Keaton shorts.

17Apr11

It’s hard enough to review silent movies in their own right, never mind when they’re also shorts. I gave The General and Sherlock Jr. the best attempts I could, but the latest four Buster Keaton features I’ve seen barely stretch over 20 minutes each. And yet they are, largely, amazing, and thus to not add them in some form to this blog would be a sin. Here’s some (ultra-brief) snippet reviews. I strongly encourage you all to step beyond the equally brilliant but totally different Chaplin, whose name may deserve to be known, but certainly not on its own. Keaton is the joint-first genius of the silent comedy era.

Featuring the most innovative house I’ve ever seen, The Scarecrow is set around a bachelor pad where Buster lives with another man, both of whom have designed their bungalow to suit the laziest of living that lads could wish for. Salt and pepper hang on strings from the ceiling, and the dinner table, featuring glued on plates, can be detached and hose-piped if in need of cleaning. Hell breaks loose when they both scramble for the love of a girl in a race against time to get married before the other intervenes, all as a mad dog stirs the pot, chasing Buster manically through the countryside and leading to calamitous consequences. So much is packed into this one that it’s a real treat; as tightly sewn and rich in humour as a short can be.

Just as marvellous is One Week, where this time Buster has a girl rather than seeks one, and must build a house DIY-style with the help of an instruction manual accompanying boxes of wood. Cue the fun of observing this disaster zone develop, reaching its peak in the house rapidly rotating as if on a merry-go-round when torrential winds hit the town. I have no idea how they filmed this. Computers and green screens definitely did not exist in 1920. The only possible conclusion is that when Buster builds his house on the wrong plot of land and is asked to move, he genuinely did, somehow, film the gradual shifting of his house on wheels before allowing it to be smashed into pieces when steamrollered by a passing train. There’s also a mad stunt where he jumps onto a travelling motorbike. Again, I have no idea how. A lot of the beauty of these shorts is being shocked at how you underestimate their ability to show stuff you assumed only CGI made possible.

2 years later came The Electric House, which is an unfortunate drop in quality. The theme of a gadget-laden freak house being built is present once again, but this time (perhaps because it’s the third time) it manages to make much less of an impact. There’s a great train-track system to choo-choo in dinner from kitchen to dining room, and a once again inexplicably filmed two-way ultra-fast escalator to replace the conventional staircase, but these inventions are milked one time too many. The gags get old and repetitive where Keaton seems so often to be quick to know when a joke is dragging.

The same goes for The Love Nest. It may be original in its being set on boats on rocky waters, as Buster attempts to flee from his romantic troubles and live a new life, but the humour drags once again because it is centred too much around the avoidance of a shipmaster who’s a little too keen to kill his staff for minor cock-ups. I wouldn’t rush to recommend this one, when considered alongside the others I’ve seen so far. But One Week and The Scarecrow are undoubtedly worth anyone’s forty minutes. I’ll continue to report back on other gems, as I slowly devour Keaton’s entire filmography.

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