The folks at Kino International deserve a medal for the exceptional job they’ve done bringing Buster Keaton’s films to DVD. Last year they unveiled a beautiful copy of The General on Blu-Ray, the first silent feature to appear in that format. Now they’ve unearthed an alternate version of Steamboat Bill Jr. and paired it with the print we’re familiar with. As silent-film aficionados know, most films were shot with dual cameras, side by side, to provide a second negative for overseas use. Because the finished prints were edited separately, there were often variations in the timing of shots. At this late date it’s impossible to know for certain which version was which, but Kino’s new two-disc DVD enables Keaton scholars to examine them both. (For those who are less compulsive, a bonus feature offers a handful of scenes in split-screen so you can see the admittedly slight differences between the two. The pictorial quality is quite good in both cases.) Other features include a visual essay on the making of the film, a photo library, and—
—two early recordings of the song “Steamboat Bill” that inspired both this film’s title and the following year’s animated cartoon from Walt Disney, Steamboat Willie.
Kino has also released a two-disc set called Lost Keaton that brings Buster’s most neglected comedy shorts to DVD, from the best (albeit imperfect) 35mm source material available. These two-reelers, produced by Earle W. Hammons’ Educational Pictures company from 1934 to 1937, represent the nadir of Keaton’s career and were made at a time of great unhappiness in his personal life. Yet Buster’s genius occasionally shines through, and if you love him, you’ll find worthwhile moments that shine like neon in the darkness.
Keaton scholar David Macleod provides program notes onscreen for each short, and doesn’t try to hype them; instead, he traces the ancestry of the gags, many of which date back to Buster’s heyday, including his early work with Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle.
There is one truly funny short among the sixteen films: Grand Slam Opera (1936), for which Buster took co-story credit. Rudi Blesh, in his landmark biography Keaton, related how Buster actually felt inspired when it came time to make this two-reeler. He had the idea of using a parody of George M. Cohan’s song “So Long, Mary” in the opening scene, and when Educational refused to purchase the rights, he paid the sum of $300 from his own pocket. Throughout the comedy he seems to be on top of his game, and we get to enjoy the vaudeville-trained performer singing and dancing (brilliantly, in fact) as well as generating laughs.
Many of the other shorts offer scattered moments to savor. Sometimes it’s just a funny fall or a piece of uniquely Keatonian body English. The first comedy, The Gold Ghost (1934) isn’t bad, and the last one, Love Nest on Wheels (1937), isn’t either, being in part a remake of the Arbuckle gem The Bell Boy. There is also some pleasure—and curiosity value—to be derived from watching Keaton’s family working alongside him (mother Myra, sister Louise, and near-lookalike brother Harry). They also appear in Palooka from Paducah, with father Joe instead of Harry.
But on the whole these are pretty dismal comedies. Sometimes Buster has a pleasing rapport with his leading lady (including such pretty ingénues as Dorothea Kent, Lona Andre, and Diana Lewis) and it’s nice to see comedy stalwarts like Vernon Dent, Bud Jamison, and Buster’s friend Harold Goodwin. But even if you aren’t comparing them to Keaton’s silent masterpieces, most of these two-reelers are clunky at best, if not downright unfunny.
Still, for a Keaton buff the mere sight of Buster on screen has intrinsic value, and I’m glad Kino has released these films at last. The quality is adequate, although most of the shorts show signs of wear, and there are awkward splices that create sound-and-picture continuity jumps here and there. It’s no great loss, except for one moment in Grand Slam Opera, but it’s unlikely we’ll ever see better copies of these shorts.
For all things Keaton, go to www.busterkeaton.com.