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Case Number 08785

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Buster Keaton 65th Anniversary Collection

Sony // 1939 // 176 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge James A. Stewart // March 13th, 2006

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All Rise...

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.

The Charge

"How 'bout a little dinner and a show?"
—Buster Keaton, delivering a running-gag line, with no effect on a lovely lady

Opening Statement

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:

Disc One
General Nuisance
Peter Hedley Lamar (Keaton) may be a millionaire, but he's inept enough that he needs the help of two Army nurses to change a tire. "Are you a man or a mouse?" the beautiful Dorothy (Dorothy Appleby, "What's the Matador?") asks, before answering her own question with, "Even a mouse would be ashamed of you." When he finds out that she's infatuated with men in uniform, he decides to enlist.

His Ex Marks the Spot
A couple (Keaton and Appleby) whose future is being eaten up by alimony invites his ex-wife (Elsie Ames, Minnie and Moskowitz) and her boyfriend to live with them, hoping to get the pair to marry.

Mooching through Georgia
Homer (Keaton), a Confederate soldier from Kentucky, is captured by a Union unit that includes his brother (Monte Collins Jr.). With his brother's help, he obtains a Union uniform and avoids being shot as a spy.

Nothing But Pleasure
The best place to buy a new car is Detroit, Clarence Plunkett (Keaton) reasons, so he and his wife (Appleby) sell their car and take a crowded bus, where steam, newspapers, and other passengers' lunches fly at them, to the Motor City to make that purchase. After steering the car through a window, Plunkett assures his wife, "Don't you worry, Doll. From now on, it'll be nothing but pleasure." Don't you just know the ride will only get rougher?

Pardon My Berth Marks
A newspaper office boy (Keaton) gets his shot at covering the divorce of society couple Ted and Mary Christman. He gets closer to the story than he'd like when he literally bumps into Mary (Appleby) at the train station, and their fellow passengers mistake the two for newlyweds.

Pest from the West
The first in the Keaton series for Columbia Pictures, this one features him as a millionaire. When he arrives in a Mexican town in his yacht, Keaton steps out in Scottish garb until his butler reminds him, "This is Mexico." Donning a sombrero, he goes out on the town, meeting a señorita who hopes to seduce him. Her goal is to make a lover jealous so he'll shoot Keaton, get arrested, and clear the path for her fling with a handsome bullfighter.

Disc Two
She's Oil Mine
Elsie Ames plays a millionairess being pursued by the slimy Clemente, who even romances her maid Yvette (Appleby) with a "If only you had the oil wells" when he comes calling. Plumber Buster Waters (Keaton) gets involved when she hides in a boiler in his plumbing shop, and is accidentally sealed up inside it.

So You Won't Squawk
Eddie (Keaton) is a workman at a mob-run nightclub. He's busily setting up lights for the night's show and dropping them with a noise that sounds like bullets, which makes the tough guys very nervous. He's mistaken for Louie, the club owner, a mistake that the endangered boss isn't eager to correct, even after he sees Eddie handle a gun. I liked the way Keaton calls a cop—or several. Commentator Joe Adamson pointed out that this scene relies on footage from George Raft's She Couldn't Take It.

The Spook Speaks
The new caretakers (Keaton, Ames) of a spooky house witness two murders—or so they think. Turns out that the departing owner is a magician who wants them to turn away a snooping former assistant. That's if the house's surprises—including a roller-skating penguin (I guess he didn't want to march)—don't scare them off first. Commentator Ed Watz called this the worst of the Keaton Columbia shorts. Perhaps it was, but I at least enjoyed a running gag involving a musical bottle of bootleg that plays its melody off camera when characters need a drink.

The Taming of the Snood
A jewel thief (Appleby) being tailed by the police wanders into Keaton's hat shop. As with every female crook or spy in filmed entertainment history, she eludes the cops just by trying on a new hat. She buys a hat and asks Keaton to deliver it to her place, but not before hiding a stolen ring in its band. There's a funny bit with Elsie Ames and a table that, according to Keaton enthusiast Patricia Elliott Tobias's commentary, is the "only inkling" remaining of the vaudeville act Keaton did with his parents.

The Evidence

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:
• Keaton really lived in a dinky bungalow with family while making alimony payments, as his character did in His Ex Marks the Spot.
• A favorite Keaton road trip was the car-buying visit to Detroit depicted in Nothing But Pleasure, which often included stops in his Michigan home town.
• In Ex, the adult Keaton even tries to get a good night's sleep in a trunk.
Those parallels pay off with little extra gestures, such as Keaton and Appleby rubbing their backs in the morning in Ex. When he gets to play a more mature character, such as his husband in Nothing But Pleasure and His Ex Marks the Spot, the now-middle-aged Keaton has something new to bring to the table that makes these shorts stand out.

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?

Closing Statement

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.

The Verdict

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.

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Scales of Justice

Video: 86
Audio: 87
Extras: 90
Acting: 90
Story: 73
Judgment: 86

Perp Profile

Studio: Sony
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Subtitles:
• English
Running Time: 176 Minutes
Release Year: 1939
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Genres:
• Classic
• Comedy
• Short Films

Distinguishing Marks

• Commentaries For Each Short
• "Buster Keaton: From Silents to Shorts" Featurette
• Script Reproduction For "She's Oil Mine"








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