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Box Set: The Buster Keaton Collection

In 1928, Buster Keaton’s independent production company was approaching financial disaster and he was forced to sign a deal with MGM to keep making movies. The Buster Keaton Collection puts the first three films of Keaton’s MGM era, The Cameraman, Spite Marriage, and Free and Easy on DVD with new prints, plenty of extras, and some insightful commentaries by film scholars Glenn Mitchell and John Bengston. Of the three, The Cameraman is Keaton at his best. The other two show a cinema genius who has obviously lost creative control falling by the wayside as sound enters the movies.

Through the 1920s, Keaton matched Chaplin in both talent and financial success, ingeniously clowning through the decade while taking on the challenge of elevating comic features to an art form. More visual than Chaplin (and many think far superior), Keaton’s hilarious sequences glorified his unbounded freedom of movement. From scenic vistas and city streets to his trademark sprint that audiences expected in every movie, Keaton was among the first to realize features offered a chance to do more than stage burlesque gags in front of the camera. He knew how a camera worked, learned all the tricks, and used that knowledge to create those elaborate and ingenious comic sequences. That has been his legacy.

Free and Easy (, 1930) is Keaton’s first talkie and nothing more than MGM patting itself on the back as it parades the studio’s new stars in front of the camera. It was a great success at the time, but watching Keaton, the greatest of physical comedians, tethered to a microphone shows how little MGM understood the star they had purchased. It’s a bad variety show. Taking one for the team, I sat through this poppycock so you don’t have to.

Watching Keaton in Spite Marriage (, 1929) is like watching John Wayne in a coat and tie. It’s a visual oxymoron. This was Keaton’s last silent film, and notable only for showing how MGM’s bigwigs forced themselves into his creative ideas, choking a talent they didn’t understand, and relegating him to just another comic. Keaton plays Elmer, ‘a cheap little pants presser,’ who falls in love with a stage actress (Dorothy Sebastin) who thinks he’s beneath her. She marries him to spite the man she really loves. Keaton spends half the movie performing tired sight gags and pratfalls on a stage – precisely what he spent his whole career not doing! In the last half, where he runs around on a boat, fighting off the bad guys and winning the love of his wife, we get a glimpse of the real Keaton doing his thing, but it leaves a taste only for what could have been.

In The Cameraman (, 1928), Keaton’s first feature for MGM, the studio execs steered clear, most of the time, and this is largely his own production. The DVD print offers a clarity that hasn’t been possible for decades and a new score by former Frank Zappa band member Arthur Barrow.

It’s another Keaton landmark. He plays a second-rate photographer who aspires to reach the heights of newsreel movies while winning the heart of the newsreel company’s secretary (Marceline Day). Camera on his shoulder, running down the street to cover a fire, the fire truck speeds by and he instantly hops on, smug in the fact he’ll get there before his competitors, have exclusive footage, and win the girl. The truck turns the corner and promptly turns into the firehouse.

When he finally gets a showing for the newsreel bosses, his screening is all double exposures, the wrong way around, and totally incomprehensible. He thought the camera crank turned backwards, not forward. In a classic sequence, Keaton runs up and down flights of stairs in his apartment building to answer a phone call from his girlfriend. It’s the original vertical tracking shot that was later to become so famous in Citizen Kane.

The Buster Keaton Collection is worthwhile even though The Cameraman is the only standout. The extras and commentaries make for stimulating sidelights, making you wonder what the master could have done with creative control in the sound era.

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