Buster Keaton Classics on Blu-ray

Feb. 1, 2017
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Although he was born into vaudeville and debuted on stage at age three, Buster Keaton seemed acutely aware of being a face on a screen; his cool manner would have been lost on stage but held the center of gravity when in front of a camera.

Four of his films have just been reissued on two Blu-ray sets. Each includes a classic paired with a lesser known—The General (1926) coupled with Three Ages (1923) and Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928) with College (1927). All contain something of interest and hilarity. In Three Ages, the stone-faced actor behaves as if his Roman centurion costume isn’t preposterous or that there’s nothing unusual about riding on a brontosaurus (good special effects in its day).

However, The General stands as his greatest film as well as one of the most enduring silent movies. Co-directed and written by Keaton, The General is a Civil War story twinned around mad chases between steam-driven trains. Nowadays some might wonder why Keaton’s protagonist was on the Confederate side, but Hollywood in those years and long after leaned South. Otherwise, there’s nothing to question about the film 90 years on. The chases are still as thrilling as they are comical and are masterpieces of film editing. Few intertitles break the action. Keaton mastered the pure cinema of visual story telling. Words would have been superfluous.

As with many of his movies, The General spoofs the expectations of movies and fiction conventions—heroics and romance are made to look funny but without rejecting the emotions underlying those conventions. The focus is on Keaton’s face and body language. He is generally imperturbable against calamity. Effete and uncertain of himself with women, his characters are often towered over by bigger, stronger men. But they are resourceful and enjoy flashes of good luck. Keaton somehow manages to navigate a world of obstacles, win the race and get the girl despite a string of comic mishaps.

Keaton’s cool determination in the face of catastrophe appears almost post-modern a century later. It’s hard to imagine anyone emulating Charlie Chaplin’s tramp in the 21st century but Keaton—his poker-faced refusal to surrender is still inspiring.

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