Review for Buster Keaton: The Complete Short Films 1917-1923
Buster Keaton is a comedy genius.
There. That's all this review really needs to be.
What's that? Do I really need to explain further? Ok. If you are a fan of comedy, doesn't matter whether we are talking The Hangover, Monty Python or One Foot in the Grave. All of that owes a debt to Buster Keaton. Every aspect, every point, everything you have ever found funny was probably done first by this icon of Cinema. It is sad that most people will probably have never heard of him and yet he is that important. Hopefully, this four disk set will put any debate about the significance of Keaton's work to rest.
Now, as you can tell, I am a huge fan of Buster Keaton. I find his films, whether they are the longer features such as The General or the shorts presented here, his work is simply amazing. This collection brings together the short films he created between 1917 and 1923. That there should be the first thing that you should marvel at. Next year five of these films will be 100 years old! I can't think of one film from the past decade that will be remembered in another ten years, never mind in a century's time?
Over the four disks there are 32 short films. The whole set runs to over 12 hours and it is all as entertaining as I'm sure it was when it first dazzled people in the early 1910/20s. All of the films have been lovingly restored to their former glory and most of the film come with multiple versions of the scores that accompany them. Though the restoration (as described in the accompanying featurette and booklet) was as extensive as possible, it is still a little patchy in places, but not unwatchable and this should not deter anyone.
When I received this, I was astonished by just how much material is here. If I was writing a thesis on Keaton (and I have read many in the past) I would be salivating at the amount of discussion and critical analysis of his work. It is true that most is just marveling at his developing and advancements in filmmaking, but it is still all fascinating.
I watched all of the films back to back, almost like they would have been shown in their time. What I was more surprised about was simply how entertaining they still are. If you watched the Oscar-winning film The Artist and enjoyed the style of that film then you will love how it was originally done. It would be hard to go through all of the films, but suffices to say most are simple plots and most are simply just a scenario peppered with sight gags and wonderful interplay between Keaton and whoever he was on the screen with.
It includes his work with Fatty Arbuckle, before the scandal that ruined his career, before moving on to his solo films. His work with Arbuckle is amazing and if they hadn't come before Laurel and Hardy I would have sworn that they had ripped the duo off. That said, the chemistry between them is great and you can see why the downfall of his friend hit Keaton so hard.
When we do get to his solo career it is really a more sophisticated form of filmmaking and this is no more seen than in his first film One Week which I still marvel at the effects for and if there had been an Oscars at this time it would have definitely won every visual effect award that was on offer. When you watch his films you can understand why people like Jackie Chan and Rowan Atkinson said he was an influence on their work. Seeing Keaton jump from roofs, slide around and being thrown from pillar to post is almost exactly like anything from a Jackie Chan film and the ingenious ways he comes up with dealing with a situation is almost like any classic gag from a Mr Bean episode.
The two other films that would say are utterly unskippable are Cops and The Frozen North. The Frozen North is the first Keaton film I ever saw and years later is still one of the funniest. What I loved about this was that it showed me utterly that by 1922 Keaton had already created every gag that will ever be made.
Cops is almost a throwback to the Keystone Cops-era and (as I say) if you want to know where Monty Python's Life of Brian got the idea for the dozens of Roman guards marching into the People's Front of Judea's HQ then this is it. I was surprised by just how much action went on in this film and also how well it was constructed from scene to scene.
As I say, I could probably go through every one of these films and explain why they needed to be watched, but it is easier just to experience them yourself. There is simply no words for just how funny and timeless some of them are. Most are simply just a case of miscommunication or being in the wrong place at the wrong time and that is why it works. There are so many elements that you will need to concentrate hard to take all of it in.
That is one thing I will say and maybe one of the drawbacks for this generation. You do have to pay attention to what you are watching. Almost like the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker films like Airplane! you have to pay attention or you might miss the jokes, especially because with no sounds a lot of what you have to take in are on cards to read.
Apart from that worry, I have only one real gripe with the set and it is only slight and that is that rather than having all the documentaries and extra features on one separate disks they are spread out over the four. Now, I can understand the film specific features being on their disk (alternative versions, commentaries etc.), but the rest are just scattered around the set when really they would have been better on their own for those who wanted to enjoy them after they had watched all the films rather than having to swap disks after every 1-3 featurettes. That being said. It is only a slight gripe and I would rather they did what they did than not include them at all.
The extras are fabulous with looks at the restoration, an audio recording of him at a dinner party which is a nice behind the scenes look at how he was away from the camera. David Cairns video essay That's Some Buster is a great look at his career and the rest of the featurettes and particularly the commentaries by Joseph McBride are equally interesting in looking at his work over the years.
Buster Keaton- The Complete Short Films 1917-1923 is a must-have item for anyone who likes comedy. If you are a fan of Keaton you will probably already have this on your 'To Buy' list, but if you own any of the films on this set and you think you don't need to, you do. I found myself overjoyed with the comedy and even more with the indepth look at the man himself. I do hope that they do something similar with his feature films and then we can really see everything just as it was meant to be.