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Blu-ray Review: Buster Keaton Short Films Collection: 1920-1923

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The Films

After a stint as second fiddle to Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and before going on to make some of the greatest comedic feature films ever, Buster Keaton made 19 two-reeler short films for Metro Pictures under the production of Joseph M. Schenck between 1920 and 1923. In addition to starring, Keaton co-directed all of them (except for one, where’s he credited as the sole director), most of the time with Eddie Cline, but occasionally with Malcolm St. Clair.

Kino has collected all 19 shorts in one three-disc Blu-ray collection, and the set is a monument to Keaton’s inexhaustible inventiveness. Early in his career, he was already brimming with ideas, and the astonishing practical effects, daring stunts and breathless energy seen in these films matches those qualities in the features.

It also displays Keaton’s fully realized comic persona — a quick, mischievous wit hiding behind stone-faced stoicism and assaulted by the forces of modernity and other people. Keaton’s characters rarely get the girl (Generally Sybil Seely or Virginia Fox), are physically outmatched (burly Joe Roberts usually acts as Keaton’s foil) and often end up worse off than where they started (Keaton certainly wasn’t shy of unhappy endings).

The set provides an illuminating look at Keaton’s career path as he honed his physical comedy and progressively pushed toward more surreal and experimental inclusions. And as standalone works, almost every one of these films is a master class in short comedy, not to mention endlessly entertaining.

The 19 films are:

The ‘High Sign’
Keaton gets a job at a shooting gallery, where his faked skills cause both a group of local mobsters and their wanted man to hire him. The release was delayed because Keaton felt the film too closely resembled an Arbuckle comedy.

One Week
A wedding present arrives for Keaton and his new bride — a pre-fab house, which causes him endless trouble as he tries to assemble it.

Convict 13
Keaton discovers clothes really do make the man as he gets mistaken for a convict, but works his way up the ranks to prison warden by virtue of stolen outfits.

The Scarecrow
Roommates Joe Roberts and Keaton fight for the affection of a farmer’s daughter, while living in their house filled with Rube Goldberg conveniences.

Neighbors
Keaton loves his next-door neighbor (Virginia Fox), but their families are intent on keeping them apart.

The Haunted House
A bank robbery goes wrong, and Keaton ends up trapped in the thieves’ hideout, which appears to be haunted. The film features Keaton veering into the surreal like never before.

Hard Luck
Keaton plays a man who wants to kill himself, but gets sidetracked by a series of bold exploits. Not all of the film survives, with the final scene only seen in a still photograph.

The Goat
Keaton must evade the police when he is mistaken for a dangerous escaped killer named Dead Shot Dan.

The Play House
Keaton plays every part in a surreal opening scene, where he’s the staff, audience and performers at a minstrel show. The amazing trick photography can’t be matched by the second half’s romantic plot.

The Boat
After inadvertently destroying his house and car, Keaton and his family are forced to live on their boat, the Damfino, which gets caught in a terrible storm.

The Paleface
Keaton gets mixed up in a dispute between an Indian tribe and greedy oil tycoons, but eventually becomes an honorary Indian himself.

Cops
Perhaps Keaton’s greatest short, here he plays a (mostly) well-intentioned man who manages to get the entire city’s police force on his tail.

My Wife’s Relations
A language mixup results in Keaton’s marriage to a brawny woman, and her family doesn’t take kindly to his presence.

The Blacksmith
Keaton does almost everything wrong as a blacksmith’s assistant, while feuding with head blacksmith Joe Roberts.

The Frozen North
Keaton tires of his own wife in the frozen tundra and attempts to win the affections of a married neighbor.

Day Dreams
Looking to prove himself in the big city to the father of his girlfriend, Keaton attempts several professions with poor results, while his girlfriend dreams of him making it big. Originally a three-reeler, much of the film has been lost, cutting it down to two-reeler size.

The Electric House
Mistaken for an electrical engineer, Keaton is tasked with modernizing a millionaire’s house.

The Balloonatic
Accidentally ending up on a hot-air balloon destined for a world explorer, Keaton gets stranded in the wilderness, where he and a woman engage in a series of one-upmanship.

The Love Nest
Determined to leave his former life behind, Keaton sets out a rickety boat and is soon picked up by a whaling vessel, where he clashes with imperious Captain Joe Roberts.

The Blu-ray Disc

All of the films are presented in 1080p high definition — save for One Week, which comes in at 1080i — and are in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio. Several of the films are color tinted. Overall, the films have definitely benefited from the high-def upgrade, with increased clarity, depth and detail apparent in all but the most damaged. Now, each one has its share of constant marks and scratches, but that’s to be expected. Still, there’s no ignoring the more film-like image these Blu-ray presentations provide. For those bothered by the scratches, Kino has included “digitally enhanced” versions of four films — The ‘High Sign’, The Boat, Cops and The Balloonatic — where DNR has been applied to reduce some of the noise. Obviously, a loss of detail comes with these, but it’s nice to have the option.

Audio consists of a single score provided for each film, with Ben Model and Robert Israel responsible for the bulk of the scores, which all appear to be single-performer.

Special Features

There are lots of great extras included with this set, the best of which are short visual essays for 15 of the films, written by folks like David Kalat, Bruce Lawton, Bret Wood and Patricia Eliot Tobias. Most run for around six minutes and cover production history and visual analysis for the most part. There’s a fair amount of overlap, with most essays covering more than one film, but altogether, it’s an excellent selection of bite-sized bits of information. The essays appear on the same discs as their respective films.

Also on disc one, we get alternate and deleted shots from five films and four clips that demonstrate the way with which Keaton’s contemporaries copied him: Lupino Lane’s Only Me and excerpts from Billy Bevan’s Be Reasonable, Charley Chase’s Hello Baby! and Stan Laurel’s White Wings.

Disc two has no extras aside from visual essays, but disc three features two 1922 promo films with Keaton, Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd all making appearances. There’s also a four-part look at the locations of Keaton’s shorts by John Bengtson. A brief promo for Kino’s Lost Keaton set is also included.

The package includes a booklet with an essay and brief notes on all the films by Jeffrey Vance.

The Bottom Line

An outstanding set from top to bottom, this collection is a master class in short film comedy.

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About Dusty Somers

Dusty Somers is a Seattle-based editor and writer. He is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and Seattle Theater Writers.