Directors: Buster Keaton, John G Blystone and James W Horne
Around a century after the golden age of silent film comedy, we remember Laurel and Hardy, Charlie Chaplin and The Keystone Cops, but maybe less so Buster Keaton, who is rated by many as the greatest cinema comic of them all. This limited edition three Blu-ray disc collection of three newly restored feature length classics aims to redress the balance. It comes with multiple informative extras, including a 60-page book, to satisfy cinéastes, but a key test is whether the three films are still up to entertaining 21st Century audiences.
Slight of frame, with a pallid complexion, Keaton’s stone-faced features are accentuated by monochrome cinematography. On looks, he would not be out of place in a horror movie, but he casts himself as the little man, ill equipped to conquer adversity, yet invariably doing so. Audiences like to identify with underdogs and Keaton is one of the screen comedians who gives us early prototypes for such characters.
Our Hospitality (1923) is directed by Keaton and John G Blystone and accompanied here by a symphonic score composed and conducted by Colin Davis. Set in the early 19th Century the film begins in melodramatic style with a shoot-out between the feuding Canfield and McKay families. Baby William McKay is then sent to New York to be raised by an aunt and, 20 years later, now played by Keaton, he returns to claim his inheritance. The Canfields will stop at nothing to kill him, except when he is receiving hospitality in their home, which would be contrary to the family code of honour..
The film has two lengthy sequences which are packed with comic invention. The first covers William’s journey from New York to the Blue Ridge Mountains in one of a line of stage coaches pulled by a steam locomotive along a makeshift railway track. The climactic sequence is a chase through mountains and rivers with plenty of daredevil antics, probably performed without stunt doubles and certainly without green screen technology. The film has dashes of romance and a devoted dog, but sentimentality is kept firmly in check, allowing comedy to reign supreme.
Keaton alone directs Go West (1925), which begins with a caption reading: “Some people travel through life making friends wherever they go, while others just travel through life.” Keaton’s character, named on the credits as simply “Friendless”, is shunned by humans and animals alike, thereby giving the comedy a Chaplinesque air of pathos, particularly when the character becomes attached to Brown Eyes, a lame cow. Accompanied by a jazz influenced score, composed by Rodney Sauer, the film is less structured than the plot-driven Our Hospitality and it follows Keaton’s lonely adventures as a drifter, moving from coast to coast stowing away on freight trains.
The middle section, set on a bleak cattle ranch, is overlong and eventually feels drained of comic potential. However, the film moves to a dazzling climax with a cattle drive led by Keaton, through the busy streets of Los Angeles. It is beautifully choreographed mayhem and we have to keep reminding ourselves that what we see on screen is real footage. Repeatedly, expressionless bovine faces mirror Keaton himself, forming part of a succession of surreal images that will live long in the memory.
College (1927) is directed by James W Horne with Keaton and, again, it is accompanied by Sauer’s music. It could be seen as a template for modern day teen romcoms with Keaton, in his early 30s at the time of shooting, playing Ronald, the brainy bookworm in high school who is besotted with Mary, the most popular girl around. He follows her to college, working to pay his way, and is persuaded that the way to win her heart is to excel at sports.
A warning has to be given here that the film contains a short sequence in which Ronald takes a job as a black waiter, possibly acceptable in the era of Al Jolson, but likely to be seen as offensive today. The triumph of the minnow is at its most touching in College, but the film comes across as the weakest of the three in this collection. This could be because its visual gags, mostly drawing on Ronald’s lack of athletic prowess, have become over familiar through repetition in the intervening years.
2020 has been a miserable year and fresh supplies of laughter could be running low. This collection is a timely reminder that there is plenty of comedy gold in them there Hollywood hills and it is well worth mining.
Available on Blu-ray from 24 August 2020