In an attempt to better diversify the content on this blog I’m introducing a new series of pieces I plan to write called “Crash Course.” This is a rather casual series that will feature sporadically and will cover a wide range of topics. With each Crash Course article I’ll look at something that’s been a blind spot in my movie watching and examine a handful of movies related to said blindspot. Some of these articles will look at the works of a certain filmmaker, some will look at movies from a common franchise, and some will simply be looking at some films that all have a common theme.
Over the last couple years I methodically collecting the films of Buster Keaton on Blu-ray as Kino put them out because I’ve long been a Keaton fan even though there were a couple of blind spots in his filmography. One of those blind spots was his short film work, and I knew that one of the first things I’d have to do when I started watching these Blu-rays was plow through their release called “The Short Films Collection 1920-1923.” These were films that I was excited to see, but there were a whole lot of them and I knew that I’d have to set apart a decent chunk of time in order to get through it.
These films were (as the title of the Blu-ray implies) shot between 1920 and 1923, and were shot one after the other to fulfil a contract with First National pictures for twenty shorts that would be released over the course of three years back in the day when feature films would be paired with shorts, newsreels, and trailers and looped all day long at theaters across the country. Before this Keaton had been a supporting player in a number of shorts starring his friend and mentor Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, an actor who is better known today for a scandalous party that led to the death of a young starlet than he is for his filmmaking. In fact Arbuckle’s legal troubles were going on while Keaton was making these shorts and the looming shadow of that would have some influence over some of these shorts. Keaton had also starred in a feature film called The Saphead, which is a good movie but one that he didn’t write or direct that film and which isn’t really emblematic of his artistry outside of the performance. It’s with these shorts that Keaton the filmmaker really emerged.
The High Sign (4/12/1921)
The first solo film that Buster Keaton directed and starred in was The High Sign, which was about a man who rigs a shooting gallery’s bell so that he appears to be an expert shot. He’s so convincing that a man hires him as a bodyguard and soon thereafter a gang of crooks called The Blinking Buzzard also insist that he work for them as a hit man to kill that man he’s supposed to be protecting. Keaton himself was not thrilled by the resulting film and didn’t think it was strong enough to be his debut short and as such he put it on the shelf for a year, only releasing it eventually when one of his later films was delayed due to injury. Keaton’s perfectionism is admirable, but I can’t say I understand his disappointment because this is actually a perfectly amusing short with a number of good gags. The way he rigs the shooting gallery is clever, there’s a running gag about the gang’s love of hand signals that’s consistently funny, and the finale in a house full of traps is like the OG Home Alone. I think what might have made Keaton balk at releasing this so soon into his career is that it has a certain streak of darkness to it. Some of the criminals in the gang are straight up killed during the final confrontations, and that might be a little off-putting. Also there’s a scene where a banana peel is tossed on the ground all Chekov like and yet no one ever slips on it. WTF.
One Week (9/1/1920)
With The High Sign on the shelf, this film would turn out to be the first solo film that Buster Keaton would release to the public. The film concerns a newlywed couple who are given a “build your own home” kid and a plot of land. Such pre-fab housing kits were in vogue at the time and this film makes fun of them by making his character an absolutely inept carpenter who botches the building of the house completely. The whole building process is a series of slapstick gags and by the time it’s finally build it looks like some kind of M.C. Escher nightmare. To add insult to injury the house is eventually hit by a tornado which makes it rotate on its axis, and eventually the young couple are forced to move it to a different plot, which is a journey fraught with danger and hilarity. The film is particularly notable for incorporating an early version of Keaton’s famous “house falls on a guy who happens to be sitting in the place where the window is” gag. At the heart of it all there is a sort of sweet story about a man and his wife trying to (literally) build a life for themselves. If the last movie was an OG Home Alone, this one is an OG The Money Pit. I guess these comparisons aren’t wildly flattering, but there is most definitely something to be said for a filmmaker who can inspire so many movies made so long afterwards.
Convict 13 (10/27/1920)
Lloyd’s third short is perhaps a step down from the previous two, but like almost all of them still definitely has its moments. The short begins as a slapstick take on a game of golf, but takes a turn when Keaton knocks himself out and is found by an escaped prisoner who swaps his striped prison uniform for Keaton’s suit. Now dressed in prisoner’s garb he’s spotted by the pursuing guards and a slapstick chase ensues. It takes yet another turn when Keaton arrives at the prison and swaps places with a guard and begins a duel of sorts with a comically large and muscular guard. So, this is a short that doesn’t really have that much of a unifying theme and kind of goes all over the place. The slapstick is good, but perhaps not quite as inspired as the previous shorts. Another concern I have is that this seems suspiciously similar to a Harold Lloyd short called Take a Chance, which predates this by two years. I haven’t gone back and watched them side by side, but they do share a similar “man mistaken for escaped convict” concept. Also, it should be noted that the print condition on all of these shorts vary and this one in particular seemed to have an awful lot of wear.
The Scarecrow (12/22/1920)
The Scarecrow begins with a very interesting set-piece inside of a very small country home which only has one room but which still has a surprising amount of amenities because it’s filled with a bunch of clever yet highly impractical inventions that make every little thing easier for the inhabitants and save a lot of space. It’s a bit like the famous eating machine scene from Chaplin’s Modern Times except that none of the inventions go haywire and the comedy actually comes from how nonchalantly the people are able to use all these silly devices. The second half, which is yet another comedy chase scene, is less inspired but still fun as these things go. It has one particularly charming bit of pantomime in a scene where Keaton steals a scarecrow’s costume and must mimic the scarecrow’s limp posture in order to elude his pursuers.
This Keaton film tells a sort of Romeo and Juliet story within a modern setting by having Keaton fall for the (literal) girl next door even though his parents and her parents have been feuding for years. That’s a neat concept, perhaps a rather difficult one to try to tackle in just 20 minutes, especially when you also have a bunch of gags taking up time. There is of course an elephant in the room here in the form of an early scene where Keaton accidentally gets mud on his face and is mistaken for a black man by a police officer. Racial stereotypes were occasionally a part of Keaton’s work that can be jarring for modern audiences. This one isn’t too terrible, in part because the actual black characters aren’t overly stereotypical (at least by the low standard of silent era films), but that element of blackface is still very problematic. Otherwise you’ve got a pretty standard Keaton romp with a couple good stunts and a simple little story in the background.
The Haunted House (2/10/1921)
This is a particularly madcap short for Keaton which begins with a fun sequence in which Keaton gets superglue on his hands and causes a royal mess and ends with a crazy sequence in which Keaton finds himself in a supposedly haunted house filled with odd things like a tick staircase. The film’s weakness is convolution, because it involves three disparate storylines involving Keaton on the run from the cops, an opera cast on the run from a deranged audience, and a bank trying to make the house look haunted all converging in a rather implausible way. I feel like the whole thing would have been stronger if the opera house sub-plot had been eliminated. It makes up for it at the end though when it features this dream sequence where Keaton makes his way to heaven and ends up going to hell where he gets stabbed in the ass with a pitchfork. It’s also worth noting that this is the first of these films to incorporate color tinting.
Hard Luck (3/16/1921)
These Keaton shorts are starting to sort of remind me a bit of later day episodes of “The Simpsons” in that they’ll start on one concept and then the narrative will suddenly transition into something else. In this case it starts on this rather dark bit where Keaton is trying to commit suicide and proceeds to fail at it in various amusing ways, and then half way through it drops that and turns into a chase through a country club. Outside of that this short is probably more notable for its troubled restoration status. The print is pretty bad at points, but the bigger concern is that the final scene (which appears to have been another surreal sendoff like the ending of The Haunted House) is partially lost. That’s a shame because Keaton was very fond of this ending and said it elicited one of the biggest laughs of its career (even if it might seem a little racist today). Otherwise this film seems a little run-of-the-mill by Keaton standards.
The Goat (5/18/1921)
This isn’t the first Buster Keaton short of mostly consist of the man being chased by the police and it won’t be the last either. It also certainly isn’t the first to be predicated on an inprobably case of mistaken identity. As such this isn’t one of the Keaton shorts that’s driven by overall creativity, rather it gets by through the sheer quantity and inventiveness of the jokes. First of all, this is the short that has the signature shot of Keaton in a suit and hat sitting on the front of a train. It also has a splendid sequence toward the end where Keaton is being chased up and down several flights of stairs and up and down the elevators. There’s not a whole lot to say about this one except that it’s a fun short to watch and experience. Not sure why it’s called “The Goat” though.
The Play House (9/19/1921)
This short, which is set in a theater, starts out like gangbusters with a really creative and technically innovative sequence in which Keaton plays multiple roles simultaneously on screen including women and children. He apparently invented the technique used to capture this and refused to disclose it for decades. The film also has a really great bit of pantomime in which he imitates a monkey and jumps all over the stage and drives a guy crazy. Unfortunately, this is another short that is marred by some dated racial material. The play vingettes being put on at this theater have a minstrel element to them and Keaton is unfortunately seen in full on blackface during one of the shots. Those shots were brief and don’t pervade over the whole film but they also make me wonder about that that monkey gag I mentioned above. The makeup for that joke seems to be not unlike the grease paint used for blackface and I worry that it may have been meant to have a double meaning. Ignore that though and this is a very strong short that pays tribute to Keaton’s vaudeville roots in a sly and enjoyable way.
The Boat (11/28/1921)
Many people view the three shorts that Buster Keaton made with leading lady Sybil Seely (The Scarecrow, One Week, and The Boat) to be an unofficial trilogy of sorts in which a man and a woman meet, marry, and then have kids. I don’t know that I buy The Scarecrow’s connection, but The Boat is most definitely meant to be a companion to One Week. Both films depict a loving couple trying to do something special and having it blow up in their faces. In this case their going out in a houseboat and having it go haywire in various hilarious (yet somewhat tense) ways. There’s sort of been a bottle-episode type thing going on with these shorts in that some of them clearly use a larger share of the budget than others, and this is most definitely one of the more expensive ones. During one gag, in which the boat starts spinning on its axis, the film even employs a spinning set. That couldn’t have been cheap, and they also demolish a house at one point. Overall, this is a showpiece short for Keaton and is also notable for the name of the boat: The Damfino, which is often referenced here and there.
The Paleface (1/16/1922)
Watching this it didn’t take too long to tell that most of what I had to say about this short would have to do with its highly questionable racial content. This is meant to be a parody of film westerns, but it doesn’t really have any cowboys in it: it’s all about Native Americans and as you can probably guess, the depiction is not exactly authentic. To the film’s credit, it does more or less make the Native Americans the good guys and the oil company trying to take their land is treated as the film’s true villains. However, it’s clear that most of the actors playing Native Americans are white people in makeup and as a whole the Native Americans are treated as either violent or stupid and gullible. Even if you ignore all that there is another annoyance in that some of the stunts look like they employ doubles instead of Keaton himself. This is understandable given that these stunts are even more daring and dangerous than his usual antics, but it still seems removed from his usual aesthetic and just seems out of place. There are a couple good gages to make up for this but overall I think it’s one of his weaker efforts here.
Jokes at the expense of the police were common in the silent era, but Buster Keaton in particular seemed to really hate cops. It’s a beef that was most likely rooted in the way the authorities were treating Fatty Arbuckle over the course of his public scandals. We saw Buster Keaton outrun and outsmart the fuzz in earlier films like Convict 13 and The Goat, but this short seems a little more pessimistic about the law. The film is famous because it has Keaton being chased by dozens upon dozens of police officers all at once (a stunt he would replicate years later in Seven Chances), and as it turns out it’s a lot easier to elude these guys when you’re only facing a few of them rather than dozens. There are other dark touches like what appears to be a reference to the Haymarket bombing. The film’s most famous gag involves a ladder teeter tottering on a fence and it seems like a particularly athletic bit of performing on Keaton’s part. This is one of Keaton’s most famous shorts for a reason.
My Wife’s Relations (5/20/1922)
This is one of Keaton’s less famous shorts and probably for good reasons. The story concerns a man who accidently marries a rather unattractive immigrant woman and must deal with her crazy family. The thing about this movie is that it’s one of the few Keaton shorts whose humor isn’t really rooted in his signature slapstick stunts. Instead it mostly derives its humor from stereotypes and marriage jokes of the “take my wife, please” variety. There is one nice bit towards the end involving a set of stairs and a bunch of beer suds, but otherwise this is about as close to being an outright stinker as any of these shorts ever do. I suspect that he made this because he needed a break from all the highly physical work he had to do in the other films, and I can’t entirely blame him for that I guess.
The Blacksmith (7/17/1922)
This is apparently one of Buster Keaton’s more famous shorts, not because it is particularly noteworthy but because it’s print was never lost and it played at repertoire theaters more often than some of the other shorts. In it, Keaton plays an inept apprentice to a blacksmith and after that blacksmith is arrested over a misunderstanding, this apprentice takes over the shop with disastrous results. This would be another example of a Keaton short that sort of seems like a “bottle episode.” It’s almost all set in one location and while it does totally destroy a car, I’m pretty sure it doesn’t have the budget (and certainly not the ambition) of something like The Boat or Cops. Still, even the lesser Keaton shorts are good for an inspired gag or two and this one provides its fair share.
The Frozen North (8/18/1922)
This one takes some explaining because it was essentially meant as a great big “fuck you” to an actor named William S. Hart, who was extremely famous in the early 20s but who isn’t overly well known today. Hart was an actor in early Westerns, but he got on Keaton’s bad side when he made some damaging public comments about Fatty Arbuckle over the course of Arbuckle’s scandal. The film is basically a parody of Hart’s films and their various melodramatic tendencies. Today it is perhaps more noteworthy because it was filmed in the same snowy area that Charlie Chaplin would immortalize three years later with his film The Gold Rush. The film also houses one insanely dark gag in which Keaton’s character shoots and kills a man and woman he believes to be his cheating wife and her lover but who are in fact two complete strangers. Again, this is a dig at Hart and his onscreen persona (as well as the rumors about his private life) but it’s a pretty damn savage just the same. I’m not sure I entirely “get” this one as I don’t really know a whole lot about Hart or his films, but there are still slapstick moments that don’t require context and he does a lot with the film’s location.
Day Dreams (11/27/1922)
Day Dreams is about a young man who goes to the city to prove to his fiancé’s father that he has what it takes to become a success. The film is structured as a series of juxtapositions between how the fiancé pictures him becoming a success at various jobs and how he was in fact a miserable failure who keeps getting fired. Unfortunately, this is another short that has fallen victim to the sands of time and is marred by a handful of missing scenes including a couple of the day dreams from which the movie derives its name. Fortunately the film ends with a pretty decent chase scene, perhaps not as great as some of the (many) chase scenes we’ve already seen over the course of these shorts but a good one nonetheless which ends with Keaton trapped inside of a paddle boats propeller and desperately trying to run fast enough to keep up with it, not unlike a hamster on a wheel. It’s a pretty good short all told, but, shame about that missing footage.
The Electric House (10/16/1922)
At this point I’m beginning to think that Buster Keaton has gotten a little bit sick of the short film format and its limitations. This film for example actually seems to recycle a couple of elements from previous films. The idea of an automatic house filled with Rube Goldberg machines was done on a smaller scale in The Scarecrow and the idea of a staircase with a mind of its own was already done in The Haunted House. Still, it’s clearly a movie that had more resources put into it than some of the other ones and has s number of very good jokes in it. Some of the devices in the titular house actually do seem somewhat ingenious and are perfectly interesting even before they all go haywire in various slapsticky ways. It’s also worth noting that this was actually Keaton’s second attempt to film this movie. His first attempt was about two years earlier and resulted in him sustaining an injury that would briefly waylay him. The film was shelved and The High Sign was put out in the meantime and The Playhouse was made to be a film that would be less strenuous on his legs. Eventually though he’s try again and this was the redo.
The Balloonatic (1/22/1923)
Occasionally, from a storytelling perspective, these shorts can kind of be all over the place and that’s certainly the case with this one. It starts out in a haunted house, then becomes a romp through an amusement park, then becomes about a hot air balloon, and finally settles into a movie where hijinks ensue while on a camping trip of sorts. Over the course of my time with these Keaton shorts there’s one joke that seems to come up over and over again: jokes where someone tries putting something into a container and then discovers that said container doesn’t have a bottom on it and the thing placed into it has fallen through the bottom. This particular short is full of that joke, which is odd. Beyond that though there are a number of interesting moments here like Keaton’s adventure on a kayak and his encounter with a bear. The best part though is the ending, which is a somewhat whimsical moment where a boat goes off a waterfall but then just starts flying (because the hot air balloon was attached) and the two on board continue on into the ether.
The Love Nest (3/13/1923)
This short has a somewhat salacious title, but as it turns out the title actually refers to the name of a whaling ship that Keaton’s character comes across while engaging in an ill-fated solo voyage of self-discovery. Once he gets on the ship he must contend with a tyrannical captain who’s known to execute his crew members on the slightest whim. So, yeah, this is another Buster Keaton short with a surprisingly dark tone (albeit one which is once again tempered by a last minute twist revealing that it was all a dream). The tone is earned though and is largely informed by the prolog in which Keaton is forced to leave his woman in is put into a state of mind which would plausibly lead to this odyssey of the mind. I think it’s one of the best movies here, but perhaps an odd sendoff to his time as a short film maker with First National Pictures.
These are short movies, but watching all of them has been a long journey. There have been 19 films running a collective 388 minutes, and all told I don’t regret a minute of it. Sure, a couple of these shorts weren’t as good as others, but you can tell why Keaton was one of the best in the business from watching all of these. Besides, these weren’t originally meant to be watched one after the other, and the weaker ones wouldn’t have stood out as much if these were all spread out over the course of three years. I’ve compared some of this to the experience of watching a season of a sitcom in so much as it’s a series of 19 twenty minute “episodes” of sorts, but there’s so much more visual and narrative inventiveness here that no one sitcom could ever compare. In fact, the more I think about it the more it seems like a hell of an achievement that Keaton was able to do so many of these in such a short period of time. I’ve avoided giving all these movies star ratings or grades during all of this, because Keaton was really only competing with himself at this point, but I will finish this project by providing a ranking of the 19 films:
- One Week
- The Boat
- The Love Nest
- The Play House
- The Goat
- The High Sign
- Day Dreams
- The Balloonatic
- The Haunted House
- The Frozen North
- The Electric House
- The Paleface
- The Scarecrow
- Convict 13
- The Blacksmith
- Hard Luck
- My Wife’s Relations