After releasing two wonderful Buster Keaton Blu-ray boxsets, covering a complete set of his shorts and three of his most famous features (Sherlock Jr., The General and Steamboat Bill, Jr.), Eureka are turning their sights to another trio of films by the ‘Great Stone Face’. The titles included in this latest set are The Navigator, Seven Chances and Battling Butler. You can never have too much Buster Keaton in your life, so I grabbed hold of a copy of the set to review.
Director: Donald Crisp, Buster Keaton
Screenplay: Clyde Bruckman, Joseph A. Mitchell, Jean C. Havez
Starring: Buster Keaton, Kathryn McGuire, Frederick Vroom
Running Time: 59 min
The Navigator sees Keaton play Rollo, a wealthy simpleton who decides to marry his sweetheart Betsy (Kathryn McGuire) one day but gets rejected. Rather than waste the ticket to Honolulu he bought for their honeymoon, he decides to go alone. However, he accidentally boards the wrong ship, ‘The Navigator’. This happens to be owned by Betsy’s father (Frederick Vroom), who gets attacked by some spies who are trying to cast The Navigator off to destroy it. Betsy boards the ship too when she goes to see what happened to her father, so ends up drifting off into the heart of the ocean, alone with Rollo. With both of them coming from privileged and pampered backgrounds, they struggle to survive, leading to many amusing hijinks on board the ship.
This is one of the more sketchy, episodic films Keaton has done, but also one of the funniest. It had me laughing out loud regularly, which is no mean feat for a film that’s 96 years old. With very minimal captions, practically all the comedy comes from visual gags. To begin with, a lot is mined from the fact the pair of protagonists are overly reliant on their ‘help’. There’s a wonderful little gag at the start, for instance, where Keaton gets his chauffeur to drive him literally across the road to see Betsy, then when he soon leaves rejected, he sends the driver off, saying he needs “a long walk”, once again only across the road.
As the film moves on, the jokes are more often forged around the conditions on the boat and various problems the pair face. An extended sequence where they’re trying to get some sleep on the heavily rocking boat is particularly well executed and very funny.
As usual, Keaton gets to do some daring stunts too, with high diving and climbing feats that will knock the breath out of you. The final act, in particular, gets rather exciting and leans closer to action-adventure than comedy, though there are plenty of jokes embedded too. McGuire also does some impressive physical work and deserves credit for her performance alongside the ever-dependable Keaton, as many of the gags require both of them to fire on all cylinders.
There’s one sour note in the film however, in its depiction of the island natives our protagonists come across. They’re all faceless cannibals who are there merely to attack the pair in droves and are easily scared by modern technology at one point. Due to the age of the film and attitudes at the time, this type of racism can be forgiven to an extent though.
Racial insensitivity aside, I think The Navigator is one of the funniest of Keaton’s feature films. It had me in stitches from start to finish. With some thrilling action at the end too, it stands among the director/star’s best.
Directors: Buster Keaton
Screenplay: Clyde Bruckman, Joseph A. Mitchell, Jean C. Havez Based on a comedy by: Roi Cooper Megrue
Starring: Buster Keaton, Ruth Dwyer, T. Roy Barnes, Snitz Edwards
Running Time: 56 min
Seven Chances sees Keaton play Jimmie, a broker whose firm is bankrupt. A dodgy deal the company had made went sour and Jimmie and his associates are facing financial ruin and possible jail time if they don’t get some money, fast. Luck comes in the form of Jimmie’s grandfather’s will. It states that Jimmie will inherit a $7 million fortune, but only if he’s married before 7pm on his 27th birthday, which is that very day!
Jimmie immediately asks his beloved Mary (Ruth Dwyer) for her hand in marriage but messes up the proposal so she refuses. He and his associates then have to desperately find him another woman to marry, by any means necessary.
It’s an enjoyably silly premise, though much of the execution relies on dialogue, so the story isn’t carried as effortlessly through the visuals as in The Navigator or other great silent films. Instead we get quite a few caption cards, which stall the action when they appear.
In the final act though, once the premise is fully set up and has reached its peak with hundreds of potential wives chasing Keaton through town, the film really comes into its element. The chase is greatly extended but never grows stale, with Keaton getting into ever more ridiculous and dangerous situations. Particularly thrilling is when he causes a landslide and has to dodge waves of giant rocks. They were all made of rubber or foam of course, but they’re still big and Keaton’s skill at dodging whilst looking in great danger is breathtaking to watch.
Unfortunately there’s more racism rearing its ugly head in brief spots. On top of a useless black servant (played by a white man in black-face) there’s a poor taste gag that sees Keaton approach another woman to ask to marry, before he notices she’s black and instantly stops. Once again, this is an issue with American society at the time more than anything (interracial marriages were illegal) but it does cast a shadow on an otherwise light romp. You could also pass comment on the role of women in the film, though they never put up with the male harassment on screen, so don’t come off too badly.
Overall then, it’s a little ‘talky’ in the first half and once again has a couple of offensive dated elements, but the concept is fun and once it hits its stride in the final quarter, the film is fantastic.
Director: Buster Keaton
Screenplay: Al Boasberg, Lex Neal, Charles Smith, Paul Gerard Smith
Based on a Play by: Stanley Brightman, Austin Melford
Starring: Buster Keaton, Snitz Edwards, Sally O’Neil
Running Time: 77 min
Battling Butler once again sees Keaton play an overly pampered rich gentleman, this time named Alfred Butler. His father is disgusted at how ‘soft’ his son has become, so orders him to go on a camping and hunting trip to “make a man out of him”. Alfred obliges, but does so in his own lavish fashion, with his loyal valet (Snitz Edwards) tending to his needs.
During the trip, Alfred meets a beautiful ‘Mountain Girl’ (Sally O’Neil) who he falls in love with. He asks her to marry him but her father and brother won’t let her marry someone so weak. In a bid to turn them around, Alfred’s valet convinces the pair his master is actually his namesake, the up-and-coming champion boxer, Alfred ‘Battling’ Butler. The scheme works, but a series of unfortunate incidents dig Alfred ever deeper into the lie and he ends up having to fight one of the ‘Battling’ Butler’s bouts.
It’s quite a cleverly plotted story that is a pleasure to watch unfold. This sets it apart from some of the more episodic films Keaton made. However, as enjoyable as the film is, it doesn’t quite reach the comedic heights of The Navigator and some other favourites. I was chuckling along throughout, but not quite busting my sides. There are a few corkers though. I did enjoy the sinking table gag early on and Alfred’s training is funny, though it goes on a little too long.
The film has some nice camera gags too, showing Keaton’s skill as a director. There’s an amusing bit where the camera tracks back with Alfred and his valet as they struggle to find animals to hunt, whilst various creatures keep popping up behind them as they pass. Then the shot travels back in the opposite direction when they get in trouble with the Mountain Girl.
There aren’t as many daring stunts as usual, though Keaton still has plenty to do physically, particularly in the training and boxing sequences in the final third. There’s some hair-raising dangerous driving at one point too, though it’s likely not Keaton at the wheel of any of the vehicles as we don’t see him.
Overall then, it’s a nicely constructed comedy that maybe doesn’t have as many belly-laughs or grand stunts as more famous Keaton features, but remains hugely enjoyable.
Buster Keaton: 3 Films (Volume 2) is out on 30th March on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema series. The quality of the remastered films varies a little, with The Navigator looking a touch softer and more noticeably damaged than the others. Seven Chances and Battling Butler look stunning though. I’m always amazed when old silent titles like these get polished up so well. The music tracks are well handled too.
You get plenty of special features included too. Here’s the list:
- Limited Edition Hardbound Slipcase [3000 copies ONLY]
– 1080p presentations of all three films from the Cohen Film Collection’s stunning 4K restorations, with musical scores composed and conducted by Robert Israel
– The Navigator Audio commentary by silent film historians Robert Arkus and Yair Solan
– Seven Chances Brand new audio commentary by film historians Joel Goss and Bruce Lawton
– New and exclusive video essay by David Cairns covering all three films
– The Navigator – A short documentary on the making of the film and Keaton’s fascination with boats as sources of comedy, by film historian Bruce Lawton
– Buster Keaton & Irwin Allen audio interview from 1945 [6 mins]
– Buster Keaton & Arthur Friedman audio interview from 1956 [32 mins]
– Buster Keaton & Robert Franklin audio interview from 1958 [56 mins]
– Buster Keaton & Herbert Feinstein audio interview from 1960 [48 mins]
– Buster Keaton & Studs Terkel audio interview from 1960 [38 mins]
– What! No Spinach? (1926, dir. Harry Sweet) [19 mins] Rarely seen comedy short by American actor / director Harry Sweet, that riffs on a number of elements from Seven Chances
– PLUS: A LIMITED EDITION 60-PAGE perfect bound collector’s book featuring new writing by Imogen Sara Smith and Philip Kemp; and a selection of archival writing and imagery
The two commentaries are valuable resources, though the sound quality on one (the Seven Chances track, if I remember correctly) was pretty poor. A lot of time is spent simply praising the films, but there are still some interesting facts about the productions. The ever-dependable David Cairns provides an excellent overview of the trio of films, which is probably the strongest feature in the set. The piece on the Navigator is very good too.
The various audio interviews often cover the same ground so be prepared to hear the same stock answers on several occasions. However, the interviews are still of value, even if they could have been better served edited together as one piece to avoid repetition of answers.
The inclusion of What! No Spinach? is a nice touch, even if it’s a pale imitation of Seven Chances, and the book is excellent, rounding off a superb package that anyone who enjoyed Eureka’s previous Keaton sets should definitely pick up.