Buster Keaton: 3 Films (Vol.2) Review
As a pioneer of cinema and a king of the silent era, Buster Keaton needs no introduction. Holding his own alongside names like Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, the 'great stone face' had a unique style of physical comedy that is as technically impressive as it is hilarious.
Though the public taste in comedy has largely moved away from straightforward slapstick, largely because of the introduction of sound, his influence stretches from Orson Welles to Johnny Knoxville, and the films he directed and starred in remain captivating nearly a century later. In this second volume of his early work released by Eureka, you can find three classics of silent comedy: The Navigator (1924), Seven Chances (1925) and Battling Butler (1926). While they're all undeniably products of the time -some are more flawed than others - each one is a piece of film history, and they all provide a fascinating insight into the evolution of the cinematic absurd.
The first of the collection, The Navigator, is to me the most spectacular. Taking place mostly on the titular boat, the film follows Keaton's wealthy layabout Rollo Treadway who, in the hands of any other actor would likely be intolerable as a character, is charming, naïve, and hopelessly in love. After getting his marriage proposal rejected, he boards the ship for his honeymoon in Honolulu alone, only to find himself adrift in the ocean on the wrong boat with the girl who turned him down.
As you can imagine, this is a great setup for some Keaton humour, especially when he digs out a deep sea diving suit to rescue his damsel in distress. However, the plot has some dated and downright offensive elements, most notably the South American 'cannibals' they have to escape from, played by African American actors that likely weren't paid nearly enough. If you can overlook this, as you have to frequently with this era of cinema, you'll find a lot of fun in this modest-sized feature.
Though Seven Chances is certainly a mixed bag, its iconic final stretch makes the film more than worth a watch. In a plot that frankly seems borrowed from Alice Guy-Blaché's Matrimony's Speed Limit (and one which unfortunately shares the same racist joke at the midpoint), Keaton's character, Jimmie, has until 7 pm on his 27th birthday to get married, otherwise he'll miss out on an inheritance from his eccentric aunt that would save him from bankruptcy.
The first half is rather slow as he looks for a bride, punctuated by a few funny moments in which Jimmie's efforts blow up in his face, but the second half is an absolute riot, as he's hunted down by the women he promised he'd wed. This chase scene is legendary, featuring numerous stunts that truly showcase Keaton's unique talents - my favourite is when he dangles from the hook of a moving crane while pursued by hundreds of angry brides.
While the third of the collection, Battling Butler, is decidedly less exciting , I found it far more consistent than the first two of the set. Built around the farce of Keaton's wimpy leading man posing as a boxer against his will to impress his girlfriend, the film goes some way in exploring ideas of masculinity, particularly in the contrast of Keaton and his love interest's beefy father and brother, who refuse to accept him into the family until the lie is born.
Ultimately, it's Keaton that we (of course) side with, undercutting their brutality with his good nature and intelligence, as well as some fantastic physical comedy. The training sequences are funny enough, but the sequences in the early parts of the film of his attempts at hunting were the most memorable moments for me.
Much of Keaton's finest scenes can be found on the likes of YouTube, but this collection features some stunning restoration work that shouldn't be missed if you're a fan of this cinematic era. Each film begins with details of how exactly it was restored and by who - I found this preface a fascinating framing device for both placing these movies in a historical context and for appreciating the artistry of not just the film itself, but of the process of exhibition.
Extras like numerous different audio commentary tracks for each film in the set, interview clips with Keaton, and even a short film from Harry Sweet with some similarities to Seven Chances also provide some good background information on the movies.
Roger Ebert pithily commented that while 'Chaplin moved us more deeply', Keaton possessed irrepressible 'courage'. I'm inclined to agree with this statement generally; his plots tend to be more shallow than Chaplin's, largely existing to provide a jumping-off point for gags. However, I think this underestimates the profound sense of sincerity and charm in his work. Some may say that the reason for his comedy is his permanently deadpan expression - I'd argue that, much like Harpo Marx, it's that he views the world as a playground rather than a chore.
Regardless of why, Buster Keaton has an irrepressible cinematic pull that is wonderfully exemplified in the films of this collection: even in their duller moments, Keaton is a joy to watch, and it quickly became clear when watching this set why he's considered a legend of the medium.
A review of Buster Keaton: 3 Films (Vol.1) can be found here: Buster
Seven Chances (1925)
Dir: Buster Keaton | Cast: Buster Keaton, Ruth Dwyer, Snitz Edwards, T. Roy Barnes | Writers: Clyde Bruckman (screen version), Jean C. Havez (screen version), Joseph A. Mitchell (screen version), Roi Cooper Megrue (adapted from David Belasco's famous comedy by)
Battling Butler (1926)
Dir: Buster Keaton | Cast: Buster Keaton, Sally O'Neil, Snitz Edwards, Walter James | Writers: Al Boasberg (adapted by: from the 1923 stage success of the same name), Charles Henry Smith (adapted by: from the 1923 stage success of the same name), Lex Neal (adapted by: from the 1923 stage success of the same name), Paul Gerard Smith (adapted by: from the 1923 stage success of the same name)