Buster Keaton, who died in 1966 before the digital revolution, can now be seen on Blu-ray. Both The General (1926) and Steamboat Bill (1927) are already available and it is to be hoped that others are in the pipeline.
Keaton’s masterpiece The General was the first silent feature film to appear on Blu-ray in North America. Remastered from a 35mm archive print struck from the original camera negative, it was followed by Steamboat Bill, Jr., the last of the independent features made in Keaton’s prime.
Steamboat Bill, Jr. substituted a Mississippi paddle steamer for the locomotive in The General and replaced the spectacle of the Civil War with a catastrophic hurricane. Keaton stars as William Canfield, Jr., a Boston collegian who returns to his deep-South roots to be reunited with his father, a crusty riverboat captain engaged in bitter rivalry with the riverboat’s owner, the father of William’s sweetheart.
The original script called for massive flooding, but the film’s producer thought this might hurt the feelings of victims of real floods. Cue a hurricane and one of the most famous scenes in silent film history, in which Keaton’s insistence on doing his own stunts could easily have resulted in serious injury.
Keaton stands in the street facing the camera while the wind howls (the cameras were held down with concrete blocks). Behind him is a two-story building whose facade – weighing two tons – is going to come crashing down. Keaton stands motionless, unaware that the building is collapsing. Suddenly the great timber rectangle smashes into the street and Keaton survives: the open second-story window has passed over him leaving him unharmed.
In the silent era, it was common for filmmakers to create two separate negatives of their works, each comprising different takes and camera angles. The Blu-ray edition contains both versions of Steamboat Bill, Jr. – the Buster Keaton Estate version and the Killiam Shows Archive version – both remastered from 35mm materials.
Writing in Life Magazine (5 September 1949) American film critic James Agee said of Keaton, “There was in his comedy a freezing whisper not of pathos but of melancholia. With the humour, the craftsmanship and the action there was often, besides, a fine, still and sometimes dreamlike beauty.”
In an age of digital hocus-pocus, it’s good to know the old magic still shines through. And if you’re short of a New Year’s present…