Buster Keaton: Art of Buster Keaton [DVD] [Region 1] [US Import] [NTSC]
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The greatest works of the stoic-faced master of silent comedy are collected here, featuring ten features, nineteen shourts, and countless laughs. also includes "Keaton Plus" - Over three hours of rare Buster Keaton material, including the complete "Hard Luck," "Jail Bait," "Allez Oop" and two complete educational shorts. Also included: 50's Keaton TV show, a photo gallery, Keaton home movies and much more.
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Other DVD collections have been released in the interim, but my heart has a special place for this one, because it was the first after a long, dry spell. I may add to my Buster Keaton film sets, in order to provide myself with better versions of certain films, but I'll never replace this one.
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This is a huge collection of films (11 features and 19 shorts), so reviewing individual items is not going to be beneficiary. These discs have also been released individually, and I've already written many words on each of them. But in general terms, I did find that I preferred his short films to his longer works. The feature films don't quite have the frantic pace to them that made the shorter films so memorable and enjoyable. Of course, comparisons to his short movies a little unfair, as those shorts are rightly praised as some of the funniest sequences ever filmed. But there are some incredible moments in his features as well as some strong movies.
But those shorts. Wow. Here are some of the most memorable movie scenes I have ever viewed. Once seen, who can forget the literally hundreds of angry police officers chasing Keaton in COPS, or the prisoner bungee jumping from the end of a noose in CONVICT 13, or the DIY house being demolished by a train in ONE WEEK? These films are fast-paced, surreal, bizarre and hilarious. I loved them to pieces.
Prop comedy is something that is now horrifyingly associated with such painfully annoying clowns as Carrot Top (Lord help us). But in the slapstick era, this was something that was not only funny, it could be downright diabolical. I can only imagine how long it must have taken to construct the trap doors and false walls and other goodies that cropped up again and again. Clever, inventive and strangely sophisticated, these physical implements, when combined with Keaton's formidable athletic abilities, produced some amazing and breathtaking scenes.
One of the things I would wonder to myself was not simply "How on Earth did Keaton do that stunt?", but "How on Earth did Keaton survive that stunt?" His accomplishments are made all the more impressive given that he was performing all of these aerobatics himself with little in the way of trick photography (decades later, Jackie Chan would work in much the same way to similar acclaim).
The major bonus in this set is the final DVD, KEATON PLUS, which contains all sorts of rarities and extras. While the films here show Keaton in the 1920s, these extras focus on Keaton later in his career. It's somewhat sad to see the great man reduced to doing cheesy commercials, but he's always at least watchable. A few short excerpts from his 1950s TV series are included, and while it's fun to see that he could still take a pratfall thirty years on, I suspect that the thrust behind his return was the opportunity to make out with the incredibly tall and gorgeous model who appeared in virtually every clip. Lucky old Buster; though after being teamed up with Jimmy Durante, that's the least that karma owed him.
I noticed that some reviewers have had negative things to say about the musical selections used as the soundtrack to these silent pictures. My experience was quite different, as overall I enjoyed the music and was only occasionally annoyed by it. On the other hand, you may wish to take what I say with a grain of salt, as I thought the James Bond musical riff in SHERLOCK, JR. was absolutely wonderful.
This was a great purchase, and during the perusal of this set, I felt I was not only seeing some great filmmaking, but a real splice of cinema history. It's really a shame that Keaton's career went down the tubes after the 1920s, as I felt his features were gradually improving as he gained more experience. His shorts (from the early part of the decade) were uniformly excellent, but I got the impression that he was gaining more useful experience in feature-length movies and developing as filmmaker. It may be a bit depressing to know what happened after signing to MGM, but at least here we can enjoy the good times while they lasted. And they certainly were good times and great films.
In your shelves, Keaton shouldn't share his place with the Marx Brothers, but with Orson Welles (who called The General the best movie ever made about the Civil War) and Martin Scorsese (who said he watched over and over the final fight in Battling Butter -which, by the way, is not supposed to make you laugh, but to surprise you with it's realism)
Now, this are the complete contents of this DVD set. Aside from it, you should check out The Buster Keaton Collection, which includes THE CAMERAMAN, SPITE MARRIAGE and FREE AND EASY - and then you are done. Well, you could also read the only book he wrote -My Wonderful World of Slapstick. (June '06 Update: "Industrial Strength Keaton"(DVD) just came out. The set includes rare industrial films, promotional films, commercials, TV appearances and outtakes.)
The Saphead: 1920
Includes the shorts ONE WEEK (1920) and THE HIGH SIGN (1920)
The Three Ages
Including THE GOAT (1921) and MY WIFE'S RELATION (1922).
Our Hospitality / Sherlock, Jr.
Includes shorts The Boat (1921) and The Love Nest (1923).
Includes THE SCARECROW (1920) and THE PALEFACE (1921).
Shorts: Neighbors (1920) & The Balloonatic (1923)
Includes THE HAUNTED HOUSE (1921) and FROZEN NORTH (1922).
shorts: The Playhouse (1921) and Cops (1922)
Includes THE ELECTRIC HOUSE (1922), HARD LUCK (in this version the ending is missing; but the complete version is found in the disc called Keaton Plus) (1921) and THE BLACKSMITH (1922).
Steamboat Bill, Jr.
shorts: Convict 13 (1920) and Daydreams (1922)
Color home movies, complete short HARD LUCK, two Shorts from the 30's, commercials, TV shows and appearances. But best of all, Orson Welles talking about Keaton and The General.
That being said, I must point out one or two things with which I was disappointed. The set is said to be "digitally mastered from archival prints". Then why are there so many sections of film that are in such poor condition? While digital technology cannot replace lost film, even on my home computer I can touch-up photographs; surely a film restoration company should have better and more extensive resources at its disposal. Another sore spot is the scoring. I have been spoiled by a brilliant musician who plays at the Silent Movie Theatre here in Los Angeles, Dean Mora. He is the perfect accompanist for silent films. Some of the scoring for the DVD set is, forgive me, atrocious. The worst offense is the use of the James Bond theme for one part of SHERLOCK, JR. Of only slightly less heinous nature is the use of thematic elements from other (read "future") time periods. I may sound like an old fogey (I'm 43), but I think that a piano is fine, a violin and maybe one or two other chamber pieces sufficient. I am not averse to full orchestration, but music choice and coordination with the film is paramount. Musical cues should reflect on-screen action. One last point; sound effects are not needed.
Even with the flaws, I say: buy this set. It's wonderful to have Mr. Keaton in your home.
Those caveats aside, I would put this collection (along with Image's box of the Chaplin Mutuals and Essanays) in the 'essential' category for silent movie fans. Considering that a lot of movie classics are yet to see DVD issue, we are fortunate that Kino has put together such a comprehensive collection of Keaton's pre-MGM movies. Bogart fans will have to wait for the African Queen, but Keaton fans can enjoy these films right now. And unlike the Chaplin boxed set mentioned above, there's hardly a dud in the Keaton collection. Pretty much everything here will bring enjoyment over repeated viewings. With Image Entertainment's wonderful Arbuckle/Keaton issue now readily available, all we need is The Cameraman and Spite Marriage! I'd love to see these films make it to DVD...