Theatrical short films are a relic from a bygone era, but once upon a time they were a key way for fledgling writers, directors, actors, and actresses to hone their skills and reach wide audiences without too much risk on the part of producers. Sure, plenty of short films exist in the modern age, and they serve much the same function they did back then, but today’s shorts can only be viewed on the Internet or at film festivals. It would be nice to see them revived, much the same way Pixar has brought back the tradition of showing a short cartoon before the main feature.
In the case of Buster Keaton, his prodigious output of 19 two-reel shorts produced between 1920 and 1923 helped solidify his standing as one of the great comedic actors of his time, and now you can own all of them in this excellent three-disc set from Kino. While we’ll never see these films restored to the point that they’re preserved with nary a scratch or blemish on the prints, they’ve been remastered from high-definition elements and presented in as nice quality as you’ll find for a bunch of 90-year-old movies.
Four shorts are also presented in digitally enhanced versions: “The High Sign,” “The Boat,” “Cops,” and “The Balloonatic.” Don’t worry, “digitally enhanced” doesn’t mean that one of the Blinking Buzzards gang members shoots first in “The High Sign,” or that the vessel in “The Boat” is replaced by a CGI version — it simply means that some digital noise-reduction has been applied to the image, which, as Kino notes in its preface to each of the four shorts, can subtly undermine the integrity of the image. The original, un-digitally-enhanced versions are also available, so you can compare and contrast to your heart’s content; personally, I was fine without digital enhancement.
When I reviewed Kino’s “Lost Keaton” a year ago, I noted that I say my eight- and three-year-old kids in front of some of those sound shorts to see how they reacted. They had a blast, and I’m happy to report that they had the same reaction to some of these shorts, despite the lack of sound. And this was on the same day they had seen “Cars 2,” thus proving that not all of today’s kids are jaded by modern movies. If my kids can appreciate movies made 90 years apart from each other, I bet many others can too.
If you’re a Keaton fan, or just want to learn more about him, you’ll love the wealth of extras on these discs. Fourteen of the shorts have accompanying visual essays that run about five to seven minutes each and discuss not only the films’ origins but also other things of interest from that part of Keaton’s career. The essays function much like film studies classes and should not be missed. Disc two also contains outtakes from five of the shorts, since different versions of various scenes turned up during the restoration process.
But that’s not all. John Bengtson’s four-part “Silent Echoes” featurette looks at the various places in Los Angeles where Keaton shot his films and compares what they looked like then and what they look like today. Two more shorts round out the discs: “Character Studies,” a five-minute 1922 short with cameos by Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Fatty Arbuckle, and others, and a three-minute excerpt from “Seeing Stars,” which commemorates a 1922 gathering by Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, and others to form the Independent Screen Artists’ Guild.
Finally, Kino included a short booklet by Jeffrey Vance that covers Keaton’s career and discusses each of the 19 shorts in a little more depth.