DVD review by
Grant Tracey


(© 1999 Kino International Corp. All rights reserved.)

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Buster Keaton

In 1995, Kino International released one of the best boxed sets of the past decade--The Art of Buster Keaton. Available initially on VHS and laserdisc, this magnificent set contained all of Keaton's silent-era feature films, as well as a choice selection of his silent shorts. Now, Kino is releasing this same material on DVD. The first group of releases -- The General, Steamboat Bill, Jr., and Battling Butler -- is now available. And the second set -- The Three Ages, The Navigator, Go West, Our Hospitality, and Sherlock Jr. -- should be available by the time you read this review (street date for these titles: November 23rd). The final installment -- The Saphead, Seven Chances, and College -- is scheduled for release January 11, 2000.

Kino's opening group of Buster Keaton DVDs (The General, Steamboat Bill, Jr., and Battling Butler) is splendidly inventive, full of dangerous stunts, and incredible comic pacing. And all three feature films have a similar narrative arc: Buster Keaton represents a chivalric, genteel man who, in order to win the hand of the girl he loves, must prove his masculinity.

The General
In The General (1926), the slapstick comic provides some of his greatest set pieces. Included amongst these is the classic iconic moment when a disconsolate Johnnie Gray (Keaton) absently sits on the hoist between the train's wheels. He has just been rejected by the military (they think he'll be more valuable as an engineer) and fearing the loss of respect from his girl, he is initially unaware that the hoist is now moving him up and down. This is "old stone face" at his quiet, dignified best. And too, Keaton gets a lot more comic mileage from "The General," his Southern train. The North, on a mission of destruction, has strewn a series of rail beams in his path in an attempt to derail him. Keaton, dexterously climbs down the train, and runs in front of it, scooping up and tossing aside beams before the General hits them. The timing is impeccable and every now and then the v-shaped front end of the General bumps against Keaton and he, beam, and all fall against the train's grill work. Along with this wonderful moment, Keaton also does some amazing work with the train's adjacent mortar car, in which our inept hero overflows with a tub of gunpowder and unfortunately points the cannon sights at himself! Fortunately there's a backward C-shaped bend in the tracks and the mortar fires wide!

Along with these sight gags, Keaton's film presents a larger theme, one of his favorites of this period, of a man who must prove himself worthy of a Southern Belle. Upon his rejection from the military, Annabelle Lee calls him a cowardly liar. But in the film's third act, he gets to prove his heroism to her. Johnnie stumbles behind enemy lines and discovers a Union plot to move supply trains and then attack a Reb stronghold at Rock River Bridge. There, he also finds Annabelle, a prisoner. Johnnie, of course, rescues her, and they flee to the Southern lines to warn the generals of the coming attack. On the way, Annabelle sees his fighting spirit, as Johnnie cuts the North's communication lines, burns down a bridge, and kills a Union sniper by accident (with a sword he inadvertently lost the grip on!). In the end, before their final comical kiss, a general promotes Johnnie to a lieutenant and he earns his occupation: "soldier." His masculinity is restored.

Battling Butler
In Battling Butler (1926), one of Keaton's most popular films, Alfred Butler (Keaton) is dispatched to the pastoral country by his father who hopes the fresh air will make a man of him. There Keaton provides some more comical moments at the expense of his persona. While "roughing it," Butler has all of the amenities of home, including silver and fine china, but he can't hunt worth a darn, and he almost shoots a mountain girl (Sally O'Neill). Their romantic rendez-vous is comical, as she in comedy's typical gender reversals, is the more outdoorsy of the two. And in a fitting set piece, Keaton chivalrically walks her back home, he gets lost in the woods during his return, and she rejoins him to show him the way to his encampment! Sally's brother and father aren't impressed with Butler's lack of manliness so they decline the opportunity for her to marry him. However, after Butler is mistaken for a professional boxer -- whose last name is also Butler -- he acquires her family's approval. To maintain their approval, he must become a real boxer, leading to a series of comic mishaps, including several "in training" gags, as when Keaton spars with a much bigger and more accomplished fighter.

The film's conclusion pits Keaton, a soft-spoken gentleman, against the real boxer named Butler, who walks with a swagger and represents the conservative fears of the Jack Dempsey era: he's a roughneck who beats his wife and threatens all with a Lower-East side, immigrant bravado. But Keaton's gentility can be deceiving. The boxer Butler attacks the genteel Butler, and Keaton does indeed seem to be possessed at last by an internal beast, one which astonishes his wife. Initially, Keaton backs away, defending body blows and ducking punches as he's cornered. Over the champ's shoulder, framed in the door, Keaton sees his wife, watching. That eye-line match, combined with a second one, converts the soft-spoken Keaton into a fighting dynamo desiring female approval. In a flurry of punches, Keaton scampers out of the corner, across the room, and knocks out the champ with an uppercut right. He then whales away at the unconscious fighter until separated by Butler's trainers. Shocked at his own brutality, Keaton's right shoulder collapses against the wall and he's distracted with disbelief. "That was Battling Butler. I lied to you. I'm not even a fighter," he says to his wife in an attempt to keep his aggressiveness in check. And, in the film's final image, Keaton, in boxing gear, top hat and cane, strolls the city streets with Sally on his arm. His new self suggests a type of masculinity that strengthens the effeminate genteel man by revealing that behind the genteel is an even more powerful physical prowess than that paraded about by the unrefined brute.

Steamboat Bill, Jr.
Keaton's desire in these films to tell a story sometimes sacrifices his comic genius. His wonderful set pieces and cinema of attractions sometimes is sacrificed for the larger concerns of story telling. This is the case in Steamboat Bill, Jr (1928), a film that spends too much time setting up the contrasts between a strong raw-boned father and his college-bred, black beret wearing Milquetoast son, and a second culture clash between a rich industrialist (Steamboat Bill's rival, J.J. King who has unleashed a new, sleeker and fancier steamboat) and Bill, a hard-working river man. Again, Keaton's persona must prove his manliness to win the girl and, this time, the respect of his father. Visually, the film lacks strong sight gags and verve until the final twenty minutes, at which point Keaton performs some of his grandest stunts. A cyclone knocks Keaton through the streets of this Mississippi town. Buildings around him are shredded by wind. The front of a house is ripped from its joints. Keaton, nonplussed, stands still as the house crashes on top of him. The second-floor dormer window neatly drops over him, clearing his head by mere inches and leaving him unblemished. This is perhaps Keaton's most famous stunt. Moments later, Keaton clutches a tree caught in the wind. The tree is uprooted and Keaton goes on a death-defying thirty foot ride in the air and across the stage lot. Sensational.

Buster Keaton's short films, are in some ways, more satisfying than his features. Free of the encumbrances of plot and traditional narrative arcs, these films put forth a series of attractions that please audiences with their ingenious comic timing, and dangerous and breathtaking physicality.

Haunted House
In the "Haunted House" Keaton creates a series of wonderful set pieces. As a teller at a Wall Street bank, Keaton splashes glue on his hands, and the thick tar-like substance spreads over the bills and onto the hands, bills, and clothes of his customers. Eventually, Keaton gets his sticky hands glued in his own pockets and when the bank is robbed and he's asked to raise them, he does so, pulling out the pockets' insides! Later, while tracking down the criminal ring at their haunted house hangout, Keaton performs a series of well-timed pratfalls on a set of steps that the criminals (thanks to a hidden switch) can convert into an instant slide. The last time down, Keaton eschews the stairs for the bannister, but the buttress bangs his butt. As he painfully dismounts, the last two or three steps become a slide and he falls, yet again. Splendid.

The Playhouse
In "The Playhouse" Keaton continues the visual splendor with some trick photography that illustrates Keaton's cinematic artistry. The film begins with Keaton entering a music hall full of Keatons. He plays all of the instruments (including a cellist who chalks his bow and a drummer who can't keep time). In addition to shots of three Keatons simultaneously playing music, the director/star photographs a series of two shots of his alter egos in conversations, arguments, and synchronized dancing. Keaton achieved these amazing effects by rewinding the film and shooting over already existing footage. This required great comic timing to recall the previous shots and create the illusion of characters interacting with each other. A tour-de-force.

In "Cops" Keaton's cinematic attractions are grounded within the conventions of the chase film. Here, Keaton's downtrodden everyman must become a success in business or else his girlfriend won't marry him. With that as his goal, Keaton, in a series of coincidences and unfortunate circumstances becomes linked to an anarchist bombing and a series of robberies. Chased through the streets, Keaton avoids the police, by climbing a ladder straddled over a fence. As the cops yank on one end, Keaton daringly flips to the other side of the ladder, creating a see-saw effect. Eventually he's flung from the ladder, and again takes to the streets, sliding head first under a burly cop's spread-eagled stance. Keaton avoids capture and winds up in the police precinct. The doors close, there's a momentary pause, and Keaton, now a triumphant trickster figure, emerges dressed in a cop uniform. His girl sees him, and unimpressed by his new found "success" rejects him. Keaton, with a quiet dignity and resignation, turns and reenters the precinct, where the police mob seizes and beats him.

"Cops" has a dark ideological undercurrent, suggesting either that the American success dream in unattainable or that to be successful implies one must act criminally--success is based on aggression. Two other short films, "Daydreams" and "Convict 13" also question some of America's ideologies.

In "Daydreams" Keaton further plays with the American success myth. Here, his everyman again must become a worldly success in order to win the hand of his girlfriend and the approval of her father. Through a series of comic counterpoints, Keaton sends letters to his girl which ambiguously detail his work in the city. She misreads the letters, charging them with images of success that Keaton undercuts through ironic counterpoints. For example, in his second letter, he says he's working on Wall Street, "cleaning up in a big way." She envisions him as a rich, swank business type, but the following scene showcases Keaton as a street sweeper, working the lower East Side, scooping up horse dung! And in a series of wonderful sight gags, Keaton manipulates offscreen space to drop in and out of the frame via a manhole. But Keaton saves his best and most dangerous stunts for his fourth and final letter. "The police follow my every step," he writes and she envisions him as a patriotic hero! In reality, he's running from the police. In one stunning stunt, Keaton flips up and grabs the back of a cable car. His hands hold the rail as his prone rigid body seemingly flies through the air. And later, once he becomes trapped in the spinning wheel of a steamboat, Keaton flips around like a hamster as he tries to stay upright. Eventually Keaton returns home in a mailbag, a failure. The girl's father grabs a gun from a desk drawer and tells him to commit suicide. Keaton, of course, can't do that right either (he misses his target), and the old man, unceremoniously kicks him over the balcony! In the Roaring Twenties, a time of plenty, Keaton, through absurd comedy, questions our indebtedness to the success myth and how it unduly punishes the innocent.

Convict 13
Innocence being punished is also the theme of "Convict 13." Here, Keaton's larger target is capitol punishment. Keaton plays an unlucky golfer who is so obsessed with the game that he doesn't sense the danger around him. Following a series of riotous sight gags with a golf-ball-swallowing fish, Keaton raps a ball off the side of a barn, gets whapped in the head by the ricochet, and does a patented Keaton pratfall. While conked, an escaped con, changes clothes with the prone golfer, and when Keaton awakes he's oblivious of his new threads and plays on. The police, now believing him to be the escapee, chase and capture him and send him to prison -- where he's to be executed! There are no checks and balances in this nightmare landscape that Keaton has created: an innocent man may die at the hands of the state! And the state enjoys it. Convicts gather for the hanging, laughing with merriment, and the warden/hangman is proud of his craft! When the trap door falls, Keaton isn't hanged, but bobs up and down seven times on the extended rope, before busting free. The dangling and jiggling Keaton is a moment of comic absurdity, but the trace meaning of the cruel possibility of a real hanging rises through the laughter to create a haunting echo.


Buster Keaton's The General (with "Cops" and "The Playhouse"), Steamboat Bill, Jr. (with "Convict 13" and "Daydreams"), and Battling Butler (with "The Frozen North" and "The Haunted House") are now available from Kino on Video (distribution by Image Entertainment). For additional information about these Buster Keaton DVDs, we suggest you check out the Kino On Video Web site and the Image Entertainment Web site.