Ex [1997]

Genre: Thriller
An entire missing segment of Buster Keaton's career is filled in with the release of this collection, which comprises the 10 shorts Keaton made at Columbia Pictures in 1939-41. If you're a Keaton fan (and why on earth wouldn't you be?) this section of the great man's work has always been in dispute--and above all, hard to see. After his career collapsed at the beginning of the 1930s, Buster Keaton struggled to find a niche in Hollywood, and the Columbia contract was essentially his last sustained opportunity to headline in films on a regular basis. It was a difficult fit from the start: Keaton did not have the artistic control he enjoyed over his 1920s classics, and director Jules White (who helmed most of the Columbia shorts) had a radically different view of comedy from his star. White guided the hijinks of Columbia's busiest comedy stars, the Three Stooges, and his leadpipe-to-the-noggin style did not mesh well with Keaton's measured, logical approach. If one dials down expectations, some of the Columbia shorts (around 16-17 minutes long) are enjoyable in the baggy-pants style of the Three Stooges. And when it comes to searching for signs of the old Keaton, there are usually one or two blossoms poking out of the overall bluntness. Mooching through Georgia, a Civil War spoof, has moments of silent hilarity and a Keatonesque note of fatalism as Buster is marched to his own execution. Nothing but Pleasure has a terrific sequence involving a drunk woman who wanders into Buster's motel room, and Buster's efforts to get her into a Murphy bed. She's Oil Mine features a breathtaking gag in which Keaton is spun around like a tire iron in order to get a pipe unstuck from his finger. Keaton, in his mid-40s, is still in athletic form, although thanks to alcohol and disappointment he looks older than his years. Commentaries adorn the shorts, and there's a useful 25-minute documentary giving the general outline of Keaton's life and details on the Columbia arrangement. It's refreshingly honest about the mixed quality of these films, and contains excerpts from his silent shorts that suggest how far the genius had slipped. In that sense, while this DVD package honorably presents a moment from film history (and with fine technical specs all around), the actual watching of these shorts is tinged with sadness. The casual moviegoer curious about Keaton should go elsewhere; the completist will want it; the amateur historian will want to give a look to see what the "missing years" were all about. --Robert Horton

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