fri 30/10/2020

Blu-ray: Buster Keaton - Three Films, Vol 2 | reviews, news & interviews

Blu-ray: Buster Keaton - Three Films, Vol. 2

Blu-ray: Buster Keaton - Three Films, Vol. 2

Technical brilliance and belly laughs: three features from a great director at his peak

Buster Keaton, risking life and limb in 'Seven Chances'

These three films come from Buster Keaton’s mid-1920s purple patch, the high spots of which prompted critic Roger Ebert to describe Keaton as “arguably the greatest actor-director in the history of the movies”. High praise indeed.

These three films come from Buster Keaton’s mid-1920s purple patch, the high spots of which prompted critic Roger Ebert to describe Keaton as “arguably the greatest actor-director in the history of the movies”. High praise indeed. And while I’d rank The General and Steamboat Bill, Jr slightly above the films making up this anthology, each one makes for joyous viewing.

1924’s The Navigator was a personal favourite of Keaton, prompted by his chance acquisition of a defunct US Navy passenger liner about to be scrapped. The set-up has Keaton’s foppish Rollo Treadaway and the girl who’s just rejected his marriage proposal mistakenly boarding the titular liner, cut loose and left to drift in the Pacific. Keaton makes imaginative use of his elaborate prop, one brilliant visual gag involving a line of cabin doors swinging open as the ship rolls. Though the best jokes aren’t boat-specific, as with an early attempt to cook in the ship’s galley, opening a tin of corned beef with an axe and drilling a hole in a tin of condensed milk. Kathryn McGuire (pictured below, right) is an excellent foil, at one point gamely dunked in the sea. The most famous sequences involve Keaton donning a diver’s costume in an attempt to repair a leak, his preparation a quick skim through a leaflet entitled “Instructions for Deep Sea Divers”. And while it’s fun to see him foiling attacks by swordfish, lobsters and an octopus, nothing made me laugh so much as McGuire fixing Keaton’s helmet on before he’s discarded his cigarette.

Keaton NavigatorSeven Chances is less ambitious but more consistently funny, an adaptation of a one-joke stage farce in which Keaton’s Jimmy Shannon learns that he’ll inherit seven million dollars if he marries by 7pm on the same day. It’s a delight from the outset, and how startling to see the first reel in two-tone Technicolor. Predictably, Shannon initially fudges his proposal to the girl he really loves and spends the day asking, unsuccessfully, a whole series of women; there’s a fantastic scene in his country club where Shannon gets turned down by several potentials while ascending and descending a staircase. The mechanics of the stage play are dispensed with quickly, and the film’s most famous sequence is an insanely protracted chase, Shannon pursued by 500 spurned women, all out for blood. Best not to think about the physical risks involved, Keaton crashing cars, diving into rivers and at one point swinging from a crane, before a famous sprint downhill whilst dodging boulders. There’s excellent support from Snitz Edwards as Shannon’s lawyer, and we’d best ignore The Bachelor, the iffy 1999 remake starring Chris O’Donnell and Renée Zellweger – Keaton’s version is miles better.

Keaton Three Films PackshotBattling Butler has Keaton as another rich idiot, in this case falsely claiming to be a prize-winning boxer in order to win a girl’s affections. Edwards turns up again as Keaton’s manservant, the best moments coming early on when the pair are camping, the fully furnished tent anticipating glamping. Humourist and sports journalist Damon Runyon gets a nod in a throwaway sight gag, the film climaxing in a brilliantly shot but gruelling boxing match which Martin Scorsese studied before making Raging Bull.

Keaton was a meticulous film-maker, each one of the three features concise and neatly constructed. They look superb in these restored prints, with Robert Israel’s newly-composed soundtracks witty but never intrusive. Robert Arkus and Yair Solan provide useful commentaries. Extras include informative documentaries from film historians David Cairns and Bruce Lawton, and the third disc contains several audio interviews with Keaton – it’s fascinating to hear the great man speak. 

@GrahamRickson

Best not to think about the physical risks involved

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Editor Rating: 
5
Average: 5 (1 vote)

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