The era of silent movies is something which seems destined to forever remain incomplete in film archives. It’s estimated that around 75% of all silent movies are lost forever, and an assessment made by Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation says that up to 90% of all American films made before 1929 are currently missing.
In the vast majority of cases, the only known copies or film negatives were destroyed in a series of fires. Early movies were made using nitrate film, which was highly flammable, and can become unstable as it decays over time. Given the right conditions, nitrate films can spontaneously combust and are notoriously difficult to extinguish, as they produce their own oxygen supply as they’re burning. Several major studios had blazes break out in their vaults, leading to the destruction of many early features and shorts.
Given the precarious nature of early cinema’s survival, it’s little short of miraculous, then, that all of Buster Keaton’s works are still with us. Considering his film career spanned almost 50 years, it’s an even more impressive feat. Some of his films were either incomplete or missing in their entirety, but thanks to all the diligent work of enthusiasts, archivists and film historians, everything Keaton made is now back in its entirety, for future generations to enjoy.
Of course, there’s no point in having everything safe in the archives if it isn’t in a watchable condition, which is where the work of restorationists comes in. Many people will no doubt associate silent movies – comedies particularly – as being low grade, scratchy, washed-out prints which are run at the wrong speed, making them virtually unwatchable, to the accompaniment of a plinky honky-tonk piano score. It’s the way that they’ve been shown on TV over the years, and tends to be people’s first – and overriding – impression.
Making this era of moviemaking relevant to contemporary audiences has been the work of organisations like Bristol’s world-famous Slapstick Festival, which showcases classic silent comedies every year, giving them the best possible presentation. All of this is supported by the painstaking efforts taken to make the visuals look as pristine as can be achieved, given the ageing nature of the original material. Considering that some of these prints are on the unstable nitrate stock, that’s no mean feat.
A lot of work in this regard has been carried out by Cohen Media Group, who have restored and remastered numerous films, including the Buster Keaton collection. Three of his most famous feature films – Sherlock Jr., The General and Steamboat Bill, Jr. – were released by Eureka! as a part of their Masters Of Cinema series in 2019, as Buster Keaton: 3 Films; now, we get three more of Keaton’s works – The Navigator, Seven Chances and Battling Butler – in this second volume of hopefully many more to come.
The Navigator sees Keaton playing the well-to-do Rollo Treadaway, who ends up being cast adrift at sea with his neighbour Betsy O’Brien (Kathryn McGuire) due to a series of mishaps after O’Brien rejects his proposal, and the pair end up as unlikely shipmates. The film was chosen in 2018 for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress, for being “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant”; it’s also on the American Film Institute’s list of the Top 100 Funniest American Movies.
Seven Chances has Keaton in the role of Jimmy Shannon, who finds out that he stands to gain a massive inheritance if he can manage to get married by 7pm on the date of his 27th birthday. The only catch is that he only finds this out on the actual day he turns 27, so it becomes a race against time to get hitched. Seven Chances had its opening scenes shot in early Technicolor, and these have been restored and included in this release. Bizarrely, this movie was remade as 1999’s The Bachelor, starring Chris O’Donnell.
Finally, Battling Butler – just like Seven Chances – is an adaptation of a play, casting Keaton as millionaire playboy Alfred Butler, who goes on a camping trip with his faithful manservant, and ends up falling for a country girl (Sally O’Neill). In order to try and impress her and her family, he poses as champion boxer Alfred “Battling” Butler (Francis McDonald). However, the real “Battling” Butler turns up, and decides to teach the imposter a lesson by having him fight the “Alabama Murderer”.
The three films jointly demonstrate Keaton’s skill at being able to not only carefully craft visual jokes and spectacles, but also make sure they’re perfectly framed for maximum effect. A case in point is a sequence in The Navigator, in which Treadaway and O’Brien both repeatedly ascend and descend the decks of a ship in a static shot, continually just missing each other over and over again, and the comedy of the situation just builds with every single repetition of the joke, carried out with immaculate timing.
One of Keaton’s best known gags – at the climax of Seven Chances – came about purely by accident. During an early preview, the audience laughed when Keaton’s character had accidentally dislodged some small rocks while running down a hillside in a chase sequence, sending them tumbling after him. Seeing the comedy potential in this, he had 150 fake boulders and rocks of varying sizes made, and he filmed a whole new sequence where he’s pursued by a landslide of ever-growing proportions.
Such care and attention was put into every detail, such as the clever dissolve between settings where Keaton’s sat in a car which stays in exactly the same location in the frame as the background changes behind him, to represent travel and movement without us actually seeing any signs of motion. The Heath Robinson-esque jury rigging of the vessel in The Navigator is also a true visual delight, as all the mod cons are brought to life by lashing together things which left on the ship, making meal preparation a cinch.
What’s perhaps rather shocking are the various racial and ethnic overtones throughout The Navigator and Seven Chances, which are uncomfortable to watch. It does feel as if some context needs to be given, similar to what Warner Brothers did with their Golden Collection series of Looney Tunes DVD releases, where warnings were given that some of the material and attitudes reflect the period when these pieces were actually made, and are presented as historical documents of the time. A modern audience might still be appalled by the seeming racist and anti-Semitic overtones at certain points.
READ MORE: The Great Buster: A Celebration – Review
As with all of the Masters Of Cinema releases, the quality of the set can’t really be faulted. The picture itself is virtually immaculate, which is remarkable considering some of these prints are bordering 100 years old now. Cohen Media Group has done a superb job sourcing the best copies from around the globe and combining them to make these films look as good as they’ve ever done, presenting them in 4K, and with full orchestral scores. If you want to truly appreciate silent cinema for how it was meant to be seen, this Blu-ray set is what you want.
There are also plenty of worthy extras, including a video essay by David Cairns on all three movies, helping provide some much needed background detail. There’s also a lot of attention given to The Navigator, with a commentary by silent film historians Robert Argus and Yair Solan, as well as an informative and insightful ‘making of’ documentary. It’s a highlight of the set to have a series of audio interviews with Buster Keaton from over the years, as we’re not used to hearing the voices of silent comics; a genuine surprise is one of the interviewers being Irwin Allen, best known for his disaster movies and cult TV shows.
Buster Keaton: 3 Films (Volume 2) is a wholly worthwhile collection of some classic – and, sadly, overlooked – silent comedy. It’s enough to make someone as outwardly dour as ‘The Great Stone Face’ himself crack a smile.
Buster Keaton: 3 Films (Volume 2) is out now on Blu-ray from Eureka Entertainment.