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.