|Eureka have been steadily releasing most of the silent feature films of comedy star Buster Keaton, and in Volume 3 we are treated to Our Hospitality (1923), Go West (1925) and College (1927). The first is a spoof of Southern discomfort on the theme of the feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys, set in the Appalachians and seeing Buster trying to avoid being murdered while romancing the daughter of his supposed greatest enemy, someone he had no idea existed until he arrives in the region to collect his inheritance. As with many a Keaton effort, it culminates in a series of stunts, this time where he is swept down a raging torrent and over a waterfall.
Click here read a review of Our Hospitality.
Needless to say, his physicality was amazing, especially today in these days when these sorts of effects are completed with the far safer computer graphics. In Go West, Buster found his sweeter side as he makes best pals (one hesitates to call it a romance) with a cow named Brown Eyes, which becomes his only friend in the world. Although demonstrating a knack for gentle comedy here, Keaton was not above performing those stunts for his finale, where he rides the cow through Los Angeles at the head of a stampede while dressed in a red devil outfit, all the more remarkable for being performed without any effects whatsoever: everything you see, he did.
Click here to read a review of Go West.
College was his movie he made to pick himself up and dust himself down after his epic The General failed at the box office; although it is judged as one of his masterpieces now, back then audiences were confused as to how funny it was supposed to be and didn't turn out for it. College represented the star getting back on safer ground with a series of basic gags built around his weakling character trying to get back in the good books of the girl he loves by making something of himself as an athlete, but failing in ridiculous ways until he devises a method, partly through luck, partly through skill borne of desperation, to win her heart again with an action-packed climax.
Click here to read a review of College.
Of course, every time Buster played a weakling trying to get fit, it was difficult not to notice what tremendous shape he was in, and the idea that he would have trouble getting a girlfriend was somewhat farcical when you knew that he would often return to his dressing room to discover a female fan waiting for him, stripped off and ready to seduce him, a situation he was too polite to turn down. No wonder his marriage to Natalie Talmadge (his co-star in Our Hospitality) didn't last, but that sorrow was part of the Keaton legend, and made him so much more sympathetic to film buffs than winners like Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, who invested wisely.
But interestingly on that triple disc set, among a wealth of extra features there is on disc three Keaton's final starring role, in a short lasting barely half an hour, called The Railrodder. This was made in the nineteen-sixties, when he was at the end of his career and enjoying an upswing in interest in his silent classics. The National Film Board of Canada were the instigators, and offered him the opportunity to act out some bits of business on a railroad set against some of the country's most lush and attractive scenery, much as he had been keen to do in his earlier, rural-set comedies. Better yet, there was a documentary made about the production at the same time.
That was entitled Buster Keaton Rides Again, a demonstration of the NFB getting their money's worth by essentially filming the same project twice at once, the documentary in black and white, the comedy in colour. The Railrodder may not be the funniest thing he ever made, indeed for much of it, it looks like a tourist promotion, but every so often he'll make you chuckle, and the fact it was released shortly before his death at 70 in 1966 is very poignant. Oddly, it was strange to see him not so much old doing his old shtick, but a silent comedy with him in full colour, though that was chosen to show off the beauty of the landscape he travels through as he goes cross-Canada.
The documentary shows him smoking a lot, and when he coughs you may wince, knowing he was already on the way to his demise from lung cancer. But his third wife Eleanor is obviously perfect for him, being able to guide and manage him as, for instance, he did not handle crowds too well, and when he gets grumpy with the director Gerald Potterton for not filming a gag to his specifications, we can see how she would calm him down. And of course, he gets his way, and he's correct, it does play better the way he wanted. Incidental charms like joking with a train, enthusiastically reminiscing about Laurel and Hardy, or signing autographs for delighted fans, and even the ending, where he plays a little vaudeville tune like his parents taught him, create a light but welcome insight into a great star in his twilight years. Overall, a valuable set for its entertainment and its appreciation.
[Those Eureka Blu-ray set extras in full:
Our Hospitality: Presented in 1080p from a 2K restoration
Go West: Presented in 1080p from a 4K restoration
College: Presented in 1080p from a 2K restoration
Our Hospitality: new audio commentary by silent film historian Rob Farr
Hospitality [55 mins]: a shorter work-print version of Our Hospitality, presented with optional commentary by film historian Polly Rose
Making Comedy Beautiful [26 mins]: video essay by Patricia Eliot Tobias
Go West: new audio commentary by film historians Joel Goss and Bruce Lawton
Go West: new video essay by John Bengtson (Silent Echoes / Silent Traces / Silent Visions) on Go West's filming locations
A Window on Keaton [28 mins]: new video essay by David Cairns
Go West [1923, 12 mins]: short film
College: video essay by John Bengtson on College's filming locations
The Railrodder [1965, 24 mins]: produced by the National Film Board of Canada and starring Buster Keaton in one of his final film roles
The Railrodder: optional audio commentary with director Gerald Potterton and cameraman David De Volpi
Buster Keaton Rides Again [1965, 55 mins]: documentary feature produced concurrently with, the filming of The Railrodder
Q&A with Gerald Potterton [55 mins]: audio recording of a post-screening Q&A with The Railrodder director Gerald Potterton, and David De Volpi
PLUS: A 60-PAGE perfect bound collector's book featuring new writing by Philip Kemp; essays on all three films by Imogen Sara Smith; a piece by John Bengtson on the filming locations of Our Hospitality; Gerald Potterton's original treatment for The Railrodder; and an appreciation of Keaton and The Railrodder by writer and silent cinema aficionado Chris Seguin.]