Lost Keaton (a J!-ENT DVD Review)
October 30, 2010 by Dennis Amith
If you are a fan of Buster Keaton, these 16 comedy two-reelers from the mid-30’s (his work with Educational Films) are hilarious and enjoyable! Definitely recommended!
© 2010 Kino International Corp. All Rights Reserved.
DVD TITLE: Lost Keaton
YEAR OF COMEDY SHORTS: 1934-1937
DURATION: 16 Episodes (20 minutes per episode)
DVD INFORMATION: Black and White, 1:33:1, Monaural
COMPANY: Kino International
RELEASE DATE: October 5, 2010
Directed by Charles Lamont, Mack Sennett, Raymond Kane, Al Christie
Myra E. Keaton
Stanley J. Sanford
and many more…
For Buster Keaton, the era of the talkies was a tumultuous time. After signing with MGM, the quality of his ambitious, eclectic comedies began to decline, leading to a period of personal setbacks. In 1934, he signed a contract with Earle W. Hammons¹s Educational Pictures which, despite its name, specialized in comedy short subjects (“The Spice of the Program”). Keaton’s move to Educational was a return to his roots, crafting a stream of two-reel comedies in rapid succession, as he had done in the early 1920s, when he first refined his cinematic craft.
The films Keaton made at Educational (all sixteen of which are collected here) pay homage to his earlier work (such as Love Nest on Wheels, which revives a number of gags from his very first film, The Butcher Boy), while exploring new possibilities for his recurring comic persona “Elmer”.
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.
But in the late ’20s and early ’30s, Buster Keaton was at his all time low. Due to an affair, he found himself divorced to Natalie Talmadge (of the popular Talmadge family and sister to actresses Norma and Constance), lost his wife, children and the money he had made during his career in silent films.
To make things worse, he learned from Joseph M. Schenk (the man in which Keaton was contracted to) would be taking the job as President of the new United Artists (created by D.W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks) and under his advice, he closed down his own film studio and was under contract with MGM.
That era was the worst decision he ever made in his life (according to Keaton), because he lost creative control of his films, the stunts he was known for had to be performed by a stunt double (as MGM had no intention of their lead actor getting hurt) and Buster Keaton continued his downward slope in his career and also his life as an alcoholic. Despite his talkie films at Columbia being quite successful and profitable, his life behind-the-camera was not going so well at all. His life was delaying production and several incidents took place behind-the-scenes that although Keaton would continue to work but focus on making films for Columbia in Europe in 1993-1934, MGM had no choice but to release him and no studio wanted to hire him.
But in 1934, Keaton did return to Hollywood when an old friend got him work at Educational Pictures ran by Earl (E.W.) Hammons. What was originally a company that was going to focus on instructional films for schools, Hammons learned the profitability of comedies and he began releasing films and shorts. For Buster Keaton, Keaton made his Hollywood comeback with 16 two-reel comedies and now these comedy shorts (which pay homage to his original work) have been released on a 2-disc DVD set titled “Lost Keaton” courtesy of Kino International.
The 16 two-reel comedies were budgeted at $20,000 each and $5,000 went to Keaton per episode, while $15,000 were budgeted for sets, props, costumes and supporting casts. These were low-budget comedy shorts and a production schedule that were shot in 3-5 days and were shot very early in the morning to save money.
“Lost Keaton” features the following episodes (note: spoilerless summaries):
- The Gold Ghost – (1934, 21 minutes) Directed by Charles Lamont, Buster Keaton plays the character of Wattie, a man who is out of luck and love and decides to go to a place where he’s alone. Wattie goes to a ghost town and becomes the sheriff but sooner or later, more and more people start to move in to town.
- Allez Oop – (1934, 20 minutes) Directed by Charles Lamont, Buster Keaton debuts the role of his comic persona “Elmer”. Elmer is a clock repairman and falls for a customer and the two go out on a date to a circus where she becomes smitten with one of the trapeze artists. Can Elmer win her back?
- Palooka from Paducah – (1935, 20 minutes) Directed by Charles Lamont, Buster Keaton plays Jim Diltz, the son of a family of Hillbilly’s (played by his real life family) who need to make money for the family and thus, goes to the big city to support their son, Elmer (played by Dewey Robinson) who is wrestling for money.
- One Run Elmer – (1935, 19 minutes) Directed by Charles Lamont, Buster plays the character of Elmer who owns a gas station in the middle of nowhere. When another man tries to build a gas station, right across his, the two compete against each other. The film marks the appearance of actress Lona Andre.
- Hayseed Romance – (1935, 20 minutes) Directed by Charles Lamont, Buster plays Elmer Doolittle, who answers an ad to work at a farm and literally become the man of the woman who wrote the ad. He first meets the beautiful Molly (played by Dorothea Kent) but finds out the ad is from the tough as nails Miss Green (played by Jane Jones). Can Elmer escape?
- Tars and Stripes – (1935, 20 minutes) Directed by Charles Lamont, Buster plays the character of Apprentice Seaman Elmer Dolittle, a seaman who is constantly put in the brig because he keeps getting in trouble and is quite clumsy. But what happens when his commanding officer (played by Vernon Dent) finds his girlfriend (played by Dorothea Kent) flirting with Elmer.
- The E-Flat Man – (1935, 20 minutes) Directed by Charles Lamont, Buster plays Elmer, a man who runs off with his girlfriend (played by Dorothea Kent) to get married. The two don’t know that a duo of robbers are on the loose and somehow they are mistaken as the robbers and police start to go after both Elmer and his girlfriend.
- The Timid Young Man – (1935, 20 minutes) Directed by Mack Sennett and Buster Keaton (the only time the two have worked together), Buster plays a Milton who is through with women (because a bossy woman wants to marry him) and actress Lona Andre plays a woman (who doesn’t want to marry an old man that her father arranged for her) who is through with men and the two end up leaving town together and getting away from their troubles but somehow the two find trouble.
- Three On a Limb – (1936, 18 minutes) Directed by Charles Lamont, Buster Keaton plays Elmer Brown, a man who wants to marry Molly (played by Lorna Andre) but her father wants her to marry the police officer Harold Goodwin (played by Homer) and her mother wants her to marry Oscar (played by Grant Withers). Who will end up marrying Molly?
- Grand Slam Opera – (1936, 21 minutes) Directed by Charles Lamont, Buster Keaton plays the character of Elmer Butts, a man who wants to perform on the Grand Slam Opera radio show. Considered by many as the best episode Buster Keaton did for Educational Films.
- Blue Blazes – (1936, 19 minutes) Directed by Raymond Kane, Buster Keaton plays Elmer, a fireman who can’t get anything right. But when a fire takes place in an apartment, Elmer must save the tenants.
- The Chemist – (1936, 19 minutes) Directed by Al Christie, (in the only collaboration between both Buster Keaton and Christie), Buster plays the character of Elmer “Happy” Tripple, a scientist who is expected to develop the next big thing. That big thing ends up to be a powder when combined with water, produces major blasts that make no sound, which catches the eyes of three robbers who want Elmer’s secret powder.
- Mixed Magic – (1936, 16 minutes) Directed by Raymond Kane, Buster plays Elmer “Happy” Butterworth, who tries out for a job to become a magician’s assistant, despite not knowing magic.
- Jail Bait – (1937, 19 minutes) Directed by Charles Lamont, Buster Keaton plays “The Office-Boy” who needs $98 to buy his girlfriend a ring but since he has no money, he runs into a thug who asks him to fake a crime, take the blame and he will get his $98. But of course, by confessing a crime, the office-boy gets more than he is expecting.
- Ditto – (1937, 17 minutes) Directed by Charles Lamont, Buster Keaton plays the iceman who falls for a woman (which he doesn’t know are twins, played by Gloria and Barbara Brewster).
- Love Nest On Wheels – (1937, 18 minutes) The final Educational film starring Buster Keaton and directed by Charles Lamont, Buster Keaton plays the character of Elmer and stars Keaton’s family and friends. Elmer and his family run a broken down hotel and a couple stop by in town to stay at the hotel, not knowing how bad of shape it truly is in. But a man is demanding money or else he will close down the hotel, can Elmer and family raise enough money in time?
The episodes in “LOST KEATON” is presented in black and white (1:33:1 aspect ratio). Quality for the majority of the films are in great shape. There a scratches and dust that can be seen but not so bad where it distracts the overall quality of the film. Overall, I’m quite pleased that these shorts which are nearly 80-years-old are in good shape.
The episodes of “LOST KEATON” is presented in monaural. Dialogue is clear and understandable. Audio does differ in each episode (the last two episodes are probably the two that come off with static), but for the most part, audio can be heard. It’s also important to note that because these shorts showcase more of Buster Keaton’s physical comedy, although there is dialogue, there is more focus on the physical comedy and thus dialogue is featured less throughout these 16 episodes.
“LOST KEATON” comes with the following special features:
- Film Notes – The following features short notes about each episode and Buster Keaton’s involvement in those episodes. Written by David Macleod, author of “The Sound of Buster Keaton”.
- Photo Gallery – Featuring still photography of Buster Keaton courtesy of David Macleod, Bruce Lawton and Douris UK Ltd. Using your remote (or PC arrow buttons), viewers can cycle through each photo.
- “Why The Call Him Buster” – (1:11) A musical montage of pratfalls and stunts created to promote the upcoming release of KINO’s “Lost Keaton”.
This is the first time I have watched the Buster Keaton Educational Film shorts and I’m quite impressed with what the crew came up with considering the short budget they had, but if anything, Buster Keaton does a great job in showing us that many years after “The General” and “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” and countless other silent films that he had made, that he can still deliver in physical comedy.
In many ways, these shorts kind of remind me of the fun that I enjoyed while watching the Little Rascals shorts but without children, we have Buster Keaton. In each episode, Keaton does say a few lines but for the most part, his physical comedy that he is known for is what is spotlighted in each episode.
Of course, when compared to his films that he did in the ’20s, there is obviously differences in budget but considering that these were short films on a low budget, the majority of the 16 shorts featured in “Lost Keaton” were quite hilarious and fun to watch.
I have quite a few favorites but I noticed that I enjoyed the pairing between Keaton and Lona Andre (who has this slight resemblance to Myrna Loy) and episodes such as “Three on a Limb” and “The Timid Young Man” but episodes where Buster Keaton does shine are episodes like “Grand Slam Opera” which was an amazing sight to see Keaton reacting and dancing to various music from other countries and he does a fantastic job in those scenes. Another favorite was the short titled “Allez Oop” in which Buster plays a man who tries to show that he can do trapeze work (since the girl he likes falls for a trapeze artist) and “Hayseed Romance” as Buster is working at a farm and finds out that he may have to stay there by force.
But there are many fun episodes such as “The Gold Ghost”, “Tars and Stripes”, “The E-Flat Man”, “The Chemist” and many more. As for shorts that aren’t that great, to tell you the truth, there is only one bad one which is “Ditto” (which seems fine at the beginning but has this unusual second half that made no sense). If anything, I found all 16 episodes to be quite fun and hilarious. It’s a shame that Keaton didn’t do more of these shorts at Educational Films but then again, Fox Film Corporation which distributed these shorts would end up withdrawing their support of Educational Films in 1937 and less than two years later, Educational Films would file for bankruptcy.
Keaton would go on to make ten more shorts for Columbia Pictures in 1939 but these were considered his weakest work and Keaton vowed to never “make another crummy two-reeler”.
If anything, Kino International has done a wonderful service for Keaton fans by releasing these 16 comedy shorts on DVD for a great price! Once again, picture quality is pretty good for these nearly 80-year-old short films and audio quality is good, if anything, I wish there was a featurette, possibly interviews with Keaton scholars about his work at Educational Films or something extra included aside from the photo gallery and the same “Lost Keaton” one minute video that was featured on the “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” Blu-ray and DVD release. But I did enjoy the inclusion of the film notes by David Macleod and now I’m very much interested in reading his book “The Sound of Buster Keaton”.
Overall, I’m sure silent film fans may find these comedy shorts too different than his silents but for me, I appreciate the work that Buster Keaton was able to do during the silent era and the sound era. He doesn’t do much acting in terms of spoken dialogue but it works well because what makes the film so entertaining is his physical comedy and also seeing him partnered with leading ladies (who did a good job with their own style of comedy which complimented his physical comedy) in some of these episodes such as actresses Lona Andre and Dorothea Kent.
“Lost Keaton” is definitely a set worth owning and recommended for fans of Buster Keaton and those looking for humorous comedy based shorts from the mid-1930’s. Definitely recommended!
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