The introduction of sound did nothing for Buster Keaton, and yet Three Stooges director Jules White’s collaborations with Keaton — which consisted largely of being slapped in the face, pricked in the bottom or hit on the head with heavy objects — depended almost entirely on the accompanying sound effects. Sony’s new “Buster Keaton Collection” collects all 10 of the stone-faced comic’s Columbia two-reelers, and though glimpses of Keaton’s acrobatic physical wit are to be found, it’s White’s lowbrow antics that dominate. To the set’s credit, each of the comedies features commentary from Keaton experts, who honestly address the shorts’, well, shortcomings.
“I think Jules White would be happy to just have anvils fall out of the sky and hit people,” offers Buster Keaton Society president Patricia Eliot Tobias on the accompanying doc.
Sure enough, Keaton gets beaned with everything from flowerpots to sacks of flour in these shorts. Still, in his mid-40s when these shorts were made, Keaton proves himself a good sport, allowing himself to be upstaged by unworthy supporting players while repeating gags from his other films and gracefully performing his own pratfalls.
“When asked why he didn’t use stuntmen, he said, ‘Stuntmen don’t get laughs,'” film historian Ed Sikov explains.
Perhaps Keaton was too obliging. David Weddle suggests the shorts might have improved if Keaton had only stormed off the set the way W.C. Fields did when the material wasn’t working. Instead, Weddle says, Keaton went to Columbia topper Harry Cohn and told him he could produce great product if he “just spent a little bit more money.”
Cohn passed, and 65 years later, the studio finds itself compiling extras to compensate for an otherwise underwhelming Keaton collection.