The Genius of Buster Keaton (1917-1923)

This is an Australian DVD release containing Buster Keaton’s 32 or 33 two-reel comedies (depending on whether or not he’s in A Reckless Romeo, and obviously not including the one still-lost film from 1917), much the same as Eureka’s Masters of Cinema edition (albeit with that additional film and minus the book) but a damn sight cheaper ($29 at JB HiFi), not to mention more easily accessible. While Keaton’s always been one of my favourites, I hadn’t seen the stuff he did with Roscoe Arbuckle before except as excerpts… so it was particularly interesting to watch him develop across the first disc. In those first films from 1917 he’s very much the second string; these are really Arbuckle films (and things of wonder they are at that; the frenetic first reel of The Rough House is staggering). But by the end of that year he was obviously rising in prominence; in Coney Island he even beats Arbuckle onto the screen. By the start of 1918 and the end of the first disc he and Arbuckle are much more of an actual duo. Interesting to see some of the gurning Keaton pulls in some of these films, too, particularly Oh Doctor where he plays Fatty’s somewhat overgrown child; the Great Stone Face evidently took time to refine.

The second disc wraps up the rest of his time with Arbuckle, when his burgeoning career would be temporarily halted by wartime service, and the beginning of the solo career in 1920 after Arbuckle moved on to Paramount and Keaton took over Arbuckle’s company and then Charlie Chaplin’s old studio. With hindsight, of course, we can see that not only was The Saphead a relative blip, but that Keaton was absolutely right to hold off releasing his first solo two-reeler (The High Sign). One Week is such a terrific little film that it really was a better choice of debut. When The High Sign appears on disc 3 in the context of his other 1921 films, it’s obvious there’s nothing actually wrong with it; it’s just that One Week is a lot better. From here on it would be onwards and upwards for Keaton (and if nothing else there’d be less cross-dressing in his films than Arbuckle employed, the amazing opening dream sequence of The Play House being an exception); Arbuckle, alas, had a far less happy future ahead of him as we know.

By the time we get to the third disc, the Great Stone Face is well-established, and Keaton’s films are manifesting a greater degree of mechanical inventiveness as well. We can see this even in The High Sign (i.e. technically right from the start) with that delightful combination of dog, bell and string he comes up with to assist him at the shooting gallery; and we can see it in the similarly string-driven cottage of The Scarecrow. It’ll achieve some kind of apotheosis on disc 4 with The Electric House. But it’s also present in the technique, too; look at the aforementioned opening of The Play House with its multiple exposure shenanigans and up to nine Busters on screen, and—obviously—none of them created in computer. Similarly, the fact that you know an actual person is actually doing this gives the athleticism of the films an additional edge in the digital age; in Neighbours Buster is actually carrying off his beloved while standing on the shoulders of another person who is also standing on another person’s shoulders… all this business being filmed in long shot, too.

By the end of the fourth disc it is possible to see Keaton starting to run out of steam, and in 1923, after a couple more two-reelers he would try his hand at features again with Three Ages. Approaching it conservatively, he designed this parody of Griffith’s Intolerance to be separated into three two-reelers if it failed. Which it didn’t, so instead he was launched upon a new phase of his career. In the meantime, this set is a mightily handy and happily inexpensive look back at the origins of that career full of good things; print quality is obviously variable and it’s a bit disappointing that it doesn’t use the properly restored versions of some of the films (Hard Luck, I’m looking at you), but the price was reasonable and I’m not going to complain too much.

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