As new generations of viewers discover the magic of silent cinema, Buster Keaton has emerged as one of the era's most admired and respected artists. Behind the deadpan expression and trademark porkpie hat was a filmmaking genius who conceived and engineered some of the most breathtaking stunts and feats of visual trickery, while never losing sight of slapstick cinema s primary objective: laughter. Produced by Lobster Films, BUSTER KEATON: THE SHORTS COLLECTION includes all 32 of Keaton's extant silent shorts (thirteen of which were produced in collaborations with comedians Roscoe Fatty Arbuckle and Al St. John). These 2K restorations were performed utilizing archival film elements from around the world, and promises to be the definitive representation of Keaton's early career.
Born into a vaudeville family, Joseph "Buster" Keaton first took the stage at the age of three in 1899. At an early age, he learned the art of the pratfall and his trademark deadpan look, both of which served him well throughout his career. A chance meeting on a New York City street, which Jeffrey Vance writes about in the liner notes, led Keaton to work in film as a second banana to Fatty Arbuckle. He then went on to become one of the most highly regarded silent film comedians/filmmakers.
Last year, Serge Bromberg's Lobster Films held a successful crowdfunding project to create new restorations of the surviving shorts Keaton made with and without Arbuckle. In the accompanying booklet, Bromberg states, "not a frame, not a sound in the Blu-ray or DVD set in your hands comes from previous editions."
The first two discs contain 13 of the 14 Arbuckle shorts Keaton appeared in from 1917-1919. "A Country Hero" remains lost. His first appearance was in "Butcher Boy" where he played a customer who has come to buy molasses and has some funny business with Arbuckle when he gets stuck to the floor. Then, events get hysterically out of hand, if you enjoy someone getting smacked with a sack of flour or a pie. Arbuckle is very funny as he plays with knives and cuts meet. He later goes uncover at a women's boarding school in order to spend time with his girlfriend.
As the Arbuckle shorts progress, it's clear the only thing that matters is to get a laugh. In "Oh Doctor," Arbuckle sends a car into a crowd of people and then hands out his business card to the people he just injured. He even plays with the medium, as in "Coney Island" when he motions for the camera to rise up so he can take off his pants. Unfortunately though not surprisingly for the era, there are uncomfortably insensitive moments, such as the treatment of minorities. In "Out West," it's stunning to watch everyone, including Arbuckle and Keaton, shoot at an African American's feet to get the man to dance.
As they continued working together, Keaton's role increased in back of and in front of the camera. He co-wrote and co-directed "The Rough House" with Arbuckle. In "The Bell Boy" they are co-leads in the story. Vance writes that "Back Stage," a short about stagehands having to fill in for striking actors, "is generally regarded as Keaton's first full creative work, so it's not surprising to see a gag where a portion of the set falls upon Arbuckle only to be saved by a window in it, an idea also used in the short "One Week" and the film 'Steamboat Bill Jr.'
Disc 3 is the start of Keaton as a lead performer and the co-writer/co-director of his work with Edward F. Cline. "The 'High Sign" starts things off, which was the first produced but was held up for a year because Keaton wasn't pleased with the result, though it's not clear why as it's very amusing. It doesn't take long before it's clear that Keaton and Cline are much more inventive in their shorts. In "The Scarecrow", Buster and his roommate have an elaborate set up of contraptions in their dining room.
"The Haunted House is an example that with Keaton, as with Arbuckle, plot logic is secondary to laughs. It doesn't make sense why a jar of glue at the bank teller's station, but there are plenty of gags out of money and people getting stuck together. In "The Boat", he does daffy things like trying to nail a painting onto wall and then drilling a hole in the boat's bottom to let the first leak drain.
Keaton demonstrates his skills as a filmmaker with "The Playhouse," which has a great sequence where Keaton uses trick photography to play all nine members of an orchestra. In "Cops", he demonstrates he was the king of the chase when a great number of policemen chase him through the city streets after him after he accidentally bombs their parade.
'Buster Keaton; The Shorts Collection' is not only a funny set of comedy shorts that reveal why Keaton grew to be so beloved by his fans; it also showcases the importance of film preservation to save this work for future generations.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Kino Classics releases 'Buster Keaton: The Shorts Collection (1917-1923)' comes on five 50GB Region A Blu-ray discs. All five are contained in one blue keepcase, which is housed in a slipcover. The discs boot up directly to the menu screen without any promotional advertisements. It comes with a 27-page booklet featuring notes by Serge Bromberg and Jeffrey Vance
The video has been given a 1080p/AVC-MPEG-4 encoded transfer displayed at 1.33:1. The booklet provides restoration notes about each short. The image quality in these nearly 100-year-old films is understandably quite varied, and if it not for historical significance, it might be hard to over look, but fans of Keaton and the era should know what to expect.
In "Butcher Boy", deep blacks are rare and most lean towards gray. Object edges may blend together, and depth is limited. Most of the shorts in this set have the same issues in these areas with slight improvement as the years progress. "Butcher Boy" also has instances of flicker and light bleed. Some scenes have frames that lose clarity and increase in darkness. On the positive side, the intertitles look brand new.
"Rough House" has a lot of black vertical marks and frames missing. There are some frames where it looks like portions of the emulsion came off the film stock "Moonshine" is particularly bad. There are many instances within scenes of switching back and forth between restored frames and those where the entire picture goes quite dark, altering the contrast and clarity. A strip can be seen across the bottom of the frame.
The picture quality improves on "The 'High Sign'" and "One Week" for most of the runtime in terms of contrast and clarity. In "The 'High Sign'", there are consistent, faint white scratches along the side. There is also recurring spot damage as if something damaged the print. "The Neighbors" has original intertitles so there are not as clear. "Hard Luck" is riddled with spots and there is damage to both corners on the right side for a few opening scenes. The last scene, lost for years, is also riddled with spots.
In "The Boat," there's a scene with a boy rocking with a rope that looks as if layers of emulsion have been lost. In addition to lost frames gone, the middle part of a frame is missing. "Frozen North" has a lot of vertical black scratches. In "Day Dreams", the fluctuating grain and vertical scratches affect the contrast and creates a light flicker.
A few shorts use colored tints. "Hayseed" has a sepia tone, "The Garage" has a pink tint, "The Love Nest" has a yellow tint, and "The Haunted House" uses multiple tints. In "The Garage," a fire occurs. The brightness of the flame and the smoke distort image.
Trying to figure out a fair score is difficult. Clearly, quite a lot of hard work went into restoring these shorts, but they can only look so good in comparison.
The audio is available in LPCM 2.0. The new scores range from solo piano accompaniment to small orchestras. The different instruments can be distinctly heard, and all the tracks deliver a good dynamic range.
"Coney Island" also uses a female singer whose voice is well balanced with the music. Gunshot effects are used in "The 'High Sign'". On "Hard Luck", the music's volume sounds a lot louder. On "The Blacksmith" (Version B), the main track has an occurennce of bass distortion. During the alternative track on "Frozen North", Buster falls through the wall of igloo and there is either an accompanying sound effect or an audio defect.
Regardless of the low scores for video and audio, which are limited by the sources, I highly reccomend 'Buster Keaton: The Shorts Collection (1917-1923)'. Keaton is a great talent and these shorts make that clear as they showcase his comedic skills and inventive filmmaking.