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