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Buster Keaton Collection The Cameraman / Spite Marriage / Free & Easy
2-DISC SPECIAL EDITION, Special Edition
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Buster Keaton Collection, The (TCM Archives) (Dbl DVD) (Multi-Title)
Considered by many the greatest of cinema's silent clowns, Buster Keaton was a consummate practitioner of physical comedy. Although labeled the "Great Stone Face," Keaton found tremendous eloquence in his deadpan style with the alert and expressive eyes, lithe acrobat's body and that air of grace described by critic James Agee as "a fine, still and dreamlike beauty." This TCM Archives 2-disc celebration of Keaton's art puts the spotlight on his MGM period. The Cameraman (1928), remastered with a new score by Arthur Barnow, and Spite Marriage (1929) are among Keaton's funniest silents, while Free and Easy (1930) is his first talkie. These films marked a peak in his popularity with audiences; however, Keaton resented the loss of artistic control he had enjoyed in his earlier movies and was on the brink of a major career decline that he blamed on studio interference. This watershed period in Keaton's life is the basis for film historian Kevin Brownlow's poignant new documentary So Funny It Hurts: Buster Keaton at MGM, completing a DVD collection which offers keen insight into what makes Keaton's unique style of comedy hilarious, moving and timeless.]]>
The Buster Keaton Collection presents three of the first films (one, The Cameraman, a near masterpiece) Keaton made for MGM beginning in 1928, an arrangement that gradually ushered the great comic actor and director into the sound era but ultimately deprived him of creative control. The Cameraman, considered by many to be Keaton's last important silent work, is an unusual story about a tintype portrait photographer (Keaton) who becomes a newsreel cameraman in order to win the heart of a secretary (Marceline Day). After flubbing an assignment by double-exposing some action footage, the hapless hero tries to prove himself in several memorable sequences of Keatonesque knockabout comedy (including a Chinatown street battle). There are also a couple of grace notes, such as a scene set in Yankee Stadium in which a solo Keaton exquisitely mimes the moves and attitudes of a pitcher. But The Cameraman's strange, almost subconscious power is in its variation on an old Keaton refrain: The hero's conflict over different kinds of authenticity, represented here on either side of a motion picture lens--the difference between capturing something real and living it.
The Cameraman shows obvious and unfortunate signs of MGM's insistence that Keaton, long accustomed to improvising scenes, conform to prepared shooting scripts. But it is less stifling than the second feature (Keaton's last silent movie) in this set, the 1929 Spite Marriage, a slight farce about a pants-presser (Keaton) who borrows his customers' fine threads to attend the theatre every night. There he worships an actress (Dorothy Sebastian) so furious with her caddish lover and co-star (Edward Earle) that she asks Keaton to marry her. The predictable results are unworthy of a Keaton film, but he does shine in several hilarious sequences, such as a disastrous turn as a bit player in his soon-to-be-wife's stage dramas. Finally, 1930's Free and Easy, Keaton's talkie debut, is a garish MGM valentine to itself, trotting out celebrity actors and directors (Lionel Barrymore, Cecil B. DeMille, Fred Niblo) in a wooden story set on a movie lot. But while Keaton struggles with dialogue and a script that frequently sidelines him, he has many good moments causing havoc on film sets. --Tom Keogh
- Three Keaton films: The Cameraman, Spite Marriage Free and Easy
- New score by Arthur Barrow on The Cameraman
- Kevin Brownlow's all-new documentary So Funny It Hurt: Buster Keaton and MGM
- Photo montages from the two silent films
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Great set and got it for a great price - be aware this does not include the most recent restorations of a couple of the films or the newer Keaton Shorts package out there now by Kino.
The Cameraman (1928), Buster's first film at MGM, is as good as any feature he did as an independent with maybe the exception of The General. This film largely left his original filmmaking team intact. Spite Marriage (1929), Buster's final silent film, is still a very good one, but it just seems to lack that complete Keaton signature present in his earlier features. A prime example of this is when Keaton's character tries to cheer up his new bride with a stuffed doll of a dog that has a tear in its eye. Buster never went for the sentimental approach when he had a completely free hand. At this point MGM had largely dismantled Keaton's filmmaking team and replaced them with their own people. Plus, they were interfering more with what Buster wanted to do with the story. The lesson MGM took away from the success of The Cameraman was not that Buster's approach and comic instincts were good, it was that their assembly line approach worked.
The final blow is in 1930's "Free and Easy", Buster's third feature for MGM and his first talking picture. Here Buster has no creative control and has been reduced to a reciter of lines and performer of stunts while Robert Montgomery inexplicably crowds Keaton out of the limelight. To be fair, many very early talkie efforts suffer from the same set of problems as this one - bad dialogue, thin if not inane plots, musical numbers inserted where they really don't belong - overall the new talking picture technology being in the driver's seat rather than the art of film making. What makes this film so sad is that one of the most creative guys on the MGM lot has been reduced to "who's on first" type verbal gags that don't suit him, and in the closing number is a puppet swinging through the air in a clown's outfit with his puppet strings being controlled by figures off stage - a fitting visual metaphor for what is to come in Keaton's future MGM films.
The 40 minute documentary that wraps up the set - "So Funny It Hurt: Buster Keaton and MGM" ties everything together and even has footage of Keaton himself talking about his decline at MGM. He was basically bewildered at how such bad films as his early talkies were such a success at the box office while his own silent works that he thought were so good had not been nearly as successful. This loss of both his self-confidence and a creative outlet as well as the break-up of his first marriage led to his descent into alcoholism and ultimately his dismissal from MGM.
The odd thing about all of this is that Buster Keaton himself is probably the only person who didn't consider his treatment and string of bad luck a tragedy. From every source I've ever heard he always considered himself to be a very lucky man.
TCM lovingly assembled this homage to a great comedic talent who was living the beginning of his end when both the movie system and talkies launched a slow, painful decline for the once-great silent star.
The best film on this package is easily "The Cameraman". While it is a more conventional story for Buster, it also contains some of the best comedy work he's ever done. Keaton's physical prowess is absolutely stunning as he races through a busy city street on foot, arms & legs pumping like mad (especially on the gag which he drops the phone, runs down the street, and faces his surprised object-of-affection just as she's hanging up the phone!). Highlights in the film include: Buster playing a solitary game of baseball inside an empty stadium; a hilarious dip in a public pool (complete with sharing a changing room with another man and losing his swimsuit in the water); and covering a Tong War in Chinatown (excellently staged with Keaton's trademark sight gags).
His final silent, "Spite Marriage", is even more conventional in theme and story (a jealous actress spites her flirtatious boyfriend by marrying a pants presser--guess who!--hence, the title). Although Keaton fought to get his own ideas on screen (and lost the battle most of the time), there is one thing interesting about this unique talent: No matter how slight the material, Keaton's sublime presence cannot be ignored. His antics during a Civil War stage drama and later, on a deserted boat, are quite hilarious.
And finally, his first talking picture, "Free and Easy", demonstrates how sadly mis-used Keaton was in the new medium. MGM chose projects that were completely ill-suited to Buster's talents. Here, Keaton plays what he calls his "Elmer" role (the first in many)---an imbecilic idiot part. Add to that Keaton's croaking voice, a contradiction which turns his character from a stoic hero into a fool. The best film moments, of course, come in the no-dialogue segments, which Keaton does his best silent bits; unfortunately, they are few and far between.
The DVD extras include a documentary called "So Funny It Hurts: Buster Keaton and MGM", hosted by actor James Karen, who knew Buster during his final years. "So Funny..." gives a lot of fascinating insight into the business relationship between Buster & MGM, complete with glimpses into his personal life, his career after being fired from MGM, and a 1964 interview with the man himself.
This DVD collection is a must for fans who are interested in Keaton's career as he transitioned through MGM and beyond.
Don't let this from stopping you from purchasing this set. It may not be reissued for many decades. It took TCM rather than Kino or Turner from reissuing these MGM classics.