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Buster Keaton: The Short Films Collection 1920-1923 (a J!-ENT Blu-ray Disc Review)

July 12, 2011 by  



A fantastic release for all Buster Keaton fans!  “Buster Keaton: The Short Films Collection 1920-1923” is a must-buy, must-own Blu-ray release for anyone who wants to see Buster Keaton before he went on to focus primarily on feature-length films.  Hilarious, risky and highly entertaining, this latest Keaton release from Kino International is a winner!

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Images courtesy of © 2011 Kino International Corp. All Rights Reserved.

TITLE: Buster Keaton: The Short Films Collection 1920-1923 – Three Disc Ultimate Edition

SHORT FILMS: 1920-1923

DURATION: 19 shorts (390 Minutes)

BLU-RAY DISC INFORMATION: 1080p High Definition, Black and White, Color-Tinted, Intertitles

COMPANY: Kino International

RELEASE DATE: June 14, 2011

 

Directed by Edward F. Cline, Buster Keaton, Malcolm St. Clair

Written by Edward F. Cline, Buster Keaton, Malcolm St. Clair

Cinematography by Elgin Lessley

Produced by Joseph M. Schenk

Music by Robert Israel

Edited by Buster Keaton

Starring:

Buster Keaton

Sybil Seely

Joe Keaton

Joe Roberts

Edward F. Cline

Virginia Fox

James Duffy

Al St. John

Luke the Dog

Malcolm St. Clair

Jean C. Havez

Myra Keaton

Bartine Burkett

Charles Dorety

Ingram B. Pickett

Bull Montana

These celebrated comedies come to Blu-ray and DVD in a splendid three-disc ultimate edition, with all 19 shorts remastered in HD from archival elements. The set is loaded with special features, including The Men Who Would Be Buster (consisting of clips from silent comedies by other comedians that show the influence of Keaton’s work), alternate and deleted takes, a video tour of Keaton’s filming locations (by John Bengtson, author of Silent Echoes: Discovering Early Hollywood Through the Films of Buster Keaton), and a series of visual essays on individual films written by leading scholars of silent comedy.

This three-disc set presents Keaton’s short films in chronological order (The High Sign, while released in 1921, was actually the first short film Keaton produced, but it was held back from release for about a year). Select titles are presented in both standard and digitally enhanced versions. This special set will also contain a booklet with an essay by Jeffrey Vance, author of Buster Keaton Remembered (co-authored with Eleanor Keaton).


When we think about Buster Keaton, we think of one of the kings of slapstick comedy during the silent era. The master of physical comedy, a talent known for his deadpan expression and his films, well-revered today as one of the best actors and directors of all time and beloved by many.

With the release of five Blu-rays consisting of Keaton’s well-known feature films, the side of Buster Keaton during the silent era that many people may not be familiar with are his silent shorts.

From his older work with Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle (presented in “The Best Arbuckle Keaton Collection” featuring shorts from 1917-1919), Keaton was able to learn from Arbuckle, especially how to make his own films and eventually going from a bit player to his partner while working and impressing his producer Joseph M. Schenk.

But by 1920, impressed with his work with Arbuckle and with Keaton starring in his first feature-length film titled “Saphead ” (1920), Schenk gave Keaton his own production unit “Buster Keaton Comedies” and Buster Keaton wanted to show that he can make his own two-reel comedy short films and also become the film’s main star and from 1920-1923, the actor would create nearly two dozen short films and would later graduate towards creating feature length films.

Fast forward over 80-years later and the shorts were released by Kino Video as part of their 2005 “The Art of Buster Keaton” DVD Boxset and a short two would be included as special features for the feature-film release.

With the success of the Buster Keaton Blu-ray releases, Kino International will now be releasing the shorts as part of a special three-disc Ultimate Edition on Blu-ray.

Included in this set are the following shorts (featuring a spoilerless summary of each short):

DISC 1:

  • The “High Sign” – (1920, 19 min.) Buster plays a drifter who tries to find work and ends up recruited to protect a man who is planned to be killed and is also recruited by the organization to kill the man.  What will Buster do.  (Note: Although this was the first short produced by Keaton, because he was disappointed in the short, it was shelved.  It was later released in 1921 when Keaton suffered a broken ankle and a new short needed to be released.)
  • One Week  – (1920, 24 min.) Buster and his bride (played by Sybil Seely) are newlyweds who have received a “build-your-own house in a week” as a wedding gift.
  • Convict 13 – (1920, 19 min.) Buster plays golf but at the same time, an escaped inmate (who is to be executed) is wanted by the police.  When Buster accidentally knocks himself out with his golf ball, the inmate switches clothes with Buster and now Buster is thought of as the convict who will be planned for execution.
  • The Scarecrow  – (1920, 18 min.) Buster and Joe (Keaton) are farmhands who both want to marry the farmer’s daughter (played by Sybil Seely).  Which man will she pick?
  • Neighbors – (1921, 19 min.) Buster and the girl across the other building are lovers but their families are feuding.
  • The Haunted House – (1921, 20 min., color-tinted) Buster is a bank teller who accidentally is accused for robbing the bank and ends up trying to hide in a haunted house.
  • Hard Luck – (1921, 21 min.) Buster tries to kill himself after losing his girlfriend.  (Note: This short has been lost for over 60-years and was in partially reconstructed in 1987.  Unfortunately, the final scene is missing and happens to be a film that Keaton had once said received the loudest laugh ever.)

DISC 2:

  • The Goat – (1921, 23 min.) Buster is accidentally mistaken as the criminal “Dead Shot Dan”.
  • The Play House – (1921, 23 min.) Keaton plays the conductor of nine members of a minstrel show.
  • The Boat – (1921, 23 min.) Busted is married with two children and creates a big boat known as the Damfino. (Note: This is Buster’s final collaboration with actress Sybil Seely)
  • The Paleface – (1922, 20 min.) Buster is a butterfly collector who accidentally wanders into an Indian camp while chasing a butterfly.  Unfortunately, the Indians want to kill their first white man.
  • Cops – (1922, 18 min.) Keaton plays a young man who accidentally upsets the police by throwing a bomb during a police parade and now he is wanted by them.
  • My Wife’s Relations – (1922, 17 min.) A large Irish woman falsely accuses Buster of breaking a window.  When they go see a Polish judge who doesn’t know English, he mistakes them as a couple wanting to get married.

DISC 3:

  • The Blacksmith – (1922, 21 min.) When Buster clowns around in a blacksmith’s shop, he and the blacksmith get in a fight resulting in the blacksmith going to jail.  Now Buster must take care of the clients.
  • The Frozen North  – (1922, 17 min.) Buster accidentally has mistaken a woman as his wife and that she is having an affair with another man.  Buster shoots them and finds out that the woman is not his wife.  What will he do?
  • Day Dreams – (1922, 23 min.) Buster leaves home in order to make some money, so he can get married to his hometown sweetheart.
  • The Electric House – (1922, 23 min., color-tinted) Buster graduates with an electrical engineering degree and is hired to wire a new home. (Note: Buster Keaton broke his leg while filming this film and the original version was shelved, this is the second version of the film.)
  • The Balloonatic – (1923, 22 min.) Buster plays a man who goes to an amusement park and meets a group of men preparing for a hot air balloon launch.  But the balloon accidentally launches with Buster inside it.
  • The Love Nest – (1923, 20 min., color-tinted) Buster leaves on a small boat to escape from his life and his lost love but ends up crashing into a whaling ship.

VIDEO:

“Buster Keaton: The Short Films Collection 1920-1923” is presented in HD.

The shorts are presented in picture box format (black box around image).  For silent film fans, these shorts look the best than they ever had before, especially compared to its DVD counterpart.  Not only are signs much more readable, but I also found certain details such as fabric to other details much more in clarity via Blu-ray.

For those who are selective of picture quality, some shorts do have mild flickering and of course, you are going to see dust and scratches.  But by no means will this hurt your viewing unless you are a bit anal about picture quality.

For “Buster Keaton: The Short Films Collection 1920-1923”, while the original film elements were not pristine to begin with, the picture quality is among the clearest out there for silent shorts.  In fact, these shorts look very good on Blu-ray and I just want to add, much better than its DVD counterpart which wasn’t as detailed for certain environments and various scenes.

AUDIO:

“Buster Keaton: The Short Films Collection 1920-1923” features newer and older scores.

While some titles retain the original score (that was presented in the original Kino Video DVD release) and featuring arrangements by Robert Israel, there are some shorts that feature new scores from Ben Model.  According to Model, he scored  six Keaton shorts and one bonus short (five on theatre organ and two on piano).

SPECIAL FEATURES:

“Buster Keaton: The Short Films Collection 1920-1923” comes with the following special features:

DISC 1:

  • Enhanced Version – Featuring a digitally enhanced version of “The High Sign”.
  • Visual Essays – Get to learn interesting facts for five of the shorts featured on disc one by R. Emmet Sweeney, David B. Pearson, Ken Gordon, Jack Dragga and Bruce Lawton.

DISC 2:

  • Enhanced Version – Featuring a digitally enhanced versions of “The Boat” and “Cops”.
  • Brief Alternate/Deleted Shots – Featuring alternated and deleted shots from “The Balloonatic”, “The Blacksmith”, “Cops”, “Day Dreams” and “The Goat”
  • Visual Essays – Get to learn interesting facts for five of the shorts featured on disc two by David Kalat, Patricia Eliot Tobias, Bret Wood, Ben Model and Steve Massa.
  • The Men Who Would Be Buster” – Featuring a collection of clipse from slapstick films influenced by Keaton’s Work which include “Only Me” (1929, with Lupino Lane), “Be Reasonable” (1921, excerpt with Billy Bevan), “Hello Baby!” (1925, excerpt by Charley Chase) and “White Wings” (1923, excerpt, with Stan Laurel).

DISC 3:

  • Enhanced Version – Featuring a digitally enhanced version of “The Balloonatic”.
  • Visual Essays – Get to learn interesting facts for four of the shorts featured on disc three.  Visual essays are by Bruce Lawton, Patricia Eliot Tobias, David B. Pearson and David Kalat.
  • Tour of Filming Locations – Joe Bengston (author of “Silent Echoes”) goes into detail of various areas where Buster Keaton’s shorts were filmed.  From the studio, Hollywood, Civic Center and overall round-up of areas around Los Angeles.
  • Character Studies – (5:33) A 1922 gag film starring Carter DeHaven, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Rudolph Valentino, Douglas Fairbanks and Jackie Coogan.
  • Seeing Stars (Excerpt) – (2:44) Featuring a cameo by Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin and more.
  • About Kino – (1:10) Featuring a trailer promoting “Lost Keaton”.

EXTRAS:

“Buster Keaton: The Short Films Collection 1920-1923” comes with a slipcase + an eight-page booklet featuring an essay by Jeffrey Vance, author of “Buster Keaton Remembered”.


Before “Steamboat Bill, Jr.”, “The General” and many of Buster Keaton’s popular films, there was his famous silent 2-reel shorts.  Shorts that not only showcased his physical comedy but was a precursor of the greatness that Buster Keaton would bring to the big screen.

But I have been asked several times by new silent film fans of whether or not this Blu-ray was worth it.  Can they get into these shorts, especially if his feature films are quite entertaining.

And there is a certain misnomer it appears with those who have just started watching Keaton that his shorts are not as good as his films and I actually disagree with that.  In fact, there are many moments in these shorts where Keaton puts himself through a lot of physical situations that he actually hurt himself pretty badly.  But because he is a perfectionist and expected nothing but the best for himself when performing his style of comedy, these shorts are fun, entertaining and just wonderful to watch.

For example, in the 1920 short “One Week”, while Buster Keaton showcases his style of physical comedy, falling off houses and going through a variety of situations but yet maintaining that same look on his face, we see Keaton experimenting with leading ladies.  In this case, the beautiful Sybil Seely.  In this same short, we see a hint of sexuality as she is taking a bath and accidentally drops the soap, only to see a hand covering the camera as she goes to pick it up.  You don’t see those moments in Keaton films.

Actually, Seely would go on to appear in two more silent shorts with Keaton but because there was too much attention on his female counterpart and the fact that she was the same height as him, Keaton made sure that his next female actress for his silent shorts would not grab much attention.  And also, she would be much shorter than him.

We also see glimpse of various tricks, such as the side of a house falling and Keaton unhurt as the opened window falls on top of him.  While this trick was dangerous, Keaton would go on to make sure he goes bigger in the film “Steamboat Bill Jr.”.  In fact, you can look at these shorts of seeing Keaton’s greatness developing, his ability to make things look so easy but knowing that it is in fact quite difficult.  We are just in awe of what he is able to accomplish.

And because the viewer is able to watch all 19-shorts in this 3-disc Ultimate Collection Set, I don’t see how anyone can find “Buster Keaton: The Short Films Collection” to be anything less than spectacular.

For one, it’s presented in HD and sure, the videophile who are used to the latest technology on Blu-ray may be to used to picture quality that is great or next to pristine picture quality, for silent film fans, these shorts look the best than they ever had before, especially compared to its DVD counterpart.  Not only are signs much more readable, but I also found certain details such as fabric to other details much more in clarity via Blu-ray.

But does that mean it’s pristine or great?  Of course not because a lot of silent films and shorts were improperly archived.  In fact, one has to remember that the flammable nitrate film, a lot of them were kept in warehouses because studios didn’t know what to do with them.  This is before home video and to the studio execs at the time, movies were disposable.  Once one was done, it made its money and it was time to move forward to the next best thing.

And so, possibly 90% or even higher of silent films and shorts are lost or were destroyed in fires or mishandling of the film elements.  A lot of films during the teens and twenties, you can only hope that there is no degradation of the film and that the warping or scratches aren’t too bad.

For “Buster Keaton: The Short Films Collection 1920-1923”, while the original film elements were not exactly pristine and scratches and dust can be seen, the picture quality is among the clearest out there for surviving silent shorts.

In fact, these shorts look very good on Blu-ray and I just want to add, much better than its DVD counterpart which wasn’t as detailed for certain environments and various scenes.  Things in the background can be see much, much better in HD.

In fact, according to hardcore Keaton fans, they are quite happy that certain missing bits for a few shorts are now included in some of the shorts.  So, that’s another plus for this release!

But should one get rid of their “Art of Buster Keaton” DVD box set?  I wouldn’t.  For one, that is one heck of a box set and two, it’s also a set that has an alternate score for not only the feature-length films but also the shorts.  So, hardcore fans of Keaton may still want to hold on to the DVD box set.  Especially for the “Keaton Plus” disc!

The contrast of the film is much better and while I can easily say, each short varies in quality, for newer silent film fans, don’t worry so much about the PQ because its good.  Not modern pristine but compared to many shorts/films of its time, over 90-years-later, these shorts look very good!

As for the Blu-ray release, I also enjoyed the fact that we get visual essays for each of the films.  This is very informative to those getting into Buster Keaton and you can learn some interesting factoids of each short.  Also, some titles are given the standard and digitally enhanced versions and you can see for yourself, how different things would look if certain things were done a different way via digital enhancing.

Add in a collection of video clips, an eight-page booklet by Jeffrey Vance, author of “Buster Keaton Remembered”, film location featurettes, character studies and even excerpt from the 1922 film “Seeing Stars” with Keaton, Chaplin and a few others, it makes up for one heck of a solid Keaton release on Blu-ray.

Overall, “Buster Keaton: The Short Films Collection 1920-1923” is not a title to expect perfection in a modern-sense, but what I do expect from Kino International is doing fans of Buster Keaton a great service by bringing his oeuvre to HD but also making sure that newer fans can find these releases quite accessible and learn from it and hopefully, being inspired to watch more silent films.

So, for newbies who have asked me this question if this set is worth it?

Definitely!  If you are interested in Buster Keaton, “Buster Keaton: The Short Films Collection 1920-1923” is a must buy, must-own Blu-ray release!

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