Buster Keaton: Sherlock Jr., The General, and Steamboat Bill, Jr. Review
There is an old question posed by music fans, The Beatles or The Rolling Stones? Well there is another, similar question asked of film fans: Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton? Obviously, there are more than just these two silent comedians to choose from like there are more classic 1960s rock bands than just The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, but perhaps it is Keaton and Chaplin who are and remain the most influential silent filmmakers all time, with Chaplin's instantly recognisable little tramp character and Keaton's deadpan face. Personally, I prefer Keaton, partially because he has better gags than Chaplin, doesn't get bogged down in sentimentality like Chaplin and best of all he is less well known than Chaplin. So when I heard that Eureka and their Masters of Cinema series was releasing a box set of Buster Keaton's best films, Sherlock Jr., The General and Steamboat Bill Jr, I had to get my hands on it to make sure that MoC was bringing Old Stone Face's very best to our TV Screens.
The story isn't and has never been the most important part of a Keaton film; they are situations our hero finds himself in. Sherlock Jr. (1924) is about a film projectionist, trying to solve a petty crime in real life, but when he returns to his day job he plays out his fantasies of being a great detective on the big screen. The General (1926) follows the story of the historical sabotage of a Confederate train by union soldiers with Keaton as the train's engineer. Finally, Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928) is a story about the relationship between father and son, set on a steamboat during a massive storm. These situations enable him to do what he does best in his movies and, in my opinion, Keaton's films were always better than Chaplin’s. Now, this isn't to denigrate The Little Tramp, but Keaton edges Chaplin out on two counts.
First is the actual use of film language: he frames everything absolutely impeccably. You can see how the geometrical nature of the cinematography has influenced others, perhaps most obviously Wes Anderson. Keaton's use of wide shots enables us to see every aspect of the second reason why he beats Chaplin as my favourite silent comedian - the gags. This is helped by a number of things, firstly the framing. The geometry of Keaton's gags is hilarious and absurd, the clarity of the shot allows audiences the joy of seeing the setup and the punchline: like in Steamboat Bill Jr. the dead-on shot of Keaton comforting a crying baby, but his father can't see the baby only his son prancing about from behind a corner of a building; or when Keaton jumps through a window in a quick change bit. Another reason why Keaton had the better gags was the sheer inventiveness and impressiveness of them. These are death-defying stunts, and because they are framed in long takes we can see just how magnificent they are.
Take the famous house falling gag for instance: multiple cutting and close-ups would have cluttered the joke, but with a simple frame we see the gag and appreciate the skill, the time, and the danger. Finally, and perhaps, most importantly to making Keaton's gags absolutely perfect, is the deadpan expression on his face. That gets me every time, no matter how incredible the situation there is Keaton with a puzzled look on his face conveying exasperation, desperation, joy, all through little adjustments. No need for overacting for he can convey the smallest thing with that long face of his and he can do it with a joke.
Now you don't need me to tell you how good Sherlock Jr., The General and Steamboat Bill Jr. are; they are perfect and that is a fact, an objective fact. These films are the pinnacle of what silent comedies can offer. With exiting situations and impossible creative gags all wrapped up with that trademark stone face - utter perfection. However, another star of the collection is the wonderful restoration of these films. I mean it is always useful talking about the quality of the image when one is reviewing home releases, but here when you are talking about films that are all almost 90 years old it becomes vital.
Eureka/Masters of Cinema present the films in 1080p from a 4K restoration. I own the 2007 St Clair Vision collection of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin and comparing the two visually speaks to how far restoration technology has come. In the St Clair collection there are analogue film blemishes, obvious cuts and the frame wobbles as though the celluloid is running through a projector. In this box set the image is crystal clear and steady as a rock so you can enjoy the great gags that have influenced so many others. The discs also include original scores composed for the films that perfectly match the action yet still invoke that old time piano score that you so often hear on the classic silent films. Carl Davis and Timothy Brock create toe-tapping and upbeat music to accompany the highs and slower, more sedate tunes for the more emotional segments.
Along with the films, there are three discs stuffed with extras of all sorts. Commentary tracks, interviews, video essays, documentaries, location tours, introductions to the films, home movies and photographs. These all provide a great historical context for Buster Keaton and his career. All of them are a great tribute to a man who helped shape the careers of so many filmmakers who, in turn, have contributed so much to the silver screen.
This collection is a must own for cinephiles of all ages. If you are a Keaton appreciator already or if you want to introduce Keaton to a new generation, you will be entertained by films that are still timeless examples of what silent comedy has to offer, and then informed by the extras. Eureka/Masters of Cinema has delivered this one-two-punch collection right to you.