- May 7, 2001
The Buster Keaton Collection
The Cameraman - Spite Marriage – Free and Easy
Studio: Warner Brothers
Year: 1928, 1929 & 1930
Rated: Not Rated
Film Length: The Cameraman: 76 minutes, Spite and Marriage: 76 minutes and Free And Easy: 93 minutes.
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1 Standard
Audio: DD Mono & Stereo
Subtitles: French & Spanish (English included on Free and Easy)
Package: 3 panel Digipak in cardboard slipcover case
Similar to their release of last years The Lon Chaney Collection, WB is set to release The Buster Keaton Collection which includes another group of films from the “TCM Archives”. The films included are The Cameraman (1928), Spite Marriage (1929) and Free And Easy (1930). The first two films are silents, while the last film was Keaton’s first talkie film. Joseph Frank Keaton VI obtained his nickname when at six months he tumbled down a flight of stairs unharmed, he was then given the name "Buster" by family friend Harry Houdini. Buster was born in 1895 and died in 1966 of cancer.
The first three films are also landmark in that they mark the debut of the star working for the lavish MGM Studio – said to be the “beginning of the end” for the great artist. After working as an independent for many years, in 1928 he signed with MGM and his fame dwindled and his life began to take a downward spiral. By 1932 he was divorced, a chronic alcoholic and in 1935 he even entered a mental hospital. Even though he was promised a greater salary, more publicity and the typical rewards of working for a large studio, the decision was not without its pitfalls either.
As a result, Keaton would lose much of the control in the way of creative decisions. A decision that he himself, would later admit, to be the worst he ever made during his career. However, with the advent of talkie films, it seemed as though public interest in Keaton, the silent star, waned. Though his filmography seemed to be without many interruptions, his role with MGM was relegated to writing for the other up and coming stars of the studio while he performed only bit roles (with a few exceptions) including the highly regarded, A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum (1966) which turned out to be his final role. His entire career would see him only second in terms of world popularity to his friend and other silent legend, Charlie Chaplin.
Infatuated with a pretty office worker, Keaton sets out to become a newsreel cameraman in order to be closer to his dream girl. Keaton’s first film for MGM, made in 1928, is considered one of his funniest masterworks and offers up a feast of visual gags. Unlike Keaton’s earlier works, the MGM studio now wanted him to strictly follow a script, allowing very little room for improvisation. In fact, one of the very few scenes where he was allowed to stray from a script takes place in Yankee Stadium while Keaton plays a baseball game with himself. The newly remastered DVD includes a new score by Arthur Barrow.
In this 1929 silent, laugh-filled classic, Keaton plays a fellow named Elmer, the proprietor of a dry-cleaning shop, who is hopelessly in love with a famous stage star, Trilby Drew (played by Dorothy Sebastian). Hoping to win her over, Elmer would dress up each night in a customer's tuxedo and attend her performances, under the guise of being wealthy. When Trilbey’s boyfriend gets engaged to another woman, she marries Elmer in a desperate attempt to get even. This was Keaton’s final silent comedy and is presented here with its original Vitaphone music score. Ironically enough, Keaton wanted to do this film with sound however, the MGM soundstages were booked to capacity and MGM wouldn’t permit it.
Free and Easy
In Keaton’s first talkie, he stars as an agent to beauty contest winner Elvira Plunkett (played by Anita Page). When Elvira decides to try her luck in Hollywood, Elmer goes along to help and the two soon find themselves falling in love. Chaos ensues when the couple must contend with Elvira’s disapproving mother and a handsome movie star, who also has his sights set on the lovely Elvira. Known for his sight gags, not his dialogue, MGM was about to move forward with the new technology that would indeed, signal the “beginning of the end” for Buster Keaton. This 1930 classic is highlighted by guest appearances from a host of other MGM stars of the era including Robert Montgomery and Lionel Barrymore.
A little bit about the packaging. The set consists of two discs housed in a 3 panel Digipak, which slips nicely into a cardboard slipcover case. Each of the panels contains a list of the various chapter stops, great looking photographs and a picture of each of the original movie posters. The rear panel lists the entire cast & crew credits for each of the three productions. Also similar to last year’s Chaney set, the Keaton Collection is packaged handsomely which I’m sure will please all fans of the “Great Stone Face”. Very classy indeed.
The Cameraman - :star::star::star::star:
Spite Marriage - :star::star::star::star:
Free and Easy - :star::star::star:
All of the films show remarkably well. Throughout the course of all three, there are various reels which are weaker than others, but by and large this set exceeds my expectations. Personally, I thought overall, Spite Marriage looks slightly better (on the whole) than The Cameraman and Free and Easy.
All of the films display decent black levels with better than average whites. The level of contrast and shadow detail is excellent. As we might expect, there is a fair amount of film grain however, it is by no means excessive.
Image definition is rather erratic and difficult to comment on as a whole. Some reels look terrific, while others look slightly soft and dupey. One would assume that a number of various sources were used resulting in the varying quality – not a criticism, but an observation. The same observation can be said for what most of us would be concerned with from film of this vintage – the condition, blemishes, dust, dirt, scratches etc. Again, there are a number of blemishes that show up from time to time and it would appear that Spite Marriage shows slightly cleaner with fewer blemishes to report.
I don’t know if any sort of restoration was undertaken with these films, but these transfers do fall short of the previous Chaplin sets, despite the PAL debacle. They do look terrific however, and again consideration granted for films that are 75+ years old.
Okay, so you’re saying “how difficult can it be to evaluate audio on silent films”…? Well, in this case, pretty simple really - but I’ll mention a few things, mostly highpoints on this trouble free set. On disc one, The Cameraman and the “So Funny It Hurts: Buster Keaton and MGM” documentary on the second disc are in DD stereo. The Cameraman is accompanied by a new score by Arthur Barrow. The other two films (Spite Marriage & Free and Easy) are presented in mono.
All of these tracks are cleaner than I anticipated – I don’t know why, but I assumed there would be slightly more hiss and background noise and what not – thankfully there isn’t.
On the Free and Easy track, it too is clean and basically free of noisy distractions. As you might imagine, the dynamics are wafer thin and slightly edgy but all of the dialogue is easily discernable and quite clear actually. As for the accompanying music, except for the newer 2.0 score on The Cameraman, there isn’t much of soundstage per se as everything is anchored to the center channel.
This set is complemented by a number of supplements that are highly informative and entertaining. They are:
[*] An Introduction by Robert Osborne. Both intros are worthwhile as Mr. Osborne covers a lot of ground quickly offering up numerous tidbits relating to each film. Duration: 2:04 minutes.
[*] A Commentary by Glenn Mitchell. Obviously the gentlemen who have appeared for this and the Spite Marriage commentary are veritable experts when it comes to Buster Keaton and his works. They offer up a treasure trove of interesting trivia and informative facts relating to Keaton and his films.
[*] Photo Montage is also included where approximately 50 B&W still photos are shown in a slideshow like manner accompanied by piano music. Duration: 2:36 minutes.
[*] An Introduction by Robert Osborne. Duration: 2:36 minutes.
[*] A Commentary by John Bengston and Jeffrey Vance. As I mentioned above, these commentaries are certainly worth your time as they are presented by experts of the films.
[*] Photo Montage is also included which starts with a color photo of the movie poster and includes several dozen B&W still photos in a slideshow like manner accompanied by music. Duration: 2:16 minutes.
Free And Easy
On the second disc, there are no features specific to film itself, but included is a documentary entitled:
[*] So Funny It Hurts: Buster Keaton and MGM. The feature is narrated by James Karen actor/friend of Keaton. The documentary does an exemplary job at chronicling Keaton’s displeasure with his time spent with MGM and shows several clips from an old interview where Buster speaks quite candidly about many of his personal experiences there. It’s also interesting to see several scene for scene comparisons of Red Skelton’s work compared to Buster’s from years earlier. Obviously a consummate professional, Keaton speaks of the lack of commitment from the younger generation that he worked with. The feature was produced for TCM by Kevin Brownlow and Christopher Bird specifically for this set in 2004. Although the documentary is terrific, I can’t help wishing it had been longer. Duration: 39:19 minutes.
Special Features: 4/5
**Special Features rated for the quality of supplements, not the quantity**
The three films that have been included are historically important unfortunately marking the (sad) decline for the legendary actor/filmmaker. There’s no doubt that The Cameraman is the crown jewel in the set however, Spite Marriage is almost as worthy and Free and Easy also has its moments but falls just short of the brilliance of the previous two.
Sadly, it’s no surprise that interest in classic film in general is waning, never mind silent classic film. WB’s decision to release another set of silent films, admittedly a somewhat obscure set, is further proof positive of the commitment to their loyal fans of classic movies.
This is a terrific collection of Keaton films with presentations that have probably never been better. They are complemented with informative commentaries and an excellent documentary, as well as several other interesting little additions. And to top it all off, the packaging is elegant and classy. If you’re a fan of Keaton, dare I say, you are about to be very pleased.
Overall Rating: 4/5 (not an average)
Release Date: December 7th, 2004