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Buster Keaton The Shorts Collection 1917 – 1923

by Glenn Erickson May 20, 2016


All hail Buster Keaton! The Great Stone Face’s pre-feature output is a comedic treasure trove that allows us to watch a performing genius perfect his filmic persona. Lobster’s all-new restorations debut some alternate scenes and fix a number of broken jump cuts. It’s the whole shebang — the earlier Fatty Arbuckle shorts and Buster’s later solo efforts.

Buster Keaton The Shorts Collection 1917-1923
Kino Classics
1917-1923 / B&W / 1:37 flat Silent Ap / 738 min. / Street Date May 24, 2016 / available through Kino Lorber / 59.95
Starring Buster Keaton, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. .
Original Music Robert Israel, Donald Sosin, Stephen Horne, Timothy Brock, Neil Brand, The Mont Alto Orchestra, Sandra Wong, Günther Buchwald, Dennis Scott
Directed by Roscoe Arbuckle & Buster Keaton

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

What’s this, a full compilation of Buster Keaton Shorts? Kino has released sets of these before, including a 3-disc Blu-ray package from back in the summer of 2011 and overseen by Kino’s Bret Wood. I’ve also seen a fairly tidy collection of Keaton’s ‘apprenticeship’ short subjects co-starring with Fatty Arbuckle, although those were in much rougher shape.

So why this new set, which contains both sets of shorts, on five full Blu-ray discs? For those readers not yet informed, the press material for Buster Keaton The Shorts Collection 1917-1923 says right up front that this new collection uses no previous masters, but all-new 2K and 4K scans. The producer this time is Lobster Films (Serge Bromberg, Eric Lange) in conjunction with Blackhawk (David Shepard), augmenting the usual sources with better material and missing snippets from other prints on file in archives across Europe and the world. Before I go any further, here’s a full list of contents.

The Roscoe “Fatty” Abuckle shorts are on the first two discs. Many of them co-star comic Al St. John, another Arbuckle disciple with a distinctive style: Disc One: The Butcher Boy, The Rough House, His Wedding Night, Oh Doctor!, Coney Island and Out West. Disc Two: The Bell Boy, Moonshine, Goodnight, Nurse!, The Cook, Back Stage, The Hayseed, and The Garage.

Buster’s solo shorts, most of which were made with Eddie Cline and Fred Gabourie, fill out three more Blu-rays. Disc Three: The ‘High Sign,’ One Week, Convict 13, The Scarecrow, Neighbors, The Haunted House, and Hard Luck. Disc Four: The Goat, The Play House, The Boat, The Paleface, Cops, and My Wife’s Relations. Disc Five: The Blacksmith, The Frozen North, Day Dreams, The Electric House, The Balloonatic, and The Love Nest.

Keaton is so popular that it’s just unnecessary to do a sales job on his appeal. If you haven’t seen him you’re missing something, and if you have, a full line of his restored features is out there to enjoy. On other discs I was most taken by John Bengtson’s detailed explanations of where the films were shot, as many locations are very close to Savant central. With the disc of Sherlock Jr. a few years back, Bengtson’s location featurette showed me that part of a key scene in that film was shot on Larchmont Blvd., in fact on a spot less than a hundred feet from my home office window. In seven more years that unknown but legendary filming site will have its100th anniversary.

The Arbuckle-produced shorts are a remarkable resource of comic creativity. Keaton seems wholly amenable to Arbuckle’s style and supports him well; not long into the series he’s achieved featured player status and remains a rung or two higher than the talented Al St. John. Keaton is arresting even when he plays characters unlike the semi-stoic persona he eventually settled into. But he still doesn’t burst out into laughter very often, or otherwise do anything extreme with his face — he’s the Buster we know.

Arbuckle is a great discovery unto himself. He’s unexpectedly coordinated and almost as light on his feet as Chaplin. He pulls off cute tricks of juggling. Although these slapstick shorts abound with cruel humor (in Out West the two of them slay bad guys left and right), Arbuckle’s personality is immediately likeable. He’s a good guy even when being a royal pain, endearing in a non-cloying way.

The Keaton Solo pictures we know better. It’s interesting to see Cops in its uncut length, which is darker and more politically edgy than the cut version we were shown in high school — the first time I can remember seeing Keaton. At the time I thought he was imitating cartoons, especially the way he’d make his body do seemingly impossible things, like be yanked horizontally out of the frame by a passing street car. Only in college, with Bob Epstein showing us The Boat and The Play House did we realize that Keaton is the source of entire genres of sly slapstick and stunt-oriented physical gags — that the cartoons were imitating him.

The Kino Classics Blu-ray of Buster Keaton The Shorts Collection 1917-1923 was, we read, the culmination of years of work. At 738 minutes — I make that over twelve hours — one might have to return to The Shorts Collection many times to see them all; I have to confess that I gravitate toward old favorites. This collection comes with a useful 28-page booklet that helps one keep them straight and also delineates the special restoration benefits of the new release.

What’s new? The most touted extra is a second version of The Blacksmith. The raw recovered material was included on the earlier collection, but here it’s been digitally restored. Argentine Archivist Fernando Peña, who helped recover The Complete Metropolis, discovered a 9.5mm cut of this show, and later on a full 35mm copy was identified. The first version, the one we’ve been seeing for decades, was actually an unfinished preview cut from halfway through Keaton’s production process. Coney Island and My Wife’s Relations carry newly discovered alternate endings. The production notes in the booklet delineate the exact transfer sources. It’s a puzzle for the archivists, because Keaton didn’t release the shorts in the order they were filmed. Dissatisfaction delayed the release of a couple that were partially re-shot (like The Blacksmith), while in at least one case an injury prompted a shuffle in the shooting & release schedule.

When I look at the Arbuckle pictures, they still seem pretty beat-up to me; several survive only in rocky shape. A Serge Bromberg featurette on one of the discs explains the method behind Lobster’s restoration strategy. One short with Keaton leaping on and falling off a streetcar has always had missing frames — two frames here, five or six there — that interrupt and abbreviate the action. In some cases they look like possible intentional jump cuts, that make what were smooth actions, look crude. Bromberg shows how, by mixing and matching archival prints, they were able to fill in missing frames from other existing prints, using digital tools to make copies of varying quality match better. The resulting action is much more fluid. And we can better appreciate Keaton snaking his way over a rail and into the streetcar in one motion.

We’re told that this was done all through the set, and if I knew the pictures better I might be able to spot more. I watched six or seven shorts from each half of the set and am very impressed.

The bottom line — if you have the earlier sets, the improvement may or may be not something you strongly notice. In some cases, where only one incomplete source was available, or where damage couldn’t be matched and replaced, there is no great feeling of improvement. But overall these have never looked better. I guess the real winners will be first time buyers, who will find the price point a bargain compared to the old sets purchased separately.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Buster Keaton
The Shorts Collection 1917-1923 Blu-ray
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES (for short subjects); Intertitles: English
Packaging: Five discs in Keep case

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.