Film reviews

Buster Keaton: 3 Films (Volume 3) – Blu-ray Review

As a part of their Masters Of Cinema series, Eureka! follows up their release earlier this year of Buster Keaton: 3 Films (Volume 2) with a collection of a further trio of silent film classics from ‘The Great Stone Face’ – Our Hospitality, Go West and College. These three movies again demonstrate Keaton’s mastery of visual comedy, and these restorations will hopefully help make his work accessible to a far wider audience.

As with both earlier releases, Cohen Media Group has done an exemplary job in tracking down multiple copies of each of the three films, and combining the very best elements in order to create 2K (or, in the case of Go West, 4K) versions so as to make sure they all look as pristine and immaculate as you could hope for movies which were made nearly 100 years ago, with little thought given to their longevity. The fact of their survival at all is remarkable, let alone that such painstaking care and attention should now be given to their preservation and presentation.

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Our Hospitality is a Keaton foray into historical territory, with a tale which mirrors the real-life feud of the Hatfield and McCoy families in the latter part of the 19th Century – moved to 1831, and with the names of the families altered to Canfield and McKay, this piece is a true family affair in every sense, as Keaton’s father Joe appears here, as does Keaton’s then-current wife, Natalie Talmadge, along with their son, Buster Jr. The story also has a strong Montague and Capulet vibe, due to the romance between Keaton and Talmadge’s unknowing characters.

A significant portion of the humour derives from Keaton’s Willie McKay being invited to a family dinner by Talmadge’s Virginia Canfield, with the rest of the clan knowing who he is, but being unable to kill him while he is their guest, due to codes of Southern hospitality. Keaton’s bids to extricate himself, and the chase that follows, provide us with some perfect examples of his pursuit of a laugh, whether or not he was placed in harm’s way; at one stage, he literally defies death when a stunt goes wrong, which is captured on film and used in the final cut.

An unexpected bonus of this set is the inclusion of an early workprint version of the film, simply called Hospitality. For a preliminary cut of the movie, it happens to be unlike most other cutting copies, as it runs significantly shorter than the final edit. It gives us a look into Keaton’s creative process by showing how he later fleshed out not only jokes, but he also moved a flashback to open the film with it instead. Due to the rarity of the material – being a 16mm copy, taken from a degrading nitrate print – it lets you appreciate how much work has been done to restore the main feature, so marked is the contrast in picture quality with this early cut.

In Go West, Keaton gives us a character known throughout as ‘Friendless’, who turns his back on city life and decides to make his way in the West, heading out by train to Arizona, where he becomes a cowboy – of sorts. Like the other films in this set, Keaton’s character forms a deep emotional bond with someone else, an attachment that runs all through the picture; unlike the others, however, it is not a conventional romantic relationship, but is instead a connection with one of the cows in the rancher’s herd, dubbed Brown Eyes, who he does his utmost to look after and protect.

Keaton clearly ignored the famous adage of never working with either children or animals, and manages here to make Brown Eyes a comedy partner, the two of them forming a double act, something which is no mean feat when you are unable to give your co-star direction. Not content with his steer wrangling out on the wide open prairies, Keaton sets up a grand finale where he has to get his boss’ cattle to the stockyards by train for sale, building to a chaotic climax in which he ends up driving the herd on foot from the station through the streets of Los Angeles.

Rounding off the set is College, perhaps the weakest entry of the three. Keaton portrays Ronald, an academically gifted High School graduate trying to win the heart of Mary (Anne Cornwall), who – alas for Ronald – only has eyes for jocks and those who are more athletically inclined. So smitten is poor Ronald, he follows Mary to Clayton College, where he endeavours to try and impress her by putting himself up to try out for all manner of different sporting disciplines, with the same lack of success in each.

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Having seen the success of Harold Lloyd’s sporting comedy The Freshman, Keaton’s producer felt it would be lucrative to cover similar territory. Sadly, College feels rather thinly-drawn in terms of plot compared to the other two films in the set, and it feels as though Keaton has been given lots of room simply to do bits of comic ‘business’ to show Ronald’s lack of sporting prowess, at the expense of actual story. One potentially entertaining moment in a restaurant is spoiled for modern audiences by Keaton having adopted blackface, which does provide rather a sour note.

However, each movie does amply demonstrate the level of sheer creativity and craftsmanship which went into Keaton devising every gag, no matter the risk of physical harm or pain, in search of the all-important laugh. In the limited edition three-disc set, a 60-page collector’s book contains a series of essays by film writers and Keaton scholars which cover the trio of movies here, giving important background information about each one, as well as Keaton’s move from shorter comedies to feature length productions; it perfectly complements the video essays in the set, and commentaries on Our Hospitality and Go West.

Perhaps the highlight of Buster Keaton: 3 Films (Volume 3) is the inclusion of a 24-minute short from the National Film Board of Canada, made in 1964 to promote tourism to the country starring, in full glorious – and, also, atypical – colour, Buster Keaton. The Railrodder is a fascinating look at a man who, while inarguably in the twilight of his career (Keaton died the year after The Railrodder was released in 1965), was creatively still as vibrant and inventive as ever, taking what had originally been pitched as a nine-minute piece, and ending up delivering something that was nearly three times as long as planned.

At a time when many of his silent movie contemporaries had either died or actively stepped out of the limelight, it seemed that Keaton had no intention of slowing down or retiring, possessing the very same zeal and drive which he had shown during the height of his career. The Railrodder has Keaton ‘borrowing’ a motorised railcart (after having apparently walked all the way across the ocean to Canada from London) in order to see the sights, as he travels the 3,982½ miles to the Pacific coast, with all of the typical kinds of Keatonesque mishaps and precarious situations en route.

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Accompanying The Railrodder is a contemporary ‘making of’ documentary, shot in black & white instead of colour; as a result, the clips used from The Railrodder, drained of all their colour, do make it look and feel as though they could have easily been taken from his heyday, so very familiar is his style. While not a well man at the time of the filming, and clearly cantankerous, you do get an inside look at both Keaton the person and Keaton the comic genius, doggedly chasing the precious laugh, even if it puts him into conflict with the director; having the director’s commentary tracks for both these extras is the icing on the cake.

Keaton’s aficionados are commonly known as ‘Damfinos’ (which is slang for ‘damned if I know‘), after a vessel that featured in his short The Boat; his fans need not worry if this set is worth it or not, as this latest Masters Of Cinema release, courtesy of Eureka!, is most assuredly a damn fine one.

Buster Keaton: 3 Films (Volume 3) is out on Blu-ray on 24th August from Eureka Entertainment.

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