Kino Lorber has a wonderful habit of releasing silent public domain films in proper and worthy restorations, often rivaling the art-house productions of the equally wonderful Criterion Collection. The latest to be restored to 2K glory, in a combined effort from Kino and Lobster Films, are classics from Buster Keaton’s oeuvre, packaged two to a case, and replete with extras that remind us just what a brilliant comedian old Stoneface truly was.
Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)
Keaton’s Steamboat Bill, Jr. dates from 1928, and is Keaton’s last independent silent film before he made the move to MGM. In it, he’s Willie Canfield, Jr., the dandy-ish son of a gruff old steamboat captain (Ernest Torrance) who returns home from college to visit his dear old father. Willie also happens upon his sweetheart Kitty King (Marion Bryan), the daughter of a rival steamboat magnate John King (Tom McGuire). Comedy ensues as Willie Sr. tries to turn his effete son into a hardened old salt, while Willie Jr. must win the girl and rescue his father from being run out of business.
Steamboat Bill, Jr. brings together many of Keaton’s favored and most recognizable tropes: the young dandy trying to win the girl, the son attempting to impress the father, and the little guy facing off against encroaching obsolescence and in danger of being crushed by bigger, wealthier men. The sight gags come thick and fast, building up to the glorious (and famous) hurricane scene in which Keaton destroys most of the set and very nearly gets crushed by a falling building. But while Keaton is known for his acrobatic comedy (seriously – I’ve never seen a man fall on his head quite so much), there’s much to be said for the smaller visual gags that he carries off with such aplomb. In one scene, he attempts to signal to his imprisoned father that the loaf of bread he’s carrying has a file in it, all without tipping off the jailer. Keaton actually uses a song – in a silent film, no less – which he uses to make gestures to indicate the presence of the file. In another scene, he tries on a series of ridiculous hats – quickly discarding each, even his famous pork pie hat that had become his symbol.
The restoration of Steamboat Bill, Jr. is a lovely one, smoothing out the film and avoiding unnecessary crackles and pops so common in silent film restorations. New scores provide punctuation to the silent antics, and the Blu-ray also includes an informative audio commentary from two film historians.
The second disc in this collection is College, another Keaton classic from later in his silent career. As with Steamboat Bill, Jr., College features Keaton as Ronald, a bit of a dandy whose lack of athleticism keeps him from the girl of his dreams, Mary (Anne Cornwall). As he sacrifices his collegiate studies for sports, he finds that he’s completely incapable of playing baseball, going out for track, or rowing…until the Dean forces the rowing coach to take him on as coxswain.
The joke, of course, is that Keaton’s “failed” athletics are spectacularly athletic. As he cycles through every track event, he succeeds in not completing the high jump, knocking over every hurdle (without actually tripping), and endangering the whole track team with his attempts at throwing the javelin. As with many of Keaton’s films, the sight gags and acrobatics become more and more elaborate until the film’s climax, encompassing a boat race followed by a breathless dash from the docks to save Mary.
There are a few minor stumbles in College, however, that slightly cut through its otherwise stellar antics. Ronald’s attempts to find a job to pay for his tuition backfire, leading to a sequence with Keaton in blackface as a waiter. If you can look past the cringe-worthiness of the sequence, there are some good sight gags, but it’s still a fairly uncomfortable scene.
College is also an excellent restoration, and has an even more elaborate series of extras. In fact, there are two extras film on here: a twenty minute collegiate comedy with Carol Lombard entitled Run, Girl, Run, and The Scribe, which was Keaton’s final onscreen performance. Neither are much to write home about, but they provide diverting entertainment. Film scholars will be further edified by historical commentary, and a tour of College’s filming locations.
There are few comedians like Buster Keaton – even among his fellow silent clowns, he’s uniquely daring in his acrobatics and in his love of cinema. While neither of these films quite hits the calibre of Sherlock Jr. or The General, they are hardly lesser films – they’re just as eye-popping as they were in 1928.
Steamboat Bill, Jr. and College are available in new stellar restorations from Kino beginning February 21.