Unboxing the Silents: Buster Keaton Blus (Steamboat Bill, Jr. + College)

Kino Lorber and Lobster Films collaborated to release Buster Keaton’s restored shorts last year and they are now launching Keaton features into the region 1/A market. We’re going to take a closer look.

As always, a huge thanks to the folks at Kino for providing review copy.

First a couple of things to clear up. Yes, these films were previously released on Blu by Kino but, alas, I cannot offer a comparison as I only have the older Kino DVDs. You know, the ones with the neon covers. So, I will be reviewing these films as a silent film fan who has just upgraded her Keaton collection, which is exactly what I am. (Also, I really am not a fan of those “there was an artifact in the upper left quadrant of 01:07:59” reviews and won’t be doing any of that here. Sorry.)

VERY IMPORTANT: These films are not two-per-disc. Each Bluray is a two-disc set. This means that picture quality was not sacrificed in an attempt to cram two features onto a single Bluray. (I covered the Bluray release of The General and Three Ages disc last week.)

Release Dates: The General and Three Ages are bundled together and was released on February 7, 2017. Steamboat Bill, Jr. and College are bundled together and will be released on February 14, 2017. Both sets are available on DVD and Bluray.

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Here are some Bluray screencaps for your inspection. Looks pretty good to me! (I cropped out the pillarboxes on the sides of the screencaps for better presentation.)

Steamboat Bill, Jr.:

College:

Music

Steamboat Bill, Jr.:

We have the choice of a rousing score by Timothy Brock or an energetic organ score by Lee Erwin, as well as the option of an audio commentary by Michael Schlesinger and Stan Taffel. Good stuff.

College:

We get a score from the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra and an organ score by John Muri, as well as an audio commentary from Rob Farr. Nice selection.

Extras

Steamboat Bill, Jr.:

The film is enthusiastically introduced in a 4-minute featurette by Serge Bromberg of Lobster Films. He details Keaton’s budgetary battles with producers and illustrates the history of the film’s more famous gags.

The second special feature is a vintage, nautical-themed Alka-Seltzer commercial starring Keaton as a captain with a head cold. That creepy anthropomorphic tablet mascot is back too. Brrr!

College:

We get two intros to the film. The first is a modern one by Serge Bromberg. Once again, the 4-minute intro relates the background of the film and is illustrated by clips. It’s a nice, speedy way to center yourself in film history before enjoying the movie. I should mention, though, that I don’t agree with the description of James W. Horne as a second-rate director. Go watch the quirktastic Cruise of the Jasper B if you don’t believe me.

The second intro is a 4-minute clip featuring Lillian Gish, which includes about as much bad film history as you can jam into that short runtime. All vintage intros must be taken with some measure of salt but the one by Gish really stuck in my craw. She smugly assures us that old comedies contained no racism and race jokes were met with indulgent chuckles by one and all. “Why, they made fun of everybody! Punching up and punching down? What’s that? It was LOVING kidding!” Sigh. (And before someone comes in wailing “CONTEEEEEEXT!” I would advise them to sit down. I just went through a whole stack o’ research on 1910s-1920s objections to racist comedy and successful protests and boycotts.)

I have to deal with this nonsense constantly so please forgive my rather short temper on the subject. Bottom line: minority groups subjected to ridicule DID object, DID voice their objections and DID sometimes get offensive films pulled or edited. The idea that silent film existed in some la-la land where no one objected to racism is, frankly, idiotic. When I heard her spouting this ridiculousness, I’m like, “Don’t you have some birds to snog, Lillian?”

(Obviously, watching old films means dealing with problematic content and it’s entirely possible to enjoy movies that contain objectionable elements. All classic film fans have some picture or other that they love despite its issues and that’s fine. What annoys me is erasing the men and women who protested this content when it was first released. Sorry if facts make you uncomfortable but you can’t just invent your own. This sort of revisionism will not fly here.)

I am happy to say that the next extra feature is a significant improvement. John Bengston presents one of his excellent Silent Echoes research projects and discusses the locations used in College in a 10-minute featurette. Well worth your time!

Lombard in “Run, Girl, Run”

The disc is finished out with a half-hour 1966 short called The Scribe, Keaton’s last screen performance, and Run Girl Run, a 18-minute 1928 college comedy from Mack Sennett starring a unknown named Carole Lombard. It’s not very funny but there are lots of shots of Carole in short shorts, if that’s your bottle of pop.

Is this set worth buying? While the special features are nice and I love the music, I think owners of the previous Kino Blurays will want to look carefully before deciding. However, if you missed the last Bluray go-round and are looking to upgrade from DVD or (gasp!) VHS, I definitely recommend this set. While previous editions were available as separate discs, this twofer represents quite a bargain and Steamboat Bill, Jr. looks particularly lovely.

Availability: You can pre-order a copy here.

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