What I’m watching: four more Buster Keaton films

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What I’m watching: four more Buster Keaton films.

On Blu-ray: The Navigator/Sherlock Junior; Seven Chances/Battling Butler

I taught film history for many years at Western New England University and, to a certain extent, this column acts an extension of those classes.

I’m compelled to present films that are not necessarily playing at the multiplex. My felling is that if you’re interested in movies, you should be a little adventurous.

There are thousands of films out there – on Blu-ray, in theaters and streaming – that are well worth discovering. Often times I’m more interested in watching something “old” that I’ve not seen before than sitting through the latest Hollywood offering.

If there is one filmmaker who should be someone you discover it’s Buster Keaton. I’ve written about Keaton before, but now thanks to Cohen Media his films are coming out on Blu-ray.

Let’s address all of the objections. Yes, they are silent. Yes, they are in black and white. Yes, they were made in the 1920s.

The films themselves transcend the limitations of their technology. I think perhaps the most difficult aspect of silent films for modern audiences to overcome is that silent films require your complete attention. Because there is no recorded dialogue, you can’t look away.

I’ve never had a problem with the silent format, nor with black and white photography, but I certainly encountered students who did. My advice was to open your mind as you would when viewing art or listening to music new to you.

These two double features are nicely paired. “The Navigator” and “Sherlock Junior” shows Keaton as a filmmaker who delights in playing with props and with the technology of films.

In “The Navigator,” Keaton plays a spoiled rich young man, so spoiled in fact that his drivers takes him across the street in a limo in order to ask a young woman to marry him. Her rejection causes him to consider taking a trip, an action that leads him onto the wrong ship that is set adrift.

The young woman also finds herself on the same boat and after a period of pursuing one another, they settle down trying to survive.

One of Keaton’s recurring characters is the fish-out-water who succeeds when he faces the challenges before him. His Rollo Treadway is just that: a seeming helpless fop who becomes self-sufficient.

“The Navigator” is a very funny film with great gags and some amazing set pieces.
“Sherlock Junior” is one of my favorites as he uses the technology of film – for that time – to its complete measure.

Keaton plays a small town movie projectionist who wants to be a detective. After he loses his girlfriend to a rival, he falls asleep while showing a movie and in his dream he steps into the film as its hero, the renowned detective Sherlock Junior.

Funny, wildly inventive and sweet, “Sherlock Junior” is a perfect film.

Both of these films show Keaton at his inventive best with material he and his staff created

The other double feature has two films that were both based on plays. They are different in tone, but have great moments.

In “Seven Chances,” Keaton plays a young attorney who is told he has hours to find a bride in order to inherit a $7 million fortune. Keaton himself had problems with the film – he didn’t care for the source material – but the concluding sequence of the movie in which Keaton, running away from a large mob of women who want to marry him, is tremendous.

“Battling Butler” presents Keaton as a pampered rich kid who falls in love with a young woman and is mistaken as a prizefighter with the same name. When the real fighter bows out Keaton completes his training regimen in order to fool his now wife.

The film is not one of my favorites, but it was Keaton’s. The theme clearly struck a chord with him and the final sequence in which the two Butlers actually fight is difficult to watch at first, but ultimately becomes a triumph. Reportedly it was of the first films he showed his wife Eleanor when they were first dating.

Looking to expand your cinematic universe? These films should be on your list.

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