Buster Keaton Short Films Collection Volume 3

US (1920-1922) Dirs. Buster Keaton & Edward Cline

The continuation of the journey through the four disc compilation set of Buster Keaton’s short films sees us reach the third disc which is made up entirely of Keaton’s own short films.

Kicking off this collection is The Scarecrow, a typical two friends fighting over a girl storyline which is arguably best remembered for the opening scene in which Buster and Joe Roberts have breakfast in their literal all-in-one cottage. Only in Keaton’s mind can a bed also be a bath, a record player also be a cooker and a tabletop become a mounted wall piece. You really need to see it to believe it, but it is a work of top notch ingenuity.

Next up is a personal favourite in Neighbours in which Buster and Virginia Fox are the Romeo and Juliet of suburban America, their families at war with each other. Aside from a slightly iffy black face gag which gives way to a typically energetic cop chase, this film features some charming sight gags and more incredible feats of death defying lunacy. The most famous scene would be Buster and Virginia trying to elope by fleeing on the shoulders of two men running from yard to yard, in and out of two floor windows! The timing of the set up, as much as the physical strength and stamina displayed here is beyond admirable.

The Haunted House is a slightly misleading title insofar as the titular building doesn’t feature until the final part of the film. Prior to this the setting is a small bank which Buster is the apparent sole employee of, that is to be the target of a raid but a mishap with some glue puts paid to that. While fleeing from the police on a trumped up charge Buster hides out in the spooky mansion, along with a small theatre troupe whose performance of Faust doesn’t go down so well. Not a classic Buster film but the sheer inventiveness of the gags as ever makes this worth a watch.

Up next is Hard Luck, debatably one of Keaton’s least focused films, evoking memories of the Fatty Arbuckle films in the previous volumes. The morbid premise is that Buster is trying to kill himself yet after a few failed attempts, he finds himself engaged in activities that if anything provide him with a reason to continue living! With no proper story to drive the narrative, this feels like a patchwork of gags Keaton couldn’t fit into his other films, but as ever there are some gems to be found here.

What makes this a treat for Keaton fans is the restoration of the film’s denouement, lost for many years and existing in a highly damaged form. Thanks to computer technology it has been returned to its rightful place albeit with some visible and natural wear, a small price to pay to have the film in its complete form again.

Sporting another curious title, The Goat sees Buster as a down on his luck guy who inadvertently ends up being photographed in place of notorious criminal Dead Shot Dan. While ordinary people avoid him, the police are desperate to get their hands on him. Cue many wild and acrobatic chases through the streets, all around the houses (quite literally at one point) and more ingenious uses for an elevator than you can shake a stick at. The title may not make sense but the film is an absolute riot!

While Keaton was a comic genius he was also keen to explore the technical possibilities of the film medium, and The Playhouse is an example of this. The opening sequence sees Keaton play every role in a Minstrel Show, from the performers to the musicians to the audience, both male and female, young and old. Using multiple exposure we see up to eight different Keaton’s on screen at one time – and this was in 1921! Even today the blending is flawless. The remainder of the film is another stage production gone wrong, including Buster having to deputise for a monkey! It’s gags galore in this lesser known outing.

The Boat tells of a series of aquatic based disasters for Buster and his family and marks a change for Keaton, as the setting is a small boat when his forte is his use of space. That said he pulls out a few good gags but eventually the spatial restrictions leads to some repetition in the tomfoolery.

Rounding off this set is The Paleface (no relation to the later Bob Hope film) a film, which would raise a few eyebrows if it were made today in the same style. A tribe of Native American Indians are conned out of the lease for their land by a greedy oil company and are given 24 hours to vacate. Their chief orders that the first white man to set foot on their land is to be killed; guess who that turns out be…. Initiated into the tribe after avoiding death by fire Buster is made Little Chief Paleface and vows to help save the land.

The script may be driven by a noble sentiment but the Indians are made up of largely painted up white actors, succumbing to every cliché and stereotype of the Indian culture you can imagine. Obviously 93 years ago that was the mindset of the day but if one can put their modern sensibilities aside, this is a fun film featuring an amazingly rendered combination of animated and real life stunts that are difficult to distinguish.

By now, just two years into his solo career, it is evident that Keaton was fast emerging as one of the great innovators in cinema, both as a comedian and a filmmaker. This third selection of his short films is a superb demonstration of his rapidly evolving genius and a further indicator of how essential this set is for Keaton devotees and silent comedy fans alike.

(Reviews for parts one and two are HERE and HERE)