Combustible Celluloid
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With: Buster Keaton, Marceline Day, Harold Goodwin, Sidney Bracey, Harry Gribbon, Dorothy Sebastian, Edward Earle, Leila Hyams, William Bechtel, Jack Byron
Written by: Clyde Bruckman, Joe Farnham, Lew Lipton, Richard Schayer, Ernest S. Pagano, Robert E. Hopkins
Directed by: Edward Sedgwick, Buster Keaton
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 245
Date: 12/07/2004

Buster Keaton Collection (2004)

4 Stars (out of 4)

The Beginning of the End

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Sometimes it works out well that Warner Home Video has been releasing all of the old MGM stuff on DVD, because certainly MGM wouldn't want to admit that signing Buster Keaton in 1928 was the worst mistake of the comedian's life.

After working as an independent filmmaker and creating a series of comic masterworks (all available on DVD from Kino Home Video), Keaton was approached to sign a contract with MGM. Despite warnings from friends and his own misgivings, Keaton signed and found himself in an extremely difficult situation. The new 2-disc DVD set "Buster Keaton Collection" shows why.

Keaton's first film with MGM, The Cameraman (1928), is actually one of his best, but he made it despite the rigid guidelines that MGM executives insisted he follow. They demanded a finished script with all the gags worked out in advance, while Keaton loved to improvise with whatever he found on the set. In addition, Keaton no longer took a directorial credit, even though he was still the chief creator of his films.

The Cameraman introduces us to a tintype photographer who falls in love with a pretty girl (Marceline Day) and decides that he can win her over by becoming a newsreel cameraman. The film contains Buster's famous, beautifully improvised one-man baseball game filmed at Yankee Stadium, and the classic scene with he and another man crammed into a changing booth together, both trying to climb into swim suits. Best of all is Buster's first test reel, a series of double-exposed footage that shows, among other things, a battleship floating down the street. Starting as a milquetoast and learning heroism as the film progresses, The Cameraman gave Buster one of his best roles and he filled it with one of his most touching and fleshed-out performances, using mostly his intense eyes.

The Cameraman comes with an excellent new score by Arthur Barrow, as well as a new commentary track by Glenn Mitchell (author of "A-Z of Silent Film Comedy: An Illustrated Companion"). In addition, this beautiful new transfer corrects a problem inherent in the previous video release by stripping out an incomplete chunk of a scene that suddenly pops up and never goes anywhere. (Apparently the complete footage is lost forever, but the film is none the worse for it.)

Keaton's final silent film, Spite Marriage (1929), shows the filmmaker losing ground in the battle with the MGM executives. The gags here are a little more routine and tend to pale next to the earlier masterworks, but the film still has some high points and an excellent female lead. Buster appears as a love-struck pants presser who falls in love with a famous actress and attends all her shows wearing borrowed clothes from his business. When her boyfriend dumps her, she marries Buster for revenge on the fly, but quickly separates from him. Heartbroken, Buster winds up at sea, first escaping a boatload of smugglers, then aboard a fancy yacht. Because of a fire, everyone abandons ship except for Buster and one other passenger -- his estranged wife! The film gets funnier as it dispenses with plot and gets to the sea-going gags. According to the commentary track, Buster insisted on including a scene in every film in which he gets soaked with water. He considered it a good luck charm and a box office draw.

Because it was made in the early days of the sound era, Spite Marriage has a built-in soundtrack score with scattered special effects, although the dialogue is still silent. (MGM only had one sound stage at the time, and it was booked solid.) Silent-era film historians John Bengstrom and Jeffrey Vance provide a very sporadic commentary track with more long, silent bits than actual information. Each silent film comes with its own photo gallery.

Finally, the new set includes Keaton's first talkie for MGM, Free and Easy (1930). Warner hasn't bothered to remaster this film, and I didn't bother to watch more than a few minutes of it. For Keaton fans, it's painful to see how far he fell and for non-Keaton fans, it's just a mediocre comedy with an obvious plot and a plodding pace.

Nevertheless, watching this gradual demise provides a fascinating look at the final days of one of history's greatest filmmakers, and it makes the "Buster Keaton Collection" an essential companion to Kino's magnificent 11-disc box set.

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