Buster Keaton Volume 3 Boxset (Masters of Cinema)
Updated: Feb 4
SWS' very own Mark Fuller cracks open the new Masters of Cinema boxset of Buster Keaton films, Buster Keaton: Volume 3: Our Hospitality, Go West, College (Masters of Cinema) just in time for Christmas 2020.
This is the fourth set of Keaton's films in Eureka's Masters of Cinema series, after the well-received complete set of his short silent films, and two past box sets featuring many of his heaviest-hitting features (Volume 1: The General / Steamboat Bill Jr. / Sherlock Jr. and the soon to be re-released box set Volume 2: The Navigator / Seven Chances / Battling Butler).
This new set comprises of Our Hospitality (1923), Go West (1925), and College (1927); three films that are not quite as well known or revived quite as often as the the three in the previous sets, but absolutely as deserving of the box-set treatment that Eureka have given them here, and the bountiful extras to contextualise each film and give added value to each disc.
As before, the source for the features are the latest restorations from Cineteca di Bologna's Keaton Project, so while there are occasional minor variations in the visual quality within each film, we can be pretty certain that, unless someone finds a stash of pristine camera negatives in a vault somewhere, these versions are going to be in the best visual quality we shall ever see in our lifetimes. If you are now used to the camera-negative crispness of the images in The General, then the second- and third- generation dupe negative look of College may be a disappointment, but the film itself will sweep you into the action soon enough.
Our Hospitality is probably the best known here; a beautifully realised riff on the very real Hatfield-McCoy feud which decimated generations of two families in the late 19th Century on the Virginia/Kentucky border. Along with The General or Steamboat Bill Jr. and many of his shorts, no story was too dark for Keaton that it couldn't be mined for his humour. After a melodramatic opening sequence, played absolutely straight, wherein an infant Buster (Buster Keaton Jr.) is evacuated to the East Coast and safety, the humour arrives with a grown-up Buster being told about his family inheritance; and we are off.
Buster being obsessed with trains his entire life, this is an excuse for an extended sequence of rail travel, rail pioneer style. The US never did have trains quite like the one we see in the picture; the ones they did have, Buster didn't think looked funny enough... so we get a transplanted Stephenson's Rocket, a beautiful replica, with matching rolling stock meandering its way through the US with Buster's dad Joe at the controls.
It is the first of many superb sequences in this film. Along with the extended comedy of Keaton being stuck in the family house of the rival family, headed by big Joe Roberts, (Keaton's colleague for many years and in his final film) Keaton is safe IN the house because of the ethics of Southern Hospitality. But outside, it's open season.
There is the love interest too, a charming Southern Belle he meets on the train, played by Keaton's wife Natalie Talmadge; inevitably, she's the daughter of the rival household, so a Romeo/Juliet situation ensues. Natalie gets a rough deal, by and large; she is regarded as the lesser talent of the three Talmadge sisters and the Keaton marriage ended acrimoniously. Talmadge is very effective here, in the long tradition of talented actresses that Keaton chose to partner onscreen. And of course, she is a full participant in one of Keaton's cleverest and most effective stunts; not all is as it seems, but all that is covered in the myriad of extras.
Prime of these is the recently discovered Hospitality; a prototype version of the completed film, shorter in length, lacking some sequences; some are slightly different, or differently put together. Presumably for a test screening. Fortunately, one of the soundtrack options for Hospitality is expert guidance from Bristol's very own (and South West Silents regular) Polly Rose, and it's invaluable. Both her editor's eye and her fandom being brought to bear on what otherwise would be a mere curiosity; making it instead an important insight both into Keaton's working methods and the prehistory of this particular film. Other extras include an insightful commentary on the completed film by Rob Farr, and Making Comedy Beautiful, a fine video essay by Patricia Eliot Tobias focusing on the aesthetic pleasures to be gained from Our Hospitality.
Our Hospitality, perhaps suitably for a film populated by four members, over three generations, of a somewhat disfunctional family, is the darkest of rom-coms. Even by Keaton's standards, the humour is occasionally wince-inducing. I wouldn't have it any other way, this is comedy film-making at the highest level, and deserves to be more often revived.
Go West is another under-appreciated film of Keaton's; a fish-out-of-water film mashed into a (then) modern western, where the leading lady has four legs. Keaton plays Friendless, a down at heel loner from New York City, who decides that things could only be better out west. Well, maybe. There is, being Keaton, the inevitable sequences in rail-yards, and the obligatory two-shot with a dog, but this isn't quite the familiar Keaton characterisation or style. Normally Keaton's feature film persona is similar to that of Harold Lloyd's, if less extreme; a confident young man who pursues success, or a woman, or ideally, both. In Go West, the motivation is less pursuit of success, than escape from failure. The woman, Kathleen Myers in a pretty thankless role, is interested in him, but he is oblivious. There is not much in Friendless in the way of confidence or self worth. It's as if Keaton is experimenting with a more Chaplinesque persona, and a more Chaplinesque film; more pathetic in the true sense. The problem is, he's not quite as good as Chaplin at blending comedy and pathos... but then, who was. Either way, it would not be an experiment that he would repeat.
But there is still so much to enjoy; Keaton's filmic style is present and correct. The comic timing is always impeccable, the framing of the location landscapes, stylish, and the central romance, the heart of the film, the redemptive relationship with Brown Eyes, is tenderly handled. The subplot, about the saving of the ranch that he works at from financial ruin, is slight, even formulaic, but serves its purpose and does provide a genuinely spectacular climax as the huge herd invades the streets around the Los Angeles stockyards.
As before, the extras are comprehensive. The legendary locations maven John Bengtson not only traces the locations used in the film, but reveals a shot-but-discarded prologue to the film, where Friendless tries North and South before heading West... now only stills survive. The always-excellent David Cairns contributes a thoughtful video essay analysing and appreciating Keaton's structuring, and cinematic technique, with reference to all the films on this set, with Miranda Gower-Qian contributing brief biographical and contextualising inserts.
In addition we get a slightly earlier comedy short from the Hal Roach studios, also called Go West. This is an example of his famous (notorious?) Dippee Doo Dads series; all the roles are taken by trained monkeys; think longer form versions of the PG Tips ads, only this time, they are, I think capuchins. It's a Western spoof, and if you can get over the simian thing, amusing. Train buffs will enjoy the footage of the Venice, Ca. Miniature Railway, now long gone.
College, now largely uncelebrated, was financially Keaton's biggest hit. By 1927 his studio bosses were beginning to have a bigger influence on his films; that may explain that the basis of the film is rather formulaic, and in the silent era, familiar, even hackneyed. The College Film was then a staple, mostly rom-coms full of all the studio-contracted juvenile leads thrown at the same or very similar plot. Harold Lloyd's The Freshman having got to the screens first, Keaton has to try harder to win the film a place in our memory. In The Freshman, Lloyd is an over-confident, but insecure wannabe Jock who concentrates on American Football as his route to win favour. Here, Keaton is a bookworm, who will try ANY sport to win favour with the girl he adores. And fails. Constantly. At all of them. He has his mother, 1910s comedy legend Florence Turner appearing in, pretty much, her last major film role, but he is in pursuit of The Girl, Anne Cornwall, also appearing in hers.
While a suspension of disbelief is required, that someone with Keaton's physique (on show prominently here) is that of a bookworm and a klutz at sports, the spectacular climax is just terrific, and also cathartic, as THAT we can believe, even though for once, a specialist stunt double was briefly required.
Again, the extras on this disc are generous; John Bengtson provides another location tour for the film, but leaves space for a comprehensive look at Buster's last great silent film The Railrodder, from 1965. If you haven't seen it, it's a delightful showcase for both Buster and the Canadian railway system. Knowing Keaton's lifelong fascination with trains, I doubt he would have needed much persuading to take on this short film that entailed a ten week shoot, featuring Buster primarily on a motorised version of the old railway handcarts. Crossing Canada coast to coast, despite him nudging seventy and far from being in full health. You get the film, a complete director's commentary recorded live, the Making Of documentary made at the time, Buster Keaton Rides Again, which also has an alternative audio of a Q&A. The latter gives a real insight into the elderly Buster, fighting his health but as mentally energetic as ever, contributing on-the-hoof comedy ideas, advising the director, and being charm itself in his quiet, shy way. It also features one of my favourite of all his gags. A sight gag, I think extemporised between shots, executed to perfection and only for the entertainment of the camera crew, and himself. It's beautiful in its simplicity. But priceless.
Eureka are to be praised for this; it's a great set, the films are from the best restorations, the scores are good and well recorded; Our Hospitality from Carl Davis, the others by Rodney Sauer and the Mont Alto Orchestra. The extras as much as anyone could want, with the possible exception of The Iron Mule, an Arbuckle/Al St. John film that used the train from Our Hospitality, and features Keaton in minor cameos, which might have been interesting, but what could they have left out to make room for it ?? There is even a 60-page booklet, not with the review copy, to complete an excellent package. Highly recommended!