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The Art of Buster Keaton [11 Discs] [DVD]

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Overview

Synopsis

Three Ages
Thirty years after its release, Buster Keaton admitted that his first feature film was essentially three two-reel comedies strung together. Perhaps this was a way for the comic filmmaker to play it safe; he had achieved success for his short films and if Three Ages wasn't going very well, its trio of storylines could have been chopped up into separate films. The picture was a send-up of D.W. Griffith's 1916 masterpiece Intolerance. But instead of following greed and hatred through the ages, Keaton focused on love. His settings were the Stone Age, the Roman era and 1920s America, with Margaret Leahy as the girl and Wallace Beery as the villain in each segment. The stories are intercut, but they're basically the same: the villain uses either brutish or dishonest means to get the girl and Buster must somehow overcome him. Although they're the most crude-looking, the Stone Age scenes often offer the funniest moments: Buster flirts with a cavewoman who turns out to be twice his size; when a foe throws a rock at him, Buster hits the rock with a club, baseball-style, and squarely knocks out his opponent. The modern era offers the most thrilling scene -- Buster tries to jump between two tall buildings, but misses and falls. The fall was unintended, but instead of retaking the shot, he used it to create a series of events that led his character to the back of a moving fire truck. While this picture ultimately didn't rate among Keaton's most classic work, it was a solid success when it first came out. Keaton did exactly what he'd set out to do, which was establish himself as a feature filmmaker. But it hadn't been all smooth going -- Margaret Leahy was pretty but had no talent for acting whatsoever. The girl was an English beauty-contest winner, and the prize was supposed to be a role in a Norma Talmadge film. She was so bad that Talmadge's director threatened to quit. So the star's producer/husband, Joseph Schenck (who was also Keaton's producer) put her in Three Ages instead. Keaton couldn't really complain -- because of his marriage to Natalie Talmadge, he was Norma's brother-in-law. So he made the best of it, although he later complained that Leahy caused him to throw away many scenes. Leahy eventually left the movie business and found a happier career working as an interior designer. ~ Janiss Garza, Rovi

Go West
With this delightful film, Buster Keaton rivals Charlie Chaplin for comic poetry and pathos. Keaton's character, known only as Friendless, is a Midwestern boy who is down on his luck. After an abortive attempt to get by in the city, he follows Horace Greeley's advice to "Go West, young man!" As a result, Friendless winds up on a cattle ranch and is about the most unlikely cowboy imaginable (in fact, he never does trade in his porkpie hat for a ten-gallon). Various bits of comic business abound; standouts include the milking scene and a card game in which Friendless accuses a player of cheating. The sharpie tells The Great Stone Face "When you say that -- smile!" More importantly, Friendless finds true love -- not with the rancher's daughter (Kathleen Myers) but with Brown Eyes, a cow who seems nearly as out of place in the herd as Friendless does on the ranch. Cow and boy become devoted, but Brown Eyes is headed for the slaughterhouse. Friendless resolves to rescue her, sneaking on the train that's taking her and thousands of other cattle to the Los Angeles station. The herd escapes from the cattle cars at the destination and runs amok through downtown L.A.; it is then up to Friendless to round them up. Look closely during the hilarious stampede scene -- Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle plays a part in drag, and Keaton's father also has a bit in a barber shop. With the help of a costume shop, Friendless saves the day...and his cow. Go West is Keaton's most heartfelt film, and certainly one of his most underrated. ~ Janiss Garza, Rovi

Sherlock Jr.
The enduring power of this silent-era comedy classic from director/star Buster Keaton can be ascertained simply by recognizing how often its central concept has been cribbed, most notably by writer/director Woody Allen for The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985). Keaton is a cinema projectionist who dreams of being a famous detective, like Sherlock Holmes. In love with a beautiful girl (Kathryn McGuire), he presents her with chocolates and a ring, but another suitor (Ward Crane) also vies for her affections. The projectionist unsuccessfully tails his romantic rival, a deceitful sort who has stolen a watch from the girl's home and pawned it to buy her a larger box of candy. Falsely accused of the crime by his girlfriend's family, the heartbroken young man falls asleep at work while exhibiting a movie. He dreams that he walks into the screen and interacts with the film's characters -- now the players in the stolen watch imbroglio. ~ Karl Williams, Rovi

The Saphead
The Saphead was based on the tried-and-true Winchell Smith stage comedy The New Henrietta, previously filmed in 1915 as The Lamb. Buster Keaton, at the time a popular 2-reel comedy attraction, makes his feature-film debut in the role of the addlepated son of Wall Street lion William H. Crane. In an effort to make something worthwhile of his unprepossessing offspring, Crane gives Keaton $100,000 to buy a seat on the stock market. Keaton gets mixed up in a seemingly worthless stock, but proves at the end that he's got more business sense than all the other brokers combined. Surprisingly, The Saphead is almost bereft of slapstick, until Keaton forces the issue in a riotous stock-exchange climax. ~ Hal Erickson, Rovi

Steamboat Bill, Jr.
Not the best of Buster Keaton's silents, Steamboat Bill, Jr. nonetheless contains some of Keaton's best and most spectacular sight gags. Keaton plays Willie Canfield, the namby-pamby son of rough-and-tumble steamboat captain "Steamboat Bill" Canfield (Ernest Torrence). When he's not trying to make a man out of his boy, the captain is carrying on a feud with Tom Carter (Tom McGuire), the wealthy owner of a fancy new ferryboat. Carter has a pretty daughter, Mary King (Marion Byron), with whom Willie falls in love. The two younger folks try to patch up the feud, but this seems impossible once the captain is jailed for punching out Carter. Willie tries ineptly to bust his dad out of jail, only to wind up in the hospital while trying to escape the law. As Willie lies unconscious in bed, a huge cyclone hits town, knocking down tall buildings like kindling. Upon awakening, he does his best to remain standing as the winds buffet him about. He takes refuge in a tree, which is promptly uprooted and blown toward the waterfront. Here is where Willie proves his manhood -- and ends the feud between Steamboat Bill and Carter -- by rescuing practically everyone in the cast from a watery grave. Steamboat Bill, Jr. would be memorable if only for one eye-popping (and dangerously real) sight gag: as the cyclone rages, the facade of a three-story building collapses upon Keaton -- who is saved only because the upstairs window has been left open! ~ Hal Erickson, Rovi

The Navigator
At the request of his star Buster Keaton, producer Joseph M. Schenck purchased an obsolete ocean liner for $20,000. Keaton wanted to use the boat as a "prop" in his upcoming feature comedy, but went into production with nary a plot idea in his head. Eventually, Buster and his chief gagman Clyde Bruckman came up with a story involving two wealthy, pampered young people (played by Keaton and Kathryn McGuire), who through a series of fantastic but logical plot convolutions end up stranded together on a drifting, deserted ocean liner. At first, the young couple is helpless because they've never had to lift a finger in their lives. As the weeks pass, Keaton and McGuire become quite adept at fending for themselves, utilizing the huge facilities of the liner (its steam room, its enormous kitchen) for the simplest and most basic of necessities. An attack by a cannibal tribe requires Keaton to be more resourceful than ever; the build-up to the climactic contretemps between Keaton and the cannibals is almost as side-splitting as the climax itself. While the film is rife with some of Buster Keaton's most elaborate gags, he scores equally well with smaller, more intimate comedy bits, notably his losing battle with a deck chair and his attempt to shuffle a waterlogged deck of cards. Reasoning that the comedy in The Navigator would work best if built upon an utterly serious storyline, Keaton hired actor/director Donald Crisp to handle the "straight" scenes. Alas, as Keaton would later recall, the constitutionally humorless Crisp "turned gagman on us", resulting in miles of wasted footage. Thus, pay no attention to the "official" directorial credits: Buster Keaton alone is responsible for the helming of The Navigator. Joe Schenck's initial 20 grand investment proved sagacious when Navigator ended up as Buster Keaton's most profitable silent feature film. ~ Hal Erickson, Rovi

Seven Chances
Buster Keaton plays a young lawyer who will inherit $7 million at 7 o'clock on his 27th birthday--provided he is married. Long before discovering this, Keaton has pursued a lifelong courtship of Ruth Dwyer, whose refusals have become ritualistic over the years (the passage of time is amusingly conveyed by showing a puppy grow to adulthood). He proposes again, but this time she turns him down because she thinks (mistakenly) that he wants her only so that he can claim his inheritance. The doleful Keaton is thus obliged to spend the few hours left before the 7 PM deadline in search of a bride--any bride. He has no luck whatsoever until his pal T. Roy Barnes prints the story of Keaton's incoming legacy in the local newspaper. As a result, literally hundreds of women, bedecked in veils and bearing bouquets, chase Keaton through the busy streets of Los Angeles. When Keaton's producer Joseph M. Schenck bought the film rights to the Roi Cooper Megrue stage play Seven Chances, Keaton opted to forego most of the play's plot complications, devoting his energies to the bride-hunting vignettes and the climactic slapstick chase. The final scenes originally laid an egg with preview audiences--until the sequence was saved by "three little rocks." During the closing moments of the chase, Buster accidentally dislodged three small stones in the ground, which rolled after him as he escaped the thundering herd of would-be brides. The audience laughed immoderately at the tiny rocks, thereby inspiring Keaton to reshoot the ending, utilizing scores of huge, rolling boulders. The extra effort worked beautifully; while not his best silent feature, Seven Chances contains one of Keaton's most hilarious finales. Watch for Jean Arthur in a bit as a receptionist. ~ Hal Erickson, Rovi

Our Hospitality
Buster Keaton's third starring feature (discounting 1920's The Saphead, which was not conceived with Keaton in mind), Our Hospitality is a boisterous satire of family feuds and Southern codes of honor. In 1831, Keaton leaves his home in New York to take charge of his family mansion down South. En route, Keaton befriends pretty Natalie Talmadge (Keaton's real-life wife at the time), who invites him to dine at her family home. Upon meeting Talmadge's father and brothers, Keaton learns that he is the last surviving member of a family with whom Talmadge's kin have been feuding for over 20 years. The brothers are all for killing Keaton on the spot, but Talmadge's father (Joe Roberts) insists that the rules of hospitality be observed: so long as Keaton is a guest in the house, he will not be harmed. Thus, Keaton spends the next few reels alternately planning to sneak out of the mansion without being noticed, and contriving to remain within its walls as long as possible. The dilemma is resolved when Keaton rescues Talmadge from a raging waterfall (a dummy stood in for Talmadge; Keaton used no doubles, and nearly lost his life as a result). Beyond the brilliant sight gags in the closing scenes, the most memorable sequence in Our Hospitality is the bumpy train ride taken by Keaton and Talmadge in an 1831-vintage Stephenson Rocket. This 7-reel silent film represents the only joint appearance of Buster Keaton and Natalie Talmadge; Keaton hoped that by spending several weeks on location with his wife, he could patch up their shaky marriage (it didn't work). Also appearing in Our Hospitality are two other members of the Keaton family: Keaton's ex-vaudevillian father Joe (who performs an eye-popping "high kick") and his son Joseph Keaton IV, playing Buster as a baby. ~ Hal Erickson, Rovi

The General
Buster Keaton plays Johnny Gray, a Southern railroad engineer who loves his train engine, The General, almost as much as he loves Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack). When the opening shots of the Civil War are fired at Fort Sumter, Johnny tries to enlist -- and he is deemed too useful as an engineer to be a soldier. All Johnny knows is that he's been rejected, and Annabelle, thinking him a coward, turns her back on him. When Northern spies steal the General (and, unwittingly, Annabelle), the story switches from drama and romance to adventure mixed with Keaton's trademark deadpan humor as he uses every means possible to catch up to the General, thwart the Yankees, and rescue his darling Annabelle -- for starters. As always, Keaton performs his own stunts, combining his prodigious dexterity, impeccable comic timing, and expressive body language to convey more emotion than the stars of any of the talkies that were soon to dominate cinema. ~ Emru Townsend, Rovi

College
The silent comedy feature College stars Buster Keaton as a scholarly young man who doesn't know beans about sports. When he arrives in college, Buster finds that all the Big Men on Campus are jocks. To impress pretty coed Anne Cornwall, Buster tries and fails to join all the school teams. Even when he attempts to take a job at the campus soda fountain, Buster is a washout. Through the kindness of dean Snitz Edwards, Keaton is placed on the varsity rowing team where, despite several clumsy moments, he manages to win the big race. This infuriates his athletic rival Harold Goodwin, who seizes Cornwall and runs off with her. In racing to her rescue, Buster is compelled to repeat all the sports activities at which he'd previously failed--and does so, magnificently. He bursts into Goodwin's dorm room and saves Cornwall from the usual worse-than-death fate. Hero and heroine kiss--at which point this lighthearted film takes a sudden, chilling turn. As always, Buster Keaton performs his own stunts in College, except for the pole-vaulting bit, which was accomplished by Olympic champ Lee Barnes. ~ Hal Erickson, Rovi

Battling Butler
Battling Butler has to be the strangest of Buster Keaton's silent features. Based on the musical comedy of the same name, the film casts Keaton as wimpy millionaire Alfred Butler, who goes on a vacation in the mountains in the company of his faithful valet (Snitz Edwards). While communing with nature, Alfred falls in love with a beautiful young girl (Sally O'Neil), who barely acknowledges his existence. Without his master's knowledge, the valet tries to smooth the path of romance by telling the girl that Alfred is, in reality, boxing champion Battling Butler (Francis McDonald). The real champ, a mean-spirited sort, gets wind of this deception and decides to allow Alfred to continue the charade, fully intending to mop the floor with the puny millionaire in the boxing ring. But on the night of the big fight, Alfred suddenly gets tired of being pushed around and turns into a savage opponent, leaving the bullying Butler positively groggy. At this point our hero discovers that the girl would have loved him whether he was Battling Butler or not, and all ends well. Played as traditional Keaton comedy for most of its running time, Battling Butler goes dramatic with a vengeance in the climactic fight scene, with Keaton really giving his ring opponent a going over. The final scene is all the more powerful because it is so completely unexpected; if it surprises today's audiences, one can only imagine the effect it had on Buster Keaton's fans way back in 1926. ~ Hal Erickson, Rovi

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