroform so he can kiss her if you know of the horrid sex scandal that later ruined his career, but Keaton is funny in drag modelling a wedding dress. Arbuckle is even more unpleasant in Oh Doctor, constantly brutalising his son [amongst other things], played by Keaton in a more exaggerated fashion than normal. This one has less gags and a bit more plot in the story of a spendthrift doctor seduced by a vamp while her boyfriend is after his wife’s jewellery. Coney Island has Arbuckle, Dt. John and Keaton chasing after the same woman around an amusement park. Arbuckle asks the camera to shoot higher up while he’s is disrobing in what must be one of the first instances of breaking the fourth wall, dons drag again – leading to some risqué mistaken identity stuff, Keaton – in a priceless moment – does a back flip for no real reason, and some Keystone cops turn up in a well paced, highly entertaining piece.
The action packed Out West has Arbuckle as an outlaw visiting a town where Keaton is the local gunfighter and St. John the outlaw Wild Bill Hickup. Arbuckle is horrid in this, getting a horse drunk just for fun and, in a moment which will offend many modern viewers, joining in where some people are shooting at a black man to make him dance. There’s some nice parodying of Western cliches though in this surprisingly vicious film. The Bell Boy, with Arbuckle and Keaton as bell boys and St. John as the desk clerk in a hotel beside a bank targeted by robbers, is my favourite of the films on the first disc. The invention level is high [the lift operated by a horse], the slapstick brilliantly choreographed, there’s a nice chase climax, and sometimes it all goes a bit surreal, like a shaving routine where Arbuckle transforms a customer into Ulysses Grant, Abraham Lincoln and Kaiser Wilhelm. And finally on Disc One we have Moonshine, where Arbuckle and Keaton are a revenue agent and his assistant after moonshiners in the mountains. While we have St. John chasing Keaton up and down a tree and scores of men pouring out of a car, the best element of this one is the intertitles, which often make us aware we’re watching a movie. Arbuckle instantly falls in love with the heroine because there’s no time for build-up in a two-reel comedy, then at the end is blown up in a cabin but the film is rewound and he survives!
Disc Two begins with Good Night Nurse, with Arbuckle taken by his wife to a sanatorium which can cure alcoholism and constantly trying to escape. The funniest scene has he – in drag – and Keaton – as a surgeon – flirt with each other for ages. There are some dark undercurrents to this one, no attempt at cohesion whatsoever, and a twist ending. Aside from a finale in another seaside amusement park which is cut short because the end of the film is missing [though the whole film was for many decades], The Cook takes place mostly in a restaurant where Arbuckle is the cook and Keaton the waiter, so it’s fun with food throughout with a great ‘what you can do with spaghetti’ scene at the dinner table, though the highlight is Arbuckle transforming kitchen items into a Salome costume, and Keaton then joining in when an exotic dancer starts performing for the customers. St. John is the usual scuzzy villain and Luke the dog [from The Butcher Boy and a few to come] is the real hero. St. John is barely in Backstage, in which Arbuckle and Keaton are bumbling stagehands trying to put on a show. I didn’t laugh as often at this one, though the climactic slapstick fight with a strongman is the best of its kind yet and a gag of a scenery flat falling towards Fatty, with an upstairs window passing around him, was later reused by Keaton twice, but with an actual house.
The middling The Hayside seems to rehash some earlier material as our duo work in a post office/general store. Keaton sees the villainous policeman [St. John’s not in this one at all] going through the mail and stealing money from an envelope but doesn’t tell anyone until the very end of the film. The heroine is nicely not so sweet and innocent in this one. Much better is their last collaboration, The Garage, which gives Keaton as much screen time as Fatty and really shows off his abilities, from running on a spinning disc to sliding up a fireman’s poll. The duo, neither of whom have a love interest for a change, operate a combination garage and fire station. The funniest bit has a car literally falling apart after they’ve cleaned it. Co-written and directed with Edward F. Kline, as would be most of his films to follow, The ‘High Sign’ was Keaton’s first without Arbuckle, and, right from the opening of Keaton unfolding a constantly unfolding newspaper, the difference is notable, the gags tending to be a bit more sophisticated and refined. Keaton is hired to work at a shooting gallery, has to both protect and kill the same man, and finishes the film brilliantly with an incredible chase through a house full of trapdoors, the camera sometimes showing all four rooms at once. The influence on Chan is instantly clear here. Some funny subtitles too. Keaton was unhappy with this film though and shelved it till the following year.
From its beginning of Keaton straddling two cars while they are moving, One Week is simply amazing. Keaton and his wife are newlyweds but have to build their house from scratch, and what follows is a superb series of escalating disasters and breathless invention climaxing in the couple having to move the semi-completed house by car and a surprise gag with two trains. The ‘front of house falling on Buster who stands so an open window will fall where he’s standing’ turns up here. The second disc is rounded off with Convict 13, which is almost as good. Keaton accidently finds himself in prison, setting off much action [men are thrown all over the place] which is closest to a Looney Tunes cartoon than anything. The elasticated rope that is substituted for real hanging rope, causing Keaton to bounce up and down, is genius, but nothing beats the opening where Keaton is playing golf, knocks a ball into a river, then grabs a fish out of the water, shakes it around and the golf ball pop out the fish’s mouth. The last two Keaton solo shorts are wonderful, making this disc superior to the first.
We begin here with The Scarecrow, and a brilliantly inventive scene of Keaton and his housemate having breakfast in a house full of gadgets. Then its lots of gag-filled chasing as Keaton flees a dog and his housemate [they’re both after the same girl], though only a minute features an actual scarecrow. Neighbours had me both laughing and gasping throughout as Keaton slides along electric lines and clothes hanger lines, tries to keep his huge, ill-fitting trousers up during his wedding, and takes part in a three-man balancing act racing through the streets. Buster even adjusts his tie after one escapade like 007. The plot has Keaton in love with the girl who lives next door to him but their families keep feuding. The Haunted House could just as well have been called something like The Bank Teller as the title locale, a hideaway for robbers and counterfeiters who pose as ghosts to keep others away, is only in the second half. It’s not as consistently funny as the previous four, and becomes a bit repetitive, but there’s a great lengthy gag with sticky dollar bills, plus Keaton gets to go to Heaven and Hell! If that sounds bonkers, then Hard Luck ends with him missing a pool dive and falling through the ground….then, in a scene lost for ages, reappearing several years later out of the same hole with a Chinese wife and kid! This one’s much more like an Arbuckle film with its series of random occurrences substituting for a plot. Keaton repeatedly fails suicide, goes fishing in a river for “that rare creature called the armadillo” [!], joins a fox hunt and, as he often does, foils some bad guys, led by a guy named Lizard Lip Luke [Joe Roberts, as usual in these films doing villain duties].
The Goat is essentially one big chase as our man is mistaken for a bank robber and chased all over town by the cops and his girlfriend’s father. Keaton leaps onto the head of a man who has a gun on him and then dives through a window, making this kind of stuff look easier than Chan did, though the highpoint for me is Keaton riding on the front of a train towards the camera, stopping right in front of it, then pausing a few seconds before getting off. It may not sound funny on paper but is hilarious on screen the way it’s done. There’s not much stunt work in The Playhouse – Keaton was recovering from a knee injury at the time – but it has a totally jaw dropping opening where Keaton, a stagehand soon to be thrust into the limelight, plays 24 characters at a vaudeville show, from audience members to musicians to performers, often in the same shot, with amazingly good special effects. The rest isn’t quite so good, but he does imitate a chimpanzee and have trouble telling which of two twin sisters is his girlfriend. This one’s more clever than funny but quite sophisticated and self-aware.
The Boat is a bit reminiscent of One Week, if slightly less side-spliting, as Buster takes his family out in the water and escalating disaster ensures. It’s Keaton’s reactions that often really sell the gags, like the boat gradually sinking as soon as it’s launched but Keaton sure taking his time to even notice, let alone do anything about it. What really got me going was when he tests the temperature of the water before he attempts to rescue his son. Of course the boat is all real – or rather the two boats used are, though the one that was supposed to stay afloat kept capsizing and vice versa. Finally there’s The Paleface, which contains a totally gasp inducing stunt which I had to rewind as I barely believed what I saw. Keaton slides [not jumps] off a rock ledge onto a tree, then jumps back from the tree into a group of people and bounces off them [I guess there was a trampoline somewhere, but I certainly couldn’t see it] back onto the ledge. Later on he crosses an Indiana Jones-style rope bridge which only contains a few beams which he has to keep moving. Keaton is a butterfly collector out West who helps a Native American tribe against an evil oil company. Nice to see a very early sympathetic cinematic depiction of Native Americans. It’s not constantly hilarious, but thoroughly entertaining nonetheless.
Disc Four kicks off in great fashion with Cops. Keaton tries to become a businessman, but manages to steal money, pay two men for possessions they do not own, including furniture, and drive a horse and cart into the middle of a police parade where he throws out a lit bomb, resulting a chase with hundreds of policemen. There’s an incredibly dangerous bit with Keaton trapped on a swinging ladder police, plus a rather risqué scene, which I also had to replay to check I saw right, where Keaton takes his sluggish horse into a “goat gland specialist” [goat gland then considered a cure for impotency], the horse perks up considerably, and Keaton does a quick, fleeting downward glance before turning and pondering the miracle worker’s sign….only to go in and just retrieve his hat! My Wife’s Relations has another great “wow” bit where Keaton descends down the side of an apartment block from awning to awning, plus some fine laughs, but overall it’s a somewhat bitter piece with everyone horrible except for Keaton’s character, his marrying of a harridan and sharing of a house with her unpleasant family possibly mirroring Buster’s short lived first marriage where he was single-handedly supporting his wife’s large family.
Reminiscent of the Arbuckle effort The Garage, The Blacksmith is, unusually, entirely restricted to one location until near the end, and has Keaton playing a blacksmith’s apprentice taking over when his aggressive boss is jailed. He mostly just breaks things, and causes a mess, but the way a Rolls Royce is destroyed is funny [a little boy’s balloon is used to hold it up but then slingshots it], as is Keaton shoeing a horse, plus a fine magnet gag. This one can also be seen in an earlier ‘pre-release’ version, available in this set, which was only found in 2013 by Fernanda Pena who had also located the complete Metropolis five years before. It has some different footage in the first third, and doesn’t flow so well but I laughed a bit more. The Frozen North rather surprised me as Keaton [living in an area where a signpost says: North Pole, 3 Miles South] plays an incompetent outlaw in a piece which partly seems to be spoofing the conventions of melodrama. He catches who he thinks is his wife and her lover and shoots them, but he then realises he’s in the wrong house! With plenty of terrific gags centering around snow [great fishing bit when he and someone else are fishing in a hole in the snow and Keaton catches the other guy on his hook], plus a bit more darkness in some of the other humour, this one goes straight to my Keaton top five! Daydreams sees Keaton virtually play several roles as he takes on several jobs to please the father of his fiancée but always has things go wrong. He tends to exaggerate their importance too, saying he’s “cleaning up wall street” when he’s actually a road sweeper. There’s a superb bit on a paddle steamer where Keatonis in the paddle wheel and has to keep pace with it like a hamster in an exercise wheel, another chase with lots of cops, and a downbeat ending, though this one’s generally more amusing than hilarious.
The afore mentioned paddle wheel scene gets several variants in The Electric House when an escalator never seems to go Keaton’s way. Due to a mix-up of diplomas, he’s asked to wire a mansion with electricity and, as in The Scarecrow, designs lots of often pointless but fun gadgets, like a toy train which brings dinner to the table and a swimming pool that drains and refills in seconds. Many laughs ensure when the real engineer sets out to ensure they all go wrong. The real genius here is Keaton’s technical designer Fred Gabourie. The Balloonatic has Keaton on a balloon which accidentally takes off [great stunt work here], but which he shoots out of the sky to end up in a wilderness where he and a young woman have to fend for themselves. Keaton shows off a clever method of catching fish and encounters several other animals, but the highlight is a terrific ending, with neat special effects, where our couple are in Keaton’s collapsible canoe and heading for a huge waterfall, but….well, I won’t spoil it for you the surprise of what happens And last, but certainly not least, is The Love Nest, which may not be full of side splitting gags and set pieces [though of course some laughs certainly remain] but has an almost philosophical quality, as well as some death-fixated morbidity, as a lovelorn Keaton boards a boat ruled by a captain who throws anyone overboard if they commit even the slightest congress.
There’s no doubt that I’ve become a Keaton fan in the course of watching these shorts. I opted to watch only one or two a day to keep my interest level as high as possible, something I would certainly recommend with the Arbuckle films, which could get a bit wearing otherwise. Though undeniably dated, they’re still definitely worth a watch though, and I found their simple, crude kind of humour rather refreshing considering that we don’t get much of that kind of thing these days. After all, a person slipping on a banana skin is always funny isn’t it? While it would probably be tempting for some buyers to go straight to the Keaton-directed ones, it’s also an interesting exercise to see Keaton both develop his brand of humour and his screen persona in these earlier films. To me, one of the most appealing things about him is his stoic, sometimes virtually inexpressive attitude to everything, which contrasts well with the chaos and the more conventionally melodramatic acting that surrounds him. Once I progressed to The ‘High Sign’ and beyond, I was watching total magic on screen. One Week, Convict 13, Neighbours, Hard Luck, The Paleface, Cops, The Frozen North and The Balloonatic are to me perfect little pictures, representing the very peak of silent movie comedy, and which I don’t think I’ll ever tire of watching, while the others aren’t far behind. Certainly to this first time viewer, they seemed incredibly fresh, and actually often quite different from each other. While Keaton sometimes repeated gags or did variations on earlier situations, he rarely rehashed storylines or settings except from his love of lengthy climactic chases which often involved policemen, and a predeliction for the “it was all a dream” ending. Perhaps most interestingly, I detected a dark, bleak, almost existential undercurrent bubbling beneath the surface which gave all this delightful madness some edge and even just a smidgeon of weight….though, more than anything else, Keaton and these films are just so incredibly funny. Genius?….O Yes!
The first few films look pretty rough, but the quality does substantially improve quite quickly. Some of the later works do have passages which are scratchy, blurry and look like they’re about to fall apart as you watch them, but many of these films were missing portions for decades and when they did find complete prints they were often in terrible condition. This is as good as they’re ever going to look and we should be lucky that these gems survive, and in an often more than watchable condition, at all. The music scores generally sound appropriate [I’ve seen some silent films with the most bizarre and ill-suiting scores], and sometimes you can choose between two different soundtracks. With alternate footage for some of the films too and six commentaries which, from the few minutes I listened to of Joseph McBride talking over The ‘High Sign’, provide much background detail and observation, plus some other bits and pieces, this set must be the definite release of these films, so if you’re curious about a movie legend and going to try and get into Keaton, there’s no better time than now to do so. In my view, this set is an essential purchase for anybody interested in cinema, and I don’t think you’ll regret it. At the very least, you’ll laugh and laugh and laugh. And sometimes there’s nothing better than that.
*1080p presentations from new restorations
*Multiple scores on selected shorts
*Audio commentaries by Joseph McBride on The ‘High Sign’, One Week, Convict 13, The Playhouse, The Boat, and Cops
*Newly discovered version of The Blacksmith containing four minutes of previously unseen footage
*Alternate endings for Coney Island and My Wife’s Relations
*That’s Some Buster, a new exclusive video essay by critic and filmmaker David Cairns
*An introduction by preservationist Serge Bromberg
*The Art of Buster Keaton, actor Pierre Étaix discusses Keaton’s style
*Audio recording of Keaton at a party in 1962
*Life with Buster Keaton (1951, excerpt) – Keaton re-enacts Roscoe Arbuckle’s “Salomé dance”, first performed in The Cook
PLUS: A 184-PAGE BOOK containing a roundtable discussion on Keaton by critics Brad Stevens, Jean-Pierre Coursodon, Dan Sallitt; a new essay and detailed notes on each film by Jeffrey Vance, author of Buster Keaton Remembered; a new essay by Serge Bromberg on the two versions of The Blacksmith and other discoveries; the words of Keaton; and archival imagery.