Buster Keaton was arguably the cinema’s first modernist: an old fashioned romantic with a 20th century mind behind the deadpan visage. His films brim with some of the most breathtaking stunts and ingenious gags ever put on film, all perfectly engineered to look effortless.
It all began with his first solo flights: 19 short films that he made between 1920 and 1923. Though he shared director credit for these films with Edward F. Cline, he was the creative artist behind every aspect of the production, including the direction. This amazing run is, along with Charlie Chaplin’s Mutual comedies, the peak of creativity, ingenuity and comic grace in American silent comedy shorts.
Keaton was raised in vaudeville doing pratfalls and physical comedy. He apprenticed in the movies under Fatty Arbuckle, an unsung genius of silent film comedy who made him part of his screen ensemble, but he developed his own identity and sensibility when he started making his own two-reel comedies. One Week (1920), his debut, is an inspired gem with newlywed Buster mangling a do-it-yourself house, but he first displayed a knack for becoming one with mechanical world with his third solo short The Scarecrow (1920), where he transforms a one room bachelor pad into an automatic house via a Rube Goldberg tangle of ropes, pulleys, toy trains and trap doors. Gadgets and secret doors also figure in The Haunted House (1921), with bank teller Buster matching wits against robbers in a gadget filled hideout, and The Electric House (1922), where Buster is a botany student who is mistakenly tasked with wiring a new, automated home, and Buster disastrously attempts to apply assembly line efficiency to a village smithy in The Blacksmith (1922).
For pure slapstick, there’s knockabout lark The High Sign (1921), with Buster infiltrating a secret society of criminals, and the mistaken identity farce The Goat(1921), and he tops the slapstick mayhem of the Keystone Kops with his own Cops (1922), which beautifully builds from a series of hilarious gangs to an epic climax with Keaton chased by a veritable army of uniformed policemen.
In a more ensemble vein there’s Neighbors (1920), the story of young lovers who flirt across the fence that separates their houses and their bickering families, and My Wife’s Relations (1922), where Buster finds himself accidentally married into a family of bullying Irish Catholics. There’s a streak of self-destruction played for mordant humor in films like Hard Luck (1921) and Day Dreams (1922), where at various time he tries (and fails) to end it all. And of course there was his constant battle with his environment in The Boat (1921), where Buster packs his family into a leaky houseboat, and The Balloonatic (1923), which despite the presence of a hot air balloon is actually a gag-filled camping comedy. (Trivia note: the name of the boat in The Boat, the Damfino, was adopted as the informal nickname of members of the International Buster Keaton Society.
But Keaton also had a conceptually innovative streak that pushed comedy into the realm of the surreal in such shorts as The Frozen North (1922), where he spoofs frontier adventure fiction clichés with a modern sensibility, and The Play House (1921). The latter is a masterpiece of silent comedy that begins with Keaton playing every role (including the audience) in a vaudeville act and proceeds to dismantle our sense of reality at every turn. It is an ingenious film, as hilarious as it is constantly surprising, and it also features Keaton breaking out of the stone face persona to play a chimpanzee: with simple make-up, rubber-faced gestures and a make-over created entirely from body language, he offers the greatest impression of a simian that a mere human has ever put to film. But then, of course, Keaton is no mere human.
He was back on the water for his final short comedy The Love Nest (1923) where Buster, heartbroken once again, sets out in a rowboat and ends up a castaway picked up by a whaling ship with a despotic captain. After that, Keaton (like Chaplin before him) turned to feature films. The shorts provided a workshop of sorts, a way to develop visual gags and master the art of storytelling, and to perfect his own distinctive onscreen persona, but they are far more than mere sketches. At their best, they are among the greatest cinematic achievements of the silent era, each self-contained in a 20-minute gem.
Cops was added to the National Film Registry in 1997.
All of these short films fell into the public domain decades ago and have proliferated in poor quality TV prints, home video releases, and streaming editions. We only recommend superior editions at Stream On Demand.
Black and white, with musical accompaniment.
Streaming on Criterion Channel (for a limited time) and free on Kanopy, which is available through most public and college library systems.
The “Starring Buster Keaton” collection is on Criterion Channel here.
One Week (1920) (Criterion Channel and Kanopy)
Convict 13 (1920) (Criterion Channel and Kanopy)
The Scarecrow (1920) (Criterion Channel and Kanopy)
Neighbors (1920) (Criterion Channel and Kanopy)
The Haunted House (1921) (Criterion Channel and Kanopy)
Hard Luck (1921) (Criterion Channel and Kanopy)
The High Sign (1921) (Criterion Channel and Kanopy)
The Goat (1921) (Criterion Channel and Kanopy)
The Playhouse (1921) (Criterion Channel and Kanopy)
The Boat (1921) (Criterion Channel and Kanopy)
The Paleface (1922) (Kanopy)
Cops (1922) (Criterion Channel and Kanopy)
My Wife’s Relations (1922) (Criterion Channel and Kanopy)
The Blacksmith (1922) (Criterion Channel and Kanopy)
The Frozen North (1922) (Criterion Channel and Kanopy)
The Electric House (1922) (Criterion Channel and Kanopy)
Day Dreams (1922) (Criterion Channel and Kanopy)
The Balloonatic (1923) (Criterion Channel and Kanopy)
The Love Nest (1923) (Criterion Channel and Kanopy)
Also on Blu-ray and DVD and on SVOD through Amazon Video, iTunes, GooglePlay, Vudu and/or other services. Availability may vary by service.
Buster Keaton: The Shorts Collection [Blu-ray]
Buster Keaton: The Shorts Collection [DVD]
Kino Classics’ DVD and Blu-ray collection marks the first time these shorts have been gathered into a single collection. Both present the films in chronological order on three discs and include with short visual essays (illustrated with still and film clips) for 15 of the films, four visual essays on locations, alternate and deleted shots and two bonus shorts featuring Keaton cameos among the supplements. Each short is accompanied by an organ score.