Cops (1922)

The second entry in our ongoing Short Film Month is an example of Buster Keaton as a short film actor and producer in his film Cops.

Buster Keaton in Cops (1922)

Buster Keaton started producing, directing and writing his own films (often in collaboration with Edward Cline) around 1920. Before that, he had usually acted as a sidekick to “Fatty” Arbuckle in films like The Bell Boy (1918). In his own films, Keaton started experimenting with more sophisticated stories and stunts. In a historical retrospect, the short films of the first few years can be seen as preparation for the true masterworks that were to follow in the shape of his feature-length films, such as Our Hospitality (1923) or Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928).

Cops is about a man whose girlfriend threatens to leave him unless he shows some initiative and starts a business. Chance throws him into the moving business, and from there on it is chaos. When Buster accidentally happens to throw a bomb(!) at a police parade, things quickly escalate into one of the most celebrated chase sequences in all of Hollywood history.

Like many other silent films at the Internet Archive, the visually best version of Cops does not have a soundtrack. If that bothers you, there is also a version with a soundtrack, but considerably inferior image quality.

Below, I list other Keaton films at the Internet Archive from the same period as Cops. Technical quality varies.

This film is best enjoyed for the magnificent stunts.

Buster Keaton in Cops (1922)

Cops
Download link
Year: 1922
Running time: 18 min
Director: Buster Keaton, Edward F. Cline
Stars: Buster Keaton
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (640×482)
Soundtrack: None
Best file format: MPEG4 (157 M)

The Cameraman (1928)

In 1928, just before making his last silent films, Buster Keaton moved from United Artists to MGM, a move that in retrospect ruined his career. In a very short time, he went from making immortal silent classics like The General (1926) and Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928) – films where he had total creative control – to acting in cheap comedies. In between, he got to do one single film for MGM in his own trademark style, The Cameraman.

Buster Keaton and Marceline Day in The Camerman (1928)

Keaton plays a still photographer who wants to become a newsreel cameraman. He also falls in love with a secretary at MGM, so he spends the rest of the film trying to impress both her and his boss. Further complications involve an ill-tempered policeman, a gang-war in Chinatown and an organ-grinder’s monkey.

It is interesting to compare this film with Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929). Even though they are vastly different films, they give much information about what camerawork was like in the 1920s. Note, for example, how light the cameras were. With the coming of sound, cameras had to be made noiseless, so they became much heavier. The advanced camerawork of the 1920s was not to be seen again for many decades.

The Cameraman was co-directed by Edward Sedgwick, who went on to direct several Buster Keaton comedies. Since Keaton had by that time lost his creative control, quality varied wildly, but for instance Speak Easily (1932) is worth watching.

This film is best enjoyed for its high comic and romantic values. Perhaps to an even higher degree than other Keaton films, this one features some excellent acting. In some scenes, the acting is very low-key, very beautiful, and really more reminiscent of what would be typical in Hollywood ten or fifteen years later.

Buster Keaton in The Cameraman (1928)

The Cameraman
Download link
Year: 1928
Running time: 1 h 15 min
Director: Edward Sedgwick, Buster Keaton
Stars: Buster Keaton
Image quality: Good
Resolution: High (960×720)
Soundtrack: Excellent
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: MPEG4 (1.1 G)

Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)

Even though Buster Keaton had an acting career of nearly 50 years, his greatest period can be narrowed down to only about six years, starting with Our Hospitality in 1923 and ending about 1929. One of the last great silent comedies with Keaton was Steamboat Bill, Jr. It was the last silent he made for Universal Pictures, and the last film where he had almost total creative freedom.

Buster Keaton in Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)

In this film, Keaton plays a young man who has been studying at college, and is now about to be reunited with his father, whom he does not really know. He is vain and foppish, and his father, the steamboat skipper, is annoyed by the difficulties he finds in teaching his son the trade of riverboat navigation. Things take a turn for the worse when the son falls in love with the daughter of the father’s worst competitor. Keaton uses this simple setup to create another of his great masterpieces.

The meticulously orchestrated and spectacular stunts (see for example the breakneck fall above) are, as in any good Keaton, the film’s trademark. Keaton’s perfect sense of timing, along with his fine acting skills, are the main reasons why this film still works today, almost ninety years after its release.

Unfortunately, the film was a box office bomb. It has gone down in history as a great classic, but was not received well enough by its contemporary audience, and this was the reason why Keaton fell out of favour with his employer.

This film is best enjoyed for one of Keaton’s best and most well-known stunts, as an entire building falls down around him. Keaton’s acrobatics, and this stunt in particular, has been cited as a major influence on Hong Kong star Jackie Chan, who has frequently been compared with Buster Keaton.

Buster Keaton and Marion Byron in Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)

Steamboat Bill, Jr.
Download link
Year: 1928
Running time: 1 h 9 min
Director: Charles Reisner, Buster Keaton
Stars: Buster Keaton
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Soundtrack: Good; synchronized with the images
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG4 (808 M)

Our Hospitality (1923)

I happened to notice that it was almost a year ago that I last made a post about Buster Keaton. Too long, of course, so time to write a bit about Our Hospitality.

Buster Keaton in Our Hospitality (1923)

When Willie McKay (Buster Keaton) inherits his father’s old house, he travels from New York to the American South to take possession, only to find himself caught up in the middle of an old family feud. Naturally, he falls in love with the rival family’s daughter. This could have been a drama or a tragedy, but when Keaton is at large things get mixed and messed up plenty, especially when the daughter unknowningly invites him into their home, where her father’s and brothers’ gentlemen hospitality will not let them touch the last in the line of their hated rivals.

Our Hospitality was Keaton’s second feature film after Three Ages, and is sometimes mentioned as his first masterpiece. At any rate, it was the film in which he first perfected his unique story-telling formula, combining solid plots with meticulously planned slapstick choreography. This kind of movie would later culminate with The General (1926), a film with which Our Hospitality shares many themes.

Funny piece of trivia: Baby Willie McKay, in the beginning of the film, is played by Buster Keaton, Jr., Buster’s own baby son.

This film is best enjoyed when you are in the mood for some good laughs. Like most of Keaton’s 1920s comedies, this one still holds up very well indeed. The final scene is totally unforgettable.

Buster Keaton and Natalie Talmadge in Our Hospitality (1923)

Our Hospitality
Download link
Year: 1923
Running time: 1 h 13 min
Directors: Buster Keaton, John G. Blystone
Stars: Buster Keaton
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (480×360)
Soundtrack: Acceptable; piano music
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: MPEG4 (958 M)

College (1927)

There can be no doubt, in my mind at least, that Buster Keaton was the master of comedy in the 1920s. Sure, Chaplin and Lloyd were also brilliant, each in his own way, but none of them reached Keaton’s levels in terms of perfection, athleticism and timing. He was, simply put, damn funny.

Lucky for us, then, that practically all of his best films are available at the Internet Archive. One good example, and one of my personal favourites, is College.

Buster Keaton playing baseball in College (1927)

Keaton here plays the bookworm Ronald who really wants to study to perfect his life, but the girl he falls in love with will only accept him if he joins the college with the best athletics, and proves that he can handle sports as well as books.

If you watch this film because you are interested in sports in the 1920s (not a very bad reason) then you will have to wait a while before the real athletic action starts. But it is worth the wait!

In addition to the sports, there are some absolutely wonderfully funny scenes with Keaton as a bartender. Well worth watching for those alone.

If you cannot stand silent film without a soundtrack, there is another copy with a piano score (not sure how good it is) but considerably lower image quality.

This film is best enjoyed by any fan of silent film in general or Buster Keaton in particular. Keaton really shows how to make a perfect comedy here.

Buster Keaton failing at the pole vault in College (1927)

College
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Year: 1927
Running time: 1 h 5 min
Director: James W Horne, Buster Keaton
Stars: Buster Keaton
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Soundtrack: None
Best file format: MPG4 (933 M)

Speak Easily (1932)

In the late 1920s, Buster Keaton had made a series of silents that are still considered by many to be among the greatest comedies ever made. It culminated with The General in 1926, which was a marvellous artistic success, but a terrible commercial failure. The result was that Keaton lost the total artistic control he had previously enjoyed, and coinciding with the advent of sound film, he got a contract with MGM that he felt stifled his creativity completely.

By the time that he made Speak Easily in 1932, he was no longer directing, only acting, and to boot his marriage was going downhill along with his career. As a result, Keaton fell to heavy drinking, which cost him his job, his wife and most of his money. Eventually, he found new love and recovered from his bad habits, but by then it was too late to rescue his damaged career. Near the end of his life, however, he did make some fairly popular TV shows, and he had minor roles in a number of big movies.

Buster Keaton, Thelma Todd and Jimmy Durante in Speak Easily (1932)

It is easy to dismiss all of Keaton’s sound films as being of inferior quality. And while that is true compared with his best silents, they are not universally bad throughout. In fact, Speak Easily is a pretty neat little comedy. Keaton plays a professor who is badly in need of some friends and a change in life. When he learns that he has inherited a large sum of money, he leaves everything behind and jumps on a train in order to discover new things about himself and the world. It later turns out that there was no inheritance, but by that time he has already promised to pay for a mediocre travelling vaudeville company’s big break with a new show on Broadway.

For this film, and several others made around the same time, Keaton was paired with Jimmy Durante, another well-known Hollywood comedian. It was competently directed by Edward Sedgwick, and the plot is well held together with nice dialogue and some good stunts, many of them created by Keaton himself. Fans of the Marx brothers will be able to recognize several stunts that were reused when Keaton was hired to create gags for A Night at the Opera (1935).

This film is best enjoyed if you are curious about Keaton’s development after his silent period. Speak Easily may be nowhere near Keaton’s masterworks, but it is by no means bad. Keaton shows that he is a splendid actor, and the cooperation with co-star Durante works very well, even though they are basically two very different kinds of actors. Speak Easily is an endearing and enjoyable, albeit harmless, little comedy. Much better than the other Keaton soundies I have seen, such as Parlor, Bedroom and Bath (1931) and Li’l Abner (1940) (both available for download).

Buster Keaton in Speak Easily (1932)

Speak Easily
Download link
Year: 1932
Running time: 1 h 21 min
Director: Edward Sedgwick
Stars: Buster Keaton, Jimmy Durante
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG2 (2.1 G)

Three Ages (1923)

A few weeks ago, I wrote about The Birth of a Nation (1915). Griffith was so upset about the charges of racism in that picture that he decided to make a new film about intolerance. The result, aptly named Intolerance (1916), is a majestic epic in its own right and almost as classic and famous as The Birth of a Nation. Like many other great classics, it is at the Internet Archive, free for anyone to download. No strings attached, not even any ads. Oh, someone has to pay for the server space and so on, but let us ignore that for the moment.

So there is such a thing as a free lunch. And yet, sometimes it comes at a price. The price you have to pay is that you get to see a lousy version of this timeless classic. The problems attached to it are not uncommon for IA offerings: The copy it was ditigized from is in bad shape and incomplete; there is no tinting; the resolution is quite low; and to top it off, there is no soundtrack. No, if you want to see a good film, I recommend that you find a good DVD edition and purchase it. Or download something else from the IA.

Three Ages, for instance. Intolerance was a financial fiasco, yet seven years after its release, it was still famous (or notorious) enough that Buster Keaton saw the value in making a parody of it.

Buster Keaton in Three Ages (1923)

Unlike modern movie parodies, such as the Scary Movie series, Three Ages does not depend on familiarity with the original for full enjoyment. Essentially, it only borrows the form, but then Keaton tells his own story, without feeling that he has to mimick the predecessor.

Intolerance suffers from tendencies to be overloaded, confusing and hard to follow as it skips around between stories, sometimes without very clear connections. Three Ages, if anything, suffers from the opposite. It is almost too tidy and obvious, leaving very little for the audience to think about. Then again, this is comedy, not meant to be taken too seriously or to evoke any feelings beyond happiness and well-being. Fair enough. Take it for what it is.

For Three Ages does make you feel well. While far from Keaton’s best, it is yet a very neat little comedy, and extremely well-produced. And even though it lacks the epic grandeur of Intolerance, it is nevertheless majestic in its own right, with several impressive sets. And unlike the older film, this one can boast a number of brilliant Keaton stunts, for instance Buster riding in a car that falls to pieces (see above) or pole-vaulting from horse-back (see below). That alone makes it worth seeing.

This film is best enjoyed if you are already a Buster Keaton fan. If you are new to Keaton, it would be better to start with, for example, his masterpiece The General (1926).

Buster Keaton in Three Ages (1923)

Three Ages
Download link
Year: 1923
Running time: 1 h 4 min
Director: Buster Keaton, Edward F. Cline
Stars: Buster Keaton
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×576)
Soundtrack: Good; synchronized with the images
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: Cinepack (992 M)