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Blu-ray: Buster Keaton: Three Films, Vol 3 | reviews, news & interviews

Blu-ray: Buster Keaton: Three Films, Vol. 3

Blu-ray: Buster Keaton: Three Films, Vol. 3

Three more full length comedies, mostly excellent

How not to milk a cow; Buster Keaton in 'Go West'

Every great artist can have an off day, and the the best moments in Eureka’s latest collection of Buster Keaton features are good enough to make one forgive the patchier stretches. Keaton’s first feature length comedy was the 1923 DW Griffith spoof Three Ages, deliberately structured into three self-contained acts so that the film could be cut into separate shorts if audiences stayed away.

Every great artist can have an off day, and the the best moments in Eureka’s latest collection of Buster Keaton features are good enough to make one forgive the patchier stretches. Keaton’s first feature length comedy was the 1923 DW Griffith spoof Three Ages, deliberately structured into three self-contained acts so that the film could be cut into separate shorts if audiences stayed away. Its success allowed Keaton to make Our Hospitality later the same year, the first film in which he was able to exercise much greater creative control. A loose retelling of a notorious late 19th century feud between two warring West Virginia families, Keaton moved the action to 1830s Kentucky.

Keaton's hobby horseThe period details are enchanting, from the copy of George Stevenson’s Rocket pulling Keaton’s luckless William McKay towards his inheritance, to the wooden hobby horse bicycle he rides, a reproduction considered so accurate that it now sits in the Smithsonian Institution. Enraptured by the girl he meets on the train, he’s invited to the house of the Canfield clan, eager to shoot him. But, ‘southern hospitality’ dictates that McKay can’t be dispatched while a guest in the Canfield mansion, cueing a series of increasingly frantic efforts on his part to stay put. Dogs, hats and antique pistols all feature, the visual jokes nicely integrated into the plot. The physical stunts are impressive, and we fear for Keaton’s safety while he’s drifting towards a waterfall. Carl Davis’s score is effective.

Gambling in Go WestStill, for all Our Hospitality’s importance, Go West, released two years later is a sweeter, funnier film, with Keaton’s poker faced, penniless ‘Friendless’ stowing away on a train and heading west to an Arizona ranch where he tries to make it as a cowboy. The sight gags are terrific: Friendless patiently placing a bucket underneath a cow and expecting her to milk herself is priceless, as are his doomed attempts to eat with his co-workers. Go West becomes an offbeat love story between man and cow, Keaton later describing his co-star Brown Eyes as one of the easiest he’d worked with. Go West’s climax is a slow moving cattle stampede through the streets of Los Angeles, and the payoff is sweet, Friendless winning the girl he desires. It’s technically impressive, the harsh desert landscape brilliantly conveyed. Watch out for the brief gambling scene, Keaton using his fingers to force a smile of sorts. There’s not a wasted shot, and you’re struck again by how rarely Keaton needs to resort to subtitles.

Keaton Vol. 3Alas, 1927’s College doesn’t hold up well, not least because of a scene where Keaton’s bookish student Ronald dons blackface while working as a waiter. It’s good to see the great Snitz Edwards popping up as the Dean of the sporty college where Ronald attempts to win back his high school girlfriend, but the humour falls flat, and Ronald’s futile attempts to master pole vaulting and hammer throwing just aren’t that funny. You sense that Keaton’s heart wasn’t in it. Happily he wasn’t a spent force, with 1928’s Steamboat Bill, Jr marking a spectacular return to form.

The extras are excellent. Our Hospitality and Go West come with optional commentaries, and there are bonus documentaries about Keaton’s technique and use of location filming. Most poignant is The Railrodder, a 1965 short produced by the National Film Board of Canada, the elderly actor traversing the country by rail on a rickety maintenance wagon. Do watch the accompanying ‘making of’ featurette, showing Keaton sharp, alert and fully involved.

@GrahamRickson

Keaton later described his bovine co-star as one of the easiest he'd worked with

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Great review, I can't wait to receive my copy! Just wanted to add that the Carl Davis score for Our Hospitality was actually done back in 1984 for the Thames Silents series. It's not new, but it is by far my favorite score for the film. The Davis score isn't on the new Kino release in the U.S., so I actually sent a message to Eureka a while back to be absolutely certain it would be on this version. They confirmed, and that sealed the deal for me!

Thanks Ben - didn't realise that the Davis music composed back in 1984.I've amended the copy accordingly. I remember really liking his score for Steamboat Bill Jr when I saw it on the big screen a few years ago.

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