Appellate Judge James A. Stewart is getting burned out doing all these blurbs on fast turnaround. Maybe, like the Columbia Pictures short subject department, he could come up with a set of running blurbs that could be reused.
"How 'bout a little dinner and a show?"
A buster is "a bad fall," according to Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition.
A Buster Keaton is a comedian known for his pratfalls—even in real life. His fans at the International Buster Keaton Society point out that "his parents decided he'd be safer on stage" after several accidents, including near-suffocation in a trunk, a battle with a clothes wringer that claimed part of a finger, and a ride on a cyclone.
During the 1920s, Wikipedia notes, he was in the same ranks as Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, making such silent classics as Sherlock Jr. and The General.
"He was making two feature films a year, films that would forever ensure his reputation," the International Buster Keaton Society says on its site. "Keaton made the camera his partner and developed a new comic vocabulary with it."
Those silent classics won't be found on this Buster Keaton 65th Anniversary Collection. In the late 1930s, he joined Columbia's short subject roster, the last resort for two-reel comics in that era, and made 10 short films from 1939 to 1941. With Jules White at the helm, Keaton churned out these comedies, which rehashed his work and echoed that of The Three Stooges, in three days apiece. They were part of Columbia's output of 526 two-reelers from 1933 to 1958, the official Academy Awards site notes. Those films are the ones presented here.
Facts of the Case
In 10 two-reel comedies, Keaton plays several characters, including a love-struck millionaire, a henpecked husband, and a newspaper copy boy. The films included are:
His Ex Marks the Spot
Mooching through Georgia
Nothing But Pleasure
Pardon My Berth Marks
Pest from the West
So You Won't Squawk
The Spook Speaks
The Taming of the Snood
Since the gags here hew to Columbia two-reeler formulas, you don't get the full effect of the comedian known as "The Great Stone Face" for his deadpan reactions. But you do see Keaton coming across as a genuinely pleasant person, humanizing the very broad farce that sometimes just degenerates into slapping matches.
Even in these two-reelers, Keaton's own life experiences make cameos, as the
commentaries by David Weddle stress:
The supporting performers take a lot of knocks from the commentators, but their absurd contributions give Keaton a chance to try out reactions that evoke Jack Benny or Bob Newhart, a backup to his pratfall prowess. The two ladies who appear most often—Dorothy Appleby and Elsie Ames—find themselves doing quite a few physical gags themselves. Ames, who often plays man-hungry characters, is a slapstick expert, whether joining Keaton in a silly song-and-dance number in "General Nuisance" or doing the table routine in "Taming of the Snood." Her skill comes from a nightclub dance act, commentator Watz notes. Appleby's humor is more verbal, playing a nagging wife in some places, but she still gets to throw things or collide with Ames or Keaton once in a while, and does it with gusto.
The funniest moments on this set, whether with Keaton or his supporting cast, have the human touch that made Keaton more than just a pratfall pro. The lonely copy boy in Pardon My Berth Marks, living with his mother, shows his capped-up kindness by doting on a parrot; he calls the bird from the office and takes it with him on assignment. In So You Won't Squawk, we see him become frustrated with a phone operator who won't let him through when he's calling while dangling from a window. In She's Oil Mine, he and his plumbing partner bring a punch clock along on every job—and even to a duel. Then think of all the times Keaton needs help from someone and only gets more trouble, such as when he asks a cop for directions and the officer directs him into a fender-bender in Nothing But Trouble.
The film quality is mostly excellent, though you'll see the occasional fade or some flickering spots on the picture. Since the films were remastered in high-definition, Sony obviously did some cleaning up here. The sound also appears to have been tuned up.
The commentators here, film historians and Keaton fans, provide plenty of tidbits about his career and moviemaking in the waning years of two-reelers. They spend a lot of time trying to decide which bits are Keaton's inspirations and which bits came from the mind of Jules White. The featurette on Keaton's life and career provides a lot of biographical information, although some of it carries over from the commentaries. My favorite touch among the extras was the script for She's Oil Mine, which gives viewers a chance to follow along; since it's a direct copy, it's got plenty of scribbles that make it hard to read, though.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The box for this Buster Keaton Collection is a classic example of misleading marketing, since the photo obviously shows Keaton from his silent days, as does the cartoon of Keaton on the back. Since it is a lost era of Keaton's life shown here, that's still of value to the comedian's fans. Why not reflect that on the box?
Merriam-Webster's also notes that a buster can be "an unusually sturdy child" or "someone or something extraordinary." Those definitions also fit Buster Keaton well. These two-reel comedies may be from his waning days, but Keaton has an amiable charm that often elevates the standard-issue material. Some of the material is lame and there are lulls in the laughs, but there's at least one side-splitting gag in each two-reeler; and the performers, at least, are always first-rate.
If you take into account that Keaton survived an alcohol problem and a stint in a straitjacket and still managed to work nearly continuously throughout his life, even doing his physical comedy on stage during his later years, you'll gain an admiration of Keaton the man as well as Keaton the comedian.
Not guilty. Sony certainly did a good job preserving these lost Keaton two-reelers. Keaton buffs will want to snap these up. Even those who aren't might enjoy this gentle introduction to Keaton's comic vocabulary. Taken on their own, they're not bad, but they're still only appetizers in the meaty career of a comic legend. Tracking down his earlier silents might be a better choice, but you should definitely add the comic vocabulary of Buster Keaton to your movie-viewing dictionary.
Give us your feedback!
Scales of Justice
• Commentaries For Each Short
• IMDb: Buster Keaton
Review content copyright © 2006 James A. Stewart; Site design and review layout copyright © 2015 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.