Though he blanched at the suggestion, Buster Keaton was a bona fide genius of comedy. Keaton went from vaudeville to silent films, where he quickly climbed the ladder of the incipient industry to become a writer, director, and star of short subjects and features. Known as "The Great Stone Face" for his hilariously imperturbable mein, Keaton was celebrated for his death-defying stunts (a primary inspiration for Jackie Chan). After making the widely-acknowledged classic The General, Keaton signed with MGM and quickly lost his creative control. With the advent of sound films, Keaton floundered but persevered.
When his starring days in feature films were all but over, he signed a deal with Columbia Pictures to make a series of two-reelers, most of which were directed by Jules White. White was a prolific director (credited with three-hundred films, most of them short subjects), and had directed Keaton in the MGM feature Sidewalks of New York. White became infamous for directing 136 Three Stooges shorts as the head of Columbia's short film division, and his style emphasized literally painful physical comedy, "enhanced" by cartoony sound effects and awkward special effects. Hence, despite Keaton's best efforts to reeducate White, Keaton's Columbia shorts have a tone much broader than that of his own classic silents.
Keaton had a couple of useful allies in the Columbia venture. One was Clyde Bruckman, the silent-era gag man who worked with Laurel & Hardy, Harold Lloyd, and Keaton. It was Bruckman who devised The General in the first place and co-directed it with Keaton. In his later years, Bruckman's reputation slipped along with his alcoholism and his reckless penchant for recycling; though Lloyd had supported Bruckman in his worst times, Lloyd eventually sued the writer for ripping off Movie Crazy while contributing gags to the Joan Davis comedy She Gets Her Man. (Bruckman and Keaton remained close until the alcoholic, despondent Bruckman shot himself with a handgun borrowed from Keaton.) Felix Adler, another primary contributor to the shorts, also had a foot in the silent era; he shared story credit with Bruckman and Lex Neal on Welcome Danger, the silent that became Harold Lloyd's first short.
Keaton was understandably frustrated by the Columbia work ethic. In his heyday, Keaton could spend weeks perfecting one of his own shorts, but White was churning out two-reelers in three to five days, at most. Some of the plots are more coherent than others, and White betrays a lack of confidence in his star by surrounding him with hams. Though Keaton never was intimidated by sound pictures, he insisted in vain that he could best be utilized by letting those around him do the lion's share of the talking while he performed deadpan routines. Indeed, Keaton's drawl never developed the same comic timing as his body, and White only made matters worse by insisting that Keaton overplay.
Keaton was in his mid-forties when he headlined the Columbia shorts, and though his hair dye visibly stamps doors and walls during some of his stunts, he remains vital and athletic in his single-take leaps, flips, and wipeouts. His most frequent co-star in the White pictures is Elsie Ames. Ames' (over-)acting is grotesque, but she's well-matched with Keaton for physical abandon and shows acrobatic fearlessness in their pratfall duets. Keaton's Columbia shorts inspire a certain amount of sympathy and ruefulness at a star's misuse, but also inspiration as Keaton occasionally spins gold out of chaff. The following are reviews of each short, in the order Sony presents them on the two-disc Buster Keaton Collection DVD set:
"General Nuisance" (1941) (17:37) Credited to writers Felix Adler and Clyde Bruckman, this partial remake of Keaton's 1930 MGM feature Doughboys finds dapper but clueless millionaire Buster falling instantly in love with an Army nurse (Dorothy Appleby). He follows her to Camp Cluster to sign up, leading to an uncomfortable medical exam, an impromptu musical number, and an accident that lands Buster in a hospital bed. The medical exam business is quite funny, with Buster wrestling to keep his clothes on. Laced with plenty of slapstick, the athletic song-and-dance charms, too: Buster steps into two spittoons, allowing for a brief tap dance (the sequence also makes unusually good use of Ames). Unfortunately, the latter part of the film is typical Jules White nonsense, with Buster needlessly replaced by a stuntman for leg-in-a-sling business.
"His Ex Marks the Spot" (1941) (17:45). Plagued by alimony demands, Buster schemes to eliminate his payments by allowing his ex (Ames) and her boyfriend (Matt McHugh) to move in with Buster and his wife (Appleby). The moving scene features physical comedy involving steamer trunks, a dinner scene reprises a carving routine from 1931 MGM feature Sidewalks of New York, and Buster deftly performs well-worn gags involving an ironing board. Felix Adler's undernourished plot gives too much attention to Buster's co-stars (including a catfight between Appleby and Ames), and even resorts to a cream pie in the face.
"Mooching Through Georgia" (1939) (18:41) For a variety of reasons, "Mooching Through Georgia" (set, oddly enough, in Kentucky) is one of the most satisfying Columbia shorts. The Bruckman-devised script has one of the cleverest plots, and the resulting film has a satisfying rhythm and structure, resulting in a steady flow of funny gags. Bruckman recalls The General by casting Keaton and Monty Collins as Homer and Cyrus Cobb, two brothers who accidentally enlist on opposite sides during the Civil War, then conspire to protect each other from their own armies. Keaton's acting seems envigorated, as seen in the firing-squad set piece. The framing device, set in an "Old Soldiers Home," also amuses.
"Nothing But Pleasure" (1939) (17:19) finds Bruckman taking a page from Keaton's life. As Keaton did habitually, his character Clarence Plunkett travels (with wife Appleby) to Detroit to buy a car, which he will drive home. Unfortunately, the resulting short isn't very funny, though it does feature a few great pratfalls and a variation on a classic Keaton pantomime (seen in greater detail in the 1929 feature Spite Marriage), with Buster handling a passed-out drunk woman.
"Pardon My Berth Marks" (1940) (18:09) In this Bruckman scenario, Buster plays a dimwitted office boy who finally gets his shot to be a reporter. To cover a divorce scandal, Keaton boards a Reno-bound train, where he observes the estranged wife and tangles with her gangster husband. This is one of the least fruitful shorts: luggage mishaps and a misbehaving parrot yield little hilarity, but some of the close-quarters business in a sleeping compartment—like Buster attempting to change in a berth—is mildly amusing. As usual, the best moments allow Buster to perform silently.
"Pest from the West" (1939; pictured above) (18:33) Another relatively high-concept Bruckman scenario (directed by Del Lord) allows Keaton to break out of the domestic sitcom doldrums. In this first of the Columbia shorts, based heavily on the 1935 UK feature The Invader, Keaton again plays an idle millionaire. This time, he's a tourist in Mexico who becomes smitten with a femme fatale and embroiled in her romantic complications. The cyclical structure of the fast-and-funny story fuels some good laughs, as Buster navigates his way off of and onto and off of his boat and changes into a selection of "ethnic" costumes; also note an amusing dance scene and the well-liked sequence in which Keaton struggles through a ukelele serenade. Keaton himself pegged "Pest from the West" as his favorite of the Columbia shorts.
"She's Oil Mine" (1941) (17:28) The last of the Columbia shorts, "She's Oil Mine" credits Adler, but in large part remakes 1932 feature The Passionate Plumber. Keaton plays Buster Waters, who with partner Monte Piper (Collins), attempts to service an oil heiress (Ames) and winds up competing with a fraudulent "nobleman." Keaton himself is largely responsible for the film's raison d'être: an extensive duel sequence derived from Plumber and originally scripted by Al Boasberg (contributor to Battling Butler, The General, Speedy, Doughboys, and A Night at the Opera). The duel sequence alone makes "She's Oil Mine" one of the best of the Columbia shorts.
"So You Won't Squawk" (1941) (16:11) Del Lord's second and last of Keaton's Columbia shorts operates from a lackluster script by Elwood Ullman. Buster plays a lowly nightclub custodian mistaken for gangster heavy Louie the Wolf. The patchwork of gags is designed to allow extensive use of car-chase footage from the 1935 feature She Couldn't Take It (on which Lord shot second-unit); a few of the nightclub gags echo City Lights and the climax evokes Safety Last. Keaton's physical comedy is mostly limited to standard, though well-executed, pratfalling (a skillful edit allows Keaton to share, with a dummy, a fall through an awning); at one point, he even slips on a banana peel.
"The Spook Speaks" (1940) (18:29) Hands down, the weakest of Keaton's Columbia two-reelers, "The Spook Speaks" superficially resembles the 1921 silent short "The Haunted House." Keaton and Ames play the newly hired, fraidy-cat caretakers of a magician's booby-rigged house (Appleby also turns up as an unexpected house guest). It's the sort of "scared-reaction" comedy typically associated with Abbott and Costello (as in the following year's Hold That Ghost). The script is credited to Ewart Adamson and Bruckman, but there's nothing funny about it, unless you count White's desperately absurd inclusion of a roller-skating penguin.
"The Taming of the Snood" (1940) (15:45) Adamson and Bruckman also share credit on the inexplicably named "Taming of the Snood" (a snood is a woman's ornamental hairnet, the likes of which don't figure in the plot). Keaton plays a milliner used by a jewel thief (Appleby) and therefore accosted by detectives; Ames plays a kooky maid who gets blotto and causes trouble for the hapless hat-maker. The resulting rough-and-tumble sequence involving a dining-room table makes great use of the duo's crack timing and physical skill; it also no doubt takes much of its inspiration from the table routines the four-year-old Buster performed with his parents in the vaudeville act The Three Keatons. A trip out onto another high-rise ledge again recalls Safety Last; Keaton's stone-faced drop from the ledge is perfectly executed.
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, and specifically Sony V.P. of Repertory Michael Schlessinger, deserve kudos and brisk sales for the release and grand treatment of Buster Keaton's Columbia output, collected in a two-disc set. All ten Columbia shorts appear here in beautiful black and white, courtesy of loving digital preservation; each also features a commentary track by Ed Watz (author of The Columbia Comedy Shorts), David Weddle (who has written on Keaton for Sight & Sound), or husband-and-wife team Patricia Elliot Tobias & Joe Adamson (the former being the president of the International Buster Keaton Society). My only quibble with the presentation of the shorts is that they are not arranged in chronological order.
Sony also saw fit to produce a new documentary, "Buster Keaton: From Silents to Shorts" (24:49). The featurette gives a brief biography of Keaton from his vaudeville days to his silent career and evential participation in the Columbia shorts (clips from seven of Keaton's silent shorts and a wealth of stills help to illustrate his legacy). Watz, Weddle, Tobias, film historian Ed Sikov, authors Gabriella Oldham (Keaton's Silent Shorts and Edward McPherson (Buster Keaton: Tempest in a Flat Hat), Keaton's granddaughter Melissa Talmadge Cox, and Keaton's co-star from "Pest in the West," Adrian Booth Brian, all comment in new interviews. The doc will be especially useful for Keaton neophytes needing to put the Jules White era in context.
The set comes with another nifty extra: a paperback "Original Screenplay Reproduction" of Felix Adler's script for "She's Oil Mine," complete with what appear to be the director's notes of Jules White (and an introduction by Keaton's granddaughter). Lastly, the set includes previews for "The Three Stooges" releases, The Premiere Edition Frank Capra Collection, and "Classic Westerns" (over eighteen selections from the Columbia library). Any fan of film comedy must own this long-out-of-circulation film series, full of invaluable insight into master comic Keaton.
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