Legends of Silent Film: Buster Keaton – By James L. Neibaur

 Buster Keaton’s status in the annals of motion picture history is firmly established as one of the finest filmmakers the cinema has ever known. And because everything the man has done demands to be seen, it is most interesting when a collection of his lesser known work is made available. Industrial Strength Keaton, a new two-DVD set produced by Laughsmith Entertainment, collects interesting items from Keaton’s last years, including TV commercials for everything from Simon Beer to Alka Seltzer to Milky Way candy bars, Industrial films, and TV appearances on variety shows where he would recreate some of his classic routines from the silent screen. Unlike Charlie Chaplin or Harold Lloyd, who eventually owned their films outright, Keaton was a working actor who labored within the studio system. Once his production facilities moved to the prestigious Metro Goldwyn Mayer studios in 1928, he found himself trapped in the throes of an anti creative establishment. Keaton’s best and most timeless work occurred during the first ten years of his film career, from his apprenticeship under the tutelage of Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle through his starring films like The General, Sherlock Jr, and The Navigator. While his first two features for MGM, The Cameraman and Spite Marriage, were still formidable, he was then shunted into several efforts that were so unlikely, it is amazing that they enjoyed such popularity when first released. Always interested in cinema’s technological side, Keaton was quite eager to make talking pictures. But MGM tossed him into the lavish musical Free And Easy as a supporting player, and it was an inauspicious start for one of cinema’s finest comedians. Keaton then was given some creative input for the more effective Doughboys, after which he was hopelessly miscast in the farce Parlor Bedroom and Bath, and the juvenile Sidewalks of New York. For his final three MGM pictures, Buster was cast opposite the bombastic Jimmy Durante. By the time he made What! No Beer? in 1933, Keaton’s alcoholism was becoming evident in his performances. After a stint doing two reelers at Educational Pictures, and then another at Columbia, Keaton rode out the 1940s doing bit parts in films here and abroad. It was television where he was able to find steadier work during the 1950s, lasting until his passing in 1966.

 Industrial Strength Keaton has something of an archival bent by including a few different versions of a comedy routine Buster performed with Fatty Arbuckle in Keaton’s 1917 film debut The Butcher Boy. The DVD collection includes the original scene from The Butcher Boy, and then several versions of the same routine done on different TV shows with different partners (the best is, arguably, when the bit is done with Billy Gilbert on a 1957 appearance). These are from early TV kinescopes, so the quality varies. The DVD set does a very nice job of collecting the many TV commercials in which Buster appears, and while there is a certain poignancy seeing one of the screen’s greatest comic minds relegated to hawking indigestion medication, it did give Keaton the opportunity to work and inject some amusing ideas into the ads. The Industrial films contained on this DVD set are most fascinating, including a rare one that is shot in color. Often the quality is stunning. Finally, two of his weaker features, MGM’s Parlor Bedroom and Bath, and the rare indie An Old Spanish Custom, are included, and while the films themselves are not good, the print quality is better than any I have seen. Of course academics have a tendency to dismiss this area of Keaton’s career as mere slumming, while uncritical movie buffs act as apologists even for Buster’s embarrassing appearances in the beach party pictures of the 1960s (fortunately Industrial Strength Keaton spares us from Buster’s woeful cameos in How To Stuff A Wild Bikini or Pajama Party). However his contributions even at the level of TV commercials and Industrial films have real interest based on the magnitude of his noted classics. Industrial Strength Keaton is a passionately recommended DVD set, especially for students of screen comedy. Just like his screen character, comedian Buster Keaton’s resilience in rising above his troubles and remaining active to the end of his life is truly inspiring. The evidence is all there.