Buster Keaton was born 100 years ago this fall, and the best way to celebrate would be to find a theater showing his movies. If that isn't possible, you can, at long last, watch his best work on video.
Keaton's film catalog was tied up for years through wrangling over his estate. Now, Kino on Video has issued a three-volume box set, much of which has never been available in this format.The prints, for the most part, are of excellent quality, and the new soundtracks, written in authentic period style, do a fine job of evoking Keaton's distinctive world.
Included are all the shorts and feature-length silents (usually running about an hour) that Keaton made as an independent creator. Also included is "The Saphead," a feature in which he starred before going into production for himself.
Keaton fans need no explanation for why they should check out this compilation. For nonfans, three reasons are offered:
- The Keaton look: "his haunting, handsome, almost beautiful" face, as James Agee described it. Keaton was a small, dark-haired man with pale skin, a thin, unsmiling mouth and a slanted forehead that merged seamlessly into his Roman nose.
His eyes may be the most expressive ever seen on film. They were large, sad, quizzical, mysterious. When he closed them, his huge eyelids descending like window shades, he could suggest bliss, longing or a childlike state of rest.
- The Keaton style. Seen in still photographs, Keaton suggests a rather remote, passive figure. In moving pictures, he turns out to be a marvelous, fearless athlete who performed his own, dangerous stunts and set up the shots to make sure you knew it.
Filming a river scene in "Our Hospitality," he nearly drowned when a protective wire snapped and he was thrust into the rapids. The camera kept running and the footage appears in the finished version. Racing on top of a freight car in "Sherlock Jr.," he broke his neck when he grabbed a waterspout and was deluged with water. Again, it's all in the film.
- The Keaton mind-set: alienated, absurdist, apocalyptic, contending with the very extremes fate has to offer. It sets him apart from other comedians and made admirers of Samuel Beckett and Salvador Dali, among others. Keaton would have made an ideal Gregor had he filmed Kafka's "Metamorphosis," and he could have done amazing things with "The War of the Worlds."
Dali and other Surrealists probably responded to segments such as the opening of his short "The High Sign." Keaton is seated on a bench, reading a newspaper. He unfolds the paper, then unfolds it again, then again, and again. The paper grows so large it completely envelops him and knocks him over backward.
Kafka readers would appreciate "Cops," in which a series of accidents and misunderstandings leads to Keaton being hunted down by what must be an entire city police force.
There is first a long, wild chase, in which Keaton does everything from balancing himself on a ladder straddled over a fence - cops waiting on either side - to diving through a policeman's legs to hiding his face behind a clip-on tie.
Keaton then disappears into a precinct building, followed closely by the cops, who squeeze through the doors as if jamming themselves into a phone booth. Just as the last one has pushed his way in, a small figure slips outside, locks the doors and tosses the key in a trash can. It's Keaton, in an officer's uniform.
At this point, "Cops" is a wonderful comedy and other performers would have ended it there. But Keaton pushes on. Just as he's completed his escape, the girl he loves walks by. He turns to greet her, but she turns up her nose and keeps walking. A despondent Keaton takes back the key, opens the door and goes back into the precinct, where his captors take him away.
But even that's not enough for Keaton. The film then dissolves to a still of a small headstone with his hat resting on top. The headstone reads "THE END."
Everything in this box set is worth watching, but three films deserve special mention:
- "The Navigator" (1924). Keaton stars as an idle rich kid stranded on a drifting ocean liner. As it turns out, the girl who had just turned down his proposal of marriage also is on board.
Like Chaplin and the other great clowns, Keaton had a genius for sight gags and manipulating props. In one scene, he's underwater, trying to dislodge the ship. He sets up a MEN AT WORK sign, uses a lobster's claws as pliers and fights off one swordfish by using the beak of another.
- Sherlock Jr. (1924). Keaton was a show business child and he enjoyed exploring the relationship between fantasy and reality. In the magical "Sherlock Jr." he plays a projectionist who dreams he has entered the movie he is showing, "Hearts and Pearls."
Woody Allen used a similar storyline for "The Purple Rose of Cairo," but nothing he did compares to the sequence in which Buster jumps into the screen and is bedeviled by the changing backdrops of the movie in progress.
- Seven Chances (1925). Keaton didn't want to make this film, based on an old Broadway flop about a man who can inherit a large fortune if he marries that night. Fortunately, Keaton added his own touches.
Unsuccessful in finding a mate, Keaton is told by friends that they will place an ad in the newspaper: All he has to do is show up at the church. It's empty when he arrives and, exhausted from his long day, he falls asleep on a pew in front.
Upon awakening, he finds the church packed with would-be brides. Keaton tries to escape and the chase is on, capped by an astonishing sequence in which he races down a hill, loosens a rock and finds himself in the midst of an avalanche, eluding boulders of all sizes with the skill of a running back in the open field.
If pathos was at the heart of Chaplin's work, terror was at the heart of Keaton's. Only Keaton could have dreamed up such a scenario, and only Keaton could have summoned the athletic skills to pull it off.
This is the very peak of film comedy.
Volumes 1 and 3 of the Buster Keaton box set each have three cassettes and sell for a suggested retail price of $79.95 each. Volume 2 has four cassettes and sells for $109.95. Individual cassettes have a suggested price of $29.95. If your store doesn't carry the Keaton videos, they can be ordered from Kino at 1-800-562-3330.