BUSTER KEATON: THE COMPLETE SHORT FILMS 1917-1923

PrintE-mail Written by Nigel Watson

Buster Keaton is famous for being a tall, stone-faced comedy actor of the silent movie era. This set of four Blu-ray DVDs, contains 32 of his films that shows how he progressed as a co-star in baby-faced, Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle’s two-reel comedies to become a star and filmmaker in his own right.

Keaton was an accomplished vaudeville entertainer, and almost by chance he was given the opportunity to appear in Arbuckle’s The Butcher in 1917. After that Keaton was hooked on filmmaking. He admits that as soon as he went to the studio, he wanted to understand how everything worked, from the cameras, the projector and how film is all matched and put together in the cutting room. His enthusiasm and ability was rewarded by Arbuckle who casually gave him the role of assistant director after making only three films together.

Much of the comedy comes with the clever use of situations and locations, where the actors, run, jump, bounce, roll, fall and trip like athletic cartoon characters. Keaton is expert at telling the narrative using the camera and editing to fully involve the audience in the action. This is backed-up by his meticulous attention to detail, his characters might be cartoon-like but the world they inhabit is real. Using a skilled team of craftsmen his technical director, Fred Gabourie, organised the construction of sets and planned all the special effects and stunts that were required by the script. Behind the lenses he employed ex-Max Sennet veteran, cinematographer Elgin Lesley, and scripts were put together by Keaton and a team of gag-men.

When talkies came, Keaton felt stifled by the need to prioritise dialogue over action, and that the process of making films with the Big Studios was so mechanical that you were unable to ab lib or improvise. The loss of interest in silent movies meant that these early Keaton films were neglected and lost, and it has taken literally decades to track them down and digitally restore and reconstruct them to something like their original glory.

For any fan of Buster Keaton, or the silent era in general, this collection provides a wonderful assortment of treats. The films are newly restored and in some cases have alternative musical scores to go with them and in the case of The ‘High Sign’, One Week, Convict 13, The Playhouse, The Boat and Cops, film scholar Joseph McBride supplies an audio commentary. Alternative endings are supplied for Coney Island, and My Wife’s Relations and a newly discovered version of The Blacksmith is included. Actor Pierre Etaix discusses Keaton’s style in a segment titled, The Art of Buster Keaton, film critic and filmmaker David Cairns contributes a video essay That’s Some Buster and film preservationist Serge Bromberg contributes an introduction to Keaton’s work. There is even a clip of Keaton reenacting the Salome Dance performed by Fatty Arbuckle in The Cook. Besides all the DVD extras, there is also a 184 page book that contains detailed notes on each film by Jeffrey Vance, and essays by Brad Stevens, Jean-Pierre Coursodon and Serge Bromberg.

It is great to see this collection and appreciate the true genius of Keaton, who in the past century has inspired the likes of Lucille Ball, Mel Brooks, Pixar Animation Studios and George Lucas. With this restoration project by the Lobster Films team based in Paris, lets hope his legacy will continue to live-on for future film lovers and filmmakers.

BUSTER KEATON / CERT: PG / DIRECTORS: BUSTER KEATON, ROSCOE ‘FATTY’ ARBUCKLE, MAL ST.CLAIRE,  EDWARD CLINE  / STARRING: BUSTER KEATON, FATTY ARBUCKLE   / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW
 


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