Buster Keaton: The Short Films Collection 1920-1923 [3 Discs] [DVD]

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Special Features

  • Fifteen Visual Essays, Illustrated with Clips and Stills, Written by Various Keaton experts
  • A Series of brief alternate/deleted shots from "The Goat," "The Blacksmith," and "The Balloonatic"
  • "The Men Who Would Be Buster," a collection of clips from slapstick films influenced by Keaton's work
  • Eight-page booklet with an essay by Jeffrey Vance, author of Buster Keaton Remembered
  • Four Visual Essays on the films' locations by Silent Echoes author John Bengtson
  • "Character Studies" (ca. 1922), a gag film starring Carter DeHaven, with cameos by Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle
  • "Seeing Stars "(excerpts), a 1922 film featuring cameos by Keaton, Charlie Chaplin


The Boat
In what is perhaps Buster Keaton's most fatalistic short subject, the comedian portrays a husband who has been diligently building a boat in his basement. It's finally done, and he, his wife (Sybil Seely) and their two boys prepare to tow it to the harbor for its first run. The car slowly pulls the craft, which is too big to fit, through the basement doorway, and the house just as slowly collapses. But this is just the beginning -- at the pier, the car sinks, the christening bottle dents the hull, and then the boat itself sinks, with Buster aboard. But as the title says: "You can't keep a good boat down." Finally the little boat is at sea (even if its life preserver sinks and anchor floats), and Buster and his family try valiantly to makes themselves at home as the waves toss them to and fro. Of course this can't go on forever; in the darkest part of the night, a storm fiercely blows and the boat begins to sink. Buster desperately radios for help, but when the telegraph operator (played by Keaton's co-director, Eddie Cline) asks for the boat's name, and Buster replies "Damfino" (which is, in fact, its name), the operator angrily replies, "Neither do I!" As Buster and his family cram into their makeshift lifeboat, the situation looks very bad, but somehow they wind up on land. "Where are we?" the wife wants to know. There's no need for a title card to record Buster's reply: "Damned if I know!" This is one of Keaton's best two-reelers, which was almost lost to the ravages of time and deterioration -- when Keaton's work was first being restored, only one print of The Boat was found, and several scenes were nearly past the point of salvaging. But the picture squeaked through intact, and its indelible images have become a part of silent film's heritage. ~ Janiss Garza, Rovi

Although Cops is one of the all-time great two-reelers, its creator, Buster Keaton, never thought much of it. He felt it was just a run-of-the-mill chase film, which suggests that perhaps Keaton was his own worst critic -- the chase is what gives the film its brilliance. The film's beginning is a portent of things to come: Keaton longingly looks at his girl Virginia Fox through what appear to be prison bars. In reality, it's the gate to the mansion where she lives. The girl sends Keaton away, telling him not to return until he is a success in business. Keaton attempts to do so, acquiring, through convoluted means, a horse, wagon, and a load of stolen furniture. Somehow he drives his wagon into the middle of a policeman's parade, where an anarchist's bomb falls in his lap. Carelessly, he lights his cigarette with it and throws it away. It explodes in the middle of the parade, and suddenly Keaton is pursued by every cop in the city. The surrealistic vision of Keaton, small and alone, evading these hundreds upon hundreds of policemen is unforgettable. The filmmaker was both athlete and comic, and here he makes maximum use of both talents, racing down streets, playing a balancing act on a ladder, and casually grabbing hold of a car as it flies past, all in an attempt to evade the cops. When it was first released, this comic short confused many people -- its subtle statements (including its blend of humor and politics) went over the head of the average filmgoer of the '20s. But those same qualities make Cops a classic today. ~ Janiss Garza, Rovi

The Electric House
Comic filmmaker Buster Keaton always had a love of gadgetry, and that interest in all things mechanical is allowed full expression here. The two-reeler opens up on college graduation day, and the students are receiving their diplomas. The sheepskins get switched around, however, and Buster, a botany major, receives a diploma in electrical engineering. The dean (Joe Roberts) asks him to wire his house while he takes his family on a vacation; with the help of a book called "Electricity Made Easy," Buster does just that, and more. The dean and his family return to find a staircase that functions like an escalator, a Murphy bed that puts itself away, a toy train set that serves meals, a self-racking pool table, and many other unexpected conveniences. The trial run of the house doesn't go off without a few glitches, of course, but things really go haywire (literally) when Buster's rival (the real electrical engineering graduate) sneaks in and begins switching the cables around. It took two attempts for Keaton to complete this film short. The first time around, in 1921, he got his shoe caught in the staircase/ escalator and broke his leg. He was in a cast for seven weeks and dropped the project for over a year. When he commenced shooting again in 1922, he used his own house for the exterior shots of the dean's home. ~ Janiss Garza, Rovi

The Frozen North
The Love Nest
When Buster (Buster Keaton) is spurned by his sweetheart, he decides to forget by sailing around the world. He posts a letter to his girl, sealing it with his tears, and heads out to sea in a ramshackle little boat he's named "Cupid." Weeks later, he encounters a whaling ship called "The Love Nest" -- an ironic name, considering the captain (the very formidable Joe Roberts) is extremely mean-spirited and in the habit of throwing men overboard for the smallest infraction. When the steward spills the Captain's coffee and receives the ultimate penalty, Buster is given his job. Buster's seafaring talents, of course, leave much to be desired -- for example, when he hears the order, "All hands on deck!" he takes it literally and, yes, puts his hand on the deck. Amazingly, Buster goes for quite a while before he incurs the Captain's fatal ire. He outfoxes his tormentor, sinks the ship and takes off on a lifeboat. But fate isn't done with him yet -- he winds up fishing in a Naval target practice zone. But just as the target he's sitting on explodes, he wakes up, back on the "Cupid" -- it was all a dream. But Buster's relief is only temporary, as he discovers that he has no food or water. Then he sees someone swimming past him ... his boat, luckily, is still tied to the port. This was Keaton's final two-reel short; by the time it was released in March 1923, he was already working on his first feature, The Three Ages. ~ Janiss Garza, Rovi

The Balloonatic
Although The Balloonatic was one of Buster Keaton's final two-reelers before he graduated to feature-length comedies, it has no plot to speak of. The gags, however, are especially rich and otherworldly. Basically, Keaton wanders off from an amusement park and winds up floating away in an experimental balloon. All this is merely a device to land him in the middle of a forest where he encounters a girl (Phyllis Haver). Before he patches up the balloon and takes off, it becomes clear that she is by far a better outdoorsman than he. The Balloonatic is a charming little film although it breaks no new ground. ~ Janiss Garza, Rovi

The Scarecrow
Buster Keaton's two-reel work in the early '20s was incredibly rich -- nearly every picture is funny and even the shorts that fall short of classic contain moments of comic brilliance. Because Keaton has so much excellent work from this time in his career, some films get overlooked unfairly, and The Scarecrow is one of them. It's classic Keaton all the way, from the beginning when he and his roommate (big Joe Roberts) prepare a meal with the use of all sorts of convoluted Rube Goldberg contraptions and odd conveniences: a victrola becomes a stove, condiments hang from the ceiling, and the tabletop -- plates and all -- becomes a homey plaque on the wall. The two men are both in love with the farmer's daughter (Sybil Seely), but the farmer (Joe Keaton, Buster's father in real life) isn't too thrilled with either of them. After being pursued by a supposedly mad dog and disguising himself as a scarecrow, Buster wins the girl in spite of himself and they have to elude the roommate and her father. The final chase is pure manic poetry, ending in a marriage ceremony performed on a motorcycle and a sidecar, which flies into a lake with the bride, groom, and parson all on board. ~ Janiss Garza, Rovi

Buster Keaton is a boy who wants to marry his sweetheart (a pre-stardom Renee Adoree). But her practical father (Joe Keaton -- in real life, Buster's father) wants to know, "How will you support her?" Buster swears he will go to the city to make good, adding, "If I am not a success I'll come back and shoot myself." The father generously offers to loan him his gun, should that come to pass. And so Buster is off, writing letters home of his adventures. His girl reads that he is working at a hospital. She imagines him as a master surgeon. In reality, he is a veterinary assistant. Then he writes that he is cleaning up on wall street. But he not the tycoon that his girl believes he is -- as a sanitary engineer, Buster is literally "cleaning up." Next he is making his theatrical debut. His girl pictures him on stage as Hamlet. Instead, Buster is actually an extra who is so disruptive that the star haughtily walks off the show. He ends up being chased by the town's police force (in scenes similar in tone to Keaton's two-reeler, Cops, released six months earlier). Finally, a bruised and battered Buster is delivered, via mail, back home to his girl and her father. Obligingly, the father hands the boy a gun, and he and his daughter go into another room while he does the job. But Buster can't even do this right -- he misses. Several fragments of Daydreams are missing and replaced by stills shot while it was being filmed. But it is lucky that the two-reeler exists at all -- the only known copy of it was found in Czechoslovakia. ~ Janiss Garza, Rovi

Convict 13
In Buster Keaton's second two-reel comedy to be released, he is golfing (though not very well) with a group of socialites. He knocks himself out and while unconscious, an escapee from a nearby prison exchanges his uniform with Buster's clothes. When Buster comes to, he finds himself on the lam from dozens of prison guards. Buster evades them -- until he dashes right into the prison. There he runs into one of his golfing friends (Sybil Seely), who is the warden's daughter. The girl finds his prison garb a hilarious joke until her father mentions that Buster (according to the number on his sleeve) is to be hanged that day. With the help of an elastic band, the girl saves him from this fate, but then Buster has to overcome a prison riot and a huge, brutish fellow convict (Joe Roberts). He is successful, and for his trouble, is awarded the job of assistant warden. ~ Janiss Garza, Rovi

One Week
One Week was the first Buster Keaton-directed film to be released to the public (The High Sign was made earlier but shelved for several months). Based on a now-obscure educational short called Home Made, it involves a build-it-yourself house given to Keaton and his new bride (Sybil Seely). Unbeknownst to the couple, the wife's disgruntled former suitor has changed the numbers on the boxes containing the building materials. Keaton does make the house in one week, as the instructions have promised, but what a house! Right off the bat, this early Keaton film shows his penchant for big props (the cockeyed house, a passing train). Even though it's only a two-reeler, it still managed to become one of the top-grossing movies of 1920. ~ Janiss Garza, Rovi

Hard Luck
The plucky little guy that comedian Buster Keaton portrayed throughout most of his two-reel silents is just about out of pluck here. After being fired by his boss and jilted by his girlfriend, there seems to be nothing left but to end it all. And even that won't go right -- try as he might nothing works (and hilariously so). Throwing himself in front of a streetcar fails. He lamely tries to hang himself. The "poison" he swallows is someone's bootleg liquor stash. Desperately he throws himself in front of an oncoming pair of headlights, but it's not a car, it's two motorcycles that navigate easily around him. Suicide is forgotten when he somehow gets involved with a scientific search for an armadillo, which leads him to a country club. Notorious bandit Lizard Lip Luke (Joe Roberts) terrorizes the club's patrons, but Buster saves the day and the girl (Virginia Fox). "Now no one can stand in the way of our getting married!" he tells the young lady. "Except my husband over there," she retorts. Out of luck once again, Buster dons a swim suit, climbs up to the highest diving platform and jumps. Missing the pool completely, he goes through the tile and vanishes. "Years later" reads the title card, and we see the country club pool, overrun by weeds from misuse. The hole is still there, though, and Buster promptly emerges, a Chinese wife and two Chinese-American kids in tow. Out of all the two-reelers he made, Keaton said that Hard Luck was his favorite, and he claimed that performing the high dive was the greatest thrill of his life. Unfortunately, the end of Hard Luck has deteriorated with time (although the rest of the film is mostly intact), and apparently only fragments of it exist. ~ Janiss Garza, Rovi

The High Sign
The first film that Buster Keaton made independently, High Sign portrays the filmmaker as a drifter in search of a job. Passing himself off as a skilled marksman, he finds employment at a shooting gallery in an amusement park. But he gets more than he bargained for -- a girl (Bartine Burkett) talks him into being a bodyguard for her father, who has run afoul of a gang. Meanwhile, the gang, called the Blinking Buzzards, forcibly recruits him to snuff out...yes, the girl's father. Keaton hated this two-reeler when it was done and shelved it. It was released only because he was laid up with a broken leg seven months later and production had halted. While not as good as the next film Keaton made (the top notch One Week), it still has many classic sequences, including a chase through a series of trapdoors at the gang's hideout and Keaton pouring through the want ads in an endlessly unfolding newspaper. ~ Janiss Garza, Rovi

Only Me
The Playhouse
This two-reeler features the famous theater sequence in which Buster Keaton plays every role, from the stage actors to the orchestra and audience, appearing in the same frame two, three -- and in one scene, nine -- times. This was amazing technical wizardry in a day when special effects really were special. But there's more to The Playhouse than this one segment. The film bounces from dream to reality, from optical illusion to confusion, all with a playhouse as backdrop, and the various theater skits are a prime example of Keaton's infinite comic variety. In one scene he disguises himself as a monkey so effectively that it's easy to forget he's really human. "This fellow Keaton seems to be the whole show," an audience member remarks in the all-Keaton sequence. In spite of the co-direction credit by the highly capable Eddie Cline, that statement's pretty much correct. ~ Janiss Garza, Rovi

The Blacksmith
The homely Longfellow poem about The Village Blacksmith"will never seem the same after viewing this two-reel spoof. (Buster Keaton) is the assistant to the town blacksmith (Joe Roberts), a big, mean-tempered sort. In the early '20s, it was common for a blacksmith to double as a car mechanic, and Keaton is equally inept at both tasks. This short is essentially a string of wonderful gags -- Keaton helps Virginia Fox's horse pick out just the right shoe, and he methodically and hilariously destroys a gleaming new Rolls Royce. By the end of the film, everyone is out to throttle Keaton for his countless blunders, but somehow he still manages to get the girl! ~ Janiss Garza, Rovi

Buster Keaton stars in the short black-and-white silent comedy The Neighbors, also known as Backyard and Mailbox. The story is basically a variation on Romeo & Juliet set in a regular working-class neighborhood. Keaton falls in love with his neighbor, played by Virginia Fox. Joe Roberts and Joe Keaton play their battling fathers. Their families fight over the fence that separates their buildings. The Neighbors was released in 2000 by Kino Video on the DVD Seven Chances, along with the short The Balloonatic. ~ Andrea LeVasseur, Rovi

The Goat
This two-reeler is one big chase film -- or, rather, it's two chases in one film. A drifter (Buster Keaton) is already on the run from the cops when he's mistaken for murderer Dead Shot Dan (portrayed, incidentally, by Keaton's co-director Mal St. Clair). Keaton has eluded the previous group of policeman, but he's no match for the ill-tempered, heavyweight detective Joe Roberts who's hot on his trail...or is he? The battle of wits and punishing physical stunts is a pleasure to behold -- Keaton wrings every bit of mirth from props such as an old-fashioned dump truck, an elevator, windows and, of course, the passing train. A delightful, fast-moving film. ~ Janiss Garza, Rovi

My Wife's Relations
Buster Keaton collides head first with unholy matrimony in this hilarious two-reel comedy. A burly Irishwoman (Kate Price) thinks Buster has broken a window and has him brought before a judge -- who is Polish and can't speak English! The judge thinks the two are engaged and immediately marries them. The delighted woman drags Buster to her home and introduces him to her four huge brothers and their spindly father. The whole family abuses Buster until they come to believe -- quite mistakenly -- that he is due a huge inheritance; they then treat him with warmth and consideration. They all relocate to a ritzy penthouse only to learn that Buster has no income coming in. The resulting chaos leads to a wild chase and ends with Buster on a train headed for America's divorce capital, Reno, NV. ~ Nicole Gagne, Rovi

The Haunted House
While this isn't one of Buster Keaton's best two-reelers, it has some undeniably classic moments. Keaton plays a young bank teller who isn't immune to a pretty girl begging him for an early withdrawal. Sighing, he goes to the safe's clock and turns the hand an hour ahead so the door will spring open. Behind the scenes, there is scheming afoot; the cashier (big Joe Roberts) is part of a ring of counterfeiters who have fixed up a mansion to appear haunted in order to throw off the police. Their finest trick among the trap doors and secret passageways is a staircase that becomes a flat ramp when a cord is pulled, causing anyone climbing it to slide to the bottom. Back at the bank, Keaton has some trouble with a bottle of glue that causes all the money he touches to stick to him. This is also trouble for a group of bank robbers who try to hold him up. To throw the cops off his scent once again, the cashier makes it appear that Buster is the robber, and he has to run away. Keaton eventually makes his way over to the mansion, where the staircase proves to be his nemesis. Nevertheless, he manages to capture the counterfeiters, although he is knocked cold in the process. While he is unconscious and being held tenderly by the bank president's daughter (the small but always aristocratic Virginia Fox), he has a dream: He is climbing the long steps to heaven where he faces Saint Peter. Keaton is refused admission, and the saint pulls a cord. The steps flatten out and Buster slides down until he reaches hell. Fortunately, he wakes up to find himself face to face with the girl, not the devil. ~ Janiss Garza, Rovi

The Paleface
Buster Keaton stars in this two-reel comedy as the captive of hostile Indians. His captors tie him to a stake and prepare him for death by fire. Keaton moves with the stake as the Indians try frantically to place the firewood around him. When he survives the flames due to his fire-resistant clothes, Keaton is made a member of the tribe and named Little Chief Paleface. He then foils the scheme of unsavory oil speculators to steal the land from his Indian companions. ~ Dan Pavlides, Rovi

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