Unfairly overshadowed by the works of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton was arguably the greatest of the silent clowns. Now, Eureka Video’s Masters of Cinema series brings together three of his best pictures – Sherlock Jr., The General and Steamboat Bill, Jr. – all lovingly remastered with 4K restorations.
At only 45 minutes, the collection’s first film, Sherlock Jr., barely qualifies as a feature, yet crams in more ingenuity, wit and innovation than a whole summer’s worth of bloated modern blockbusters. Keaton plays a cinema usher who dreams of becoming a detective and marrying his sweetheart. But when a love rival frames him for thieving, his beloved fiancée rejects him and he escapes to the projection room of his cinema.
While watching a romantic pot-boiler, he falls asleep, dreaming that he is watching his fiancée and his nemesis on the screen. Although Steamboat Bill, Jr., and The General are arguably more ambitious and artistically successful, the sheer technique of this sequence is unsurpassed by either of those films. The captivating spectacle of Keaton seamlessly jumping in and out of the screen, achieved with a flawless combination of in-camera sleight of hand, is among the most magical in cinema.
The General, probably the best-known film in the collection, is also the most accomplished. Replicating the basic plot of Sherlock Jr., Keaton finds himself an unlikely hero of the American Civil War. Essentially one long chase sequence, The General exemplifies Keaton’s preoccupation with locomotives, while imbuing his hero with an accidental dignity among the pratfalls and slapstick shenanigans. Johnnie Gray’s (Keaton) fighting for the South invariably sits uncomfortably today, but nevertheless it’s impossible not to be moved when his farcical heroism is finally acknowledged in the film’s closing moments, helped along by Carl Davis’ timeless 1987 score.
Steamboat Bill, Jr. (sharing its namesake with the first Mickey Mouse cartoon), is not quite as masterful as The General, yet its story of a son and his estranged steamboat captain father is no less moving. At its heart, Steamboat Bill, Jr. is about the conflict between class, masculinity and filial loyalty, framed by a series of increasingly elaborate stunts. It is Keaton’s sense of put-upon, clownish decency that bonds the film’s farce with its humanity. And the hurricane-set climax is a stunning marriage of Keaton’s physical talents with elaborate eye-popping special effects. Buildings are swept in to the sky in front of our very eyes and a wall falls on our hero, famously sparing him for the grace of a conveniently placed window.
Eureka’s collection is by no means definitive – there is no sign of Keaton’s earlier films, nor are his other celebrated works like The Navigator given a place in the set. Nevertheless, the three films presented here are undoubtedly among his best, and very much representative of the work of one of Hollywood’s true icons.