During the talking picture revolution, many silent screen greats were thwarted by the new technology. Buster Keaton is considered one of these casualties, even though he remained active in movies until his death in 1966. The impact of his silent screen work is so great, many film scholars dismiss every movie Buster made after his final silent, Spite Marriage (MGM, 1929). Truth be told, Keaton’s formidable skills are such that any of his work offers at least a glimmer of discernible brilliance.
Thus it is cause for some celebration that the decision has been made to release the ten two-reel comedies Buster Keaton made for Columbia Pictures from 1939-1941. Keaton was with the Jules White short comedy unit, the same producer who is now best known for the timeless Three Stooges series. Keaton shares the screen with familiar supporting players as can be seen in the Stooges movies, the same obtrusive sound effects, and the same aggressive slapstick. Keaton admirers often react to these comedies in a most negative manner. In fact, Buster Keaton himself had a disdainful feeling towards these efforts. However the more open minded comedy fans respect the Columbia output as a challenge for Keaton, and enjoy how they show what this great subtle comedian can do within the confines of a rather boorish method of slapstick presentation.
The Columbia shorts in this collection will often relegate Keaton to performing the very sort of mechanical gags that he’d avoided so carefully in his silent work. In fact one short, The Spook Speaks, is filled with the most tired scare comedy imaginable. However the majority of these beautifully restored short subjects offer many examples of Keaton’s genius. The acrobatic bit with boisterous Elsie Ames in The Taming of The Snood, the delightful dance routine with Lorna Gray in Pest From The West, and the shining example of Buster’s ability to subtely draw great comedy from situations in Pardon My Berth Marks make this two-DVD set worthwhile.
It would seem that the work of any great artist that exists should be made available and accessible to the masses, even if it does not match his best efforts. Buster Keaton’s Columbia comedies may not be at the level of his silents, but to dismiss them so completely as to not celebrate their availability shows a real lack of appreciation for Keaton’s continued legacy and for comedy’s rich history.
Special features on this two-disc set include a documentary, audio commentaries by a myriad of historians, and a copy of the script for She’s Oil Mine, Keaton’s final Columbia short. One trifling quibble — the films are not presented in chronological order.