Just in time for the Holidays, Kino has assembled all of their previously released Buster Keaton Blu-ray titles into one efficiently packaged fourteen disc box set with the cherry on top of the sundae being the exclusive (for now) Blu-ray presentation of Keaton’s 1927 feature College. Great care has been taken in properly presenting these films on disc, although Kino’s standard eschewing of most digital clean up tools (not even image stabilization) may prove frustrating to some viewers used to more pristine presentations. The discs are rounded out with a decent collection of extras inclusive of multiple scores, commentaries, still galleries, related theatrical shorts, documentaries, and a few other goodies. Considering the fact that at least seven of the features and more than two thirds of the 1920s shorts are bona-fide classics in the opinion of this reviewer, this is an easy recommendation for those who have not purchased any of the discs separately.
The Short Films Collection (1920-1923) / The Saphead (1920) / Three Ages (1923) / Our Hospitality (1923) / Sherlock Jr. (1924) / The Navigator (1924) / Seven Chances (1925) / Go West (1925) / Battling Butler (1926) / The General (1926) / College (1927) / Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928) / Lost Keaton: Sixteen Comedy Shorts (1934-1937)
Acknowledged by modern viewers and critics as one of the three great Hollywood comedy stars of the silent era (along with Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd), Buster Keaton was the least commercially successful of them at the time. His mixture of comedy, thrilling stunts, and deadpan reactions established him as a reliable entertainer throughout the early twenties when producing two-reel comedies. He did not turn the shorts out at the breathtaking clip of Lloyd (although considering their technically ambitious production values, it is amazing that he was able to produce a half dozen per year), and he did not achieve the unbelievably high per film box office numbers of the less prolific Chaplin. Upon moving to feature films, he had his share of hits, including The Navigator and Battling Butler, but some of his most acclaimed works such as The General failed to even turn a profit during their initial US theatrical runs.
Critical reassessment over the years has proven kind to Keaton, with the experimentalism, penchant for absurdist bordering on surreal gags, and tendency to undermine moments of obvious sentiment that may have perplexed 1920s audiences all making him look ahead of his time with the perspective of history. He also had an unflinching drive to aim high when it came to production values, staging elaborate set-pieces and employing sophisticated camera and effects techniques on par with large scale dramatic filmmakers such as Griffith and DeMille.
Breaking into films as a frequent supporting performer and eventual co-director in short subjects starring Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Keaton’s chance to star in his own short subjects came when Arbuckle moved on to feature films in 1920, which is where this Kino Blu-ray set begins...
Note: Due to the pairings of certain feature films on the same Blu-ray disc release, the films are presented in not-quite chronological order in my assessments below. For a chronological list of the feature films in order of original release date, please see the list at the head of this review.
Volume 1 - Discs 1-3
The Short Films Collection (1920-1923 – Joseph M. Schenck Productions)
The Films ****½
Note: Four of the films appear in two versions, one of which is labeled as “enhanced”. The “enhanced” films are editorially identical versions with additional digital noise reduction techniques applied to the high-definition masters. Kino generally does not employ such processing due to the potential for introducing artifacts, but has done so in these four cases, allowing viewers to compare the results with the unprocessed originals. Personally, I would describe the results as mixed, but generally prefer the less processed originals (with the possible exception of Cops). The enhanced films are listed with slightly longer running times due to the addition of title cards explaining the additional processing that was employed.
All shorts are presented in 1080p 24fps black and white video pillarboxed to a 4:3 aspect ratio with a 16 bit 48kHz LPCM 2.0 music track and were directed by Buster Keaton and Edward F. Cline unless otherwise indicated below.
The first disc in the set includes seven shorts released between September of 1920 and April of 1921.
The High Sign (19:44 - Piano score composed and performed by Ben Model) Buster gets a job in an amusement park, but balks at his gang-connected bosses direction to kill a businessman.
The High Sign (Enhanced) (1080p - 20:03)
One Week (1080i - 18 fps - 24:48 - Organ score composed and performed by Ben Model) Newlyweds Buster and Sybil Seely set out to construct a kit home, but when a jealous rival rearranges the boxes, the resulting house becomes a comically surreal mis-assemblage. Buster’s second production as a leading man (and first to be released) is his first genuine masterpiece.
[Note: Buster’s feature film debut, “The Saphead” was released between these two shorts]
Convict 13 (19:09 - Music arranged by Robert Israel) Identity theft roaring 20s style occurs when a golfing mishap leaves Buster unconscious, and an opportunistic fugitive swaps clothes with him. This lands Buster on death row.
The Scarecrow (18:12 - Music arranged by Robert Israel) Buster plays a farm hand vying against a friend/rival (played by Joe Roberts) for the affections of a farmer’s daughter. The elaborate mechanical contraptions Keaton and Roberts use in their home early in the film are amusing and a forerunner to a similar sequence in The Navigator. This film feels like a direct antecedent to any number of great rivalry/chase cartoons that would come in the 1940s and 50s from the likes of Hanna-Barbera and Warner Bros. Look for Buster’s real life father, Joe Keaton as the Farmer and co-Director Edward Cline as a truck driver.
Neighbors (17:44 - Music arranged by Robert Israel) Buster and Virginia Fox live in adjoining apartment complexes, and their biggest impediment to romance is their feuding families. The fathers are played by Joe Keaton and Joe Roberts. There is an aerial stunt pulled off by Buster between the two buildings that has to be seen to be believed, and it may even be topped by the unusually acrobatic climactic chase sequence.
The Haunted House (Color tinted - 20:45 - Music arranged by Robert Israel) This feels like two shorts in one with Buster playing a bank clerk dealing with numerous amusing circumstances in the first half and then transporting the action in the second half to a haunted house. The special effects during the haunted house, Heaven, and Hell bits are impressive. It never adds up to much plot-wise, and the second half is markedly better than the first.
Hard Luck (21:36 - Music arranged and played by Robert Israel on a “Photoplayer”) The precursor to the 80s teen comedy Better off Dead? A lonely, unemployed, and depressed Buster attempts various means of suicide, but ultimately winds up drunk instead of dead. His odyssey of inebriation has him crossing paths with zoologists and a fancy country club. This was nearly a lost film and is not completely intact in its current editorial state. Reportedly there are more complete assemblages of this short than what Kino provides on this disc, but I have never seen them personally. The short includes opening titles explaining a missing three minutes of film and titles and stills near the end illustrating the intended closing gag.
[Note: “The High Sign” was the first short produced, but was not released until after “Hard Luck” while Keaton was recuperating from a broken ankle. Keaton felt that it was too much like the films he had been making with Arbuckle and shelved it in favor of “One Week” which he felt better represented his personal style.]
The second disc in the set includes six shorts released between May of 1921 and May of 1922.
The Goat (23:28 - Directed by Buster Keaton & Mal St. Clair - Music arranged and conducted by Robert Israel) A series of mishaps leads to Buster being mistaken for an escaped murderer named Deadshot Dan which, in turn, leads to a series of kinetic and wildly inventive chase sequences. This is Keaton’s first foray into the epic outdoor chase sequences that he would continue to refine and perfect throughout his shorts and features, and it is one of his best shorts full stop. This short also includes a famously impressive trick shot of Buster riding a train’s cow catcher directly at the camera into a close-up.
The Play House (22:53 - Music arranged by Robert Israel) This film opens with one of the most famous sequences in all of silent cinema. Buster dreams of a large theatrical production where everyone in the theater is ... John Malkovich! ... Okay, it’s actually Buster playing everyone on and off the stage. Keaton pushes film technology to its limits by using a very clever application of multiple exposure that rivals what people would be creating on optical printers decades later. When Buster is rudely awakened from his dream, he must contend with an irate Stage Manager (played by go-to heavy Joe Roberts) and romance Virginia Fox, who has a twin sister for whom Buster keeps confusing her. The closing gag involving the twins is too priceless to spoil.
The Boat (23:13 - Organ score composed and performed by Ben Model) Buster Keaton knew how to exploit a prop, and this has never been more clearly illustrated than in this short which centers around Buster, a boat, and a non-stop rapid fire series of gags involving the two of them. He reunites with co-star Sybil Seeley for this one, and their misadventures with a boat are every bit as hilarious as their misadventures with home construction in One Week. There is a scene where Buster tests the water temperature before jumping in to save a child that makes W.C. Fields look like Cliff Huxtable.
The Boat (enhanced) (23:36)
The Paleface (20:41 - vintage ensemble music track is uncredited) A Native American tribe is being evicted from their land by some shady oil speculators, and an innocent Buster wanders into the conflict at exactly the wrong time. After a reel or so of creatively avoiding getting killed, he joins the tribe and the fight against the Oil Barons. This is not a top-tier short, but the bits of business involving Buster and a stake to which he is tied are priceless.
Cops (18:32 - Organ score composed and performed by Ben Model) A series of mishaps leads to Buster driving a cart of stolen furniture he believes he has purchased (with money stolen from a rude police detective) in the middle of a police parade. Buster gets in some real hot water when he innocently tosses a radical’s bomb that had landed in his cart into a crowd of marching policemen. The largest scale and most protracted chase since, well, The Goat ensues. The bookend romantic failure scenes show Keaton at his most fatalistic (at least until the endings of Day Dreams and College).
Cops (enhanced) (18:44)
My Wife's Relations (24:25 - Keyboard and percussion music track is uncredited) A series of misunderstandings leads Buster into a courtroom where an immigrant judge with poor command of English mistakenly marries him to plus-sized comedienne Kate Price. Initially bullied by his new brothers in-law, they change their tune when they find out Buster has just received a large inheritance. After lavishing Buster with gifts, they learn that they were mistaken about the inheritance and the chase is on!
The third disc in the set includes six shorts released between July of 1922 and March of 1923.
The Blacksmith (21:50 - Directed by Buster Keaton & Mal St. Clair - Organ score composed and performed by Ben Model) This short takes place entirely in and around a Blacksmith’s shop where the incompetence of apprentice Buster leads to a fight that lands his Boss (Joe Roberts) in jail. Now solely responsible for the shop, Buster’s comic incompetence as a smith and as an auto mechanic result in some serious destruction. While there are plenty of good gags, this feels more like a Chaplin or Laurel & Hardy premise, and one gets the feeling watching it that it was made to save money compared to some of Buster’s more ambitious films of the era.
The Frozen North (17:15 - Piano music by Alexander Rannie) Buster parodies popular genre films of the day in this short. Viewers not familiar with the melodramatic westerns of the day may be a bit distraught at Buster’s bad guy persona, and as time passes, the number of such viewers only increases. This is an interesting change of pace allowing Buster to have some fun with and at the expense of melodramatic acting, but it has not aged as gracefully as many of his other shorts and features.
Day Dreams (23:19 - Music by Robert Israel “at the Fotoplayer”) The conclusion (with The Goat and Cops) of Keaton’s unofficial large scale chase trilogy, Day Dreams plays like a not entirely successful editorial experiment. It maintains an episodic structure as Keaton’s character essays various menial jobs and oversells them to his prospective fiancée far away. Reading up on the history of the film (or simply viewing the visual essay by David Pearson included with this Blu-ray set), what initially appears to be an awkwardly edited two-reeler with a darkly comic downer ending turns out to be a three reeler with lots of missing footage... and a darkly comic downer ending. Title cards and still frames help to fill in some of the blanks.
The Electric House (Color tinted - 21:55 - Music arranged by Robert Israel) Buster Keaton’s love for gadgetry looms large in this short in which he plays a college graduate who majored in botany but who is somehow mistakenly awarded an electrical engineering degree. Quickly on the heels of this error, Buster is hired to do some electrical work in a wealthy man’s (Joe Roberts) house. Buster proves a quick study, installing a number of remarkable gadgets in the home, but things go south when the actual engineering graduate learns what happened and moves to sabotage all of the wonderful gadgets. Title cards are inserted for “possible missing footage”. A prologue scene includes Buster’s real life father Joe, mother Myra, and Sister Louise.
The Balloonatic (22:04 - Organ score composed and performed by Ben Model) Is another somewhat episodic spot gag short where, through a series of mishaps, Buster finds himself dropped into the wilderness with Phyllis Haver after a mishap involving a balloon. A series of gags involving Keaton and Haver’s characters adventures/rivalry in the wilderness follow, with the most memorable ones coming late and involving bears and a waterfall.
The Balloonatic (enhanced) (22:17)
The Love Nest (Color tinted - 19:35 - Directed by Buster Keaton - Music by Robert Israel “at the Fotoplayer”) A romantically distraught Buster sets off to sea in a small boat, but soon gets waylaid by a whaling ship called The Love Nest and pressed into service as a steward to its hard-nosed Captain (Who else? ...Joe Roberts). Much of the rest of the short involves Buster contending with a series of mishaps in such ways that his volatile Captain will not be tempted to throw him overboard like he did with his predecessor.
Video quality across the shorts is a decidedly mixed bag, primarily due to the conditions of the film source elements used for transfer. Examples of particularly rough looking shorts include Convict 13 (perhaps the worst), Neighbors, Hard Luck (varies greatly shot to shot), The Frozen North, and The Electric House. The Scarecrow is an example of a remarkably good looking short. Cops has very good detail and contrast, but the frame tends to "jump around" a lot. There are little to no signs of video encoding artifacts, and the frame doubling used to present One Week at 18 fps via 1080i 30/60Hz video is done carefully and correctly with no signs of aliasing. I will not say that these shorts look as good as they ever will on home video, but if they ever do look better, it will likely be due to someone unearthing a better source element than those to which Kino and producer Bruce Lawton currently have access.
All of the music tracks included are presented via lossless 16 bit 48kHz Linear PCM 2.0 encoding, and all are mastered quite well. One may quibble about the scores themselves, but their mastering for this disc release is well done, with no distracting digital artifacts applied to any of the analog recordings.
Extras are spread across all three discs and are presented in AVC encoded 1080i video with 16 bit 48kHz PCM 2.0 sound unless otherwise indicated below.
Visual Essays are narrated featurettes offering background on specific shorts or relevant aspects of the short that apply broadly to other Keaton works:
"The High Sign": A Filmmaker Emerges (7:15) by R. Emmet Sweeney narrated by Courtney Patterson
"One Week": Marvelous Toys (6:53) by David B. Pearson narrated by Courtney Patterson
Savoring "The Scarecrow": or Buster & "The Sybil Trilogy" (7:41) by Ken Gordon narrated by Gordon
"The Haunted House": Gags and Growth (6:45) by Jack Dragga narrated by Courtney Patterson
"Hard Luck": The Last Short to Be Found (5:25) by Bruce Lawton narrated by Lawton
"The Goat" : ...is Not a Goat (4:46) by David Kalat narrated by Kalat
"The Play House" : An Accidental Masterpiece (6:30) by Patricia Eliot Tobias narrated by Joe Adamson
"The Paleface": ...and Other Titles (2:39) by Bret Wood narrated by Wood
On Scoring, "Cops", and Helping Silent Films Live Again (8:30) by Ben Model narrated by Model
A Cast of Characters: "My Wife's Relations" (6:15) by Steve Massa Narrated by Courtney Patterson
The Men Who Would Be Buster (1080p) assembles films and/or clips of non-Keaton films in which gags and techniques were inspired by Buster Keaton's films.
Only Me (15:36) 1929 Lupino Lane film which expanded on the opening gag from The Play House)
Be Reasonable (excerpt) (6:36) A manic police chase from the 1921 Billy Bevan film that was likely inspired by Keaton's The Goat
Hello Baby! (excerpt) (:54) 1925 Charley Chase film that expanded upon the "headlight gag" from Keaton's "Hard Luck"
White Wings (excerpt) (:50) 1923 Stan Laurel film that recycled a chase gag where Laurel pretends to be a statue from Keaton's Hard Luck, even using the same location
Out-takes (1080p) includes alternate takes and other trims from various shorts
The Goat (2:38)
The Blacksmith (2:54) (alternate takes not used from restoration based on three alternate cuts)
The Balloonatic (:50)
Day Dreams (:35)
"...That Dud...": "The Blacksmith" (6:13) by Bruce Lawton narrated by Lawton
"The Frozen North": Keaton's Darkest Comedy (6:30) by Patricia Eliot Tobias narrated by Joe Adamson
"Day Dreams": and the Problem of Missing Film (7:07) by Davd B. Pearson narrated by Courtney Patterson. A three reeler missing so much footage that many believe it to be a poorly edited two-reeler
Dreaming of "The Love Nest" (6:02) by David Kalat narrated by Kalat
Tour of Filming Locations Film Scholar John Bengtson, author of the book Silent Echoes, reveals the locations at which many of the Keaton Shorts were filmed.
Civic Center (4:21)
Bonus Films (1080p)
Character Studies (5:34) a 1927 short in which Carter Haven "impersonates" some of the biggest movie stars of the silent era (who are all actually playing themselves). Keaton cameos along with Harold Lloyd, Rudolph Valentino, Fatty Arbuckle, Douglas Fairbanks, and Jackie Coogan
Seeing Stars (excerpt) (2:45) A clip from a 1922 promotional short from First National in which the Hollywood elite of the time are shown having a meal and clowning around together. Keaton cameos pretending to be a waiter for diners Charlie Chaplin, Jackie Coogan, Marshal Neiland, and Thomas H. Ince.
Also from Kino (1:10) is a promo for the DVD release of Lost Keaton featuring a quick cut montage of stunts. This repeats as a feature on subsequent discs in this collection under the heading of “Why they Call Him Buster”
Volume 1 - Disc 4
The Saphead (1920 - Metro Pictures Corp. - 77 minutes)
Director: Herbert Blaché
Starring: Buster Keaton, Edward Jobson, Beulah Booker, Edward Connelly, Edward Alexander, Irving Cummings, Odette Taylor, Carol Holloway, Jack Livingston, and William H. Crane
In his first starring role in a feature, Buster Keaton plays Bertie Van Alstyne, the titular saphead and scion of a wealthy family headed by his disapproving father (Crane). Bertie pines for Agnes (Booker), a girl he has known since she was adopted by his family, and eventually overcomes the objections of his father to a marriage thanks to the intercessions of Agnes and his sister Rose (Holloway). The marriage is called off at the altar when Bertie’s ne’er do well brother-in-law, Mark (Cummings), frames Bertie as the father of the illegitimate child of Mark’s recently deceased mistress. Knowing that he is about to be exposed, Mark plots to drive down the price of the Henrietta Silver Mine owned by the Van Alstyne’s so that he can buy it for a song before he is cut off from the family’s money. Only the hapless Bertie is in a position to save his family from financial ruin.
This adaptation of a popular early 20th century stage play The Henrietta is not the type of film for which Buster Keaton would become famous, but it did establish him as a legitimate leading man in features. Keaton was reportedly recommended for the part by screen star Douglas Fairbanks who had originated the role on the Broadway stage and starred in a prior film adaptation called The Lamb from 1915.
Stagey melodrama mixed with light comedy was not exactly Keaton’s gift to the world. That being said, the film does afford Buster the chance to play to some of his strengths, inclusive of the strangely sympathetic incompetent rich boy persona that he would revisit in subsequent features such as The Navigator, and the wild character-rooted physical comedy on the floor of the stock exchange that comprises much of the final reel of the film. The later was one of Buster’s gifts to the world.
This AVC 1080p encoded video presentation is pillarboxed to a 4:3 aspect to approximate the film’s original theatrical ratio. There is plenty of age related wear and tear visible on the film element, but given the age of the source element, detail is impressive, with no apparent filtering of the natural film grain. Contrast is a little on the high side, although it does not significantly obscure important details in dark or light areas of the screen. Video related artifacts are negligible to nonexistent, making for a more than satisfactory viewing experience.
The Standard Version of the film is viewable with a 1995 Robert Israel Score encoded either as a 16 bit 48 kHz DTS-HD MA 5.1 track or a 16 bit 48 kHz PCM 2.0 stereo track. Both offer outstanding fidelity. The Alternate Version of the film (discussed below with the Extras), is viewable with a 2012 Ben Model Piano Score via a 16 bit 48 kHz PCM 2.0 stereo track.
All extras are presented in 1080p video with 2.0 LPCM stereo sound unless otherwise indicated below.
The Saphead (alternate version) (1080p - 75 min) is a version of the film consisting of completely unique takes from a different negative shot simultaneously with the Standard Version. This negative was used for creating prints of the film overseas. This version is missing the explanatory titles added to the opening by Keaton’s official archivist Raymond Rohauer and has fewer tinted sequences. The video presentation has a lower contrast appearance than the Standard Version with more gradual gradients from white to black and improved shadow detail, although some scenes exhibit higher levels of film damage. It has a piano score by Ben Model composed in 2012.
A Pair of Sapheads (1080p - 7:32) is a feaurette in which Bret Wood, the producer of the high definition masterings of both versions of the film, provides information about the differences between them.
Buster Keaton: Life of the Party (30:35) is an audio-only feature derived from a 1962 open reel tape recording captured by William Cox of Keaton regaling listeners with songs and tales of his Vaudeville childhood. The first minute or so is pretty noisy and a tough listen, but it quickly improves and is a fun and fascinating piece of history for Keaton aficionados.
"Why They Call Him Buster" (1:10) is the same 70 second montage of stunts and gags from "Lost Keaton" that appeared under the menu heading of "Also from Kino" on the "Buster Keaton Short Films Collection 1920-1923 Disc 3" described above.
Gallery is a collection of sixteen stills from Buster Keaton's early days in vaudeville. Another nice piece of history for fans.
Volume 2 - Disc 5
Our Hospitality (1923 - Joseph M. Schenck Productions - 75 min)
Director: Buster Keaton, John G. Blystone
Starring: Buster Keaton, Natalie Talmadge, Joe Roberts, Ralph Bushman, Craig Ward, Monte Collins, Joe Keaton, Kitty Bradbury
The Film *****
A prologue set at the dawn of the 19th century illustrates the murderous hatred between the Canfield and McKay families of Kentucky (fictionalized versions of the Hatfields and McCoys) that leads to an infant Willie McKay (Keaton Jr.) being spirited away to live with his Aunt in New York. Twenty years later, a grown up Willie (Keaton) learns that he has inherited his father’s property in Kentucky. Getting there requires an eventful trip by early passenger train, and upon his arrival, Willie’s greatest inconvenience proves not to be the unexpectedly meager value of the property, but the death feud he inherits with it in the form of patriarch Joseph Canfield (Roberts) and his two sons (Bushman and Ward) who have been trained to shoot any McKay on site.
Keaton’s third feature film and second produced independently under the Joseph M. Schenck Productions shingle, is just about a perfect encapsulation of his genius. The film’s tragic and harrowing prologue is played dead-serious, defying audience expectations for a comedy while ingeniously setting up the sky-high life or death stakes around which all of the subsequent comedy and action in the film will revolve. From the moment that Keaton hops aboard the rickety train bound for Kentucky, nearly every sequence in the film is a tour de force.
While the film is justly lauded for Keaton’s amazing physical stunts and elaborate action-comedy set-pieces, it deserves every bit as much praise for its beautiful cinematography, nuanced performances, and editorial pacing. It is as accomplished a piece of filmmaking as any movie in any genre from Hollywood’s Golden Age, and demonstrates that Keaton was studying and internalizing lessons learned from filmmakers like D.W. Griffith every bit as much as those he learned from his comic mentors such as Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle.
Keaton keeps things “in the family” with a cast including his father as a cantankerous engineer operating the boiler of a train’s steam engine, his wife as his leading lady, and his son, Buster Keaton, Jr. as an infant Willie McKay. Sadly, this would be the last film Keaton made with longtime collaborator “Big” Joe Roberts, as he suffered a stroke during production and would pass away in October of 1923.
The film is presented on disc via a color-tinted AVC encoded 1080i 30/60Hz presentation pillarboxed to a 4:3 aspect ratio that encodes the film to run at a 22 frames per second (i.e eight out of every 30 video frames are doubled). Film damage is evident, but this proves to be one of the better presentations in the set, with excellent detail, grain resolved without noticeable filtering, and no obvious digital video artifacts.
Three different audio tracks are available with the film. The first two present the sublime Carl Davis composed and conducted score made for BBC Thames television in the mid-80s via a 24 bit 48 kHz DTS-HD MA encoding of a newly created 5.1 mix and via a 24 bit 48kHz LPCM encoding of the 2.0 stereo mix. An alternate score from Donald Hunsberger is available as a 320 kbps 16 bit 48 kHz 2.0 Dolby Digital track.
The Davis score, which I prefer, is more string heavy while the Hunsberger score features wind instruments more prominently, is faster paced, and is usually more upbeat and less dramatic.
All special features are presented in AVC encoded 1080i video with Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo audio unless otherwise indicated below:
Making Comedy Beautiful: Our Hospitality and the Birth of Buster Keaton's Features (26:08) is a featurette on Keaton's transition to feature films in general and Our Hospitality specifically. It plays like an extended version of one of the essays from the Short Film Collection, and is filled to the brim with well researched and clearly presented background information on the film and its makers. This featurette is written by Patricia Eliot Tobias with David B. Pearson, Produced by Bret Wood, and features off-screen narration from Courtney Patterson.
Hospitality (55:23 with introduction - 50:09 without) is a much shorter cut of the film derived from a 16mm print from a heavily damaged 35mm element that was discovered in 2008. It has no unique footage, but is a completely different editorial assemblage with scenes and shots re-sequenced. Most of the material that was cut involved comedy sequences. An introduction explains what is known of the history of the alternate cut and some informed speculation about its possible origins. The introduction is written by Patricia Eliot Tobias with David B. Pearson, Produced by Bret Wood, and Narrated by Courtney Patterson.
"The Iron Mule" (19:26) is a 1925 two-reel short starring Al St. John featuring the train Keaton built for Our Hospitality and an uncredited cameo from Keaton as a Native American (and possibly a few other featured stunt roles per information divulged in the Making Comedy Beautiful... featurette).
Galleries is a collection of stills broken up under two separate menu headings.
Photos - is a collection of 32 professionally shot stills from the production of the film
Snapshots - is a collection of 32 behind the scenes pictures taken of the film's cast, crew, and locations during production
The stills are occasionally accompanied by brief explanatory text. Once one of the two galleries is selected, individual images are selectable from a thumbnail menu on the left side of the screen using the direction and enter buttons on the Blu-ray player's remote. They may also be browsed in sequence via the use of the chapter skip buttons on the remote. All other still galleries in this set function the same way.
Volume 2 - Disc 6
Sherlock Junior (1924 - Joseph M. Schenck Productions - 45 min)
Director: Buster Keaton
Starring: Buster Keaton, Kathryn McGuire, Joe Keaton, Erwin Connelly, Ward Crane
Three Ages (1923 - Joseph M. Schenck Productions - 63 min)
Director: Buster Keaton
Starring: Buster Keaton, Margaret Leahy, Wallace Beery, Joe Roberts, Lillian Lawrence, Kewpie Morgan
Buster Keaton’s five reel proto-surrealist classic Sherlock Jr. and his less auspicious debut feature as a director, Three Ages, are packaged on the same disc, the individual release of which was previously reviewed on the HT Forum by Todd Erwin. Please click the following link to read Todd Erwin's excellent review of Sherlock Jr./Three Ages.
Todd’s ratings were as follows:
Sherlock Junior: Film ****, Video ****, Audio ****
Three Ages: Film ***, Video ***, Audio ***½
Todd’s listing/assessment of the extras on the disc is repeated here for convenience:
Audio Commentary on Sherlock Jr. by Film Historian David Kalat: Kalat seems to be an expert on this film, indicating that this is his and his son’s favorite film, and speaks at length over the controversy over how much Keaton directed Sherlock Jr. and how much, if any, was directed by Fatty Arbuckle (and the scandal that ruined his career). This is a very entertaining listen, and adds an extra appreciation for this classic film.
Tour of Filming Locations (9:57): Author and Buster Keaton shooting locations expert John Bengtson takes us on a journey using vintage maps, still photographs, and film footage to highlight where Sherlock Jr. may have been filmed.
Movie Magic and Mysteries: The Making of Sherlock Jr. (22:36): Film historian David B. Pearson discusses, with the aid of vintage still photos and footage from this and other silent films, the history behind this now classic film.
Still Gallery: 27 photos are provided, many from deleted scenes that are considered lost forever.
Tour of Filming Locations (7:58): Author and Buster Keaton shooting locations expert John Bengtson takes us on a journey using vintage maps, still photographs, and film footage to highlight where Three Ages may have been filmed.
Excerpt from D.W Griffith’s Man’s Genesis (1912) (9:10): A brief look at what many believe to be the inspiration for Keaton’s Three Ages.
Three (Separate) Ages: A re-edited version of the film into three separate short films, with score by Lee Erwin.
Still Gallery: 21 photos are provided, some from deleted scenes that are considered lost forever.
Volume 2 - Disc 7
The Navigator (1924 - Buster Keaton Productions - 60 min)
Director: Buster Keaton, Donald Crisp
Starring: Buster Keaton, Kathy McGuire, Frederick Vroom
The Film *****
Buster Keaton plays vacuous rich boy Rollo Treadwell who, because he is bored and it looks like fun, decides to ask his neighbor Betsy O’Brien to marry him. When his spur of the moment proposal is soundly rejected, he decides to take his booked “Honeymoon” trip to Hawaii anyway. A series of mis-steps on Rollo’s part and a plot by foreign nationals to set a ship owned by Betsy’s father (Vroom) adrift at sea, find Rollo and Betsy, to their great surprise, stranded aboard a giant passenger ship adrift at sea with no crew.
Film history was made the day that a member of Buster Keaton’s film crew got word of a financially strapped company looking to unload a passenger ship named the USAT Buford. Apparently, the thinking was that if Keaton could exploit the possibilities of a large boat as effectively as he did in his 1921 two-reeler, “The Boat”, he ought to be able to exploit the possibilities of a giant passenger steam ship for an entire feature length film. Audiences and critics agreed that this thinking was correct, and The Navigator proved to be one of Keaton’s most financially successful feature films.
The film is magnificently paced and shot, and I fear that the more I say about it, the more likely I am to spoil something wonderful for a first time viewer. Suffice it to say that Keaton’s imagination is firing on all cylinders, Kathy McGuire gives the best female leading performance in any of Keaton’s features, and director Donald Crisp is given one of the funnier director cameos you will ever see.
The tinted AVC encoded 1080p video presentation pillarboxed to a 4:3 aspect ratio is quite good. Film damage in the form of scratches and occasional bad splices is apparent, but contrast and detail are on par with the better entries in this set. The tinting scheme of blue for night-time, green for underwater, and sepia/amber for everything else appears to have been applied in the digital domain as there is not the same loss of detail and increase in contrast evident in some of the other tinted shorts and features.
Audio options include two different mixes of a Robert Israel score from 1995: A 24 bit 48kHz DTS-HD MA rendering of a 5.1 remix and a 24 bit 48kHz 2.0 PCM stereo track. Both sound wonderful, rich and dynamic.
Commentary by Robert Arkus and Yair Solan runs the full length of the film and provides an informative listening experience. Film Historians Arkus and Solan, who recorded the track while seated together, are not particularly polished speakers, but they have done their homework with respect to silent cinema in general and Buster Keaton in particular, and develop a nice conversational rapport as the track progresses. Information is meted out at a uniform pace, avoiding the "late commentary lull" that often occurs with such tracks.
Of Buster, Boats, Other Seacraft, and Working on The Navigator (8:50) is a featurette/visual essay written and narrated by film historian Bruce Lawton. It is largely redundant with material covered in the audio commentary on the disc, but is nine minutes of densely packed information which should satisfy viewers without the time to sit through the full-length commentary.
Asleep in the Deep (3:16) presents a recording of the 78 rpm record featured prominently in the film during the sequence where Rollo and Betsy are having a restless first night on the Navigator. On screen lyrics are provided for Karaoke-inclined baritones.
Gallery is a collection of sixteen publicity stills from the film provided courtesy of Film Historian Robert Arkus.
Volume 2 - Disc 8
Seven Chances (1925 - Buster Keaton Productions - 56 min)
Director: Buster Keaton
Starring: Buster Keaton, T. Roy Barnes, Snitz Edwards, Ruth Dwyer, Frances Raymond, Erwin Connelly, Jules Cowles
The Film ****
In Seven Chances, James Shannon (Keaton) and his business partner William Meekin (Barnes) are in dire financial straits due to some poor investments when help comes in the form of lawyer Caleb Pettibone (Edwards). Caleb brings news that James stands to inherit a small fortune from his late father’s estate ... provided he is married by 7PM on the evening of his 27th birthday. The catch is that the day James hears this news is his 27th birthday. When the socially awkward James botches his proposal to his longtime girlfriend (Dwyer) by letting slip about the financial urgency, William and Caleb offer to help, suggesting one bad idea after another that culminates in an army of spinsters and gold-diggers chasing James through the streets of Los Angeles.
Buster Keaton was not particularly interested in conventional farce, and reportedly had this adaptation of a talky Roi Cooper Megrue stage play thrust upon him by his production partner Joseph M. Schenck. In the grand tradition of making lemonade from lemons, Buster stripped the story down to its essence, unleashed his top gag men on it, and opened it up from its stage bound origins so wide that it threatens to swallow Los Angeles by its final reel. Early in the production he also dismissed the co-director that had been assigned to the picture and took the reins completely by himself.
An important plot point involving a hired hand who is slow in delivering a message played by Jules Cowles in cartoonish Vaudeville-style black face and some other ethnic-based gags that do not play as well outside of the context of the 1920s will not exactly help the film to captivate modern audiences, but the humorous second act where Buster botches seven proposals and succeeds at one before being disqualified and the climactic chase through Los Angeles and its surroundings are fantastic cinematic achievements.
Cinephiles should keep an eye out for a 24 year old Jean Arthur in one of her earliest on-screen roles as a switchboard operator/receptionist.
The Video ****
The film on Blu-ray receives an AVC-encoded 1080p video rendering pillarboxed to a 4:3 ratio. The opening three minute segment was shot in two-strip Technicolor with the remainder of film tinted amber/sepia. The color sequence has always looked terrible on video (except when simply abandoned for black and white), but through a significant restorative effort from Eric Grayson, it looks a lot less terrible and gives some semblance of what it may have looked like in 1925. Buster and Ruth Dwyer look like grey-fleshed zombies in the final “Spring” segment of the sequence, but Grayson and the folks at Kino get an “A” for effort given the limitations in the source elements. The remainder of the film looks comparable to some of the better entries in this set with noticeable scratches and film artifacts, but no significant digital video artifacts.
The Audio ****½
Audio options are identical to those for The Navigator including two different mixes of a Robert Israel score from 1995: A 24 bit 48kHz DTS-HD MA rendering of a 5.1 remix and a 24 bit 48kHz 2.0 PCM stereo track. The end result is similarly pleasing to the ears.
The Extras ****
All special features are presented in AVC encoded 1080p video with 224 kbps Dolby Digital 2.0 sound sound unless otherwise indicated below.
Audio Commentary by Film Historians Ken Gordon and Bruce Lawton is another scene specific track jam packed with factual tidbits about the film, its production, the filmmakers, and silent film in general from two experts in the field, but it can be a bit of a dry listen. Ken Gordon frequently sounds like he is reading his notes in an unimpassioned tone designed to be the aural equivalent of Buster Keaton's facial expressions. Lawton, who is largely responsible for the audio/video presentations on these Kino Keaton discs, interjects occasionally with additional good information in between Gordon's waves of vocalized research.
A Brideless Groom (16:48) is a 1947 "Three Stooges" two-reeler in which writer Clive Bruckman works with a similar premise to that with which he worked on Seven Chances. In this scenario, Shemp Howard assumes the Keaton Role of the man needing to get married quickly in order to secure an inheritance. Note: Despite technically being encoded at 1080p, this presentation appears to be from an inferior video master than that used for the 2009 Three Stooges Collection Volume Five: 1946-1948 SD DVD set from Columbia.
How a French Nobleman Got a Wife Through the New York Herald Personal Coulumns (1080i - 9:44) is an Edison company short from 1904 with a large scale chase sequence analogous to the one in the climactic final reels of Seven Chances. It is presented with a synthesizer score by Ben Model. Fans of early cinema may be fascinated, but others are unlikely to view this more than once.
Tour of Filming Locations (10:18) is another interesting tour of locations from author/historian John Bengtson adapted from his Silent Echoes book. This is one of the better of these features as Seven Chances makes ample use of real Southern California locations.
About the Technicolor Sequence (6:15) is a featurette in which Film Historian Eric Grayson discusses the two-strip Technicolor opening sequence, the technical details about how two-strip color was implemented during the period, and his efforts and methods used to restore the sequence to the closest semblance of its original appearance in over 80 years. It concludes with an illustrative quad-panel split screen presentation showing the B&W preservation print, a raw transfer of a surviving nitrate Technicolor print, The Baselight color-corrected version, and Grayson's final composited and digitally corrected version. The recording of Grayson's voice has a strange bedrock of noise.
Stills is a collection of 16 publicity stills from the movie.
Volume 3 - Disc 9
Go West (1925 - Buster Keaton Productions - 68 min)
Director: Buster Keaton
Starring: Buster Keaton, Kathleen Myers, Howard Truesdale
Battling Butler (1926 - Buster Keaton Productions - 75 min)
Director: Buster Keaton
Starring: Buster Keaton, Snitz Edwards, Sally O'Neil, Tom Wilson, Francis McDonald
Go West, Keaton’s feature film take on westerns, found him taking a break from herding Cecil B. DeMille numbers of extras through elaborate large scale outdoor chase sequences like cattle so that he could herd actual cattle through an elaborate large scale outdoor chase sequence. Battling Butler found Buster adapting a stage play on his own terms with results that proved very popular upon the time of its initial release. The individual release of these films on Blu-ray was previously reviewed on the HT Forum by myself in September of 2011. Please click the following link to read my earlier review of the Go West/Battling Butler Blu-ray.
A summation of my ratings follows:
Go West: Film ****, Video ***½, Audio ***½
Battling Butler: Film ****, Video ***, Audio ***½
My listing/assessment of the extras on the disc is repeated here for convenience:
Go West (11:58) is a vintage 1923 short from the Hal Roach Studio in which a western themed melodrama is enacted by a group of costumed trained monkeys. It is a surreal viewing experience, but I am sure the ASPCA would have a few questions about how this was accomplished if this were produced today. It is presented in AVC-encoded 1080p video with 48 kHz 2.0 channel PCM stereo audio.
Buster Keaton: Screenwriter (59:20) is an audio recording of an extended pitch/story session in which Buster Keaton can be heard running through a story proposal for an episode of the Wagon Train television series. It is a bit long for non-obsessives to get through, but is worth a listen to get some insight into how Keaton's supremely analytical creative mind worked, even in his later years. Audio is presented in glorious monophonic.
Stills Gallery is a collection of twenty production stills from Go West, including some that illustrate deleted sequences from the film in which Keaton's character first attempts going north and going south before eventually following the film title's advice and going west.
Buster Keaton: Screenwriter present nineteen still frame excerpts from a screenplay Keaton wrote in 1947 for a "talkie" remake of Battling Butler that was never produced. The scene excerpted is the dinner scene from the camping trip early in the film.
Stage Production Photos is a collection of eleven stills documenting a 1922 London stage production of the Battling Butler play from which Keaton's film was adapted.
Stills Gallery is a collection of fifteen production stills from Battling Butler
Volume 3 - Disc 10
The General (1926 - Buster Keaton Productions - 78 min)
Director: Buster Keaton, Clyde Bruckman
Starring: Buster Keaton, Marion Mack, Glen Cavender, Jim Farley, Frederick Vroom , Charles Smith, Frank Barnes, Joe Keaton, Mike Donlin, Tom Nawn
Despite being a money-loser during its initial domestic release, The General has only picked up reputational steam over the years and is now regarded by many as Keaton’s ultimate cinematic achievement. The individual release of this Blu-ray was previously reviewed on the HT Forum by Neil Middlemiss. Please click the following link to read Neil Middlemiss’ insightful review of Kino’s release of The General on Blu-ray.
A summation of Neil’s ratings follows:
Film ****½, Video ****½, Audio ****½
(Personally I think he was a bit stingy with that last half star on the film rating )
Neil’s listing/assessment of the extras on the disc is repeated here for convenience:
A Video Tour of the Authentic General, presented in association with The Southern Museum (18:05): This interview with Harper Harris (of the Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History) was filmed in 2008, and has Harper confidently and enthusiastically discussing the birth and specifications of the famous General locomotive. With his southern drawl and encyclopedic recalling of the story, Harper is entertaining and the tale fascinating.
A Tour of the Filming Locations, presented by John Bengston, author of Silent Echoes (4:20): Author John Benston, referencing his book Silent Echoes, provides an audio accompaniment to a tour of the locations used in Keaton’s The General, with a look at some of the locations almost 80 years after the film was shot.
Behind-the-Scenes Home Movie Footage (1:00): Filmed in Cottage Grove, Oregon, The General apparently drew a little crowd during production – the footage seen here was captured by onlookers.
Filmed Introduction by Gloria Swanson (2:00): This introduction by Silent Era star Gloria Swanson (The Coast of Folly) was “intended to accompany TV broadcasts of the film in the 1960’s”
Filmed Introduction by Orson Welles (12:21): This delightful and fascinating special feature, filmed in 1971, has the great Orson Welles recalling his memories of Buster Keaton for a series on Silent Films, and includes clips from several other (and earlier) Keaton works.
“The Buster Express,” a brisk montage of train gags from throughout Keaton’s career (5:00): A fun montage of Keaton’s use of and fascination with railways, trains and trams in his career
DVD Release Trailer (1:00): Produced in 2008 for the DVD release
Photo Gallery: More than 75 terrific images – including stills, promotional materials and more.
Volume 3 - Disc 11
College (1927 - Buster Keaton Productions - 65 min)
Director: James W. Horne
Starring: Buster Keaton, Anne Cornwall, Flora Bramley, Harold Goodwin, Snitz Edwards, Carl Harbaugh, Sam Crawford, Florence Turner
The Film ***
In College, Buster Keaton plays Ronald, a high school valedictorian who extols the virtues of academics over athletics ... right up until his girlfriend Mary (Cornwall) objects. He then makes it his mission in life to break into any form of College athletics. Meanwhile the brutish Jeff (Goodwin) is laughing at Ronald’s hopeless efforts and moving in on Mary.
After the elaborate spectacle of The General, College finds Buster Keaton working on a much more modest scale. It also finds him working for the first time with new gag writers Carl Harbaugh and Bryan Foy (of the famous Vaudeville “Seven Little Foys”). Much of the film plays like a series of spot gags as Buster repeatedly tries and fails at various sports and part-time jobs. The fact that the gags are pretty funny certainly helps matters, but this is one of the few features Keaton made that feels like it has any editorial fat on it. Things pick up in the final couple of reels as some intrigue develops when Ronald/Buster is appointed as the Coxswain for a rowing team.
A number of real life Olympians appear in the film and some speculate that the film was made at least in part to promote Los Angeles as a potential location for a future Olympic Games. As a bit of trivia, this film features a rare stunt not performed by Buster himself. He is doubled by then-reigning Olympic champion Lee Barnes in a scene requiring Buster’s character to pole vault.
The film on Blu-ray receives an AVC-encoded 1080p video rendering pillarboxed to a 4:3 ratio. The quality of the presentation varies by reel and sometimes by scene. During the weaker segments, contrast gets a bit high with crushed blacks and near blooming whites. Many of the exterior scenes with Buster attempting various track and field events seem to suffer in this way. An amazing gag where Buster (in blackface as a waiter) gets knocked over by a swinging door into a complete somersault and manages not to spill a drop of coffee seems to be from a much lower generation print than the footage on either side of it. I have seen other prints of the film without the apparent dip in relative quality during the stunt, so it does not appear to be a field enlargement or other type of process shot.
The only available audio track is a 16 bit 48 kHz PCM 2.0 track of “Musical Setting” (i.e. organ and percussion arrangement and performance) by John Muri. This is a pretty good track of its type from a very experienced organ accompanist which I believe was recorded in the early 1990s.
All extras are presented in 1080p video with 16 bit 48kHz 2.0 PCM stereo unless otherwise indicated below.
Commentary by film Historian Rob Farr founder of Slapsticon is another informative full-length scene specific commentary covering circumstances of the film's production and plenty of background on the filmmakers' lives and careers as well. Farr is an engaging speaker which makes the commentary easy to sit through for the film's entire running time.
Tour of Filming Locations (1080i - 9:56) has Film Scholar John Bengtson, author of the book Silent Echoes, revealing the locations at which many of the scenes in College were filmed and showing comparisons with how they look today.
The Scribe (29:30) is a short film from 1966 produced for the "Construction Safety Association of Ontario" in which Buster plays a newspaper reporter who intercepts a call in an office about construction site safety and decides to go to the construction site and explain/enforce the applicable safety regulations. Buster does not speak, but simply points at rules in question for emphasis, accidentally wreaking havoc everywhere he attempts to enforce order. This was to be the last filmed appearance of Keaton before his death in February of 1966. The source for the video transfer appears to be a somewhat faded color 16mm print. This is a surprising and welcome addition to the set.
Volume 4 - Disc 12
Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928 - Buster Keaton Productions - 70 min)
Director: Chas. F. Reisner
Starring: Buster Keaton, Tom McGuire, Ernest Torrence, Tom Lewis, Marion Byron
With many of Keaton’s key collaborators having flown the coop seeking greener pastures at major studios, one could forgive Keaton if his last gasp as a maker of independent features had been a tepid death rasp. Far from the case, Keaton delivers one of his most inspired features, some of his most breathtaking stunts, and one of his greatest set-pieces in Steamboat Bill, Jr. The individual release of this Blu-ray was previously reviewed on the forum by Neil Middlemiss. Please click the following link to read Neil Middlemiss’ excellent review of Kino’s release of Steamboat Bill, Jr. on Blu-ray.
A summation of Neil’s ratings follows:
Film ****½, Video ****, Audio ****½
Neil’s listing/assessment of the extras on the disc is repeated here for convenience:
Alternate Version: A complete alternate version of Steamboat Bill, Jr., comprised entirely of variant takes and camera angles
3 Music scores:Select from the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track performed by the Biograph Players (with C. Edward Hupton in piano, John Francis on percussion, and Joe Kerr on synthesizer), the organ score by Lee Erwin, or the piano score by William Perry.
Documentary on the making of Steamboat Bill, Jr.:This is quite a good look at the making of the film, with some revealing insights and doting appreciation of this gem from the silent era.
Stills Gallery:A number of images – including stills, promotional materials and more.
“Why They Call Him Buster”:A musical montage of pratfalls and stunts.
Vintage Recordings:Two vintage recordings of the folk song “Steamboat Bill”
One minor clarification worth making related to Neil’s review is that the piano score by William Perry is unique to the “Alternate” version of the film.
Volume 4 - Discs 13-14
Lost Keaton: Sixteen Comedy Shorts (1934-1937 – Educational Pictures)
After an unhappy half dozen years toiling in the studio system at MGM, Buster returned to independent filmmaking with a series of sixteen two-reel talkies made for the “poverty row” studio Educational Pictures. These shorts were made on a shoestring budget, and only dupey prints seem to remain for many of them. This makes the value added equation for presenting them in high definition somewhat questionable, but they are definitely worth viewing for Buster Keaton aficionados and completists. The individual release of these shorts on Blu-ray was reviewed on the forum by Todd Erwin in March of 2012. Please click the following link to read Todd Erwin’s thorough review of Kino’s release of Lost Keaton on Blu-ray.
A summation of Todd’s ratings follows:
Films ***, Video ***, Audio ***
Todd’s listing/assessment of the extras on the discs is repeated here for convenience. (Note that his rating was inclusive of the enclosed booklet which I will be describing in the “Packaging” section at the bottom of this review):
Disc One contains Kino’s usual Photo Gallery, consisting of promotional stills from many of the shorts, while Disc Two contains Why They Call Him “Buster” (1:11), a montage of pratfalls and stunts from the 16 shorts that plays more like a trailer for this 2-disc set.
The fourteen discs are enclosed in four “fattened” Blu-ray cases labeled “Volume 1-4”. Each case has a double sided hinged tray with spindle/hubs on either side. The cases for Volume 1 and Volume 2 also include spindle/hubs on the inside front and back covers, allowing for accommodation of four discs with no overlapping. The cases for Volume 3 and Volume 4 each include an additional spindle/hub on the back cover only, allowing for accommodation of three discs with no overlapping. Volume 1 includes an insert eight page booklet by Jeffrey Vance that accompanies the Short Films Collection 1920-1923. It includes an informative essay and short by short production notes. Volume 4 includes an insert eight page booklet by David MacLeod. It includes informative Film Notes for each of the sixteen shorts included in the Lost Keaton set. The discs are contained in a fairly thin cardboard box with a colorized image of a young Keaton on the front cover. The whole set is about the size of 5-6 standard Blu-ray cases, making for efficient storage for fourteen discs representing eleven separate releases.