It’s fair to say that some stars and movies age well like a fine wine. I’d heard the name Buster Keaton many times over the years but remained mostly unfamiliar with his work until now. Considering I studied a lot of Hollywood at university and read about it in books, it seemed a little strange that Keaton never cropped up a huge amount compared to many others. The truth is that Buster made a name for himself independently, away from the studio system that many stars had behind them. Ferociously determined to be in full creative control where possible, Keaton really didn’t need the support or inspiration of anyone else. He knew who he was, understood what his audience wanted, and would do anything to elicit an emotional response. To call him a master of comedy would be true but almost understates his well-rounded understanding of film and audiences.
With Eureka releasing this three-film set comprised of Sherlock Jr (1924), The General (1926) and Steamboat Bill, Jr (1928), this is the perfect opportunity for modern film fans to become acquainted with one of the most successful and creative performers of all time. Not only did Keaton write, act and do his own stunts, but he was also in control of the direction and editing of the majority of his productions. It’s tough to comprehend that someone could be capable of doing all those things and deliver such high-quality work over the years like Keaton did, and it’s a credit to his appetite for success and his unquestionable talent that his legacy remains intact to this day and people still have a desire to watch his work.
The General is considered by many to be Keaton’s best film by far. It feels more ambitious than any of his other projects, and while it may seem somewhat unspectacular in a modern context, when you consider it was made in the late 1920s it’s a highly impressive feat. As is most of Keaton’s work, in fact; knowing the lack of technology in physical comedy, editing and stunts, it’s a marvel that he managed to deliver some of the action he did. The General covers the Civil War but from a uniquely humorous perspective, allowing Keaton to deliver his iconic slapstick humour on a grand scale involving a locomotive and various setpieces of harmless violence. You’ll learn more about just how costly the main crash scene was in the documentary Buster Keaton: The Genius Destroyed by Hollywood, as well as the numerous featurettes on The General, all of which are worth sitting through. There is no doubt that this film deserves its place in history as one of the best to grace our screens.
The other two films on offer here are both solid affairs showcasing Keaton at his very best. Sherlock Jr allows for Keaton to truly be at his creative peak, pushing the boundaries of film and editing in ways you would not have thought possible at the time. All the different framing, locations and visual illusions give Buster free reign to play with audience expectations and constantly surprise. The main tale revolves around his love for a girl (Kathryn McGuire) and the rivalry he has for her affections with The Local Sheik (Ward Crane). The dream sequence where Buster’s Projectionist character becomes Sherlock Jr feels so ahead of its time that it must have marvelled audiences back in 1924. Even now the film remains hilarious, confusing, and masterfully driven towards its satisfying conclusion. It may not reach the heights of The General, but you can certainly tell this is a man sure of his place in the industry and in complete control of his craft.
Last but not least, Steamboat Bill, Jr offers up Keaton’s last hoorah on the independent scene before his regretful move to MGM where the Buster many knew and loved became somewhat of an unfortunate afterthought. Looking back at the time Steamboat Bill, Jr wasn’t a huge box office success but over the years new audiences have come to appreciate the ambition and smarts that Keaton was able to offer when he was given the freedom to do so. The story follows William Canfield, Jr (Keaton) and his fight to keep his relationship with Kitty (Marion Byron) alive, despite their unhappy fathers who are business rivals. It’s a tried and tested formula and yet somehow it feels fresh enough to remain fascinating from start to finish. Once again, it’s due to Buster’s originality and imagination that he can take something so simple and turn it into a complete riot. You can argue that it’s tinged with sadness, knowing now how things would go for him in the years following its release, but it will always raise a smile regardless.
You can’t fault Eureka for their choices in this set, nor the effort they have put into this release with the supplementary materials. From commentaries to documentaries and original musical scores there’s something for everyone, and that’s before you even look at the 60-page book included. It’s hard not to fall completely in love with Buster Keaton over the three films, seeing the passion and genuine adoration for his craftsmanship. There’s certainly a reason the man has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and he remains an inspiration to actors worldwide to this day. It’s a must-have set for any film fan.
Dir: Buster Keaton
Starring: Buster Keaton, Kathryn McGuire, Joe Keaton
Dir: Clyde Bruckman, Buster Keaton
Starring: Buster Keaton, Marion Mack, Glen Cavender
Steamboat Bill, Jr
Dir: Charles Reisner (as Chas F Reisner), Buster Keaton (uncredited)
Starring: Buster Keaton, Tom McGuire, Ernest Torrence
Total Runtime: 191 min
Buster Keaton: 3 Films is available direct from Eureka Video now