Buster Keaton Shorts --- Part Two
How much influence was Buster Keaton's physical prowess on high-spirited 20's youth? I'm sure many a boy broke limbs mimicking Doug Fairbanks. How could you not, at adolescent age, try DF leaps for size? Buster had to have bred daredevil attempts among his following as well. I say that with certainty of having twice tried to be Buster. First occasion was High School junior year. We were staging Anton Chekov's The Brute (aka The Bear and The Boor) for an entire student body. I was to play Luka, "the aging footman." Senior (and gridiron ace) Nick Bumgarner essayed the title role, and one scene called for him to shove Luka aside when the latter steps between "Grigory Smirnov" and our lead lady. I wanted to startle the audience with a full-on tumble over chairs positioned for Luka to crash into. Rehearsals pulled the big punch, but I told Nick to really give it to me on performance day. No problem, I said to his protestation that my neck might get broken, for after all, hadn't Buster Keaton accomplished such things routinely? Nick indeed threw me like a fifty-yard pigskin to a crowd's stunned reaction, chairs flying which-way as I slid nearly off stage front. What looked to be a serious injury stopped the show, divine intervention having spared my life and limb(s), but I showed them what thrill comedy was about!
Again I'd try the following year. We did a Super 8 silent movie for Dramatics class. Mine was the Keaton part, gags borrowed from Blackhawk reels at home. This time I jumped off the top of a school bus as a mob gave chase, unmindful until too late of how high one stands (then plunges) from atop such a vehicle (try it some time ... no, don't try it). Courting on-camera risk was quite a high, fool recklesness lending valued assist. I knew they'd all gasp when our footage came back. Was this what attracted Buster, Harold, and the rest to habitual death-defying? (only unlike me, they knew their business) It's a good thing I grew out of ersatz Buster-ing, though I've got to wonder how many others from the 20's onward looked at his stuff and said I could do that, only to come a cropper upon trying. Are there casualties among would-be Keatons still limping among us?
To be Buster, of course, required conditioning oneself from infancy. He took falls before he could walk, say books (and Keaton himself, if you buy his account of coming by the "Buster" name). I chill a little at photos of the Three Keatons. He looks like a play-doll that's been dropped (or thrown) enough times to be resigned over bruises to come. Did any of us register as stoic in child portraiture? Buster's was a hard luck life understood and accepted from beginnings, but wait ... didn't vaudeville pay handsome to acts climbing up the bill? Keaton never once claimed victim status for being the human mop he was. We'll never again encounter bark so tough as his. I've pondered alternate reality of Buster missing movies, clinging to the boards until a wearied public saw him out, then retiring to yellowed clippings and a Baby Jane finish. Wasn't that the fate of most ex-vaudevillians?
Much of Keaton's greatness lay in high standards he set for himself. The man was secure enough to take his own (extraordinary) level of competence pretty much for granted. Watch The High Sign on Kino's Blu-Ray set and marvel over Buster wanting to shelve it as unworthy to begin his solo series. If this was a dog, give us a kennel-full. Keaton thought The High Sign was too much like recently done comedies with Roscoe Arbuckle. He wanted to deliver better, and would of course, but what a tour-de-force going in! The High Sign has, among pleasures, a remarkable cut-in-half house with Buster up, down ... then down and up, two floors shown full-on, no tricks/edits to betray shortcutting or a comic sans chops to put over acrobatics (minus Buster, you'd need a George Méliès to stage much of The High Sign). Keaton's long view required situations to play believably though, as he knew careers weren't built performing two-reels of the impossible.
They said you could hear Buster's ankle snap during a botched take on The Electric House, which made me appreciate having gone a life (so far) of not witnessing someone's bones break, let alone my own. The sight (and sound) had to be unnerving, though I guess Keaton's crew was used to it. He got hurt a lot and persevered ... what other choice was there? I wonder if Joe Schenck ever tried getting insurance on Buster. Follow-up to the fracture was The Playhouse, a short that managed being even more inventive to cover the fact BK wasn't as much physically engaged. We might thank a busted ankle for his brilliant all-the-cast-is-Keaton dream opening, or the scarily accurate chimpanzee he impersonates a reel later (supernatural Buster again). Did Chaplin build The Gold Rush's chicken act on what he'd seen in The Playhouse?
Kino's much upgraded print comes to The Playhouse's rescue. This one looked particularly bad in collecting yore. Previous DVD release Industrial Strength Buster had access to vintage 16mm that was better, and now Blu-Ray ties a ribbon on what I guess is the clearest Playhouse we'll ever see. Upgrades like these, steps up a ladder, can lead to new-found status for a comedy we'd known too long in compromised form. For finally seeing The Playhouse so buffed and presentable, I can finally place it at or near top echelons of Keaton. If such altered rankings can come of better prints showing up, plus goosed resolution as here, maybe it's time to revisit Best Of Buster lists and revise a few placements.
Trades called One Week "The Year's Comedy Sensation," which makes me ask what the previous (and following) year's comedy sensations might have been. What did it take for a single two-reeler, out of hundreds released per annum, to break out of the pack? I do know from theatre ads that Shoulder Arms was considered gold standard for laugh-making, a repute it maintained for over a decade past the teens when first released. Something about One Week clicked, the roaring reception being what Keaton needed to launch his one-man craft. Distributing Metro sold BK like features, and presumably got rentals not far short of what longer forms earned. I can understand reluctance to use him in multi-reelers. These shorts, and Keaton was prolific getting them out, could prop up a whole season's slate of duds. Trade ads here (and certainly the theatre front display for The Scarecrow in Part One) confirm Keaton's two-reelers were tails wagging many a dog for his distributor.
I've read that Buster got 25% of profits from his shorts. Did he trust Joe Schenck and Metro as to accounting? I suspect so. Schenck seems to have been like a father, or at the least big brother, to BK, much as Roscoe Arbuckle had been. Keaton trusted his friends, and neither of these appear to have cheated him. Maybe the comedies made such piles of cash for all concerned to swim in gravy. Times were obviously good if Keaton could afford giving Arbuckle a cut after Roscoe was kicked out of movies (was there industry precedent, before or since, for such generosity?). Investing partners in the BK venture included both Schenck brothers, Marcus Loew, banking tyro A.P. Giannini, and Irving Berlin. Talk about heads of the five families! They had "stockholder meetings" over weekends in
To answer the key question here --- should you upgrade from earlier Kino DVD releases? Big yes, emphatic yes. I compared most of the Blu-Ray with old versions. No contest ... they're like different shows altogether ... darkness into light. The only way we'll improve on these is if someone comes across better pre-print on Hard Luck, Convict 13, the missing parts of Day Dreams ... whatever remains on the Keaton wish list. I'd almost expect that to happen at current rate of thought-lost stuff turning up.
More Buster Keaton at Greenbriar Archives: Keaton Misses Grand Hotel, Le Roi des Champs-Elysees, The General, Best Keaton Book I've Read, They Dood It Twice (Spite Marriage), The Night It Came Together (Sherlock Jr.), and Keaton Columbia Comedies.