Review for Buster Keaton: 3 Films (Sherlock Jr., The General, Steamboat Bill, Jr.) [Masters of Cinema]
If you have read my review of the Buster Keaton Shorts collection that was released last year then you will not need to hear me gush about how much of a genius the man is. However, these three films are possibly the best examples of just why Keaton is seen as a genius not just of the silent era, but of any era in the realm of filmmaking and comedy.
Sherlock Jr., The General, Steamboat Bill Jr. are generally regarded as some of the best films ever... again not of the silent era, or comedies, but of all films ever. When you consider that all three of these films are over ninety years old it shows just how good they are. How often do we watch a film from the passed decade and comment on how bad the CGI looks compared to now or how dated it looks? These films are nearly one hundred years old and still feel as fresh as they were when first released. All three are in the National Film Registry, The General was voted 18 and Sherlock Jr 62 in the American Film Institute's 100 Years...100 Laughs poll with The General also voted 18th of their 100 Years... 100 Movies poll (Beating films like Godfather Part 2 and Shawshank Redemption) Sherlock Jr. was also voted 61 in poll for the Best Edited Films of all time.
Keaton stars as a projectionist at a movie theatre who becomes engaged to a pretty girl who is also being pursued by a man known as The Sheik. The Sheik comes up with a devious plan to get the Projectionist out of the way. Throughout he suffers many mishaps in real life, but whenever he enters his dream world he becomes Sherlock Jr. the amazing crime solver. This film is filled with many editing tricks that must have been amazing to witness in 1924 and in 2017 they still look fantastic. I was blown away by some of the surreal moments of the film within a dream that has inspired so many movies.
The General is generally considered to be Buster Keaton's greatest works. The story is train engineer Johnnie has two loves of his life his train, called The General and his girl Annabelle. When the Civil War breaks out he is seen as far too important in his role to serve, but Annabelle thinks it is because he is a coward. However, when Union spies capture his beloved train he discovers that Annabelle is in it too. He must pursue the train through enemy lines to rescue them both. This leads to some amazing physical comedy and set pieces which make you understand why the film cost so much to make in 1926 and over ninety years later it is still a masterwork in filmmaking.
Steamboat Bill Jr.
Keaton stars as William Canning Jr. who goes to meet his father who has not seen since a child. When he arrives, his father is expecting a rough a rugged man, but instead finds a meek and mild Steamboat Bill Jr. His father is being driven out of business by the local Banker whose new boat puts his to shame and even worse Bill falls head over heels for the Banker's daughter Kitty much to the anger of both fathers. During all this a storm hits the river and Bill is forced to save not only the life of Kitty, but also his and her father too. This film includes the now legendary stunt of the wall falling only missing Keaton due to a small window which, according to legend was literally a few inches away from killing Keaton if the stunt had gone wrong.
All three of these films are just works of genius and I can't count the number of times I have watched these films, The General is one of my all time favourites. I think if you say you are a fan of comedy and have not seen one of these three then you really need to so that you can see just what perfectly created comedy looks like.
As well as being beautifully restored, this set comes with a multitude of extra features which will come as a welcome to all fans of the films. I was actually surprised by how much was included and this is certainly a perfect accompaniment to the previous Shorts set.
Audio commentary on Sherlock Jr. by film historian David Kalat is full of facts, but felt so much like he was simply just reading a Wikipedia or IMDb Trivia page to me. If you wanted to know more about the film then I'm sure he will be able to answer every question you had, but he really needed someone to talk to rather than a long stream of speech.
A new video interview with film scholar Peter Kramer discussing The General is almost like the commentary David Kalat gives, however in this format it is a lot more enjoyable to watch and take in the information. He gives a thorough analysis of the film and every aspect is discussed.
Buster Keaton: The Genius Destroyed by Hollywood is a great look at Keaton's career and due to a terrible contract his inability to work to the Hollywood studio system. Gone was the improvising and he was forced to work to strict scripts and deadlines and the quality of the films dropped off. What is fascinating is hearing Keaton speak and I had never heard his actual voice before and it was amazing to hear him talk about his method of filmmaking. His downfall is quite sad to see, but we also get to see many of his high points including receiving an Honorary Oscar and the restoring of his works for a new generation to appreciate.
Tour of Filming Locations featurettes for Sherlock Jr. and The General and are quick looks at where scenes from the films where made. If you are obsessed with these films, then you may want to check this out and even go and discover them.
Sherlock Jr. - Movie Magic & Mysteries featurette looks at the making of the film and just how the film was made. It is surprising when you hear that it was his least successful and yet when you look at the film and how it was made.
Buster Keaton on Wagon Train is an audio recording of a then 63 year old Buster Keaton in conversation with television writer Bill Cox. Unfortunately, this is the most disappointing of the extra features as I just don't think it works. Maybe if there had been subtitles it would have been better as at times I missed what the question was and so had no idea what the story was that Keaton was telling or what it had to do with anything.
The General - Video Tour featurette is a look at the actual train and the true story behind the film. It is surprising how interesting the true story is and how much the film got correct.
The General - Home Movie Footage is only a minute of footage which is a shame, but when you consider the era it is to be expected and just shows a few scenes being setup including the infamous cannon scene.
The General - Introduction by Orson Welles is from a show called Silent Films and you can feel from Welles a genuine respect and admiration for him and in some ways he could probably relate to how he was treated by Hollywood. It includes some classic moments from his films, but it is just a shame that the picture quality is poor, though it does make you appreciate even more the work gone in to restore these films.
The General - Introduction by Gloria Swanson is simply just an introduction by Swanson who was an actress of the era and probably most famous for films like Sunset Boulevard. This is just a quick introduction and doesn't add anything to watch it.
Steamboat Bill, Jr. - A video essay on the making of the film is a nice quick look at how the film was made and gives just enough information, without bogging itself down with facts. Seeing how the hurricane destruction was created including the infamous falling wall gag. We also get to see how the film was actually filmed twice to create two versions that could be used for domestic and international use. Though the differences are only subtle it is fascinating to see the split screen comparison.
Though it would be wrong if I said all of these features are perfect I can't fault them for including so much. What is presented shows just how important these three films and the work of Keaton in general is. I do hope that the effort made to restore these three and the previous set of shorts is also given to the rest of his work.
Buster Keaton: 3 Films is a remarkable set and one that I would recommend to everyone who has a love of comedy or even in filmmaking as there is so much to discover watching these perfect movies. Each one is worth owning separately, but having them all together is a joy and the extra features make this a must have for all Buster Keaton fans.