Monday, 24 August 2015

The Genius of Buster Keaton: The Short Film Collection (1917-1923)

I bought this boxed set expecting it to be a collection of the short films in which Buster Keaton took the lead role, but it actually includes all the short, silent films he was in, including those where he was not the lead.

On the one hand I admire how comprehensive that makes the pack: heck, it even includes a film where no-one is sure what role Keaton played (if any), but his name is in the credits. On the other hand, that means that most of the first two discs are Fatty Arbuckle films, rather than Buster Keaton ones, and I am not a fan of Arbuckle's character. I say 'character' rather than 'characters' because, like a lot of silent-era comic actors (including Keaton) he generally plays the same basic type in every film. In Arbuckle's case this type is a lazy and dishonest sort with a wandering eye. In the shorts where his character is married, there is invariably a scene where his wife scolds him for his philandering ways and Arbuckle mugs for the camera to suggest how unreasonable she's being.
Arbuckle's career was cut short by allegations of rape and manslaughter. He was subsequently acquitted, but the then-head of the MPAA still blacklisted him because of his 'debauched' lifestyle. I'd ordinarily be upset by an acquitted suspect being treated like that, but there are still people who claim Polanski isn't a rapist either, so I am a bit leery of the whole situation.

In any case, Arbuckle's fall saw Keaton promoted to leading man. While Keaton also had a fairly defined 'comic character', it's one I find much more appealing than Arbuckle: he's generally a deeply impractical dreamer, and while he's not above the odd bit of illegality, there's usually a playfulness or naiveté to his schemes that I find much more tolerable than the often mean-spirited Arbuckle. Plus unlike Arbuckle, there are films where Keaton changed things up. For instance in the short The Frozen North, he plays an out and out cad.

All up the pack offers over 30 short films, with nearly twenty of those being headed by Keaton. They're all stuffed with a huge amount of visual and physical comedy (something that becomes more impressive when you realise that with a Jackie Chan-like disregard for common sense, Keaton did practically all his own stunts). They're also not something I think you would sit down and watch in a block. They tend to be similar enough in basic content – Keaton's character is usually either chasing money or a woman or both, and getting into all kinds of trouble in the process – that you probably would need to take breaks. But they are each individually entertaining, with inventive scenarios and winsomely surreal touches (the nutty machines of 1922's The Electric House were a particular favorite of mine).

Comedy doesn't always translate through the years, and and of course these silent films are absent any clever wordplay, but there are plenty of laughs to be had here.  If nothing else, I suggest looking up The Electric House, The Goat or Convict 13 online - they should all be freely available to watch, and there's some funny stuff in them.

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