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Tuesday, May 08, 2007


I recently watched the DVD boxed set "The Buster Keaton Collection" (Sony Pictures), which presents 10 short comedies starring my cinematic hero, Buster Keaton.

I assumed they'd be silent shorts. To my surprise, Buster made 10 sounds shorts at Columbia in 1939-41, the home of the Three Stooges. Eight of the 10 were directed by Jules White, the guy who helmed most of the Stooges' shorts. The sets, props, film stock, sound effects and players are all very recognizable from the Stooges shorts (which are BURNED into the memory of anyone my age -- 48 and counting -- from the Philadelphia television viewing area). Vernon Dent and Bud Jamison, familiar faces from the Stooges shorts, are in most of these. So these are kind of like Three Stooges shorts with Buster Keaton instead of the Three Stooges!

I watched each short twice, with and without commentary. The commentary was excellent throughout. Nobody is pretending that this is Buster's finest work, but nobody is outright trashing it, either. Nor SHOULD they. Everyone seems knowledgable on which gags were Buster's and which gags were foisted on Buster by White.

Buster is amazing in these. He's in his mid 40s and taking a LOT of punishment. Sometimes he resembles the '20s "young genius" Buster; sometimes he resembles the '60s "beach party movie" Buster.

"Pest from the West" is the best of the bunch, and the "purest" Buster. It also has the biggest budget. Buster wears a lot of costumes and sings a hilarious song accompanying himself on ukulele. "Mooching Through Georgia" is a Civil War piece with echoes to Buster's masterpiece, "The General." "Nothing But Pleasure" has lots of car gags. "Pardon My Birthmarks" is copy boy Buster on a train with a parrot, a gangster's wife and, eventually, the gangster. "General Nuisance" has a hilarious dance routine between Buster and Elsie Ames (who is in most of these and, though a bit over-the-top, matches Buster pratfall for pratfall). Other titles are "The Taming of the Snood," "The Spook Speaks," "His Ex Marks the Spot," "So You Won't Squawk" and "She's Oil Mine."

The Columbia shorts represent Buster's brief -- and final -- return to old-fashioned slapstick in short form. Buster never really did it again after this, so it's an historically significant series and a real find for Buster fans.


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