Buster Keaton’s sound work has an atomic structure very different from his more popular and revered silent output. In his best films, like Go West and The Cameraman, Keaton always walks into the center of a very fast, often embittered situation, and his humiliation, in all its forms, becomes a dreamer’s natural response to the intimidation of the modern world. In short, the Great Stone Face revolutionized a satirical idea of the pratfall as an instrument of release. His sound work is often very funny, but the surrealism of these films, namely the 10 shorts he made for Columbia between 1940 and 1941, never feels particularly rooted in a sense of real-world exasperation. In Jules White’s films the comedy is almost masochistic, as if Keaton had been thrown into a serrated Rube Goldberg maze just for the sake of watching him bounce around the room. These shorts often begin and end at random and move so fast they come to suggest black-and-white versions of a Tashlin Looney Tunes cartoon. Except The Spook Speaks, in which Buster takes care of a magician’s home and comes under attack by all its booby traps is so contrived and predictable that a comparison to one of those Disney haunted house cartoons with Mickey, Donald, and Goofy seems more apt. In the more unsuccessful shorts, a series of not-so-clever play on words or calculated bits of expositional dialogue too often distracts from Keaton’s physical talents: In General Nuisance, a butcher at an army outpost is referred to as a “cut-up” because he thinks the people around him are slabs of meat, and in She’s Oil Mine (ha!), an oil heiress played by Keaton regular Elsie Ames neatly sets up her crisis by telling her maid, “If that’s Clementi calling, say I’m out. He only loves my oil wells, not me.” There’s so much tripping and falling in His Ex Makes the Spot that it comes as no surprise the short was written by a circus clown, Felix Agler. But there are rhythmic hints of the old Buster in some of these shorts: the highlight of the tolerable Mooching Through Georgia is the comedian’s repeated attempts to escape a shoot-out during a Civil War-era skirmish; Pardon My Berth Marks would be a complete waste if it weren’t for the pratfalls inside the corridor of a train’s sleeping car, which together suggest a commentary on Buster’s relationship to his audience; and in The Pest of the West, Buster not only gets his best costume changes but also gets to wrangle with his best leading lady since Go West‘s Brown Eyes.
Given their age, the image and sound quality of these shorts is rather remarkable.
Very informative and boldly critical commentaries by an assortment of Keaton scholars (Ed Watz, David Weddle, Patricia E. Tobias of the Buster Keaton Society, and her husband Joe Adamson), some of whom pop up again in "Buster Keaton: From Silents to Shorts," a great introduction for Keaton novices and experts alike. Also included here is a series of previews and a reproduction of an actual annotated script with a foreword from Buster Keaton's granddaughter.
The films aren't great but they're a must-see for the Keaton aficionado.