Eureka continue their run of triple-film box-sets featuring (and usually directed by) Buster Keaton With volume 3. As before, the selection is a bit random, picking titles from throughout his fruitful pre-MGM period, when he made most of his best features. The films included this time around are Our Hospitality, Go West and College. You can’t keep me away from a good Buster Keaton film, so I grabbed a copy to review and my brief thoughts on the titles follow.
Director: John G. Blystone, Buster Keaton
Screenplay: Jean C. Havez, Clyde Bruckman, Joseph A. Mitchell
Starring: Buster Keaton, Natalie Talmadge, Joe Keaton
Running Time: 70 min
Though Three Ages was Keaton’s first feature-length film (as the star), Our Hospitality was his first single-story feature. The former consisted of three loosely connected stories, reportedly done in case Keaton and his team decided to release them as separate shorts instead. With Our Hospitality, Keaton set out to make a ‘true’ feature and many consider it his first masterpiece.
Our Hospitality sees Keaton play Willie McKay, a young man who inherits his family’s country estate after spending the majority of his life in the city with his aunt (Kitty Bradbury). As he heads off to claim what he thinks is a large mansion but is, in fact, a small shack, Willie’s aunt tells him about how his father was killed as part of a long-running blood feud between the McKays and the Canfields. She warns him to watch out for their family rivals as one of the Canfields was also killed in the duel that claimed Willie’s father.
Willie isn’t too worried about this story and heads off on the long journey anyway. On the train (a very early model, as this is a period piece), he meets the lovely Virginia (Natalie Talmadge, Keaton’s wife at the time). The two hit it off and she invites him to dinner at her family home. We soon discover though (before Willie) that Virginia is, in fact, a Canfield and when her father (regular Keaton collaborator Joe Roberts, who died shortly after production) and brothers (Francis X. Bushman Jr. and Craig Ward) find out who’s coming for dinner they grab their guns and try to finish him off. When he manages to get into their home however, their Southern hospitality forbids them from causing him any harm while he’s in their house. When Willie discovers this, much delaying and hilarity ensue. He can’t stay there forever though, so the chase goes on.
Opening with the dramatic and deadly serious incident that claimed Willie’s father’s life, Keaton was clearly wanting to do things properly with Our Hospitality, opting to make a truly solid film and not just a series of skits like many silent comedies of the era. A lot of thought and care clearly went into everything, from the attractive cinematography to the meticulously recreated period props. Keaton and his team took a few liberties with the steam engine they created, as it’s based on two different models (he thought the engine of the British ‘Rocket’ looked funnier than its American counterpart), but it’s still lovingly rendered and the early bicycle made for the film was so good a museum asked to have it to display afterwards.
Where Our Hospitality excels though is in combining the best of Keaton into a singular, cohesive whole. Although the first 10-15 minutes are largely serious, there’s plenty of comedy as it goes on and the jokes all perfectly complement the story. They don’t feel tacked on as is often the case in similar films of the period.
There’s plenty of action too, with some of Keaton’s typically dangerous stunts on display. The finale, in particular, taking place on raging river rapids, has some hair-raising moments and an incredible closing trick. The scene almost claimed Keaton’s life as the safety rope snapped at one point and sent him rushing down the very real rapids without support.
This is the only film in the set I’d watched before and I can remember liking it but not loving it. However, it was much better than I remembered. In fact, I think it’s one of Keaton’s most well-rounded films, with a great balance of comedy, action and drama, all fused together seamlessly.
Directors: Buster Keaton
Screenplay: Buster Keaton, Lex Neal, Raymond Cannon
Starring: Buster Keaton, Howard Truesdale, Kathleen Myers
Running Time: 69 min
Go West sees Keaton play a lonely down-and-out guy (named Friendless in the credits) who sells his meagre belongings to start a new life elsewhere. He initially heads East to the city but can’t handle the hustle and bustle (portrayed simply and hilariously in a short sequence of Keaton trying to battle the crowds on the pavement but continually getting forced back, knocked over or trod upon). So, instead, he hops on a train and heads West to earn his keep.
He arrives at a ranch, dons some discarded chaps and assorted cowboy gear and asks for work. He’s given some but, of course, has no idea what he’s doing, so makes a pig’s ear of it. In the process, however, he befriends a cow (named Brown Eyes in the credits and captions) who saves his life after he takes a stone from her hoof. The pair become inseparable and when he learns Brown Eyes is heading for the slaughterhouse he does all he can to save her.
Go West is not your typical Keaton vehicle, which is surprising, given it’s one of the few titles he gets full credit for as writer and director (though, in reality, he had his usual team of gag writers with him and a little directorial support). It’s unusual in that it makes a more direct attempt at pathos than he’d shown before. It has more than a hint of Chaplin in its hobo protagonist and air of sentimentality. Some have argued the film is parodying this though, particularly in his swapping out of the typical love interest for a cow. Parody or not, the relationship between the unlikely pair is milked for sympathy and I must admit I found it successful in this aspect. I was never holding back the tears but I found the bond between Keaton and Brown Eyes quite sweet.
I’ve only recently noticed how many great animal performances Keaton managed to get in his films and Brown Eyes is no different, though less impressive than the monkey in The Cameraman and the dog in Our Hospitality. Reportedly, Keaton started out by putting a halter and lead on the cow to get her to follow him, then gradually shortened the lead and started using a thin piece of string until she happily followed him everywhere.
It’s not all sappy sentimentality though, there’s plenty of humour as you’d usually expect from a Keaton film. Watching him make a hash out of being a cowboy is quite amusing and it has one of the best final jokes in his career, followed up by a wonderful closing image.
However, saying all of this, I did find myself a little disappointed with the film overall. It’s not bad but it’s not Keaton at his best. Other than the final gag, the jokes are rarely laugh-out-loud, none of the stunts are particularly breathtaking and the pacing is a little sluggish in comparison to his better work. Even the admittedly grand-scale mayhem of the film’s climax, which sees hundreds of cattle rampaging through a city, doesn’t thrill as much as it should. This may be partially due to the fact it’s too reminiscent of the swathes of potential brides chasing Keaton in his previous film, Seven Chances, which was more enjoyably far-fetched and better executed, particularly as it focussed more on Keaton whereas in Go West, a lot of emphasis is put on side-performers and guest stars, who are less effective.
Overall then, it’s pleasant enough and I did enjoy myself whilst watching the film, but it lacks the drive, memorable gags and thrilling set pieces of Keaton’s best work. It could have been tighter too, so perhaps would have made a great one or two-reeler.
Director: James W. Horne, Buster Keaton (uncredited)
Screenplay: Carl Harbaugh, Bryan Foy
Starring: Buster Keaton, Anne Cornwall, Flora Bramley
Running Time: 66 min
College has Keaton play a bookworm who, at his graduation ceremony, lectures his fellow high school students on the dangers of sports. The popular girl at school (Anne Cornwall), who Keaton’s character has his eye on, lambasts him for his damning speech and says she’ll change her mind about him when he changes his mind about sports. So, when Keaton’s character heads to the same college as the girl, he dedicates his time to mastering the art of physical activity. He’s terrible at everything though, of course, and he’s rubbing his dean (Keaton regular Snitz Edwards) up the wrong way, as he was expecting more studious endeavours from his well-regarded new pupil.
After the commercial (and critical, at the time) failure of Keaton’s costly The General, his producer Joseph M. Schenck kept him on a tighter leash and requested he make a safe, cheap, unambitious follow-up in an attempt to get back on track. College comedies were popular at the time, particularly Harold Lloyd’s The Freshman, so Keaton and producer Joseph M. Schenck figured they could make some easy money with something like that. The result was College, and the restricted, lazy nature of the production show. It feels like Keaton was too devastated after his masterpiece didn’t find an audience to put his heart into its follow up. So, we’re left with the only Keaton feature I don’t like (though I haven’t seen his later MGM talkies).
From the offset, Keaton’s speech about sport makes his character unlikeable. I’m not a sports fan myself, but his lengthy laying into the practise only marks him out as a snob. This opening scene and the telling off he gets from the love-interest also sets out the flimsiest of premises for any of Keaton’s films. The idea doesn’t work either, as Keaton’s lean, muscular physique is clearly that of an athlete, so it’s hard to stomach him as completely useless at all sports.
The slight narrative makes for a repetitive and slow-moving film too. Without the ambition or scale of his better work, there’s also a lack of big, memorable set pieces, though the kinetic cinematography of the final act, when Keaton’s character finds his athletic mojo, is impressive. This finale is set back slightly though by a rare shot where Keaton is doubled. He simply didn’t have the time to learn how to pole vault for a climactic stunt, so a professional was brought in.
A side plot (if you can call it that) to the film, sees the cash-strapped Keaton having to pay his way through college by finding work. This leads to the film’s best and worst scenes. The best sees Keaton attempt to be a flamboyant soda jerk, throwing ice cream and other ingredients around but missing every time, whilst trying to maintain cool for the customers and his boss. The worst sees Keaton don blackface to answer a call for ‘coloured waiters’. The makeup is bad enough, but Keaton makes things worse by adopting the posture and mannerisms of an ape, in an attempt to hide his identity from some friends that enter the restaurant.
So, College completes the set in a terribly disappointing fashion. Light on plot, thrills, and most crucially laughs, it’s Keaton’s only damp squib among his silent features. Throw in a terribly racist scene on top of that and you’ve got yourself a surefire dud, give or take a couple of gags.
Buster Keaton: 3 Films (Volume 3) is out on 24th August on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema series. The picture quality is largely excellent, though due to all prints being reconstructed from various sources in amongst themselves, there are inconsistencies, with shots/sequences not sourced from negatives looking a little softer. The scores are all pleasing and all sounded great through my system. Though I didn’t like the film, the College score had a nice jazzy feel that helped it stand out from the crowd.
You get plenty of special features included too. Here’s the list:
– Our Hospitality: Presented in 1080p from a 2K restoration
– Go West: Presented in 1080p from a 4K restoration
– College: Presented in 1080p from a 2K restoration
– Our Hospitality: new audio commentary by silent film historian Rob Farr
– “Hospitality” [55 mins]: a shorter work-print version of Our Hospitality, presented with optional commentary by film historian Polly Rose
– Making Comedy Beautiful [26 mins]: video essay by Patricia Eliot Tobias
– Go West: new audio commentary by film historians Joel Goss and Bruce Lawton
– Go West: new video essay by John Bengtson (Silent Echoes / Silent Traces / Silent Visions) on Go West’s filming locations
– A Window on Keaton [28 mins]: new video essay by David Cairns
– Go West [1923, 12 mins]: short film
– College: video essay by John Bengtson on College’s filming locations
– The Railrodder [1965, 24 mins]: produced by the National Film Board of Canada and starring Buster Keaton in one of his final film roles
– The Railrodder: optional audio commentary with director Gerald Potterton and cameraman David De Volpi
– Buster Keaton Rides Again [1965, 55 mins]: documentary feature produced concurrently with, the filming of The Railrodder
– Q&A with Gerald Potterton [55 mins]: audio recording of a post-screening Q&A with The Railrodder director Gerald Potterton, and David De Volpi
– Stills Galleries
– PLUS: A 60-PAGE perfect bound collector’s book featuring new writing by Philip Kemp; essays on all three films by Imogen Sara Smith; a piece by John Bengtson on the filming locations of Our Hospitality; Gerald Potterton’s original treatment for The Railrodder; and an appreciation of Keaton and The Railrodder by writer and silent cinema aficionado Chris Seguin
Buster Keaton Rides Again is a wonderful documentary, offering a seemingly natural look at Keaton at work. He may have been long past his golden years at this point (during the shooting of The Railrodder in 1964) but still knew what he wanted and was able to craft some great gags.
The inclusion of The Railrodder itself is welcome too, as it’s a beautiful ode to Keaton’s classic shorts. It’s very simple, with less of a plot than Keaton’s features, but perfectly captures what made him great.
It’s an added bonus to get commentaries/Q&As on both the doc and short. These are full of fun anecdotes about the productions, so well worth a listen.
The commentaries on Our Hospitality and Go West are excellent too, with plenty of interesting facts about the productions and some analysis of what makes them so effective. The Hospitality commentary is very good too, focusing on the differences between the cuts rather than repeating anything from the track on the full-length version. Speaking of the shorter version, it’s great to have that included, as it restructures the first act, turning the opening scene into a flashback that comes later on.
The ‘Making Comedy Beautiful’ essay is great too, looking at what makes Our Hospitality so special.
John Bengtson’s essay on Go West’s filming locations was a surprise to me. I often find these of more value to locals of where the film was shot, but Bengtson reveals quite a few eye-opening facts about how and where the film was shot and also gives his thoughts on the qualities and production of the film in general.
David Cairns’ coverall piece is excellent too, delving into the three productions and their merits.
The Go West short is a bizarre western comedy played by some very talented monkeys. The performances are eerily human at times.
You also get one of Eureka’s expertly compiled booklets and it’s as illuminating as always.
So, though the films aren’t as consistent as in Eureka’s previous Keaton sets, the extra features make up for this, making volume 3 as easy to recommend as the other two.