I’m almost ashamed to admit that I had never seen a Buster Keaton film until watching a double feature of Sherlock Jr. and Three Ages. I had certainly heard the lauding from established critics about Keaton’s silent film work and the fact that so many of his movies appear on lists compiled by the American Film Institute and other such organizations had not escaped my notice.
I would look at the movie lists and seriously wonder just how funny a film from 90 years past could possibly be. Well, let me be the first to admit what a prize-winning putz I’ve been. Keaton isn’t just funny — he’s intimidating funny in a way that makes me question my whole concept of comedy.
As part of Kino Video’s impressive reissuing of Keaton’s work on Blu-ray, the double feature of two of Keaton’s earlier works, Sherlock Jr. and Three Ages, is a must watch for any fan of comedy — whether Keaton’s films are old (porkpie) hat to you or (like me) you had previously been shamefully ignorant of the actor/director’s work.
Sherlock Jr. is a 1924 silent film directed by and starring Buster Keaton. In the film, Keaton stars as a movie projectionist who daydreams of being a famous detective. His fantasies take center stage when his unnamed character is framed in the theft a pocket watch belonging to his favorite gal’s father. As Keaton commiserates the loss of his love, he slips into a fantastical daydream that has him on the hunt for the real villains. The fantasy takes him everywhere from a high-speed pursuit atop an early motorcycle to a game of wits with an evil butler and a dastardly would-be Lothario.
Keaton, who was in many ways the Michael Cera of his time, perfected the role of the deadpan yet mopey sensitive guy who pines after his unrequited love (Kathryn McGuire) while she’s busy making time with his taller, richer, more charming rival (Ward Crane).
As Keaton awkwardly attempts to steal his love’s attention, he squirms and wiggles all over the place with a body that seems to be made of rubber and capable of taking all manners of pain as he slips from one pratfall to the next.
Three Ages is very similar to Sherlock Jr. thematically. An anthology about love, the 1923 film depicts three different love stories from throughout the ages. As a cave man, a Roman and a modern (well, 1920s) man, Keaton strives to win the affections of a woman played by Margaret Leahy. Standing in his way in all three eras is a barrel-chested brute played by Wallace Beery. The three stories parallel each other in structure — with each involving a duel of some sorts, imprisonment and an eventual grandiose fight in which Keaton must go for all or nothing to win his love’s hand.
Both films are thoroughly entertaining — despite the many years and cultural landmarks that have passed in the decades since the films’ release. Jokes (even ones that satirize then-current culture) still work in a way jokes from most comedy films barely five-years-old can only dream of. With the two movies, Keaton was able to tap into the part of the human brain that is instantly charmed by a loveable loser tripping over his own feet to find happiness.
A combination of a clown and one of Johnny Knoxville’s Jackass gang, Keaton shows off his penchant for performing his own stunts in the films as he indulges in some pretty impressive tricks — including one in Sherlock Jr. that actually fractured the actor’s neck.
While both films are well worth watching, Sherlock Jr. is by far the most consistently funny film in the collection — with more laughs packed into every minute of the film than immigrants’ fingers were packed into processed meats during the early 20th century. Yes, I know that was a lame Upton Sinclair joke but what am I going to do? I’m no Buster Keaton.
Despite the overwhelming number of consistently funny gags present in Sherlock Jr., Three Ages has its own share of jokes — including some incredible sharp bits of satire that will easily emit uncontrollable horselaughs from those with a finely tuned funny bone.
Three Ages might have worked better, though, if the three films had been separated. While the parallels of the stories are clever, the transitions from one to the next are so abrupt it can get a bit distracting and take you away from the humor.
With Sherlock Jr. and Three Ages both available in high definition from Kino, there’s really no better time to discover or rediscover Keaton’s films.
So what are you waiting for? A house to drop on you?
Despite the wear and tear that comes to a film with its age, Sherlock Jr. has been given a loving high definition transfer by Kino. Presented in 1080p, the movie looks as good as any film of its age could hope for. A sharp detail and clear image are only marred by the occasional debris, scratching and other assorted print damage. Save for one or two shots where it appears a different, poorly aged print was used, the film looks better then you might imagine.
There are a variety of audio options to choose from with Sherlock Jr. The default track is a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix of the Mont Alto Orchestra score, a traditional yet poppy sounding musical accompaniment that is vibrant in its presentation. A 2.0 LPCM version of the score is also included. Also included is a Dolby Digital mono track featuring vintage music synchronized by Jay Ward. The music is appropriately aged and sounds like its coming from your grandparents’ record player. Finally, there’s a Dolby Digital 2.0 presentation of an alternate score by the Club Foot Orchestra. This music is more modern with some guitar and horns thrown in to give a somewhat surfer rock feel to the sound.
Three Ages is presented in 1080i and doesn’t quite hold up as well as Sherlock Jr. Some rough degeneration has occurred with several scenes in the film and a lot of the detail is washed out.
There are three soundtrack options for Three Ages. The first is a LPCM 2.0 piano and string score by Robert Israel that is probably the most enjoyable way to watch the movie. Also included is a organ score by Lee Erwin and a piano score from an anonymous contributor. Both are presented in Dolby Digital mono.
Both films are featured on the same disc. Special features, though, are divided into separate menus for each film. All the features are presented in high-definition.
Commentary by David Kalat, film historian — Kalat’s tack is chock-full of interesting trivia and background regarding Keaton’s work, the making of the film and it’s themes. If you are coming into Keaton’s work with little knowledge of his other work, this commentary is a highly recommended listen.
Tour of Filming Locations — A 10 minute long presentation by Silent Echoes author John Bengston, this feature explores the various real-life locations that Keaton utilized for his film.
Movie Magic & Mysteries — A nearly half-hour documentary on the making of Sherlock Jr., this feature is presented by David B. Pearson and delves deep into the film’s production — including how several of Keaton’s more tricky shots were accomplished.
Stills — Finally, there are 27 pictures presented in high-definition.
Tour of Filming Locations — John Bengston is back with an eight minute look at the locations where the film was shot.
Man’s Genesis — A 10-minute excerpt from the D.W. Griffith short film that helped inspire Keaton to direct the Stone Age segments of the film.
Three Separate Ages — This feature offers a re-edit of the film where the film’s three storylines are separated and made into their own short films.
Stills — Twenty-one high definition pictures are included in a gallery.
I can’t express how remorseful I am over not having discovered Keaton’s work sooner. The films are truly some of the funniest movies I have seen all year and I can say, without pause, that the double-feature Blu-ray set of Sherlock Jr. and Three Ages is probably worth a blind buy from anybody who enjoys laughing. And really, who doesn’t enjoy laughing? Hitler, that’s who.
Kino has done an amazing job releasing the films in the best possible video and audio presentation possible. The wide selection of audio track choices and the informative extras only seal the deal — this is one movie set worth seeking out ASAP.
Kino Video presents Sherlock, Jr. and Three Ages Directed by: Buster Keaton. Starring: Buster Keaton, Joe Keaton, Kathyrn McGuire, Margaret Leahy and Wallace Beery. Written by: Jean Havez, Joseph Mitchell & Clyde Bruckman. Running time: 108 minutes. Rating: N/A. Released on Blu-Ray: November 16, 2010.
Tags: Jackass, Johnny Knoxville, Michael Cera