“Timeless.” That word gets thrown around a lot when referring to classic movies and influential stars and directors. To test out that idea, I sat two of my kids, ages eight and three, in front of the TV for some of the shorts in “Lost Keaton.” (The 18-year-old was busy doing other things at the time, unsurprisingly.)
The result of my admittedly unscientific test? Buster Keaton’s comedy does indeed pass the test of time: both kids, particularly the eight-year-old, enjoyed what they saw, with the older one even wanting to see more of these shorts at a later time. The 16-to-21-minute films in this collection may not offer the most pristine visual quality, nor do they feature story depth on par with “The General” or Keaton’s other classics, but, yes, you could still consider them timeless, in my view.
This collection is called “Lost Keaton” because the shorts contained in it are largely forgotten and are considered inferior by most film scholars. However, there are diamonds in the rough, particularly “Grand Slam Opera,” which Keaton wrote. It tells the story of Elmer Butts (most of his characters in these shorts are named Elmer), who hopes to win a a radio amateur hour show by dancing and juggling. The physical gags are classic Keaton.
Charles Lamont directed nearly all of these shorts, which were made for Educational Films, a company that had stopped living up to its name by the 1930s. Conventional wisdom holds that Keaton struggled during the transition to talkies, and that’s why he wound up working for a lesser-known studio. While his greatest works were behind him, these films show that he still had tremendous screen presence.
The bonus materials in this two-disc set include extensive text notes for each film by “The Sound of Buster Keaton” author David Macleod, a photo gallery, and the one-minute “Why They Call Him Buster,” which collects the best pratfalls from these shorts.