With the possible exception of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton was the greatest physical comic in movie history.
Kino has been steadily building up a wonderfully restored DVD collection of Keaton’s best work, most recently with the Blu-ray editions of “The General,” “Sherlock, Jr.” and my favorite, “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” They’re indispensible to any film lover and would make great holiday gifts.
“The General” (1927) is his Civil War masterpiece about a Southern railway driver who singlehandedly pursues the Union spies who simultaneously steal his engine -- the “General” -- and his lady love.
Keaton, who co-directed, strikes images that are as gravely beautiful as the Civil War photos of Matthew Brady, though you may be laughing too hard to appreciate them.
“Sherlock, Jr.” (1924) is, at 44 minutes, Keaton’s shortest feature. It’s also his most surreal, which may explain why Luis Bunuel was such a fan of the film. He plays a projectionist and aspiring sleuth who, falling asleep during a movie, dreams his way onto the screen where he becomes Sherlock Jr. and solves a mystery involving stolen pearls.
While Keaton always disdained the label of “artist,” no other film director/performer captured so well the sensual mysteriousness of the movie-going experience. The playful experimentalism of “Sherlock, Jr.” influenced everyone from Woody Allen to Jackie Chan.
“Steamboat Bill, Jr.” (1928) probably has more gags per minute than any other Keaton feature, but it’s not just a grab bag of routines from his vaudeville days. It’s a great love story with the precision timing of a Rolex.
Keaton plays Willie, an effete college graduate who returns to his small Mississippi hometown to visit his burly, uncomprehending steamboat-owner father (a scowling Ernest Torrence). He has to fight for the respect of his dad and the love of Kitty (Marion Byron), the daughter of his father’s wealthy rival.
The centerpiece is the cyclone sequence, in which the town is blown apart. Keaton floats through the air clinging to an uprooted tree and jumps into the wind before getting bounced back -- all this before CGI effects took the magic out of stuntwork.
“Steamboat Bill, Jr.” features one of the riskiest stunts in movie history. The front of a house collapses over an unknowing Willie, who is unhurt only because he is framed by the open window in the facade. This trick was done for real; a couple of inches either way and Keaton would have been crushed.
Like “The General,” “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” was a commercial flop. Keaton then gave up his creative independence to work for MGM, a move he later characterized as the “worst mistake of my life.”
Keaton’s MGM features and the shorts he made in the mid-1930s for Educational Pictures (the title is a misnomer) are generally regarded as vastly inferior to his best silents.
In an attempt to revise this history, Kino has also released “Lost Keaton,” a two-disc collection of his rarely seen Educational shorts. Although many of these are threadbare and derivative of his earlier work, there are lightning flashes of greatness, such as the juggling routine in “Grand Slam Opera” and his slapstick parody of Fred Astaire.
(Peter Rainer is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own).