Everyone has a desert island list of films that are still out of reach for personal perusal but fortunately we have the major oeuvre of the clowns of the silent cinema period on DVD. The features and short films of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd have been obviously popular titles over the history of home video. But now with the technical attributes of the DVD format we can not only enjoy seeing these timeless works again and again with greater flexibility of access but also the discs provide a treasure trove of extra options such as musical accompaniments, introductions by scholars, related film material and so on. The ability to contextualize the films and their makers is significantly enhanced.
Over the last couple of years mk2 éditions in France has released the Chaplin features and now some of the Keaton works. Distributors in other territories are using these materials for their own local releases. The Australian company Madman has joined these ranks and four Keaton releases are available at the time of writing with a boxset of the same discs planned for later in the year. Certainly the Keaton features and some of the short films have been available on DVD before. Happily these new releases are lovingly restored and are certainly the copies to purchase.
During the silent film period, Keaton starred in over a dozen short comedies with Fatty Arbuckle between 1917 and 1919. The first feature in which he appeared was the atypical The Saphead directed by Herbert Blache in 1920. He followed this with 19 ingenious short films mostly co-directed by Eddie Cline from 1921 to 1923, the year in which Keaton and Cline directed The Three Ages, the first real Keaton feature film and also the first of seven features released through the Metro Pictures Corporation. The Three Ages is one of the four Madman titles together with the three films released by United Artists, The General (1926), College (1927) and Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928).
Let’s look at the releases in detail. Following the success of Keaton’s short films, The Three Ages was devised as a parody of D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916). Its three parallel stories set in the Stone Age, Roman times and contemporary America provided the safety net that the film could be reassembled as three two-reel shorts if the feature was unsuccessful. As with the other three Keaton releases, there is a concise and informative introduction by David Robinson, a silent film authority whose book Buster Keaton (Secker & Warburg, 1969) was published at the time of the revival of interest in Keaton’s work. We hear Robinson’s voice behind an excellent montage of still images from the film. He explains the history of the production and provides useful information on the choice of cast. The image quality of The Three Ages has always been a problem. I have seen poor quality 16mm prints and various deficient tape incarnations. The new release is very sharp, importantly very steady and with good contrast. There are signs of negative deterioration but these have been mollified with the digital restoration and never intrude upon the appreciation of the film itself. Accompanying the film is a track featuring a small instrumental and piano ensemble with music arranged by Robert Israel, whose orchestral score for The General appears as one option on that disc. There are fascinating extras. In a three minute analysis, Robinson explains one very dangerous stunt. The Kodak promotional film The Triumph of Lester Snapwell (1963) is an amusing advertisement for the release of the Instamatic camera, another domestic dinosaur. Seven minutes of tinted extracts from Intolerance show the original parallel stories that inspired The Three Ages. Finally, there is a five minute shadowgraph cartoon Why They Love Cavemen (1921), a charming silhouette film with delicate imagery, but sadly not in the best state of repair. Sorry fans, there are no samples of The Flintstones.
Keaton once said modestly that he felt The General (co-directed by Clyde Bruckman) looked more authentic than Gone With the Wind (1939) in its portrayal of the American Civil War because he went straight to history while Selznick’s epic was sourced from a novel. With the look of Matthew Brady Civil War photographs, The General is an ageless masterpiece. In his introduction Robinson explains how the film is not only one of the all time great cinema comedies but also one of the very greatest of films, frequently included in top ten lists. This new DVD set is the jewel in the crown of these new releases. Disc one includes a fine restoration of the feature, another excellent Robinson introduction to the film, a video coverage of the recording of the Joe Hisaishi score, a demonstration of how this version of the film has been restored, as well as various Madman trailers. The image during the feature is very steady because of digitalization, while contrast and detail are very fine with just occasional flickering. The real glory of Keaton’s depiction of the Civil War period is so much enhanced here. Using locations in Oregon which he felt were more suitable at the time than the original forests in Georgia, we can see far more detail in the landscape than previous reissues of the film. Another triumph is the score by Joe Hisaishi, the Japanese composer associated most often with the films of Kitano Takeshi (Hana-bi, 1997) and Miyazaki Hayao (Howl’s Moving Castle, 2004). Hisaishi is a very experienced film composer as well as the director of at least one feature film Quartet (2001). His score is a joy of invention and ingenuity, sympathetically moving from a waltz-like opening theme to sprightly more militaristic melodies. Robert Israel’s 1995 orchestral score is an alternative track featuring a more traditional thematic orchestral approach. On early Madman copies, this alternative track does not play but a replacement set, I’m told, remedies the problem. Still Hisaishi wins hands down as far as I’m concerned.
On the second disc is a bumper crop of fascinating material. Cops (1922), the only classic silent Keaton short on these discs, appears in a reasonable transfer with an organ accompaniment. The Railrodder (1965) is a National Film Board of Canada (NFBC) short work featuring Keaton at the time of the renaissance of his career and directed by Gerald Potterton. With trains featuring in several Keaton shorts and features, the subject is a loving tribute. Buster Keaton Rides Again (John Spotton, 1965) is another NFBC work following the progress of the filming of The Railrodder, and reflections on Keaton’s career and the revival of interest in his work. While the feature on disc one is presented in pristine black and white, the second disc includes tinted sequences of the film in various hues. This is followed by Orson Welles introducing The General, fondly reminiscing while also including clips from earlier Keaton items. From the clips, it is evident how far Keaton’s style had matured in less than a decade, as well as how inferior are some copies of these silent treasures. The Return of The General (1962) is a short film for both movie and train buffs showing the original locomotive at its most colourful. In 1956 Walt Disney produced The Great Locomotive Chase, directed by Francis D. Lyon. A widescreen trailer for the film is included because the narrative is somewhat similar to The General. Featuring former Keaton collaborator Al St. John, The Iron Mule is a 1925 short burlesque featuring railway images very reminiscent of one of Keaton’s greatest features, Our Hospitality (1923). Finally there is Alice’s Tin Pony (1925), an early Disney live-action and animated short film with a train connection.
Although it stands as one of the great works of the 20th century, The General was a failure commercially. Its production values were very high to achieve the level of authenticity that it does, while the shot of a real train plunging into a river from a bridge is said to have been the most expensive single take in the history of silent films. For his next feature and the penultimate film as his own producer, Keaton moved to more traditional territory. His new co-director James Horne worked soon after this with Laurel and Hardy. There is very much a less independent spirit running through College (1927), a concise story set in the American college vein following the success of the Harold Lloyd feature The Freshman in 1925. College movies were popular items in the late ’20s in the U.S.A and their influence can even be seen in Japanese silent features such as Shimizu Hiroshi’s Young Man at College (1933) and Ozu Yasujiro’s Days of Youth (1929). Those who know the film are aware of its many delights. The new release with its sharp, steady picture and organ accompaniment should introduce it to more admirers. There are many bonuses too. Allez Oop is the first of the Educational Comedy shorts featuring Keaton between 1934 and 1937. Directed by Charles Lamont, an acceptable print of the film is included here. While these Educational shorts are hardly vintage Keaton material, they are an improvement on the features made for MGM in the early sound period. Other inclusions on this disc are an extract from the TV series The Buster Keaton Show and a hilarious excerpt from the “Candid Camera” series in which Keaton messes up a meal in a typical American diner of the time. Carole Lombard in the Mack Sennett short comedy Run Girl, Run (1928) directed by Alfred I. Goulding is an inspired extra item with a college setting. Lombard is insolent and gorgeous, and the film is very racey in many ways. It’s incredible that a year after the far more sophisticated College, Sennett’s short film is as primitive and the humour as broad as this one. The trailer for How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (1965) features a very tired Keaton amidst the gang from the typical Beach Party films of the time (this three minute trailer is warning enough about the film). Two cartoons round out the extra selections: Sports Chumpions (Warner Bros, directed by Fritz Freleng, 1941) and Ball Park (Paul Terry, creator of Mighty Mouse, 1929) are typical animations of their period in acceptable condition.
Directed by Charles F. Reisner, Steamboat Bill Jr. was Keaton’s final feature for United Artists and his final independent film. Happily, it is one of the best and the new DVD release displays it in a beautiful light. Although the film cries out for far more, there is another organ accompaniment which doesn’t distract from the pristine images which are sharp, steady and detailed, revealing greater richness than I have seen before. In his fine introduction, Robinson describes the Keaton character: once again the effete youth seen before in The Saphead, The Navigator (1924) and Battling Butler (1926). There are details of the fine cast including Ernest Torrence, Tom Lewis, Marion Byron, and how Keaton’s sister doubled for this actress in one scene in the river. After many sequences of incidental but detailed humour, the film is most famous for its cyclone sequence. It’s explained with suitable stills how the climactic storm was a last minute replacement for a flood because of the tragic disasters along the Mississippi the year before. The cyclone sequence which brings Steamboat Bill Jr. to its climax is an extended 12 minutes of visual ingenuity, some images from which are very familiar to many film lovers. The final two reels of the film reveal an artist at the centre of a surreal world. The watery strangeness of one of Keaton’s best short films The Boat (1921, co-directed by Eddie Cline) is akin to the cyclone we witness here. The extras include excerpts from Backstage (1919) and One Week (1920) as representations of Keaton’s work with Arbuckle on the one hand and his more independent spirit on the other. There is an extended analysis of stunt sequences during the storm sequence of the film. The copy of the film is so sharp that Fred Gabouri’s special effects are quite evident. Jail Bait is another Educational Pictures short film directed by Charles Lamont in 1937. Its inclusion has some relevance because of Keaton’s prison scenes in the feature film on the disc. Making up a Mississippi River trilogy of extras there is Pare Lorentz’s The River (1938), a 1927 newsreel of the Mississippi River flood that effectively changed the climax of Keaton’s film, and Down South, a 1931 riverboat cartoon presented with French introductory titles. It’s a particular pity that Lorentz’s classic documentary with its famous Virgil Thomson score is in very poor shape here but it should encourage enthusiasts to seek out more pristine copies. There are finally three trailers: Huckleberry Finn (1960), directed by Michael Curtiz in which Keaton appears as a lion tamer; Tom Sawyer (1973), a musical adaptation directed by Don Taylor, and finally the George Sidney version of Showboat (1951).
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Steamboat Bill Jr. was Keaton’s last independent film before his immersion in the studio factory of MGM for his last two silent features The Cameraman (1928) and Spite Marriage (1929). While these final two silent features Keaton’s independence was subverted by the MGM, nonetheless, both films have special delights of their own, especially the former, and can be viewed in very good copies in discs from the U.S. So can the early sound features for MGM, but they are sad to see for myriads of reasons.
Finally, let’s hope an enterprising distributor will release restored copies of the short films featuring Keaton from 1920 to 1923. Existing video and DVD copies are quite variable in quality and it’s a great shame that superior releases of such films as The Balloonatic (1922), One Week, Neighbors (1920) and The Boat still await our pleasure. We can also hope for restored versions of those special features made straight after The Three Ages, two of my own very favourites of Keaton’s work, Our Hospitality (1923) and Sherlock Jr. (1924).