Keaton Lost and Found

Steamboat Bill, Jr. (Kino)

Buster Keaton’s The General and Sherlock Jr. are consistently cited as Buster Keaton’s great masterpieces and I don’t disagree—Sherlock is one of the most cinematically inventive and visionary films of its era and The General simply a perfect piece of filmmaking—but there is more heart and affection in Steamboat Bill, Jr. Keaton stars as a college dandy (complete with absurd mustache and beret) who arrives in the deep south to see his father (Ernest Torrence, who perfectly exudes tough love and gruff affection), a crusty paddleboat captain with a warhorse of a ship threatened by a brand new competitor on river. Buster is, naturally, in love with daughter (Marion Byron) of his father’s nemesis, a modern moneybags determined to put Bill and his relic of a ship out of business.

Keaton vs. the hurricane

Steamboat Bill, Jr. features a spectacular hurricane sequence that leads to some of Keaton’s most inspired gags and dangerous stunts (a side of a house falls on our hero, who survives thanks to a well-placed window). But under the spectacle is a love between father and son that neither can express except through action and a nervous city boy who transforms from an oblivious klutz into a mechanical genius with a Rube Goldberg bent for mastering the mechanics of the riverboat in the midst of a storm. Funny, sweet and inventive, it’s one of the great silent movie comedies.

It was not uncommon for filmmakers to prepare to separate negatives of a film and Keaton did so with this version, using different takes or, in the case of elaborate stunts and special effects scenes, simultaneous takes from separate cameras. This new edition, on two-disc DVD and single-disc Blu-ray, features both. The familiar “Killiam” version, which has been in circulation for decades, includes a terrific piano score by William Perry (which I have loved since first hearing it during a college film class screening). It looks very good but the other version, mastered from a negative recently discovered in the Keaton estate archive, looks even better, thanks to superior source material, and it is presented with two different scores (a small combo score by the Biograph players and an organ score by Lee Irwin). A 13-minute “Visual Essay” on the production also offers a comparison between the two versions and the set also includes vintage recordings of the old folk song “Steamboat Bill,” which partially inspired the project.

There are no lost masterpieces Lost Keaton (Kino), a collection featuring the 16 two-reel comedies that Buster Keaton made for the bargain-basement Educational Pictures in the mid-1930s. Keaton lacked the time, the money and the creative control to develop the gags into the comic genius of his silent classics and veteran director Charles Lamont helms most of the shorts without any distinction. But they show Keaton approaching the sound short with a new character (named Elmo in most of them), adding a slow, sincere, somewhat hoarse voice to the stone face. Keaton is a comedy pro who rises above the material in film after film, whether it’s a pratfall or a deadpan double take, and some of his best are in “One Run Elmo,” which begins with hapless Elmo with a shack of a gas station on a deserted desert road who suddenly finds himself with a slick new competitor (across the street) and takes the competition to a baseball game. And “Palooka From Paducah” reunites the entire Keaton family vaudeville act for a hillbilly comedy with moonshine, dynamite and wrasslin’. These Keatons were never actually lost, but they look better than any previous release in Kino’s edition. Includes a musical montage of Keaton pratfalls and film notes by Keaton historian David Macleod.

Author: seanax

I write the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website (www.streamondemandathome.com). I'm a contributing writer for Turner Classic Movies Online, Keyframe, Independent Lens, and Cinephiled, and the editor of Parallax View (www.parallax-view.org).. I've written for The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Seattle Weekly, GreenCine.com, Senses of Cinema, Asian Cult Cinema, and Psychotronic Video, among other publications, and I am a contributing editor to Parallax View. I currently live and work in Seattle, Washington, with my two cats, Hammet and Chandler.

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