Kino's Lost Keaton release is perhaps misnamed. "Overlooked," "dismissed," or "neglected" might have been more accurate, for these films were never lost, but merely disregarded.
This two-disc set contains the 16 two-reelers that Keaton cranked out for the poverty-row Educational Pictures studio in the mid-1930s. Nothing here holds a candle to the comedian's silent-era creative peak during the 1920s, when he turned out 19 masterful two-reelers and a dozen classic feature comedies. But the Educational films, whether due to low expectations or genuine merit, are surprisingly good and never without charm.
Viewers new to Keaton should steer clear for the time being and instead begin their course of study with those earlier gems — inventive two-reelers such as One Week and Cops, and timeless features such as The General, The Navigator, Sherlock Jr., Our Hospitality and Steamboat Bill Jr. But for the Keaton Konnoiseur, there is much pleasure to be found in this collection, and much solace to be taken in the fact that, even at his nadir, the great comedian was far from washed up.
Keaton had undergone a stunning reversal of fortune, falling from grace as one of the triumvirate of great silent clowns and landing, in 1934, at Educational, a low-budget outfit that too was past its prime. Buster had always been a hard worker, but he had never known failure, thus this mid-career turn of events was all the more devastating. He had been a star almost since birth, becoming, at the age of 2, a central player in his family's vaudeville act. He spent his youth on the road and on the stage until he set out on his own at the age of 21. After an apprenticeship with Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, serving as co-star and co-director for the comedian whose popularity placed him second only to Chaplin, Keaton soon became the star of his own films and embarked on his unbroken string of sterling independent films.
After two years of two-reelers, Keaton graduated to features and again met with success. But after 10 strong showings, produced biannually, things began to go awry. His producer and brother-in-law, Joseph Schenk, sold Keaton's contract to MGM, and the comedian, who was many things but never a businessman, accepted the deal, against the advice of Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, his more shrewd competitor/colleagues.
Following on the heels of Keaton's bitter divorce from Natalie Talmadge, the MGM deal marked the beginning of a steep professional decline for the great clown. MGM treated him like a mere actor, granting him no latitude in selecting, writing or directing his films; he was a hired hand, nothing more. Though the studio's strong marketing and distribution departments ensured larger audiences and better ticket sales for his films, Keaton was demoralized, and his creative ennui, combined with his increasing alcoholism, quickly sent him in a downward spiral that sent him tumbling out the studio's side door.
And so he landed at Educational, where he would remain for two years. They weren't the worst films he would make; that honor would be reserved for the two-reelers he would make for Columbia a few years later, a series with even lower budgets and tighter time constraints than Columbia, and which, with the exception of a few flashes here and there, demonstrate little of the great comedian's talent.
Whereas Keaton had spent four to six weeks on his independent two-reelers in the early '20s, Educational demanded that he produce a film in just three to five days. Limited time and resources dictated a rather formulaic approach, meaning that Keaton was forced to rely more heavily on some of his stock gestures: clasped hands when lovestruck; pratfalls more perfunctory than inventive; a grimace as a hand consoles a damaged nose when a door closes abruptly in his face. But over time it becomes clear that these repetitions are not intended as gag-topping laugh-getters, but rather as signature gestures, familiar refrains that the audience can expect and anticipate. Like Bugs Bunny's "What's up, Doc?" they're not necessarily funny in and of themselves; they're more like the catchy choruses in a pop song.
The series starts strong with The Gold Ghost, in which Buster finds himself in a distinctly Busteresque situation: when his car breaks down in an abandoned Western town, granting the comedian the chance to stage a series of pratfalls — a solitary man in an empty town. He plays sheriff, adopts a manly swagger, and demonstrates his incompetence every step of the way. The sound era's incessant demand for dialogue often slowed the pace and impact of Keaton's comedy at MGM, but here, with a bit more leeway, he manages to stage strong sight gags between bouts of dialogue: a poker game on dusty table at a forgotten saloon; doing the laundry at the old trough — a gag that unfortunately doesn't pay off as well as it promises; a hallucinatory gun battle in which Keaton plays the romantic hero.
Allez Oop demonstrates Buster's talent for small gags in which his character must improvise a solution to an immediate problem. At the circus, Buster's girl, her attention riveted by a trapeze act, fails to notice that she is sitting on his hand. To retrieve his hand, he holds his hat under her chin and slowly lifts it, ensuring that she stand to see over what appears to be the head of the spectator in front of her. It's a brief moment, a throwaway gag, and yet it's the kind of small comedic moment that wins an audience's affection.
One-Run Elmer gave Keaton the chance to stage a series of gags around his beloved game of baseball, using a number of gags he had previously performed at celebrity charity games. And Grand Slam Opera, perhaps the best-known of the series, in which Buster tries to make it big on a talent show at a New York radio station by juggling and doing other acts that couldn't possibly be appreciated by a radio audience, gags that simply, gave Keaton the opportunity to revive a few gags from the old family vaudeville routine. It also features one of Keaton's classic moments from his later career, in which he attempts to become Fred Astaire by clumsily dancing on the furniture of his hotel room until he destroys the bed.
Lost Keaton: 1934-1937. $34.95. www.kino.com.
Coinciding with the release of Lost Keaton are two discs of films by his sisters-in-law, Norma and Constance Talmadge.
Norma Talmadge was one of the biggest stars of her day, a dramatic actress whose popularity rivaled that of Mary Pickford, but whose legacy was hampered by the fact that so few of her films survive. In the 1920s she starred in a string of weepy tragedies, romances and melodramas, her signature role being the persecuted heroine or star-crossed lover. Kino has released a double-feature that includes one of these, Within the Law (1923), in which Talmadge is unjustly accused of theft and sent to prison, as well as a rare comedy, Kiki (1926), which the aspiring Parisian chorus girl attempts to woo Ronald Colman, the show's manager.
Though younger sister Constance appeared in D.W. Griffith's towering epic Intolerance, for the most part she dedicated her career to lighter fare, starring in a number of bright and charming comedies. Her Night of Romance (1924) sees her as an heiress who must travel incognito so as to avoid fortune-hunting playboys, but falls for a deceptively well-off nobleman — again, in the form of Ronald Colman. And Colman again takes the male lead in Her Sister From Paris, in which the bored husband falls for his flashy European sister-in-law, an opportunity for Talmadge to play dual roles to great effect.
The Norma Talmadge Collection. Featuring original scores by the Biograph Players and Makia Matsumura. $29.95. www.kino.com.
The Contance Talmadge Collection. Featuring original scores by the Judith Rosenberg and Bruce Loeb. $29.95. www.kino.com.