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Buster Keaton Collection: TCM Archives

With Turner Classic Movies' Buster Keaton Collection two-disc set, fans of the popular silent-era comedian can at last devote an entire DVD shelf to the full span of Keaton's brilliant career. After single discs and boxed sets celebrating his early films with Fatty Arbuckle, his peak years of the great shorts, as well as his masterpiece feature films such as The General, now we can see what happened when Keaton moved from being an independent innovator to a hired hand at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the premier studio of the era. The highlight here is The Cameraman, the 1928 comedy heralded as the last really good Buster Keaton film. Joining it are two subsequent films that, in their increasing reliance on formula and decreasing interest in Keaton's input, document how the dictatorial MGM film factory straitjacketed consummate improvisers like Keaton. (The studio also pressed the pillow against the faces of the Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy, and other free spirits.) When Keaton's long-time producer, Joseph Schenck, pulled the financial rug out from under him, the offer to join MGM's regimented studio system looked like a lifesaver. But Louis B. Mayer's and Irving Thalberg's promises of creative freedom and top-notch scripts quickly evaporated. Years later Keaton judged the move as a professional guillotine, and the new documentary found here on Disc One shows how correct Keaton's 20-20 hindsight was.

In 1928, when Keaton made The Cameraman as his first MGM title, he couldn't have known that this, one of his biggest hits, would be the final time he'd be allowed to make a film the way he knew how to make them. Never mind the irony that this silent comedy would be regarded so highly that MGM used it as a "training film" well into the 1950s; it was the model that the studio's new comedians — among them the Marx Brothers, Abbott and Costello, Red Skelton, and Mickey Rooney — had to study, and in some cases copy outright. In The Cameraman (75 min.) Keaton plays a hapless tintype photographer who hopes to up his station in life — and win the heart of pretty Sally (Marceline Day) — by competing with the big boys as a freelance MGM newsreel cameraman. Among other obstacles is a handsome rival cameraman with designs on Sally. Buster bungles his way to accidental success with the help of a newfound sidekick, an organ grinder's monkey. Directed by Edward Sedgwick, The Cameraman packs in reminders of the old Keaton magic. When he arrives at Yankee Stadium to film a ballgame, he discovers that it's an out-of-towner, so he runs the bases by himself before the empty stands. One of Keaton's best daredevil set pieces catches him in a fierce Chinatown tong war. Afterward, MGM never again permitted the stunt-happy star to put himself at risk. Because The Cameraman grossed Keaton's highest returns to date, MGM considered that a validation of the studio's working methods rather than of Keaton's. So it marked the beginning of the end. Still, Keaton himself held it to be one of his best films, and here it's easy to see why.

Keaton didn't hop on the MGM bandwagon without warnings. Charlie Chaplin told him that MGM would ruin him by helping him: "They'll warp your judgment. You'll get tired of arguing for things you know are right." Harold Lloyd said, "It's not your gang. You'll lose." As Keaton told biographer Rudi Blesh, he knew that his colleagues were right. But he was never the self-managing impresario like Chaplin, so, as he put it, "I made a mistake, just like in my comedies when I do just one little thing wrong and from then on I'm in soup up to my neck." The soup started rising with the next film in this set. MGM's ever-tightening control over Keaton's work made 1929's Spite Marriage (75 mins.) a limp romantic comedy. His last silent, it sees Keaton in love with a jilted, and inebriate, stage star (Dorothy Sebastian, who holds her own, and with whom Keaton was having an affair). She marries him to stick it to the boyfriend who married another woman. Although Spite Marriage delivers some funny bits, especially the "putting the snockered bride to bed" scene, Keaton's shrinking freedom is apparent.

Finally, his first talkie, 1930's Free and Easy (92 mins.) continues the floorward spiral in a plodding backstage musical that replaces Keaton's deadpan eloquence and ingenious instincts with stilted dialogue and a hodgepodge plot, set on MGM's Hollywood lot, devised to show off appearances by MGM headliners Robert Montgomery, Lionel Barrymore, Cecil B. DeMille, and others. Keaton had a good voice for talkies, but no love for puns and other flaccid verbal gags, rather than knife-sharp physical comedy, devised by meddling "experts." At the climax, his "Pagliacci" clown makeup seems like some sort of personal abuse. Today Free and Easy is a relic with more footnote than comedic value. Worse, severe alcoholism that started after his MGM move, and a shattering marriage at home, were taking a debilitating toll on Keaton. He is obviously drunk in a scene in Free and Easy.

Just three years after his virtuoso masterwork, The General, Keaton was the definition of a has-been. The glory days were over. Generations later, his rediscovery has fostered newfound appreciation that's still going strong, thanks in part to DVDs such as this.

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Courtesy of Warner Home Video, Turner Classic Movies' Buster Keaton Collection: TCM Archives presents all three films looking good and sounding fine. The Cameraman arrives remastered with a new score (in DD 2.0 stereo) by former Frank Zappa band member Arthur Barrow. It's a no-risks organ score that ranges from hokey to conservatively inventive. The film's source master shows consistent wear, though contrast and grayscale are quite good. Its long history as an oft-projected training film has left its mark, and some lost footage remains missing, but this edition is a significant improvement over previous home video versions. (After the original negative was lost in a 1960s vault fire, in the 1990s restoration expert David Shepard located a 35mm fine-grain positive master set aside as source material for an MGM highlights film. Whether that's the source print used for this disc isn't noted, though it's a good bet.)

The Cameraman's commentary track by film historian and author Glenn Mitchell offers an authoritative, scene-specific appraisal of the film as well as of Keaton's history before, during, and after its production. Spite Marriage is the best-preserved of the three, with DD 1.0 monaural audio from its original 1929 Vitaphone platters, the sound-on-disc technology Warner Bothers licensed from Western Electric. Its commentary track, by authors and Keaton specialists John Bengston and Jeffrey Vance, dishes up info on MGM's influence, the location shooting, and Keaton's troubled interactions with the studio. The Cameraman and Spite Marriage each comes with an optional two-minute introduction by TCM's Robert Osborne.

We also get brief video photo montages for the two silent films. Free and Easy looks and sounds (DD 1.0 monaural) okay while faring the worst. The welcome extra here is film historian Kevin Brownlow's poignant 2004 documentary, So Funny It Hurt: Buster Keaton and MGM (39 mins.). Narrated by Keaton's colleague and friend James Karen, this well-crafted retrospective chronicles Keaton's tragic professional and personal decline during his MGM period, with special attention to the three films on tap here. Rare footage includes archival interviews with Keaton, behind-the-scenes with Keaton in Manhattan filming The Cameraman, plus comparisons between Keaton's original MGM gags and how they were copied by Red Skelton and others.

The two discs come housed in a trifold digipak with slipcase.

—Mark Bourne

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