Buster Keaton: The Shorts Collection 1917-1923
USDVD release date: 24 May 2016
Little in this collection is new, as the films have previously been on Blu-ray in various permutations. So what’s the big deal here? It’s the sheer convenience of finally having all 32 existing shorts made by Buster Keaton, in 2K restorations, in one shiny package.
That includes 13 “apprentice” shorts he made under the mentorship of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, and that in turn includes “The Cook”, which had been rediscovered and issued separately from the previous Arbuckle/Keaton discs. Let nobody assume these early works are too minor or primitive, or even—perish the thought—unfunny. They’re often ingenious and for some reason rely frequently on cross-dressing. Not yet established as “the great stone face”, Keaton adopts a variety of attitudes.
Most crucially, these films showcase early versions of famous Keaton gags. For example, his most famous stunt is where he allows the facade of a house to fall on him, and he remains unharmed because he stands where the open window lands around him. This can be seen in the 1924 feature Steamboat Bill Jr., but Keaton had previously used the gag in 1920’s brilliant and surreal house-building saga One Week. The Arbuckle material shows that Keaton first conceived this idea for Arbuckle in Back Stage one year earlier, and it’s just as great.
Another brilliant and surreal film is The Haunted House from 1921; the early scene of glue on Buster’s hands harks all the way back to his very first Arbuckle short of 1917, The Butcher Boy. Keaton clearly loved gags about strange houses, for other highlights include The Playhouse (1921), most famous for a multiple-exposure sequence that features Keaton playing every role in a stage production, and the diabolically creative The Electric House (1922). The films are increasingly strange, anarchic and surprising, with several dream sequences and at least a couple of films ending in the hero’s death.
For modern audiences, the only flaw in some items will be a few scenes of racial stereotypes, including an alternative “politically incorrect” ending for Arbuckle’s Coney Island (1917). Such moments force us to realize that these films aren’t merely entertainment but social documents, and the more thoughtful among us will take the opportunity to speculate on which elements of today’s era of brazenly “offensive” comedies will cause future audiences to wince. Comedy has been welded to the offensive and tasteless since Aristophanes, but the elements that had no intention to offend are the most revealing of their time.
While more missing footage and at least one Arbuckle short remain to be rediscovered, these films look as good as they’re probably ever going to by this stage, and these newly remastered editions have musical scores by a variety of composers and performers. If you have Kino’s 2011 collection of Keaton’s non-Arbuckle shorts, save it, because those extras haven’t been retained. Instead, we get a new intro by preservationist Serge Bromberg, the French version of The Blacksmith with alternate footage (whereas the main version is already an “alternate” discovery from the version in the 2011 set), two other alternate endings, a Keaton clip from 1951, and an excellent booklet of film notes.