Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
The Grand Illusion brings The Great Buster, a documentary directed by Peter Bogdanovich, for a two-week run, starting Nov. 30th. The film is an unabashed celebration of the career of Buster Keaton, one of cinema’s geniuses, using lots of clips and enthusiastic interviewees as disparate as Dick Van Dyke and Werner Herzog. For newcomers to Keaton’s work, it will provide a cascade of astonishments; for Keaton lovers, it’s a satisfying overview.
One thing the film covers that’s often glossed over in discussions of Keaton’s work is the wilderness period of the 1930s, when Keaton lost his creative independence. I found a review I wrote (for an online company that shall remain unnamed) of a 2006 DVD collection consisting of Keaton’s shorts at Columbia Pictures, a reminder that there are moments of glory even in these generally mediocre films. The title of the set is The Buster Keaton Collection, which is also the title of other Keaton packages, so buyer beware.
The Buster Keaton Collection
An entire missing segment of Buster Keaton’s career is filled in with the release of this collection, which comprises the ten shorts Keaton made at Columbia Pictures in 1939-41. If you’re a Keaton fan (and why on earth wouldn’t you be?) this section of the great man’s work has always been in dispute—and above all, hard to see. After his career collapsed at the beginning of the 1930s, Buster Keaton struggled to find a niche in Hollywood, and the Columbia contract was essentially his last sustained opportunity to headline in films on a regular basis. It was a difficult fit from the start: Keaton did not have the artistic control he enjoyed over his 1920s classics, and director Jules White (who helmed most of the Columbia shorts) had a radically different view of comedy from his star. White guided the hijinks of Columbia’s busiest comedy stars, the Three Stooges, and his leadpipe-to-the-noggin style did not mesh well with Keaton’s measured, logical approach.
If one dials down expectations, some of the Columbia shorts (around 16-17 minutes long) are enjoyable in the baggy-pants style of the Three Stooges. And when it comes to searching for signs of the old Keaton, there are usually one or two blossoms poking out of the overall bluntness. Mooching through Georgia, a Civil War spoof, has moments of silent hilarity and a Keatonesque note of fatalism as Buster is marched to his own execution. Nothing but Pleasure has a terrific sequence involving a drunk woman who wanders into Buster’s motel room, and Buster’s efforts to get her into a Murphy bed. [As the Bogdanovich documentary makes clear, this is a slapstick routine Keaton frequently used onstage.] She’s Oil Mine features a breathtaking gag in which Keaton is spun around like a tire iron in order to get a pipe unstuck from his finger. Keaton, in his mid-40s, is still in athletic form, although thanks to alcohol and disappointment he looks older than his years.
Commentaries adorn the shorts, and there’s useful 25-minute documentary giving the general outline of Keaton’s life and details on the Columbia arrangement. It’s refreshingly honest about the mixed quality of these films, and contains excerpts from his silent shorts that suggest how far the genius had slipped. In that sense, while this DVD package honorably presents a moment from film history (and with fine technical specs all around), the actual watching of these shorts is tinged with sadness. The casual moviegoer curious about Keaton should go elsewhere; the completist will want to buy it; the amateur historian will want to give a look to see what the “missing years” were all about.
Robert Horton, the longtime reviewer for the Daily Herald and Seattle Weekly, is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.