Available on Blu-ray from Mon 6 Nov 2017
Think indie filmmakers and you don’t necessarily think of Buster Keaton. But that’s exactly what he was. As well as an actor, stuntman, acrobat, director, producer, editor and all-round genius; Keaton’s best movies, which form this delicious and handsome set, are a wonder to behold. To call them mere comedies is an affront. They are sublime dream-states. Whimsical concoctions.
In Sherlock Jr. (1924) Keaton plays a dreamy movie house projectionist who fantasises about one of the actors on the screen. Accused of stealing a watch the projectionist finds himself amateur detective in the story, and he magically merges with the film within the film. Subtle sight gags complement slapstick pratfalls and all the while his sad clown’s face remains enigmatically still, a cocked eyebrow or shady sidelong glance the only key to what his character is really thinking.
Set during the American Civil War, The General (1926) is his finest movie, with stunning and authentic locations. The film was made only some 60 years after the war ended. It’s a beguiling film that has considerable pathos and yet is full of danger and death-defying stunts. Keaton plays Johnnie Gray whose role as a train driver is thought to be too valuable and so he can’t be enlisted into the Confederate army. He is in danger of being seen as a coward and being jilted by his girl (Marion Mack).
Although Keaton (a huge influence on a plethora of actors who came after him from Woody Allen to Marty Feldman to Jack Dee) was a tiny, wiry athlete he almost always played the thwarted wimp, as here. It’s through a series of mistakes and mis-timings that he finally wins the day, saves the locomotive and trounces the Yankees. Some of the sequences are simple sight gags that are laugh-out-loud funny, others take the breath away for their audaciousness. A train being bombed on a rickety bridge recalls Bridge on the River Kwai.
Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928) sees our star as the student son of a man-mountain steamboat captain (Ernest Torrence). At the climax of the film Keaton has to man-up and face down a cyclone which demolishes the buildings around him – perhaps his most famous sight gag of all.
These Keaton movies seem timeless – especially in this 1080p presentation of beautiful new 4k restorations. There’s none of the mawkish sentiment and pulled faces of his contemporary Charlie Chaplin. The special effects, such as they are, are way ahead of their time too.