The Ultimate Buster Keaton Collection
- Street Date:
- December 11th, 2012
- Reviewed by:
- Gordon S. Miller
- Review Date: 1
- January 24th, 2013
- Movie Release Year:
- 1600 Minutes
- MPAA Rating:
- Release Country
- United States
Editor's NotesSupplemental Material from 'The Saphead' and 'The Navigator' by M. Enois Duarte
The Movie Itself: Our Reviewer's Take
Since 2009, Kino has been releasing Buster Keaton's films, both shorts and features, on Blu-ray. The company has compiled those titles, along with 'College' (exclusive to this set until March 05, 2013), in a 14-disc collection known as 'The Ultimate Buster Keaton Collection'. Taken as a whole, the films and supplemental materials offer an impressive retrospective of the career one of the all-time greatest filmmakers.
Born into a vaudeville family, Joseph Frank "Buster" Keaton (October 4, 1895 – February 1, 1966) got his start in show business at the early age of three. It was there that he learned the art of the pratfall, a cornerstone of the physical comedy he became known for. Keaton got into films supporting Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, in front of and behind the camera. When Arbuckle moved on to feature-length films, Keaton was promoted to star in his own shorts, and Volume 1 of 'The Ultimate Buster Keaton Collection' begins with the three-disc-set, 'The Short Films Collection (1920 – 1923)'.
The 19 two-reelers reveal a great bit of creativity and humor. They also show early versions of gags he would later perfect and revisit, such as the iconic bit with the side of a house falling around in him in "Steamboat Bill Jr.', which he did eight years earlier in the short 'One Week.' The talents of cinematographer Elgin Lessley are also demonstrated in the amazingly inventive 'The Play House', which contains a sequence where Keaton plays every character in a theater.
Also in 1920, Keaton starred in his first feature 'The Saphead', previously reviewed at HDD.
Volume 2 begins with 'Our Hospitality,' which doesn't seem like a comedy for about the first ten minutes as the story deals with feuding families, but then Keaton shows up and the musical accompaniment lightens the mood. There's a very funny sequence where Keaton tries to escape from a man while he is tied to the end of a rope.
'Sherlock Jr.' and 'Three Ages' appear on the same disc. In 'Sherlock Jr,' Keaton is a movie theater projectionist. After being framed by his rival and losing the girl he longs for, Keaton escapes into the movie. Though Keaton's character is the one learning to be the detective, it's another that solves the case. While the story gets wrapped up a bit too easily, the clever gags that play with the medium of film make this a winner. Using Griffith 'Intolerance' as a structural guide, 'Three Ages' tells three parallel romantic tales from different times, the Stone Age, the Roman Age, and the Modern Age, intercut together.
Volume 3 opens with 'Go West' and 'Battling Butler' sharing a disc. 'Go West' finds Keaton heading out to work a ranch and finds him palling around with a cow. It's amusing but not as funny as his classic films. The chaos of a large number of cattle is funny, but the citizenry act where more panicked than is believable. The same can be said for 'Battling Butler.' Based on the play of the same name, Keaton finds himself in the middle of yet another romance as he plays a spoiled rich kid who impersonates a boxer in order to win the hand of a girl by impressing her family. At 85 minutes, it's his longest feature and should have been shorter.
While there's comedy in 'The General', the film is much more of a Civil War epic. The film starts small and then slowly expands its scope to present large-scale battle sequences. It's a very impressive endeavor for a man known for his comedy. Unfortunate, he didn’t attempt more dramatic films.
Next up for Keaton was 'College' where he played a very awkward young fellow trying to win a young woman's heart through sports. The film has a couple of odd moments by today's standards. Keaton wears blackface in order to get a job at a restaurant and, his romantic rival holds the woman hostage in a scene that has a strange vibe to it. I also have a bit of trouble judging 'College' on its own merits, which I know is unfair, yet it can't be helped. Its scope was a bit of a letdown after just seeing 'The General' right before it. Also, Harold Lloyd's 'The Freshman' from two years prior is an iconic college-set film, and 'College' comes up a bit short in comparison.
Volume 4 finds Keaton going epic again as the final feature in the collection with 'Steamboat Bill, Jr.'. Keaton is in love with a young woman, but their fathers run competing riverboats, which makes getting together difficult. Oddly enough, a hurricane is what brings the two lovers together. At first, the storm sequence seemed tacked on because it started as a showcase, and a good one at that, for Keaton slapstick, but it finally becomes part of the story.
In 1928 he teamed up with MGM in what he regarded as the worst business decision of his life and then made a couple of films in Europe. He came back to America and over the course of about four years made 16 comedy shorts for Educational Pictures from 1934-37, collected as the two-disc set 'Lost Keaton'. I wouldn't go as far to say they should have remained lost, but I can't imagine many people were looking for them. The films are decent, offering bemusement more than belly laughs. While his voice isn't an issue, the advent of sound causes Keaton to give up his legendary stoneface and the laughs it generated. I couldn't point to a short that someone had to see, so they are best left to his most committed fans.
There's a reason Buster Keaton is a Hollywood legend and 'The Ultimate Buster Keaton Collection' makes the case through this presentation of the majority of his work over a 17-year period. Very few have been as prolific and as successful.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Housed in a slipcase, 'The Ultimate Buster Keaton Collection' offers 12 50GB Region A Blu-ray discs and 2 25GB discs ('The Navigator' and 'College') housed with four blue keepcases. The discs boot up directly to the menu screen without any promotional advertisements. Included are the six-page booklets from 'The Short Films Collection (1920 – 1923)' and 'Lost Keaton', which offer commentary on each short by Jeffrey Vance and David Macleod respectively.
The Video: Sizing Up the Picture
The video is a mixed bag, but that's a result of the way the source materials were stored and cared for over the years. To start things off, don't be scared by a film's opening credits or first intertitle. The damage there usually looks much worse than seen on the vast majority of the films. Generally across the set, blacks are strong and there's a good spectrum across the gray scale. Lightly colored tints can be seen on some of the films, usually a faint blue for night. But there's bad news as well with a lot of age and wear apparent, including lines, white spots, and frames missing.
'The General' looks the best as if it's gone through a recent restoration. The image looks gorgeous with daytime exteriors having a light sepia tone to evoke Civil War photos and a minor amount of defects or marks. Textures are sharp, with the intertitles appearing as if in front of wood grain. 'Steamboat Bill Jr.' is another disc with strong video. It looks clean for the most part with a minor amount of damage. Blacks were usually deep.
On the other end of the spectrum, 'Sherlock Jr.', has a bit of its source that was an absolute blurry mess. It's during the scene where Keaton first walks into theater before entering the film within the film. The image goes flat and looks like splotches of black and gray. Its disc partner, 'Three Ages', has more serious print damage in more places.
Naturally, the shorts also have issues, like 'The Boat' where multiple frames were printed together. Three minutes of 'Hard Luck' have been lost, including the final gag, but at least still appears in its place. 'One Run Elmer' has the same occurrence as 'Sherlock' where a segment goes blurry.
These flaws could have lowered the score more, but it's hard to fully punish the content due to its age so I'll give an average. It's amazing some of this stuff looks as good as it does. We should all be so lucky at 80.
The Audio: Rating the Sound
The more acclaimed a title is in Keaton's filmography, the more audio options are offered. 'Lost' is mono. 'The Short Films,' 'Go West/Battling,' and 'College' only offer LPCM 2.0. The remaining discs offer both DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and LPCM 2.0, with multiple scores appearing on 'The Saphead', 'Our Hospitality', 'The General', and 'Sherlock/Three Ages' with the latter also including mono tracks.
The 5.1 tracks fill the surrounds and the instruments sound distinct. Composers like Robert Israel and Ben Model deliver arrangements that seem authentic to the period with a few instruments that allow for greater clarity. The Club Foot Orchestra creates more modern-sounding compositions played by larger ensembles, yet the increase in musicians doesn't cause instruments to blend into each other.
The mono track on 'Sherlock' offers a bit of authenticity, though not just from the arrangement. It sounds very scratchy and contains a noticeable hiss. Overall, the fidelity of the track is poor, but since there are options, it's not an issue.
The Supplements: Digging Into the Good Stuff
- Visual Essays (1080i, 90 min) – Contributing to the set's film-course feel are these wonderful essays about 15 of the 19 '20s shorts that explore Keaton's early films. They will increase your appreciation for the films and the artist.
- The Men Who Would Be Buster (HD, 25 min) – Presenting artists who were influenced/stole ideas from Keaton's shorts. Following 'The Play House' model, Lupino Lane plays all the characters in 'Only Me' (15:36). Also available are Billy Bevan's 'Be Reasonable' (6:35), Charley Chase's 'Hello Baby!' (00:53) and Stan Laurel's 'White Wings' (00:50).
- Out-takes (HD, 10 min) – Various outtakes from five shorts.
- Tour of Filming Locations (1080i) – John Bengston, author of Silent Echoes, serves as tour guide around Los Angeles to show different places Keaton shot: Studio (5 min), Hollywood (4 min), Civic Center (4 min), and Round-Up (3 min).
- Bonus Films (HD, 9 min) – Two shorts, 'Character Studies' and 'Seeing Stars', reference Keaton and other actors.
- The Saphead, Alternate Version (HD) — This alternate version of the film shows different takes of scenes and a few different camera angles. Most notable is that this version has limited color tint and features a piano composition by Ben Model.
- A Pair of Sapheads (HD, 8 min) — Narrated by film restoration expert Brett Wood, the piece is overview on the difference between the two versions and a quick lesson why there are two copies of the same film.
- Buster Keaton: Life of the Party (HD, 31 min) — An audio recording from 1962 where Keaton is talking to a group of friends, reminiscing on his early days performing the vaudeville circuit with his family.
- Why They Call Him Buster (HD, 1 min) — A very brief promo montage for the release of Lost Keaton from Kino Classics.
- Still Gallery (HD) — Sixteen great pictures from Keaton's personal collection of photos taken during his vaudeville years.
- Making Comedy Beautiful (1080i, 26 min) — Patricia Eliot Tobias narrates a visual essay about the film
- 'Hospitality' (1080i, 55 min) — With optional introduction, here's a 49-minute alternate cut of the film. I suggest you commit yourself to the full 75 minutes,
- The Iron Mule (1080i, 19 min) — This Arbuckle-directed short features the train from "Our Hospitality' and a familiar face popping up.
- Galleries (HD) — two galleries with photos taken in regards to 'Hospitality'.
- Sherlock Jr. Commentary — Film Historian David Kalat provides an informative monologue about Keaton and the making of this film.
- Tour of Filming Locations (1080i, 10 min) — Bengston offers another installment related to 'Sherlock Jr.'
- Movie Magic & Mysteries (1080i, 23 min) — This extra looks at the making of 'Sherlock Jr.'
- Stills (HD) — Twenty-seven of them.
- Tour of Filming Locations (1080i, 10 min) — Bengston does similar duty on 'Three Ages'.
- Man's Genesis (1080i, 9 min) — A clip from D.W. Griffith film that is supposed to be responsible for Keaton using the Stone Age time period in 'Three Ages'.
- Three Separate Ages (HD, 14 min, 19 min, 26 min) — The stories from 'Three Ages' are separated into three stand-alone pieces, but they belong as one piece.
- Stills (HD) — Twenty-one of them.
- Audio Commentary — Film historians Robert Arkus and Yair Solan provide a terrifically informative chat about 'The Navigator' and its production. Their conversation is a scholarly appreciation that discusses an interesting reading of Keaton's work through this film along with a variety of cool historical tidbits about the cast and the ship.
- Featurette (HD, 9 min) — From film historian Bruce Lawton, this short piece is an in-depth discussion of Keaton's fascination with boats and water sequences as a source of comedy, making a connection between this film and Keaton's other works.
- "Asleep in the Deep" (HD, 3 min) — While on-screen text provides some context, this recording of the Wilfred Glenn song referenced in the film can be enjoyed while footage plays in the background.
- Still Gallery (HD) — A short collection of production and publicity stills.
- Commentary – Film historians Ken Gordon and Bruce Lawton sit together to discuss 'Seven Chances' and its background. At times, Gordon sounds a bit stiff as when he reads the information he's presenting.
- "A Brideless Groom" (HD, 17 min) – The Three Stooges repurpose the idea of 'Seven Chances' for this 1947 short that finds Shemp needing to be married to collect $500k from his dead uncle.
- "How a French Nobleman Got a Wife Through the New York Herald Personal Columns" (HD, 10 min) – An ad in the paper brings more interested ladies than a Frenchman can handle in this 1904 Edison Company short that features a chase sequence that may have influenced Keaton and his writers It's a forgettable novelty that's not worth sitting through.
- Tour of Filming Locations (1080i, 10 min) – Like he has done on other discs, such as Chaplin's 'Modern Times', John Bengtson, author of Silent Traces: Discovering Early Hollywood Through the Films of Charlie Chaplin, offers a tour of the film's locations. He shows how Los Angeles appeared during the shoot and, when possible, shows how the same buildings look today.
- About the Technicolor Sequence (HD, 6 min) – Film historian Eric Grayson shows the work that went into to restoring the 'Seven Chances' opening sequence.
- Stills Gallery (HD) – A gallery of 16 production stills is available for perusal.
- 'Go West' (1923) (HD, 12 min) — A Hal Roach western with a cast of only monkeys. This alone may have sold me on this mammoth set.
- Buster Keaton: Screenwriter (Audio, 59 min) — In this very rare recording, you can Keaton working on script ideas for an episode for the TV western 'Wagon Train.'
- Battling Butler Remake Script Excerpts — A gallery of script pages from a remake Keaton was working that was never made.
- Stage Production Photos (HD) — Eleven photos from the 1922 stage production.
- Stills (HD) — And fifteen from Keaton's film.
- Video Tour of The General (HD, 18 min) — Historian Harper Harris provides background about the actual train and events on which the film is based.
- The Buster Express (1080i, 5 min) — A montage of Keaton's use of trains in his films.
- Tour of Filming Locations (1080i, 4 min) — Bengston returns for another trip down memory lane.
- Home Movie Footage (1080i, 1 min) — Apparently people were fascinated by the making of movies back in the '20s as well. A bit of a novelty but short so worth a look.
- Introductions (1080i) — Actress Gloria Swanson (2 min) and filmmaker Orson Welles (12 min) each recorded introductions for TV broadcasts of the film. Welles offers heartfelt raves about the film.
- Photo Gallery (HD) — An extensive collection of promotional photos and posters to scour through.
- DVD Release Trailer (1080i, 1 min) — and the kitchen sink.
- Commentary — Historian Rob Farr offers his thoughts and research about the making of 'College'.
- Tour of Filming Locations (1080i, 10 min) — Bengston is back.
- 'The Scribe' (HD, 29 min) — Shot in 1966, this PSA for the Construction Safety Association of Ontario stars Keaton demonstrating what not to do on a construction site. Rather amazing and a bit sad that this is the last time he appeared in a film.
- Steamboat Bill, Jr. - Killiam Version (HD, 70 min) — This is a version of the film created from different takes and camera that ran simultaneously, so it's basically the same film.
- Visual Essay (SD, 12 min) — This essay looks at the making of the film, including the aforementioned version.
- Steamboat Bill: The Song (Audio) — Two old recordings of the folk song: Edward Meeker from 1911 (2 min) and Irving Kaufman from 1919 (3 min).
- Stills Gallery (HD) — Sixty-nine photos related to the film.
- Stills Gallery (HD) — 16 photos related to the Education shorts.
HD Bonus Content: Any Exclusive Goodies in There?
There are no HD exclusives.
Although it's a pricey set, not all the films are classics, and Keaton fans likely already bought previous releases (I did), 'The Ultimate Buster Keaton Collection' is such an impressive piece of film history that it deserves a place in many video libraries.
Kino has done a great job with these Blu-rays. The images look as good as can be expected for film elements of this age without major restoration work, the musical scores are pleasing, and the supplemental materials allow each film to be better understood. Highly recommended.
- 15-Disc Set
- 1080p/MPEG-4 AVC
- 1080i/MPEG-4 AVC
- DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1
- English 2.0 LPCM
- English Mono
- Visual Essays
- Tour of Filming Locations
- Alternate Versions
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