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Buster Keaton Short Films Collection Volume 4

US (1922-1923) Dirs. Buster Keaton & Edward Cline

We reach the conclusion of our journey through the four-disc compilation set of Buster Keaton’s early works, with the last batch of silent shorts made before Keaton followed his peers into focusing exclusively on feature length films.

While there is still plenty of comedic innovation and slapstick silliness to enjoy here, there is a palpable sense of melancholy in this final selection, with the hit and miss ratio in terms of overall quality fluctuating more wildly than before.

That may sound a little harsh as Keaton gives his all performance wise and is still the immense creative force we all know and love, but during this period Keaton’s personal life was in an interesting place. In 1921, he had married Natalie Talmadge of the famous Talmadge Sisters (with Norma and Constance) and a year later had their first son Joseph Jr but the marriage wasn’t so idyllic, despite lasting until 1932.

Because of this one can sense Keaton’s disillusionment in the idea of love in these films with the common theme of his character playing a man who has to earn the love of his woman through status and money – in real life Talmadge reportedly spent a third of Keaton’s salary on clothes – with Buster never getting the girl in the end.

In the first film in this set, the seminal Cops, this is the exact plot with Buster trying to earn the hand of his love (Virginia Fox) who happens to be the mayor’s daughter. Unfortunately Buster’s goodwill sees him end up on the wrong side of the law and many an exciting and original chase ensues throughout this film.

My Wife’s Relations is equally cynical. Buster is accidentally married to be a harridan of a woman (Kate Price) and moves in with her and her equally unpleasant family who bully him around until they learn he might be in line for a healthy inheritance. Suddenly they play the nice game until the money arrives. Again some fun scenes – the first awkward meal is a well constructed sea of sight gags – but Buster is again suffering at the hands of a woman.

While there is a strong female presence in The Blacksmith the premise of this film is Buster inadvertently causing his boss (Joe Roberts) to be arrested so he takes over running the business. His customers include a horse which needs re-shoeing, a car that needs a new engine and a Rolls Royce which needs a once over. The owner of the latter is a clean freak, Buster is covered in oil, you can figure out the rest.

The Frozen North was a satire on the early cowboy/western films but if one hasn’t seen many westerns from this period much of the reference points are lost. Keaton plays an unsuccessful cowboy who fails to rob a saloon, mistakenly breaks up a marriage, almost ruins his own marriage and ends up in a number of silly snowy escapades. Whilst an eventful and action packed affair, it is a rather disjointed one.

One of Keaton’s more inventive and almost prescient films is next, The Electric House. Buster is a botanist graduate but his diploma is mixed up with that of an electrician (Joe Keaton), so Buster gets the job to electrify the dean’s house (Joe Roberts). The film is full of wonderful inventions and gimmicks some of which have since been adapted into modern life over the years.

Interesting trivia note – this film was originally made in 1920 but Keaton broke his leg and filming was abandoned. This 1922 version is a total remake although no known footage of the 1920 version exists.

Daydreams see Keaton retuning to the theme of a woman (Renée Adorée) with high expectations of her man, with Buster vowing to shoot himself if he sails to make some money. The gimmick is that every time Buster sends an ambiguously worded letter to the girl, she imagines something far more glamorous than the truth. Unfortunately some of the actual “daydream” spots have been lost but the idea is easy to follow anyway. This film is basically a compendium of Buster causing mayhem in a number of different circles, with another police chase being the highlight.

The final two films, The Balloonatic and The Love Nest are a sign of a man running on fumes, both outings being very uneven with barely any steady flow in the narrative. The former only contains two minutes of action with a hot air balloon, the rest is mildly amusing but often protracted slapstick out in the wilds with an ambitious spectacle for the ending.

Set out at sea, the latter film sees Buster running away from another failed romance where he encounters the titular ship, captained by a man (Joe Roberts) who throws his crew overboard for the slightest slip up. Buster should fit right in with no problems then.

It feels a bit of a shame that the last couple of Keaton’s silent shorts weren’t as dynamic or exciting as his previous works but the switch to the feature length format saw him find his comfort zone and like Chaplin, Lloyd et al, produce his best and most memorable work. Keaton returned to the short format during the sound period but by then his star had dimmed somewhat and his personal life was a continuous alcoholic haze.

However without the experience of making these shorts, Buster’s bigger silent production wouldn’t have happened nor have been the classics they’ve become, so this fantastic collection is a wonderful way to chart the rise of one of cinemas greatest clowns and creative minds, packed with many underrated and lesser known gems which deserve to be seen by Keaton fans and newcomers alike.

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

 

MIB’s Instant Headache is proud to be participating in the Second Buster Keaton Blogathon hosted by the delightful Lea at Silent-ology!

Click on the image for more details

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17 thoughts on “Buster Keaton Short Films Collection Volume 4

  1. I love Keaton’s shorts as a whole though the later entries are absolutely hit and miss in quality. The Blacksmith in particular is the epitome of mediocre, though I heard some people claim the alternate footage discovered for it a while ago improved it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I didn’t mind “The Blacksmith” although I will concede that the oily handprint gag was overused, but then again a lot of silent comedy relied on repetition. It seems like the version I have is the original one which everyone else has seen.

      Even at his worst though Buster’s films were still better than many others of the time, including the Fatty Arbuckle ones featured in the early discs in this set.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. You’re right, this last set is truly running on fumes. I have a special soft spot for “Daydreams” because part of it was shot in my hometown, San Francisco. This is a nice survey of the final group. I have to go back and read your first three essays.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the kind words. 🙂

      I can only assume that the tensions within Buster’s marriage played a part in this temporary lapse of quality and inspiration but whatever perked him up for his feature length films certainly did the trick! 😛

      Like

  3. The Electric House is one of my favorites, it’s so clever and you look forward to seeing which odd gadget Buster invented next. If I had to pick his weakest shorts, I might go with The Love Nest and Hard Luck. I actually looooove The Balloonatic, I think the gags are spaced just right and its meandering quality is relaxing to watch. And those final shots with the “flying balloon” have a whimsical poetry to them.

    I’m sure exactly what the timeline of Buster and Natalie’s marital troubles was, if anyone can say for sure. Personally, I’m not convinced that they started growing apart this early on, but you’re certainly not alone in seeing a bit more cynicism in these final shorts.

    Thank you so much for contributing this detailed review to the blogathon!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the kind words. 🙂

      I quite liked “Hard Luck”. It was very downbeat but it had some great moments satirising that bleakness. Ah well, horses for courses as they say. 😉

      You are quite right in that it is only speculation on my part about Buster’s martial woes effecting his work, but it is oddly coincidental that his pre-marriage films are noticeably more enjoyable and up beat. Just saying… 😉 😛

      Thanks for running the blogathon and for allowing me to participate! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Good article. “Love Nest” is actually one of my favorite Keaton shorts, but then I’m a sucker for Buster and Joe Roberts playing off each other. Plus, I find the running joke with the wreath hysterically funny. Aside from that, I agree, not all the shorts have the same high quality (“The Balloonatic” and “Daydreams” are a bit of a miss for me). But even his worst offerings were far above most short comedies of the time. I’m glad they all survived so we have a body of work to look at and discuss.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the kind words. 🙂

      I think my problem with “Love Nest” was the ending, since it was one Keaton used a couple of times before (and after). Some of the gags were fine, like the wreath one you mentioned, but Buster is great at using space for his gags and when confined like that the scope for creativity is often limited to repetition.

      But as you rightly say, at least his early works survive for us and future generations to continue to enjoy. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Oh dear, I haven’t seen ANY of the films mentioned here. Means I have some catching up to do!

    It’s sad to think of Keaton’s (or anyone’s) disillusionment with love. I’ll keep your post in mind when I track down some of these shorts.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. For shame! 😛

      I imagine that this DVD box set would be available in your side of the world as it was part of the Masters of Cinema label which is an international brand. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I just love everything Buster did. And it’s funny but “The Love Nest” is really one of my favorites. The make-up beard and the wreath gag – just precious!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the comment! 🙂

      Just to re-iterate I didn’t necessarily dislike Love Nest at all, I personally just found it to be one of his weaker works all things considered.

      One man’s meat etc.. 😉

      Liked by 1 person

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