Eureka Entertainment’s second volume of feature films from Buster Keaton might not include famous titles like The General, Sherlock Jr or The Cameraman, but its still a joy to watch,and shows his growth as a filmmaker. These three are light on stunts but possess real heart and feel very modern compared to other silent films from the era.
Everyone knows Keaton’s death defying stunts but he was also a genius of composition, making every shot funny ( I still maintain the train sight gag from One Week remains the best visual joke in the history of cinema). Keaton knows exactly where to put the camera to get the most laughs, and he does so to great effect here.
Take an early scene in Battling Butler, where the love-struck couple are so caught up in the moment that they don’t realise their table is sinking into the mud. It’s a beautifully constructed joke that’s framed perfectly and is indicative of Keaton’s visual style, which has more in common with Wes Anderson than Charlie Chaplin.
First in this collection is The Navigator, the most ambitious of the three. A comedy following two clueless strangers who find themselves stuck on an unmanned ship, adrift at sea, this is essentially a series of ingenious slapstick routines set on a boat. One of Keaton’s most visually inventive films, he really makes the most of the nautical setting, most memorably in the rotating submarine set, the emergency ladder down the side of the ship and the breathtaking underwater sequences, complete with a swordfish fight!
Next is Battling Butler, the most complete film in the boxset, which has Keaton pretending to be a champion boxer in order to marry the girl he loves. Featuring some beautiful cinematography that was supposedly a source of inspiration for Martin Scorsese when making Raging Bull, it’s a light story, packed with a staggering amount of detail.
An early scene shows Keaton’s clueless character unable to find a single animal to shoot while hunting, despite being literally surrounded by wildlife. Keaton turns the screen into a visual puzzle, with animals hidden in every available space on-screen. It also features a thrillingly visceral climactic fight, showcasing what an athlete Keaton was in real life, as well as a great actor – the pained look he gives his wife as he’s getting beaten is genuinely heartbreaking.
The final film in the collection is Seven Chances, which has Keaton as a business owner on the brink of ruin, until he learns that he’s inherited seven million dollars, on the condition that he gets married before the end of the day.
This feels like the most modern film in the collection, with it’s emphasis on plot over spectacle – it reminded me of What’s Up Doc? in that for the most part it’s a screwball comedy of manners, as Keaton desperately searches for someone to marry, and it ends with a virtuoso chase sequence, featuring some breathtaking stunts, including the legendary boulders scene. For me this one feels the most modern, with a touching relationship at its core and a sweet coda right at the end.
This is genuinely a superb collection: The Navigator features some excellent stunts and might be the most indicative of Keaton’s style, but for me it’s the other two that stick in the memory. Seven Chances and Battling Butler both place the emphasis on telling a coherent story over jokes and are all the more satisfying for it. Keaton was truly an all-rounder and these films are the perfect showcase for his talents as an actor, a physical comedian, and director.
It’s no secret that I love Eureka’s Masters Of Cinema series, and this is no exception. They’re all lovingly transferred from 4K restorations and look incredible. Each film comes packed with various commentaries from film historians, and there is also a special, short silent film from Harry Sweet which really helps set the scene before the main event.