1 August 2016

BUSTER KEATON: THE COMPLETE SHORT FILMS 1917-1923. REVIEW BY SANDRA HARRIS.




EUREKA ENTERTAINMENT/THE MASTERS OF CINEMA SERIES PRESENTS: BUSTER KEATON: THE COMPLETE SHORT FILMS 1917-1923. REVIEW BY SANDRA HARRIS. ©

I normally sneak the 'pluggy' part of my film reviews in at the end of the review, real nice 'n' easy-like, so you guys won't feel that you're being bombarded, haha. This time around, however, I've got to do it at the start or else what follows mightn't make much sense, see? 'Course you do. My readers are smrt. Real smrt. I mean, smart, heh-heh-heh.

So here goes, anyway! The thing is, EUREKA ENTERTAINMENT are releasing a Buster Keaton box-set this July (2016) containing the thirty-two short films that comprise his work output from 1917-1923, and now I want to tell you exactly why you literally cannot live another minute without having this boxset in your life. I've watched all thirty-two films myself and I can tell you honestly that I don't know how I even considered myself fully alive before I'd seen 'em.

What do you guys know about Buster Keaton, anyway? Well, you probably know that he was an actor, director, producer, writer and stuntman and that he was best known for his silent movies. Between 1920 and 1929, 'he worked without interruption on a series of films that make him, arguably, the greatest actor-director in the history of the movies.' This last is according to film critic Roger Ebert and, having watched the box-set, I'm inclined to agree with him.

The films are all silent comedies, with brilliant music, gorgeous sepia-toned sets and outlandish plots. His very first appearance in silent films is contained within the very first film in the set. In THE BUTCHER BOY (1917), Keaton co-stars with Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle, his friend and colleague since they met in New York City that same year. The films then take us all the way up to the point at which Keaton, nicknamed 'The Great Stone-Face' for his wonderful deadpan expression, was headlining and directing his own box office smash hits.

Fatty, himself an actor, director, comedian and screenwriter, features heavily (no pun intended!) in the first few films on the box-set. He's a marvellous comedy actor with an expressive face and portly body, both of which he uses to perfection in films like THE BUTCHER BOY. In this particular short film, Fatty dresses up as a woman and gains illegal entrance to Miss Teachem's School For Girls in order to be near to his girlfriend Amanda, who's been whisked off there to keep her out of harm's (and Fatty's!) way.

Naturally, hilarious shenanigans ensue as the ringleted Fatty, a hefty young 'lady' by anyone's standards, tries to keep his male identity a secret from the staff and pupils of the school. Despite his efforts, however, he still ends up getting a thunderous hairbrush spanking on his be-frilled heinie from Miss Teachem for being in the wrong place at the wrong time and boy! Doesn't (s)he howl...!

In CONEY ISLAND (1917), Fatty again dons ringlets and a lady's parasol to go blithely jaunting through a mens' shower room, much to the discomfiture of the men. Clearly Fatty was very much at home in ladies' clothing! In OH DOCTOR! (1917), the womanising Dr. I.O. Dine goes to the races with chaotic results and in THE ROUGH HOUSE (1917), a night-shirted Fatty puts out a fire in an extraordinary and not terribly effective way. Such a brilliant comic actor!

Sadly, however, it's not his contribution to silent movies and comedy for which Fatty Arbuckle is chiefly remembered. In 1921, he was accused of the rape and accidental killing of Virginia Rappe at a party he held in a San Francisco hotel. 

Rappe was a young woman who seemed to have had many physical problems relating to her acute alcoholism and possible previous abortions. Her death, however it occurred, sounds like it was agonisingly painful. You wouldn't wish it on anyone.

After no fewer than three trials, Fatty was cleared of all wrongdoing by a jury who personally apologised to the chubby star for everything he'd wrongly been put through. Though Fatty was delighted to have been acquitted, his career and mental health never recovered from the ordeal.

Some of his films were even destroyed, surely a crime against cinema history. That's why it's so great to be able to watch an excellent selection of his work on this box-set. Buster Keaton, incidentally,
was one of the few people who stood by Fatty during his trial and believed in his innocence.

On the face of it, he certainly seems to have been innocent but, as we weren't actually there at the time, I guess we'll never really know. No-one will except those who were there, and they're no longer around to tell their story.

Onto happier things now. Let's talk about the short films on the box-set in which Buster Keaton, comic genius extraordinaire, plays the lead himself. In MY WIFE'S RELATIONS (1922), an inability to understand spoken Polish leads to the diminutive little Buster's finding himself accidentally married to a large bossy woman called Kate who has a number of equally enormous brothers. They dwarf Buster and fling him about the place willy-nilly as if he weighed no more than a rag doll. Sure, it could happen to anyone.

In THE HAUNTED HOUSE (1921), Buster runs afoul of a trick staircase in the titular haunted house and directs traffic, whistle in mouth, for a number of gruesome oddities who seems to be inhabiting the place.

 In COPS (1922), an ill-thought-out purchase of a cartload of household furniture leads to Buster's being unexpectedly pursued through the streets by every policeman from the 5th Precinct. Laughs and pratfalls abound as the hapless, deadpan-faced comic star tries to escape the consequence of his actions.

My favourite film of his on the boxset, however, is CONVICT 13 (1920), in which a simple game of golf on a lovely day and a case of mistaken identity leads to Buster's breaking rocks in the nearby prison-yard and being sentenced to hang on the gallows. That's some day out...!

It's the sort of farcical situation that might happen to Frank Spencer of SOME MOTHERS DO 'AVE 'EM and FAWLTY TOWERS's Basil Fawlty. In fact, I bet you anything you like that Michael Crawford, John Cleese and any other comic actor who ever practised the art of slapstick comedy studied Buster Keaton's work closely for inspiration. After all, it's there in spades for anyone who chooses to go and look for it.

He was a handsome fellow, this Buster Keaton who, by the way, also made a cameo appearance in SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950) as one of Norma Desmond's so-called 'waxworks.' With his huge, heavy-lidded eyes and mobile, expressive mouth, he was every bit as attractive as his contemporary Valentino. I've no doubt that he could have been a serious matinée idol if he'd wanted, but obviously the urge to make people laugh was in his blood. Man's gotta do what a man's gotta do and all that.

The films are all ridiculously violent, which I suppose is not too surprising considering how old they are. People are routinely hit on the noggin with hammers, mallets, bricks, rocks and other implements, and plenty of folk are kicked in the butt, which is always good for a laugh. The films aren't politically correct, either. Women hit men and are hit by men in return and it's all treated as perfectly normal stuff. Ah sure, 'twas a simpler time, haha.

A word about the rather special extra features now. As a humble reviewer, I was only sent the discs to review, but anyone who buys this luxurious box-set will come in for a load of delectable goodies. These include a choice of musical scores on selected shorts (la-di-da!), a rare audio recording of Buster Keaton at a party in 1962 and a 184-page book containing a roundtable discussion on Keaton by critics Brad Stevens, Jean-Pierre Coursodon and Dan Sallitt.

I wasn't sent the book, boo-hoo. I want that book...! Of course, you guys will get the book and much more when you purchase this gorgeous box-set. Enjoy it. It's a poignant reminder of a bygone age and, even more than that, it's proof that comic genius existed long before the days of high technology. Fatty and Buster, rest in peace and know that we still remember ye.


AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY OF SANDRA HARRIS.

Sandra Harris is a Dublin-based novelist, film blogger and movie reviewer. She has studied Creative Writing and Film-Making. She has published a number of e-books on the following topics: horror film reviews, multi-genre film reviews, womens' fiction, erotic fiction, erotic horror fiction and erotic poetry. Several new books are currently in the pipeline. You can browse or buy any of Sandra's books by following the link below straight to her Amazon Author Page:

http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B015GDE5RO

 You can contact Sandra at:


http://sandrafirstruleoffilmclubharris.wordpress.com








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