HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWERon 4 May 2012
Kino's excellent series of region-free Buster Keaton Blu-rays (also released as special edition DVDs) continues with this fine edition of his two lowest grossing silent features, one of which would go on to become one of his most revered films, the other suffering years of neglect and terrible prints.
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.
In the past the film had 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. While that's still included on Kino's new version, it also gives you a choice of two other soundtracks, one a selection of vintage recordings and the best a new score by the Mont Alto Orchestra that's much more sympathetic to the film and never gets in the way. The print is pretty impressive, too. While the captions are still quite heavily scratched, the scenes themselves fare much better, with only a couple of shots of much softer replacement footage noticeable because the rest of it looks so good. Very impressive extras as well, including a 22 minute look at the making of the film, an equally informative tour of the locations that's far more engrossing than the usual then-and-now featurette and a stills gallery.
The difference a decent transfer can make is even more apparent on the supporting feature. Surviving in the worst condition of any of Buster Keaton's silent features, seen in many of the dark, unsteady and damaged prints that have been doing the rounds of Public Domain video labels for years, Three Ages comes across as a disjointed and rather drawn out sendup of D.W. Griffith's Intolerance, with Buster trying to woo Margaret Leahy away from rich and powerful Wallace Beery in three parallel stories set in the Stone Age, Rome in her glory, and the needy, greedy present day 20s. See it in a better print where you don't have to concentrate on making out the details and can just sit back and enjoy the film and it's a different matter entirely as bits of business that got lost in the fog turn out to be neat little gags. Not that it's a perfect, pristine print on Kino's Blu-ray despite evident restoration work - it still suffers from a lot of water and print damage in places as well as a few burnt frames in the police station scene and it's easy to tell where replacement sections have been dropped in from inferior prints - but there's a clarity and strength, as well as a steadiness to the image that's lacking on other prints that helps make the flaws that can't be fixed a lot easier to live with.
The story is the same in each of the three eras, with Beery playing dirty to win Leahy's hand and Buster overcoming disaster to race to the rescue and three happy endings, but unlike his more accomplished silent features it's really just an excuse for the jokes, some chases and a handful of routines. Luckily the jokes, chases and routines are a pretty good bunch even if he would go on to scale greater heights, including a chariot race in the snow with huskies (including a spare in case of breakdown) and a veritable decathlon of a chase that gives a hint of what was to come in College in the Roman story, a great bathtub gag in the Stone Age sequence (the bathtub is still there in the Garden of the Gods, as a featurette in the extras shows us!), a great sight gag in a football game when Buster quickly reacts to seeing a team of footballers charging at him to take the ball and a deftly underplayed drunk scene filled with matter-of-fact surreal touches and a terrific throwaway taxi gag in the modern section. There are even a couple in injokes along the way, with screenwriters Jean Havez, Joe Mitchell and Clyde Bruckman among the list of players in the football team. It's a lavish looking picture at times too, with Keaton's canny use of LA locations giving a sense of scale to Ancient Rome and some stop motion animation in the Stone Age, albeit nothing that would give Willis O. Brien much competition.
Only Keaton's second feature as an actor and his first as producer-director and uncredited co-writer, he did play it safe in case the film flopped: despite constantly moving from one era to another, the three stories were designed so that they could easily be re-edited into three separate shorts. Indeed, Kino's Blu-ray offers just that option, along with three different scores to choose from, an impressively detailed and genuinely informative featurette on the locations used, a stills gallery and an extract from D.W. Griffith's Man's Genesis that Keaton so relentlessly sent up in the Stone Age section. But ultimately it's the improved picture quality that's the big selling point here - it may not work miracles in repairing all the damage and make the film look like it did in 1923, but it's such a huge improvement it literally transforms the film. For all it's flaws, it's much better than anyone could realistically expect.