Kino's release brings together Buster Keaton's two finest comedies in an extras-free set that boasts very respectable picture quality. However, they've since revisited both films on DVD and Blu-ray in 'Ultimate Editions' with very good extras that live up to the billing that are a much better bet for the Keaton enthusiast (Sherlock Jr & Three Ages [DVD]  [Region 1] [US Import] [NTSC
]/Sherlock Jr & Three Ages [Blu-ray]  [US Import
] and Our Hospitality [Blu-ray]  [US Import
]/Our Hospitality [DVD]  [Region 1] [US Import] [NTSC
The trade ads screamed `More laughs than sprockets holes,' and for once with Buster Keaton's second feature, the magnificent Our Hospitality, they weren't over-selling it. The first of his `Southern trilogy' of epic comedies (followed by The General and Steamboat Bill, Jr.), it shows traces of his more morbid side in taking the murderous and tragic Hatfield-McCoy feud and relocating it from the Appalachians to Kentucky and coming out with a genuinely charming and delightful comedy that's also one of the plain nicest films ever made. The plot is simple but sturdy, with Buster the last survivor of a family wiped out by a petty feud no-one can remember he cause of. Returning to his birthplace after twenty years, he not only discovers that his inheritance is a broken down shack but that the girl he has fallen for is the daughter of the clan who killed his father - and they're eager to finish the job. And if that wasn't enough, he finds himself invited to dinner with them, unaware of their identity...
The story is so slight it's less a three act structure than a three sequence structure, yet the result is Keaton's most perfectly realised feature, with just enough story for the film to stand up but plenty of room for him to build prolonged comedy situations and milk them for all they're worth without ever seeming to break a sweat. The first section of the film boasts his most imaginative and sustained comic setpiece, the wonderfully picaresque train journey in the old Rocket locomotive and its 18th century-style carriages, Buster's faithful dog following and eventually overtaking the prototype loco as the `mighty iron beast' tears across the countryside, locals either assembling to watch it as if it were the most popular show in town or throwing stones at the driver in the hope that he'll throw firewood back at them. Hats, mules, tunnels, smoke and some very uneven tracks are also put into service in a succession of inventive and charming sight gags, while Gordon Jennings and Elgin Lessley's photography and Fred Gabourie's art direction gives the film an unforced visual charm to frame the comedy without overwhelming it.
It's the standout sequence, but the film has plenty more to enjoy, whether it's Buster trying to escape from his hosts while all too aware that they'll shoot him the moment he leaves the front door (southern hospitality prevents them from shooting him while a guest in their home), a chase that sees him tied to a man who is trying to shoot him, a defiantly politically incorrect joke involving a wifebeater and a triumphantly exciting waterfall rescue that still impresses even if you know how it was done. Throughout Keaton abandons some of the more surreal visual touches of his earlier shorts or his later Sherlock Jr. to stand back and let the story and jokes flow naturally, but he still takes the opportunity to throw in a few neat moments of visual trickery like a cunningly disguised horse. Even simple moments like Buster riding a vintage bicycle raise a smile in a film that's just a joy to watch. Unfortunately the picture quality isn't as good here as their reissue even allowing for the poor state of the master material.
The short - a very tight 44 minutes - but very sweet Sherlock Jr. is perhaps Buster Keaton's most perfectly realised film, and the one that more than any other establishes him as cinema's equivalent of Rene Magritte with its dreamlike surrealism. With most of its running time given over to a dream sequence where Buster's projectionist not only imagines himself the hero of the movie he's showing but also clearing his name of the real-life petty crime he's been wrongly accused of, it gives full vent to his wild comic imagination without having to worry too much about a plot that actually makes sense. There's a lot more to it than the justly famous scene of Buster trapped in the constantly changing locations of a movie he's literally walked into, with the film showing a canny awareness of how movies were beginning to shape people's perceptions and dreams - Buster even takes hints on making out from what's happening on screen - and the way that people often live vicariously through the fantasies that unfolded on the silver screen. As Buster's great detective effortlessly thwarts all efforts to kill him with booby traps, poison and, best of all, an explosive billiard ball, the film runs through some of his most amazing stunts and trickshots, from the train sequence that saw him nearly breaking his neck and causing years of migraines (but not realising it until x-rays in the 30s revealed the fractures), a breathtaking chase with him sitting on the handlebars of a driverless motorbike to the scene where he jumps THROUGH Ford West, disguised as a peddler woman, and onto the other side of a fence. Not all of the gags hold up as well as they could, most notably an elaborately staged mirror gag, but there's so much energy and imagination on display here that it can afford the odd missed beat to allow you to catch your breath before the next big gag.
Unfortunately this edition has been hobbled by the 1993 score by the Club Foot Orchestra, which shows more imagination than usual but is often distracting, sounding like across between an old Man From U.N.C.L.E. episode, a Pink Panther cartoon and a strip club house band. Some like it, but from the scores of complaints about how distracting it is there's no guarantee you'll be one of them, so you might be better off getting the DVD/Blu-ray reissue from Kino which offers a much more appropriate choice of scores.