This is a box set of Buster Keaton’s three most famous films—Sherlock Jr., The General, and Steamboat Bill Jr.—is an extraordinary offering by the greatest of the silent film era actors and directors. Probably more than any other single contributor, the modern language of cinema really begins with Keaton. Far more than D.W. Griffith’s films, which were so sprawling and long that they are almost more like a TV mini-series than a standard film, Keaton—and the German expressionists—really showed the way forward.
All three films are great, but my personal favourite is Sherlock Jr., which is a proto-noir but also a fantastical film where he a projectionist who dreams of being an amateur detective and steps into the screen. That was a revolutionary idea for the time, one of the first dream sequences in a feature film. It has been claimed as a surrealist film by some, a minimalist film by others, but whatever label you put on it, Sherlock Jr. is simply remarkable. You can see clear links to films like Brazil and The Purple Rose of Cairo. It’s the shortest of the three, a sort of mini-feature, whereas the other two are full-length. It’s a film that every comedy-maker should be forced to watch over and over, because there isn’t a frame wasted.
All three have the most impressive stunts of all time, especially given the fact that it’s all Keaton, with no stunt doubles or special effects. His deadpan humour is for me funnier than Chaplin, and has echoes in the work of others, including Jim Jarmusch.
The General puts Keaton in the role of an accidental Confederate hero, and of course the most famous train scene of all time. Surprisingly, much of the film, including the train sequence, was shot in Oregon rather than in the South. It was declared a local holiday so that the whole town could turn out to see the train fall into the gorge. Another little-known fact is that it premiered in Tokyo rather than in the US.
The General was a tremendous flop at the time, just barely breaking even after being one of the most expensive films made at the time. However, it has a really authentic look thanks to its locations and costuming. Keaton’s politics were somewhat to the left but he hated political parties and never voted. Modern criticisms that accuse The General of being pro-Confederacy are therefore wide of the mark—it’s simply the typical film tale of the little guy fighting powerful enemies and winning. It is essentially the original chase film, and was copied in many respects by Mad Max: Fury Road, which could actually work as a silent.
Steamboat Bill Jr. is the lesser film of the set. Young Bill comes home to his father, also a steamboat captain, and falls in love with the daughter of his father’s rival. Its showpiece is an amazing sequence where the whole town falls apart around him. It’s a superb film, but there’s a bit too much reliance on gags rather than the story.
After The General, Keaton lost his creative freedom in Hollywood, although he continued to make films, not always good ones. He had some problems with alcohol, but continued to work on into the era of television. Keaton near the end of the life did a short called Film which was Samuel Beckett’s only foray into cinema and is worth seeking out.
All of these films are technically in the public domain, but 4K restoration by the Cohen Media Group has really saved them from obscurity caused by bad transfers, although the previous Kino transfers were solid. The films are now clear and clean, though still with a healthy amount of grain.
There is a ridiculous amount of special features in this Masters of Cinema package, including a commentary on Sherlock Jr. by David Kalat, interviews with the film scholar Peter Kramer, a new documentary about Keaton’s struggles in the Hollywood system, the two different introductions for The General by Orson Welles (a great admirer and friend of Keaton’s) and by Gloria Swanson, and of course the scores by. Extra material covers the Oregon locations for The General, home movie footage, and loads of featurettes. On top of all this, a 60-page booklet comes with the package.