Sherlock Jr., The General and Steamboat Bill, Jr: the ultimate examples of physical comedy on the grand, even epic scale, are collected here in this Eureka! Masters of Cinema Series edition. All three are from stunning new 4K restorations and available on Blu-ray for the first time.
Writer-director-actor Keaton’s approach is very different from Charlie Chaplin’s. Instead of the sentimental adventures of The Tramp, we have intricately created visual gags as the world gangs up on the glum Sphinx of Keaton’s face – the stoical downtrodden loser.
In each film, the slo-mo physical comedy builds to remarkably grand scenes of mayhem and destruction: the extended chase sequence in Sherlock Jnr; the tornado in Steamboat Bill, the destruction of the railroad bridge in The General.
No one used large-scale cinematic resources for comedy like this, before or since. There are massive sets for Keaton’s highly physical stunts; much use of cranes and wind machines; and of course meta-cinematic special effects such as superimposed images and films within films.
Despite all this machinery of cinema, the films keep up their pace with dynamic tracking shots. There are also many wonderful compositions in these shots, such as the traintop walk in Sherlock Jnr, which pushes Keaton to the top of the frame and accentuates the massiveness of the freight train.
Sherlock Jr. (1924) – A film projectionist (and amateur detective) offers to solve the case of a missing watch, but is instead framed for the crime himself. Desperate to clear his name, the projectionist dreams of being the great Sherlock Jr., and in one of cinemas most iconic sequences, literally steps into the screen to bring his fantasies to life.
The General (1926) – When union spies steal his locomotive (along with his girlfriend), a plucky railway engineer pursues them doggedly across enemy lines. Containing one of the most memorable chase sequences in the history of filmmaking, The General is widely considered to be Keaton’s masterpiece.
Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928) – Best remembered for its climactic cyclone sequence in which Keaton performs a number of death-defying stunts whilst an entire town is destroyed around him, Steamboat Bill, Jr. was Buster Keaton’s last independent silent comedy and also one of his finest.
If only we could see these films whenever we wanted on the big screen! Keaton’s diminutive figure and actions and the dynamic shot compositions are crying out for it.
Buster Keaton: 3 Films is out on Blu-ray on 20 November.