This is the second volume of Buster Keaton features from Masters of Cinema, which also released a very comprehensive set of Keaton’s shorts a couple years ago. It’s a collection of films in which he was starred and directed, from the definitive period of his work in feature filmmaking. These were made in between the ‘long-short’ Sherlock Jr. and The General. People forget that neither Sherlock Jr. nor The General were hits when they came out, although they are arguably Keaton’s best films, whereas his shorts had been very popular.
The weakest of the three is Battling Butler, which Keaton adapted from a stage play—while it’s the least funny of the three, it’s still Buster Keaton, so it’s still better than most peoples’ worst films. In this film, Keaton plays a millionaire who goes on a camping trip with his servant. He falls head over heels for a “mountain girl,” and tries to impress her by pretending to be the boxing star Alfred Butler, after which hijinks ensue.
The Navigator was actually his biggest hit at the time, and Keaton then assessed it as his best. He plays a rich buffoon who proposes to his neighbour. He books a honeymoon trip for two to Honolulu, but she rejects his proposal—but they both end up on the ship of course. Neither of them know how to do anything practical for themselves, setting up loads of comic situations. It does have a very weird mixed message about Black people—thankfully we’ve improved as a civilisation since 100 years ago when this was made. It’s still really funny, has some great gags, and is my favourite of the three.
Seven Chances is a film that Keaton didn’t actually like. As with most of his films, it has a simple set-up: he’s a rich man on the brink of financial ruin when he is told that he will inherit 7 million dollars on his 27th birthday if he gets married. And his 27th birthday is… today. He proposed to his sweetheart but screws it up so she breaks off with him, then runs around town trying and failing to find a woman who will say “I do.” As always, there’s a fantastic chase sequence. Jean Arthur also appears in a small role.
Of all the big early film comedic actors, Keaton was the one who was best in silent films. I think his shorts are better than Chaplin’s shorts, and although many will disagree, I think Chaplin was generally better in his talkies than his silents.
All three have been restored by Cohen Media Group, a company run by Charles S. Cohen, a billionaire who has put a lot of money into restoring old movies. The 4K restorations include scores by Robert Israel plus audio commentaries for The Navigator and Seven Chances. A video essay on all three films, a short documentary on The Navigator, archival interviews with Keaton from the 40s, 50s and 60s, and a comedy short called What! No Spinach? that relates to Seven Chances. Finally, a lavish 60-page book with new writing by Imogen Sara Smith and Philip Kemp plus archival writing and images.