Buster Keaton’s independently produced two-reel ‘shorts’ (1920-1923) come in three basic varieties:
- Compact Story Films
- Boxes Within Boxes Within Boxes
- Dadaist Funhouse Follies.
Today’s fans, used to his classic features, tend to prefer Compact Stories like ONE WEEK/’20. Academics & auteurists, the sort who’d rate SHERLOCK, JR/’24 over THE GENERAL/’27, go for Boxes Within Boxes. Say, THE BOAT/’21. But Buster didn’t work for arty types or ponder his future rep, he was out for laughs. And he got his biggest laughs with Funhouse Follies pics; crazy capers & impossible gags strung over two-reels like wash on a clothesline. But with little narrative pull or brain-teasing design to carry us along, the gags have all got to hit or today’s audience tunes out. HARD LUCK pulls it off. Buster begins at the bottom, starting off with a few tries at suicide; but soon he’s nabbed a job as an explorer for a zoo! Still, life holds many a tough decision, fish or roll cigarettes? Both? And there's that damsel-in-distress you want to protect . . . and impress with a death-defying dive from the high platform. This last gag, long lost & just recently restored, earned Buster the single biggest reaction he ever got. What a thrill to finally see it!, even in rough shape. And what a piece of stunt work! KINO re-releases their Keaton pics every few years (now on BLU-RAY), but it’s also out on a 2001 disc called KEATON PLUS.
SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: KEATON PLUS includes two shorts Buster made at Educational Pictures in the ‘30s, ALLEY OOP/’35 and JAIL BAIT/’37. These films have a terrible rep, but they turn out to be quite watchable, especially JAIL BAIT which unexpectedly shows Buster working up to speed. Just don’t expect THE GENERAL . . . or even SPITE MARRIAGE. Demoted to Hollywood’s Poverty Row, Buster manages more laughs (with a fraction of the time & budget) than he got in his M-G-M Talkies.