How are you doing? You can be honest here, you’re among pals. It’s a bit difficult out there these days isn’t it? Whether you’re out on the front line (thank you, THANK YOU), out-of-work, homeworking or home-schooling, life is stressful at the moment. Apparently we’re all either filling our time or switching off at night by streaming more than ever. Why not? There are some great resources out there for watching silents online (and more from me on this anon), but streaming is not the only fruit.
If you still have some pennies to spare in the age of lockdown, don’t forget that physical media is your best friend. Silents on Blu-ray (or DVD) won’t disappear at the whim of the rights-holder, or glitch or go lo-res every time your bandwidth gets overloaded by your flatmate’s Zoom cocktails or your kids’ homework chats. Not only that, but the best discs coming out these days are packed with commentaries and extras that celebrate the film and will expand your knowledge in the most entertaining way.
When it comes to putting out silent films on Blu-ray, Masters of Cinema from Eureka has been doing us proud for years now, and its latest offering couldn’t be better timed if it were orchestracted by Buster Keaton himself. The newest release from MoC is a three-disc box set of what we may call the slightly overlooked Keaton features: Seven Chances, The Navigator and Battling Butler.
Overlooked may not be the right word. Battling Butler has many great gags and nice details (the fishing scene, the training sequence – just the way Buster laces up his gloves has me in stitches), but it’s not a first-rate Keaton feature. Seven Chances is legitimately hilarious right up to the inspired boulder chase, and although it’s unappealingly regressive, sexual politics-wise, I put up with a lot for a peek of a young Jean Arthur turning her nose up at Buster and sticking it into Three Weeks instead. The Navigator, though, that’s non-stop ingenious, inventive and sharp brilliance.
And we can all relate a little more strongly to Buster and Kathryn McGuire’s household isolation, watching then trapped on a boat alone trying to manage with less-than-ideal resources. OK, yes it gets a little less funny when we meet the “natives” at the end, but everything leading up to that is sheer perfection, on a bar with anything in The General, Sherlock Jr, or Steamboat Bill, Jr, say.
Treat yourself to this Blu-ray box set, and you won’t just get three and a half hours of Keaton action, in shimmering 4k restorations with Robert Israel scores, but a parcel of accompanying treats too. Household isolation will fly by swiftly once you realise you can watch The Navigator all over again with a commentary by Robert Arkus and Yair Solan, and Seven Chances with Joel Goss and Bruce Lawton. Then you can listen to a collection of audio interviews with Keaton himself, and enjoy a comic Harry Sweet short film from 1926 with the perhaps too-apt-for-2020 title What! No Spinach?
It would hardly be a MoC release without a witty and insightful video essay by David Cairns, so there’s one here too, which covers all three films with aplomb, There’s also a documentary on Keaton’s maritime obsessions, made by film historian Bruce Lawton, and a gorgeous booklet containing new writing and vintage imagery.
Laughter may not be the only medicine we need right now, but Buster Keaton has the good stuff to jolt us out of the doldrums, one gag at a time.