Our Hospitality (1923)
The General (1926)
Steamboat Bill Jr(1928)
Supplemental Material from 'The Saphead' and 'The Navigator' by M. Enois Duarte
Supplemental Material from 'The Saphead' and 'The Navigator' by M. Enois Duarte
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 2 also includes previously reviewed titles 'The Navigator' and 'Seven Chances'.
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 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 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.
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.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.