Considering how modern film audiences are continually inundated with franchise films and tentpole releases, Eureka’s latest Masters of Cinema Collection – Buster Keaton: 3 films (Volume 2) offers cinema fans a welcomed respite and an opportunity to see a comedy great in their element.
Knowing how Keaton’s cinematic career influenced modern cinema, Eureka certainly rolls out the red carpet for ‘The Great Stone Face’ with a deserving recognition of his work. Featuring The Navigator, Seven Chances and Battling Butler, these films bask in a stunning 4K transfer and filled with exclusive features including a David Cairns video essay on all three films, rare audio interviews with Buster Keaton himself, a special 60-page booklet and musical scores composed by Robert Israel.
Collectively, the three films work together in curated harmony. In The Navigator, he plays Rollo Treadway who alongside Betsy O’Brien (Kathryn McGuire) end up being unlikely shipmates after a series of mishaps. In Seven Chances, he plays Jimmy Shannon who learns he will inherit $7 million providing he gets married by 7pm on his 27th birthday – which happens to be the same day he received the notice! In Battling Butler, he tries to impress a young girl and her intimidating family that he’s a famous boxer called the ‘The Battling Butler’ – that’s until the real boxer shows up and decides to humiliate him for his efforts and have him fight the ‘Alabama Murderer’.
There’s no escaping the privilege that rides between the films, each showing Keaton as a hapless, entitled young gentleman who’s rapidly brought down to Earth by the comedic scenarios he finds himself in. But what makes Keaton’s mishaps endearing and entertaining is his ability to find the warmth and humility to his characters, happily poking fun at their deficiencies, knowing exactly when to turn on the innocent charm or when to restrain to accentuate that ‘down on your luck’ gag. The Navigator is filled with such moments; after his marriage proposal is rejected, he confirms to his driver that he needs to take a long walk home – which happens to be across the street! In the Battling Butler, it’s Buster’s Alfred having a conversation with Sally O’Neil’s The Mountain Girl while their table sinks into the grass. It’s simple yet effective thanks to Keaton and writers Clyde Bruckman, Jean C. Havez and Joseph A. Mitchell. But the timeless quality comes from how complimentary the jokes are, allowing Keaton ample flexibility to hone his craft and for cast members to equally match him in the escalating stakes. Once again, The Navigator shows this off perfectly with Kathryn McGuire’s Betsy teaming with Keaton as a comedic double act in some incredible scenes.
What’s hilarious is Keaton’s consistent reliance surrounding the plot for each of his films, often revolving around elaborate ways for a marriage proposal, either to the girl next door (The Navigator), for wealth and fortune which spectacularly backfires (Seven Chances) or by pretending to be something he’s not (Battling Butler). Formulaic? Yes, but Keaton proves “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
But it’s Keaton’s scale of production that never ceases to amaze, often using real-life sets in which he performed some deft-defining stunts. It’s easy to see why someone like martial arts legend Jackie Chan would repeatedly cite Keaton as a major influence on his career. With no VFX in sight, Keaton’s unadulterated fearlessness suspends all disbelief, knowing how much he was risking his life to achieve the perfectly framed gag. And when it comes together, it’s like watching a magic trick.
And it shows in some of his breathtaking sequences. The Navigator may have been Keaton’s biggest hit (considering he was unhappy with the audience response to Sherlock Jr.), but the best film in the collection is Seven Chances – a breathless and kinetic piece of endurance, showcasing the peak of Keaton’s prowess and his ridiculous hilarity for comedic timing. How often do you find Keaton driving alongside another car, trying to ask a woman for their hand in marriage only for a random tree to appear in the middle of the road to stop his advances? It’s one of many silly and visual punchlines that not only play to Keaton’s strengths but culminates in a hilariously executed, race against time, chase scene.
While films often reflect the attitudes of the era, what’s clear from the collection is that some jokes and depictions have not aged well. Battling Butler, for example, features the wife of the boxer sporting a black eye in one scene which raises a lot of questions. But it is the shocking amounts of racism featured in The Navigator and Seven Chances that leaves an uncomfortable sour taste. It’s appalling to see black people portrayed as mindless, cannibalistic savages who end up fulfilling a tiresome trope of kidnapping damsels in distresses and put in their place by heroic white saviours (The Navigator). It’s equally appalling to see white characters in blackface (Seven Chances). But it’s the sheer abruptness at how it is introduced in the film, appearing out of nowhere like a whiplash turn that immediately takes you out of the laughter. We can’t change the past, but something like a disclaimer would have benefited the release, especially for first-time viewers (think The Looney Tunes Collection and the Whoopi Goldberg introductions).
But despite the cultural insensitivity (which is its only downer), as this is the second collection of Keaton’s films to feature under the umbrella of Masters of Cinema, you get the feeling that this won’t be the last we’ll see his work receive the high-quality treatment. Keaton’s legacy is immortalised for a new generation of audiences, proving there’s plenty of magic to learn from the maestro.
Dir: Buster Keaton, Donald Crisp
Scr: Buster Keaton, Clyde Bruckman, Jean C. Havez and Joseph A. Mitchell
Cast: Buster Keaton, Kathryn McGuire, Snitz Edwards, Sally O’Neil, Ruth Dwyer
Prd: Buster Keaton
DOP: Byron Houck, Elgin Lessley, Bert Haines, Devereaux Jennings
Music: Robert Israel
Year: 1924, 1925 & 1926
Runtime: 204 mins
Buster Keaton: 3 Films (Volume 2) is out now on Blu-ray