It wasn’t necessarily the advent of talking pictures that sent Buster Keaton’s career tumbling, but it didn’t help. Keaton signed with MGM in 1928 and the subsequent loss of creative control was undeniably detrimental — many of the compromises dealt with injecting dialogue into Keaton’s sublime visual style, diluting much of what made the man a filmmaking genius.
After his stint at MGM, Keaton tried to return to his roots by signing with Educational Pictures to produce 16 two-reelers, similar in length and style to the shorts that launched his solo career in 1920-1923. Last year, Kino put out the fantastic Buster Keaton: The Short Films Collection featuring that early work, and now, they’ve given us Lost Keaton, which includes all 16 of the significantly less accomplished shorts from the Educational Pictures period (1934-1937).
Despite the name, Educational Pictures specialized in short comedy and gave Keaton more creative freedom over the films, though he didn’t direct these and the budgets are noticeably lower. Here, Keaton appears most often as Elmer, a comic persona similar to Keaton’s previous bumbling, well-intentioned protagonists, but like Keaton himself, a little more haggard.
There are flashes of Keaton’s brilliance to be found in nearly every one of these shorts, but the moments are a lot fewer and farther between than in the halcyon days a decade earlier. The Gold Ghost features a number of inspired sight gags when Keaton inadvertently becomes the sheriff of a gold boomtown and One Run Elmer effectively mimics silent-style comedy conventions as Keaton competes with a fellow gas station owner and plays a game of baseball.
Most of the films are at their best when they remind us of the past Keaton masterpieces — dialogue is minimal, gags are plentiful, Keaton achieves a kind of balletic grace of movement — but one of the collection’s best is a decidedly different work. Grand Slam Opera hearkens back to Keaton’s vaudeville days and features him singing, dancing and juggling as an amateur hour contestant.
Elsewhere, there’s mostly disappointment, especially in The Timid Young Man, in which comedy legend Mack Sennett directs and delivers a sloppy, dull film about Keaton’s escape from a domineering fiancée. Unfortunately, most of the films in the collection lean toward this level of quality rather than that of Grand Slam Opera, but as a historical document, it’s fantastic to have these films preserved and presented here in generally excellent shape.
The Blu-ray Discs
The 16 films are split up onto two discs, and each is given a 1080p, 1.33:1 transfer mastered from 35mm negatives, fine grain masters and some lesser archival sources. It’s pretty obvious when an inferior source is used, like in One Run Elmer where nearly half a reel descends into an occluded, fuzzy mess. But overall, the films look quite good, with strong levels of sharpness and clarity visible beneath ever-present scratches. Fine detail is often apparent in clothing and hair, and grayscale separation is stable and consistent.
The mono audio tracks are often afflicted with a good deal of hiss and crackle, but dialogue remains intelligible.
David Macleod contributes liner notes about each of the films, collected in an eight-page booklet. Disc one includes a stills gallery and disc two includes a montage of famous Keaton pratfalls and stunts.
The Bottom Line
No one ought to be introduced to Keaton’s work through this route, but it’s a necessary stop along the way for fans, and the excellent Blu-ray presentation makes the set well worth owning.