the DVD market gets flooded with old-school product, cineastes and
average consumers alike wanting to bone up on their classic cinema
sometimes face a conundrum in unlocking the best way to jump back in
time. Point of entry can be everything. Case in point: The Buster Keaton Collection,
which culls together two hearty handfuls of 17-to-20-minute shorts from
the legendary silent-era screen comedian. One would think this would be
a godsend for those seeking some one-stop shopping, but upon further
examination, this compendium spotlights a more fallow period from later
in his career.
The advent of the talkie meant changes for all
in Hollywood, but among those who suffered the bumpiest transition was
Keaton. Spanning a few years from the late 1930s through the middle of
1941, the somewhat arbitrarily ordered shorts included herein are: Nothing But Pleasure, General Nuisance, The Taming of the Snood, His Ex Marks the Spot, Mooching Through Georgia, Pardon My Berth Marks, Pest From the West, So You Won’t Squawk, She’s Oil Mine and His Spook Speaks.
Most are helmed by producer-director Jules White, who also made many
noted collaborations with the Three Stooges, and it’s easy to spot the
infusion of that brand of broad physical humor here, which is
incongruous with the best of Keaton’s work, and certainly out of step
with what’s most synonymous with his name.
The appealingly unassuming nature of Keaton’s sly physical comedy is present only in fleeting morsels here. 1941’s She’s Oil Mine (a reworking of The Passionate Plumber)
perhaps best exemplifies old-school Keaton; he silently squares off in
a duel with Eddie Laughton, who does the talking. Others of the shorts
— all filmed as works-for-hire for Columbia — though, like Mooching Through Georgia and The Spook Speaks, fall flat, at least for those wanting a true slice of brilliance.
Packaged in a cardboard sleeve in turn housed in a pull-out cardboard case, The Buster Keaton Collection
does a nice job of preserving the original, full-screen,
black-and-white presentations. The audio, meanwhile, has been
re-mastered in English Dolby 2.0 (with optional subtitles), eliminating
the native hiss that can mar even the most sterling visual brush-ups of
classic material. Audio commentaries from assorted film historians
pepper each inclusion. Ed Watz’s track on The Taming of the Snood is probably the best, though all provide important contextual information and insight.
There’s also a 24-minute documentary, titled “Buster Keaton: From
Silents to Shorts,” that gives an overview of the actor’s vaudeville
days and delineates his downward trajectory in the face of the rise of
“talkies.” Rounding out the supplemental fare is an original screenplay
reproduction of She’s Oil Mine included within, featuring a
nice, additional introduction by Melissa Talmadge Cox, Keaton’s
granddaughter. For completists this is definitely worth a look, but for
others it’s not the best introduction to Keaton. C+ (Movies) B (Disc)