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King of Comedy: Three Films by Buster Keaton on Blu-ray

November 2, 2017 by Simon Kinnear in At Home, Retro with 0 Comments

Masters of Cinema has delivered possibly the box-set of the year, a trio of the finest comedies made by Buster Keaton – which is another way of saying, a trio of the finest comedies made by anybody.  The Blu-ray restorations are frankly astonishing, adding a sharpness of detail unseen for decades.  It’s hard to believe these films aren’t far off their centenaries.  The package is bolstered by plenty of extras, the pick of the bunch being a rare video essay on Keaton recorded by Orson Welles in the 1970s.

Buster Keaton

Sherlock Jr
(Buster Keaton, US, 1924)

Silent comedy gets a bad reputation (largely from people who have hardly seen any) of lacking sophistication, being merely a bunch of quaintly old-fashioned slapstick. Sherlock Jr – despite resorting in its opening minutes to that old standby, the banana skin – remains the best case for the defence.

At forty-five minutes it barely qualifies as a feature film: indeed, it could be argued that it is two ideas for shorts, one involving a cinema projectionist and the other about a detective, that got spliced together. But in this process, the ideas merge and transform in complex ways, without all the fuss about plot and character that a longer film entails. It’s arguably the birth of Buster Keaton, already a fiercely inventive creator of comedy routines, as a truly great filmmaker.

What makes it so lasting is that it remains a really incisive study of the effect the movies have on our imaginations and habits, a subject that is arguably more pertinent and accessible today than it was in the medium‘s infancy. Keaton’s character is a gauche, clumsy daydreamer, incapable of doing his job properly because the stories he sees on screen have invaded his reality. Shored up on romance and thrillers, he attempts (badly) to court his girl and to solve a crime, in both cases being thwarted by a more worldly-wise rival. It’s no coincidence that the banana skin gag comes during this section.  It’s an intentionally lame gambit by the projectionist that falls flat, quite literally.

His failure manifest, the character falls completely into his fantasies, dreaming himself into the movies. An astonishing well-edited sequence sees him beset by an ever-evolving landscape as the film cuts from one scene to another (best of which is Keaton diving into the sea and landing in a hole in the snow). It’s both an amazing display of technique by a director learning what he can achieve with the movies’ sleight of hand, and a thoughtful reflection on how reality is shaped by the filmmaking process into something quite different.

It paves the way for the remainder of the film, which sees the projectionist idealising himself as a screen icon, the eponymous detective Sherlock Jr. In this film-within-a-film, Keaton is resourceful and quite indestructible even when things seem to be going against him: in other words, the not-quite Keaton character in “real” life has fully bloomed into Keaton’s regular screen persona only in the invented reality of the “movie.” So you can throw in a brilliant look at movie acting into the mix, along with the other astute observations about how films work.

Aptly, the bulk of the film’s finest gags appear in this section, showcasing the director’s abilities in composition (Keaton is about to crash into a car, which turns a corner to reveal a hollow chassis through which he can safely ride through) and editing (an extraordinary piece of trickery in which Keaton jumps through a disguise kit and instantly becomes an old crone, much to the confusion of his enemies). Not only is it relentlessly and consistently hilarious but, viewed against the relatively quaint, old-fashioned “real” sections, it’s also a lesson in how much thought Keaton puts into achieving the comedy. Sophisticated? There is more invention, to more purpose, than 90% of Hollywood comedies made this year – and if you‘re not too busy laughing, you‘ll remember why you fell in love with movies in the first place.

The General
(Buster Keaton, US, 1927)

If Buster Keaton is the greatest of screen funnymen – and he is – then The General remains the pinnacle of physical comedy. It’s the point where a master tactician raised the bar for crazily ambitious, technically demanding routines higher than anyone had gone before, and the film’s failure to turn a profit (coupled with today’s CGI-diluted homogenisation of stunt procedures) effectively means that it will never be matched.

Some of the scenes here are jaw-dropping, mainly because of Keaton’s insistence on the reality of the stunts. Forget about special effects – the threat of litigation would be enough to prevent anyone from replicating this stuff. Just when you think it can’t get any more extreme, Buster sends a train over a burning bridge, destroying both.

The result is that the comedy benefits from an inimitable sense of purity – any filmmaker with a decent editor can montage effective slapstick from a foot and a banana skin, but it’s not the same thing as actually seeing the stunt in long take. It’s all the more satisfying that Keaton’s banana skin here is a railway. The use of trains is endlessly inventive, with a nerd’s delight in the possibility of staging audacious gags from expensive – and dangerous – technology. The near-calamitous firing of the cannon is a miracle of logistical organisation that wouldn’t even occur to most comedians.

Yet it isn’t just the showstopping stunts that separate Keaton from the dated vaudeville of Chaplin – the man can do the simple stuff better, too. The lithe eloquence of Keaton’s movements is matched by the weirdly expressive impassivity of his features to transform a throwaway gag (such as Johnny losing his shoe in a big pile of shoes) into something sublimely comic.

Decent material helps. This is a structurally perfect comedy – simply two chases, there and back – and largely unfettered by emotional or thematic complications. If the initial pursuit is brilliant enough, the return journey (complicated by the more-hindrance-than-help presence of Marion Mack’s Annabelle) is arguably better. There’s a satisfying symmetry, too, in watching the villains derailed by the same tricks they’d tried unsuccessfully on Johnny.

Even the awkward realisation that the comedy stems from a real-life wartime event – and that Keaton’s hero is drawn from the Confederate South – can’t scupper the feelgood tone. It’s certainly the most apolitical Civil War film ever made, with Johnny’s allegiance scarcely a concern when judged against Keaton’s irreverent, absurdist worldview. Certainly, any battle decided by such an accidental hero can only leave both sides looking stupid, and the potentially uncomfortable image of Johnny charging to victory with the Confederate flag is, inevitably, undercut with one final pratfall.

Steamboat Bill Jr
(Charles Reisner, US, 1928)

Hindsight makes it obvious, but Steamboat Bill Jr – the final film of Keaton’s independent heyday – feels like a summation of his career, a playful riff on established themes and motifs, building to the mother of all endings.

The classic simplicity of the set-up allows this to get on with the task of being funny.  The feud plot is half-inched from Keaton’s earlier Our Hospitality, but by ensuring that the father is an actual character here, the film is more straight-forwardly comic, helped no end by Ernest Torrance’s great, exasperated performance.  It allows Keaton to develop an archetypal character, the naive college boy eager to impress but capable of causing inadvertent destruction through sheer curiosity.  Brilliantly, the he is introduced in an unusual ensemble of moustache and beret; the extended sequence showing Bill’s attempts to ‘man’ him up are a glorious in-joke, especially when Keaton – forced to try on a succession of hats – hurriedly hides his trademark flat hat before his father sees it.

The loose-limbed plot continues in a similar vein, as Keaton’s first tour of duty on the family boat (the latest in a long line of watery misadventures in Keaton’s work) leaves him bruised and the warring boatmen at even greater odds.  A would-be midnight tryst with his paramour goes awry; and a lovely sequence in which Keaton attempts to break dad free from jail with tools hidden inside a loaf of bread shows the master’s adaptability in Chaplin-esque humour, as well as one of the funniest, simplest gags in all of Keaton: the great man sneaking a surreptitious look inside the loaf to check that the tools, which are in plain sight on the floor, have fallen out of the loaf.

Of course, what Keaton does best is spectacle and here, too, he outdoes himself.  Visually this is one of the most stunning moments he ever achieved, the destruction of an entire town, with endless rain, gale-force winds and buildings coming apart.  Keaton rides through the chaos in a fluid succession of routines, so fast that the most audacious achievement – the collapsing wall, calibrated to a mere 2mm – is over before you can register it.  It’s daring but ever so playful: who else but Keaton would insert a surreal sequence in a theatre to vary the drama?

Sherlock Jr, The General and Steamboat Bill Jr are released on Blu-ray by Masters of Cinema on 6th November.

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